The Biomechanics of Women in Combat

The Biomechanics of Women in Combat

Dr. Pamela McCauley is a biomechanics and ergonomics expert who is also professor and director of the Ergonomics Laboratory in the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management Systems at the University of Central Florida.She applies her knowledge to the question of women in combat. If it is known that women are physiologically, anatomically, and biologically different this means training will have to be adjusted. She approaches the problem from a biomechanics and physical fitness perspective. Ergonomics also serves a use from preventing long term injuries or medical discharges from the US military. Combat position ban were lifted, which means women can serve in the Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Navy. Physically demanding jobs may be harder for women who on average have less physical strength and speed. This fitness requirements can be met, without lowering standards. However, gender parity in all branches may not be possible. This text was originally published in 2014, a year after the ban was lifted on women in combat. The US military was using the physical readiness test. Currently there is a shift to make the physical fitness testing be more relevant to the military occupation specialties. Dr. Mccauley’s assessments are mostly correct, but there may be some jobs that women would struggle to get because the physical demands are high.

           To understand Dr. McCauley ‘s perspective one must have an understanding of biomechanics and ergonomics. Biomechanics is the examination of biological systems related to their motion putting emphasis on structure as well as function. This subject of science dates back to the Italian Renaissance when Giovanni Alfonso Borelli pioneered it as an academic discipline. The Italian physiologist was the first to describe muscular movement in terms of dynamics and statics. He also studied other body functions and physiological phenomena of the human body. Biomechanics has become a multidisciplinary science incorporating biology, medicine, engineering, and physiology. There are multiple branches which include sport, human movement, occupational, cell, and cardiovascular biomechanics. Relevant to the discussion of women in combat, this would be classified under human movement and occupational biomechanics. A soldier on the battlefield will be doing the physical requirements of a job and various movements when fighting. It could be argued that some techniques from sports biomechanics can be utilized as well.

Sports biomechanics may help in enhancing women’s physical fitness performance, by understanding the function of the female body under physical activity. Ergonomics also has a relation to biomechanics. It is an applied science which objects are designed so that people can use certain machines or other objects safely as well as efficiently. The goal of ergonomics is to reduce the risk of injury in the workplace. This discipline also examines how workers interact with systems. Ergonomics can sometimes be referred to as human factors engineering.  The US military is in dire need of ergonomic redesign. This is more of an issue with body armor, which has been a culprit in high rates of musculoskeletal injuries. Overloaded gear could cause joint and knee injuries. There is also the problem of poorly fitted armor. This problem is specific to women. If there are mostly men in the branch of the military, the armor produced was mostly for males. Women had to wear male sized armor, which did not fit. This was changed a few years ago when women began receiving properly fitting body armor. This could have been avoided if there was an ergonomic approach. Biomechanics and ergonomics must be applied to combat and training to decrease injury rates.

         The sex difference in physical fitness capacity must be considered. It was revealed  by Dr.  Pamela McCauley  that 55% of women failed the upper body strength testing in marine boot camp. It would be erroneous to take this as evidence that women can not be capable combat soldiers. If the frailty myth were true, then no woman would be able to pass. Another aspect of this would be that the failure rate should be much higher. The 55% statistic would  have to be 90% or higher to make such a general statement that women would make terrible combat soldiers. The physical fitness level of a person matters depending on which branch of the US military is going to serve in. The Air force, Navy, Coast Guard, Army, and Marine Corps have a different set of physical fitness standards.

airforce standards
The updated fitness standards for the US Air Force.

The average male at maximum can have up to 57 lbs of muscle compared to women’s 33 lbs. The average male depending on their health condition and fitness  can carry close to twice his weight. The average woman can carry half of hers. There is not just a difference in muscle mass, but weight. An average man can be 10% heavier than the average female. The average male body is estimated  to be 30% stronger than the average  female body. Dr.McCauley acknowledges in her statement ”   women tend to have less skeletal muscle mass than men, especially in the upper body (arms, shoulders and chest) though there are conflicting research studies on whether or not skeletal muscle mass alone is actually the best indicator of performance.” Bigger muscles do not automatically mean more strength. Mass does protect from physical trauma. This explains why women experience more injury marching under load. Lower bone density and mass would make marching with 80 lbs  or more difficult for a smaller person. Muscular mass is relevant, but not as significant as muscular strength.  Women must focus on both building strength and mass to prevent injury. Specifically building the mass of type II muscle fibers, which are designed for explosive power.

 Sex differences

Relevant sex difference that could effect combat performance .

 The question becomes here is how physically strong can a woman become with training. Women can experience muscular hypertrophy and gain in muscular strength through weight training. This is the best method to increasing physical strength. Seeing as the average man has more muscle and bone mass their natural strength is higher. Natural strength is the power that can be generated without training. This means women would be starting at a lower physical fitness level in terms of muscular strength. If they lift heavy their strength levels could be equivalent or slightly above that of an average man.

Women rarely reach the same physical fitness capacity as an equally trained man. It is true as Dr. McCauley articulated one does not need to be an elite professional athlete, but certain military occupational specialties require a certain level of physical fitness.  An elite female athlete would not have a problem meeting certain standards compared to the average woman. Women have to train harder to reach a particular fitness level.Physical fitness indicators such as muscular strength are not equivalent among the sexes. The largest disparity is in the upper body. Men have broader shoulders which means they have more space to house more muscle on the upper body. Dr. McCauley has the solution based on physical fitness prior to entry and making assessments match the occupation at hand. Physical fitness would have to be at a particular level for women before they even attempt basic training. Doing this would prepare them for the physical demands of combat.

The average woman would struggle more compared to the physically trained women. This means it would take longer for an average woman to meet particular fitness standards depending on the military occupational specialty. Men who are unfit or out of shape would even struggle with physical tasks. It would be erroneous to believe that every man in the United States would be a capable soldier.  Even with elite female athletes it takes a number of years for them to perform at top levels.

          The difference in muscular strength is significant. Seeing as women’s shoulder joints would be looser compared to men’s this is a greater risk for injury. Strength can be dependent on certain factors which include genetics, age, sex, and endocrinology. Women have less muscle fiber in their upper bodies and produce lower amounts of testosterone, which can be a contributor to muscular hypertrophy. Building upper body strength would be more of a challenge. This requires an understanding of the anatomy of the muscles and bones.

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The muscles of the arms. Such limbs will be important in shooting and hand to hand combat.

 The muscles of the upper body include the pectoralis major, trapezius, deltoid, triceps brachii, brachioradialis, rhomboids, rotator cuffs, abdominal external obliques, pronator teres , and the iliopsoas. Women have these same muscles. A the cellular level there is no difference between male and female muscle. Women are working with a smaller amount of total lean body mass. This would mean that a consistent weight training program would be need to be taken before basic training. This would ensure a higher score on the Army Basic Training  Physical Fitness Test. The goal should be to enhance muscular strength to be able to perform tasks, without using maximum energy reserve.


Muscles Of The Trunk 17 Best Images About Shoulder Examination On Pinterest | Magnetic
The muscles of  the upper body and thorax.

Muscular hypertrophy does result from an exercise regimen. Men’s muscles may be more fatigue prone considering type II muscle fibers are not built for long term endurance.Women may have more of endurance advantage with type I muscle fibers. It should be noted that the composition of muscle fiber type and vary depending on genetics and exercise regimens used. The female body can respond to training. Men will find it easier due to the hormonal difference and their size. Male muscle is bigger, but not of higher quality when examined from a perspective of cross sectional area. If a fit woman can reach the strength level of an untrained man or a little higher, it would seem as if this is a realistic target. The muscular system of men and women is similar enough in which training can have an effect on it. Strength is not only based in the muscular system, it involves neural activity. Nerves throughout the body control movement. Muscle memory does have a basis in the brain and how efficiently muscles can produce power output.Building strength can prevent hospitalizations. According to the US Army musculoskeletal injuries accounted for 31% of hospitalizations for both male and female soldiers. Congress did conduct a study in 1994 looking at the ergonomic,biomechanical, and fitness issues effecting women in the US military. This led to improvements to prevent injuries, but more must be done to maintain the health of the soldiers. Women must engage in upper body exercises. This would include lateral raises, pull-ups, bench presses, triceps extensions, and biceps curls. The entire body would have to be challenged with progressive overload.

          While technology has reduced the complete reliance o physical strength, fitness is still necessary. There may be cases in which a soldier id disarmed of weapons and would need use hand to hand combat.  Guns are in a sense a great equalizer, including planes and other combat related vehicles. If a military does not have these items, the will not be as powerful.

Hand to hand combat is taught to all soldiers just in case of the event that their fists are the only weapon they have. Women are at a disadvantage in terms of  size and brawn. Male brute strength surpasses female physical force.  Men tend to be more physically aggressive. Women’s aggression is more verbal compared to a more physically violent response. The reasons are part biological and sociological. It has been hypothesized this difference are the attributes of the human evolutionary past in which hominids had to fight for mates and hunt. What emerged was sexual dimorphism. Women will have to be trained to be as aggressive as possible and undue both the social and biological restraints. Women can build strength, but they must be good fighters. Learning martial arts can enhance women’s combat ability. Women must be taught how to fight and master a high level of skill to counter attacks that do not involve weapons. It should also be noted that training is a simulation of what battle might be like. The environment is controlled, so that recruits can learn skills.

The battlefield is more unpredictable. There could be a circumstance in which one must literally fight to the death to survive. This is why having fighting skills is essential to soldier training.Simply being physically strong does not make one the best fighter, if they do not have skill. These overlap with similar principles governing self-defense. One does not have to be large to defend themselves. Judging your opponent, learning certain moves, and avoiding freezing during attack are essential elements in combat.

Dr. McCauley states that pull-ups and flexed arm hangs are a good measure of upper body strength. Pull-ups can be, but the flexed arm hangs are not. This was an alternative offered to women, because at one time it was thought that pull-ups were not physically possible for them. Physical fitness standards were different for both men and women on the assumption that women could not meet higher standards. This is why with the movement for a uniform standard is underway. It will eliminate training that does not pertain to requirements to an military occupational specialty and reduce total training time. If women do not meet the same standards and requirements this will only cause a reduction in quality of the armed forces. The standards should not be lowered to merely add more women to particular branches of the military. Dr. Mc Cauley agrees with such an assessment. The increased risk of death an injury would result in a less effective armed force. This would only cause a human resources issue with more anger directed at women as a whole. Women must show they can fight and be competent in their occupational position. This means women have to challenge the long held frailty myth, which continues to be used to keep them out of physically demanding occupations.

          There are some aspects of the female physiology and anatomy  that will not be changed through training.  Running and aerobic capacity will not be drastically altered. The female pelvis is much wider, which reduces total running speed. When women run the rotation of their legs differs. From a biomechanical perspective, a male pelvis is more suited to faster running speeds. The disparity in upper body strength can be addressed easier compared to the difference is total running speed.

Although women are closer to men in the lower body, it is not just the difference in muscle size that effects running speed. The heart and lung play a role in running as well as other physical activities. Women have lower hemoglobin levels compared to men. Smaller hearts and lungs mean that there is less oxygen being transported to energize the muscles. This aspect of fitness may require that women train similar to a professional athlete. Knowing these facts about biology,physiology, and anatomy reveal several points of interest. A portion of women would need to engaging in exercise and physical activity prior to even attempting basic training. Another complication is that America in general struggles with weight related issues and illnesses. Obesity, heart disease, and diabetes are becoming public health concerns, which would exclude many from possible military service. A large section of the American population would have to go on a weight management program. Women would be effected more seeing as body composition and endocrinology makes it more difficult for them to lose weight. Women would have a harder time reaching a particular physical fitness target, even if they were not overweight. There is no exercise or method to increase female lung and heart size to make them faster runners. Such differences lead to other considerations.

          Strength in diversity has become a new maxim in the American workplace. This seems to be more of a token and superficial image promoted rather than evidence of progress. There still remains discrimination, social stratification, sexism, homophobia   and intense racial hatreds. The lugubrious reality is no matter how well women perform they will always be treated with hostility or viewed as inferior by their male counterparts. Tokenism should not be evidence that the US Military values diversity or all who serve. The Trump administration has attempted to ban transgender service members. Such a blatant act of discrimination could later be extended to other groups. Such attitudes make integration of the armed forces even more difficult. The introduction of women into US combat positions will not reduce effectiveness. The only reason it would fail is if US Military leaders deliberately sabotage it.

The real failure comes from policy from the government and the military. The United States was not designed to be an imperial power, but has been moving in that direction ever since the Louisiana Purchase. The thirteen colonies expanded across the North American continent growing bigger with the Mexican War. The American Civil War halted expansion for a brief period and then it resumed. The Spanish American War marked the the rise of American empire. Ever since 1898, the US has been invading or intervening  in  various countries around the globe. This behavior will be the undoing of the nation. Financially it is not sustainable and has already cause political strain. Diversity of the US Military does not hide the flaws or sinister intentions of particular leaders. A nation has the right to defend itself, but not the right to wage aggressive war. Women who do enter these positions should not be used as pawns or propaganda. Women and men should join the US Military with the intention of defending the nation, not being foot soldiers to a successor British Empire. The ideological direction must change in military ranks and US foreign policy. Anti-discrimination should be the goal in hiring and employment related to the US Military. Token chants of diversity will only be reduced to filling quota targets. Doing that would mean two possible scenarios. Standards would be lowered to accommodate larger numbers of women or less physically demanding positions be created. The first option would be a terrible idea, the other may develop due to the changing nature of warfare. Cyber warfare will be common place with hacking being used as a means of espionage and attacks. There is one factor that also effects women’s total numbers in combat occupations. Personal choice is a large factor. Many women are not interested in such jobs or they do not want to take risks. Women may not like manual labor or occupations that involve being physical.

While training can increase women’s physical fitness capacity, there may be some areas too demanding physically. The Navy SEALS have a high training drop out rate. If it is hard for an all male unit, it would be more challenging for women. Attrition rates do effect all soldiers depending on the level of physical activity and exertion involved. This also complicates a draft of women, if a majority are not in the physical condition or shape to even complete basic training. If there is to be true equality, then women should be required to register for the draft. Every male has done so and there is little justification not to do so. Women would need a specialized fitness program to get them in proper fighting condition. However, even with such programs the numbers of women in combat arms would not equal that of men. Men have been a part of the institution since its establishment and women were officially recognized as members of the armed forces in 1978. The combat ban was only lifted in 2013. Attempting to increase numbers rapidly would only lead to disappointment; there should be gradual increases as well as recruitment efforts. Only with a biomechanical approach to training and a rational affirmative action policy can the integration of women into combat positions be successful.


The Biomechanics of Women in Combat

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