SPARTA study looks at how military can get women and men battle ready

Soldier dragging dummy


Researchers at Pitt’s Neuromuscular Research Lab/Warrior Human Performance Research Center are looking for a few good women (and men) to study the best ways to train each gender for ground close combat roles.

Joining SPARTA study

Anyone interested in volunteering as a test subject for the SPARTA study, should contact Samantha Hurst, research program manager, at

“The military has a musculoskeletal injury epidemic. There’s just too many injuries,” said Brad Nindl, co-primary investigator on the Soldier Performance and Readiness as Tactical Athletes (SPARTA) study and director of the Neuromuscular Research Lab, which is in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (SHRS). “If the military continues to train the way they’ve been training, they’ll continue to have those injuries. Something different has to be done, whether that’s a different training program, whether it’s a longer time to develop a certain level of fitness.”

In 2016, both the U.S. and British defense agencies lifted bans on women serving in the infantry. Since then, the number of women completing infantry basic training and U.S. Army Ranger School has continued to inch up.

“There were some people ready to knock down that door, but there’s not been a tidal wave of people falling behind them,” said Chris Connaboy, co-primary investigator on the study and assistant professor in the Department of Sport Medicine and Nutrition in SHRS. “The more people who go through, the more role models there are.”

“Basically, this study is looking at what type of training modalities best prepare females for infantry positions in the military,” said Kellen Krajewski, a doctoral student in the Sports Medicine program and one of the trainers for the SPARTA study.

Ground close combat positions require soldiers to carry a very heavy load — 20 to 60 kilograms (44 to 132 pounds) — including a backpack, body armor and weapons.

“If you’re smaller stature, that’s a lot of weight,” Krajewski said. “They’re experiencing a lot of musculoskeletal injuries. We’re trying to determine how do we get the women to pass these fitness standards at the same level of the men, and how do we reduce these injuries.”

To determine the best training, male and female volunteers are being recruited to be placed randomly in four different groups that focus on different methods, such as strength and power training, muscular endurance, isometric strength and stability.

“The idea is to see … how men or women respond to the respective different types of training,” Connaboy said. “Is there one that is much better for women that accelerates them faster and makes them stronger?”

Volunteers, who will receive a stipend, should be between 18 and 37 years old and be recreationally fit. The training will be done under the supervision of a certified strength and conditioning specialist. Each volunteer will train for 12 to 24 weeks, including weights, exercises and high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

Each subject will go through bone scans and muscle biopsies and several other athletic performance tests, before they go into training. The biopsies involve taking a small piece of muscle from the quadricep, which is done by orthopedic surgeons from UPMC Sports Medicine facility.

Blood being drawn from test subjects

Blood draws and biopsies are done before and after “fatigue” training, which includes six sets of 10 squats. “We don’t want to just look at how your body adapts at rest,” said Adam Sterczala, a post-doc researcher. “We want to see how your response to an acute exercise stress changes with training.”

The first 12 weeks, subjects will train three days a week with a personal trainer at the Baierl Student Rec Center in Petersen Events Center.

So far, 32 people have completed training for the study and 10 more are in the process. The researchers would like to have 120 total.

One of the unique aspects about this study is that men and women test subjects are being recruited. Previous studies have focused on one or the other, but not compared how each gender reacts to certain types of training.

Connaboy said military training “has always been modeled on how men respond, because it’s only been men that have been doing it. … When you bring women into play, they don’t respond exactly the same way.”

Women’s fitness for close combat tends to start at a slightly lower level, Connaboy said. And if women are trained the same way as men and supposed to develop at the same rate, they’re more likely to endure injuries.

“Should we train them differently? … Based on what we know about physiology, I would suggest yes,” he said. “Is that logistically possible? That’s a different aggregate. Is that politically possible? That’s another aggregate.

“In order to be a warfighter in these roles, you have to be this physically fit. So how do we get everybody to that, whether you’re male or female?” Connaboy said. “We’re empowering women to meet these challenges and understanding the best ways in which that can happen.”

Nindl said the military “really wants to capitalize on human capital, both males and females. How do we best leverage scientific technology for that? … Pittsburgh is just a natural place for DOD (Department of Defense) to come because of all the expertise.”

Earlier this month, Nindl and officials from Pitt’s Center for Military Medicine Research organized a forum on human performance enhancement that brought representatives from all branches of the U.S. military to campus to hear about what research is going on here now and to let researchers know what the military is interested in.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 412-648-4294.


Have a story idea or news to share? Share it with the University Times.

Follow the University Times on Twitter and Facebook