New head of Army PT Corps on the new breed of 'athlete soldier'

Established in 1860 the RAPTC has evolved so much over time but their core purpose remains: getting our soldiers fighting fit.

Having always wanted to be a Physical Training Instructor in the Army, Warrant Officer Class One Duncan Southern-Naylor has risen through the ranks to become the most senior Non-Commissioned Officer in the Royal Army Physical Training Corps, the Corps Sergeant Major.

We met WO1 Southern-Naylor as he took over his appointment at the Army School of Physical Training in Aldershot.

I grew up in a rough part of Wigan. Both my mum and dad were in the Army, and since I was at school I always said I wanted to be in the Army. I was always doing fitness – I even started a fitness club at school. I was charging 5p for people to come and join my circuits class at 10 years old. WO1 Southern-Naylor

On how PT has changed:

I joined the Army in 2000. PT has changed massively since then. The Army historically created endurance type athletes; long runs, long marches and circuit training. It was a lot of pounding the ground. If a certain CO or PTI had a particular interest, that was often followed. We now have the Army Physical Training System which was implemented in 2018. What the system does is it looks at PT holistically and maximises training potential. We develop all components of fitness and make sure that all of our programmes are periodised – a stepped process where you gradually build up volume and load, recover and then adapt. We’ve learned from the sporting sector - it absolutely mirrors what professional athletes would do. For athletes, they peak for a competition, we peak for deployment.

Before, we concentrated on running, circuit training and tabbing with kit and rarely saw soldiers strength training or working on components such as flexibility or balance.

We now concentrate on all components of fitness; Maximal strength, explosive strength, muscular endurance, aerobic and anaerobic capacity, flexibility, mobility, balance, co-ordination, speed and agility. We now develop programmes that are evidence based so that we end up with that soldier athlete.

Over the years, I’ve seen a huge shift – you’ll now see soldiers in a gym with weights, working on strength and the other components of physical fitness.

On unconventional techniques:

One of the components of fitness is flexibility and mobility. When you get soldiers doing yoga, you can imagine how that starts off – but then they get a sweat on and realise how hard it is.

On getting soldiers back to fitness post-lockdown:

We do have a home fitness reconditioning programme designed by the RAPTC, a six-week programme and doesn’t require any specific kit.

We’ve got to assume that all personnel haven’t been able to continue with their training.

We have different levels of PT, so you might come back to work at level 2 PT before progressing back up to level 3 standard.

Through COVID as well, the work that the RAPTCIs and AAPTIS have done to keep their people fit has been astonishing. I’ve seen PT delivered over zoom and social media. It’s been nothing short of exceptional. That again demonstrates their adaptability, professionalism and can-do attitude of our PTIs.

An RAPTCI was working at a covid test centre all day then delivering a PT session over zoom to their unit in the evening!

On the modern PTIs:

We have the most well-trained and capable PTIs we have ever had.

Even the characteristics of PTIs have changed. Some years ago, most PT sessions used to be maximal effort and you were being screamed at by a PTI. We want people to enjoy PT! If you’re constantly having a negative experience people won’t buy into that. We want people to want to train. There is a shift now – we are coaches, we are trainers, we are instructors.

We might coach a session on how to do squats, then allow soldiers to work with each other. They’re more likely to do PT in their own time and enjoy it. There will be lessons where we want to create a heightened state through hard aggressive PT, such as on an obstacle course or battle PT lesson this is necessary to replicate a frontline situation.

The people that want to be a PTI have an interest in physical training. They might have been inspired by a PTI, or want to help others. And yes, you do have to be fit, you can’t ask soldiers to do something you wouldn’t or cant do yourself!

You can be an All Arms PTI in your unit managing your trade as well, or you can be a full-time PTI and transfer to the RAPTC. Within the RAPTC you can be an exercise rehabilitation instructor, adventurous training instructor or a mainstream physical training instructor.

As a mainstream RAPTCI you’re attached to a unit to ensure they are fighting fit. You can go on operations and your Commanding Officer will use you as they see fit. We don’t have a deployability role but we’re adaptable and we’ll get on and do the job.

I know RAPTCIs out there will turn their hand to anything – even if it means stepping out of their usual role.

It’s about character, about mindset. In our role, you have to analyse what you need to achieve. Each trade, cap badge or unit has its own individual requirements, and therefore individual PT programmes are needed, this is where we excel.

Our equivalent is personal trainers in civvy street but we can do one on one training, or one to a thousand. But what separates us is our military experience – we can apply context to any situation.

On the infamous red-and-white vests:

Times move on in the Army and our clothing needs have changed which HQ RAPTC are working on, but the vest with the red piping is part of our uniform and makes us easily identifiable. I think people our Soldiers are proud to wear it in the right situations.

On the highlights of the job:

One of the highlights for me is when I have been working one-on- one with a person who is really struggling and seeing them develop, get fit and pass their fitness tests. As a result, some have then promoted. That’s really rewarding to see that.

On the flip side I did a PT session in Camp Bastion to more than 800 NATO troops. Father Christmas flew in on a Chinook in the middle of it! Just bizarre!

I don’t know if it’s a highlight, but one abiding memory is as the SMI at Sandhurst, delivering an aerobics session to Officer Cadets dressed as a cheer leader. Its certainly been varied!

On his own favourite sport:

My thing is rowing. I don’t look like a rower, I didn’t go to university and learn about rowing. I grew up in a rough part of Wigan. A group of RAPTCIs turned up at Army rowing – this mismatched gang of council house lads - and learned how to row. The team spirit is great – we were on a journey together. We want to break the rowing mould. If you want to do it, just do it.

These are the kind of opportunities provided by Army sport. These opportunities come to the door, but you have to grab them.

On getting fit after lockdown:

What I think is exciting is that we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Everyone has had personal and professional challenges during lockdown. People aren’t doing as much training as they were. It’s the same for civilians. You might not have been as active as you might have liked during lockdown. You can’t go straight back to doing what you were doing. Start slowly and build up gradually. And always check with a GP before starting any fitness programme, especially if you’ve had COVID symptoms.

Everybody’s got potential. Some people will get there really quick, some it will take time. But we all have the potential to achieve whatever we want to achieve. Mindset and motivation play a huge part of it. Everybody’s motivation is different. Mine now is about health – both physical and mental. It could be not letting your team mates down, being as robust as you can for operations. You might want to just feel or look good.

Just stick some gym kit on, get outdoors or step into the gym, and see what happens. You’ll probably do something, and something is always better than nothing!

Check out our Instagram reels for top tips from the PTIs!