Fit for the Fight: A Conceptual Approach to Physical Conditioning for Security Patrolling
(I’ve made a very distinct point, throughout most of the history of this blog, to avoid recommending specific physical conditioning standards, beyond the extremely generic, “Well, at least be able to pass the APFT.”
The reason I’ve avoided making specific recommendations for PT is the recognition that while some readers are young, fit, 20 and 30 somethings, there are also many in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond who are not as young, nor as fit. While some percentage of that readership is willing to get off their asses and do PT, an even larger portion of the readership is composed of overweight, lazy fuckers who will concoct any number of excuses to avoid doing anything that even remotely smells of “hard.” They’d rather enjoy the delusion that, despite their two packs of smokes, six-pack of beer, and a large, supreme pizza per day habits, while they sit and watch NASCAR or the NFL, reliving their glory days of high school grid-iron stardom, they’ll magically be able to “man up” and go win a firefight when the time comes. The fight is going to be what the fight is going to be. We don’t get to pick how things are going to go based on our delicate concerns and desires. This blog in general, and this article specifically, is written for the guy who’s willing to get off his ass, and go “do the work” necessary in order to be able to protect his family and community. For those guys, I apologize for my recent lapses into politically correct niceness, instead of continuing to call a spade a fucking shovel already.–JM)
Here’s a newsflash for you: Being in shape is only important for your general health. Being physical ready for combat is a whole other ball of wax. If you have a family, or friends, or are part of a community, or just enjoy living, you have a moral obligation to those to whom you owe your loyalty, to quit being a pussy, and start doing PT. I don’t give two shits if you are 14 or 40; whether you’re a fat lump of shit who’s never done a lick of physical exercise in your life, or you’re a former collegiate athlete turned CPA who just doesn’t “have the time” to do PT anymore. You’re either serious about being able to protect your life, your family, and your community, or you’re full of shit. It’s really that simple.
Being able to “pass” the APFT is NOT going to cut it. Period. If someone tells you that, they’re trying to sell you something. That something is generally right along the lines of what you find in a dairy barn, post-milking time (and I’m not talking about the fucking milk…). Let’s talk about the APFT for a minute. Do you know what the current standards are?
To begin with, despite the fact that most Army schools test on the 17-21 year old age group, that’s not necessarily the toughest age group to max out in. It is for the two-mile run, but in the push-up category, the 27-31 year old category is hardest, and in the sit-up event, the 22-26 year old category is hardest. That’s neither here nor there though. Let’s look at the vaunted “standards” of the current APFT:
- In order to graduate Army Basic Combat Training (BCT), you must score a minimum of 50% in each of the three events. That comes out to, for the 17-21 year old male, as 35 push-ups in two minutes, 47 sit-ups in two minutes, and a 16:36 two-mile run.
- In order to graduate from Infantry school (actually, OSUT: Infantry One-Station Unit Training. Basic and AIT are combined into one, longer course) at Ft. Benning, you have to be able to score a minimum of 60% in each of the three events in the 17-21 year old age category. That’s 42 push-ups, 53 sit-ups, and a 15:54 two-mile run.
- In order to serve in most airborne units, and to begin SFAS, you need a 70% score in each of the three tests, plus score six chin-ups: 49 push-ups, 59 sit-ups, and a 15:12 two-mile run.
- In order to serve in the Ranger Regiment, you need to score 80% across the board, plus run a 40:00 five-mile run (and six chin-ups. Why chin-ups? Because it replicates the action needed for a riser pull in the old T-10 parachutes, of course!). Those 80% scores are: 57 push-ups, 66 sit-ups, and a 14:24 two miles (incidentally, in case you are wondering, these have dropped. In the 1990s, in the Regiment, we had the same standards, but the numbers were: 62 push-ups, 72 sit-ups, and a 14:00 run).
- In case you’re wondering, a 100% score, across the board would require: 71 push-ups, 78 sit-ups, and a 13:00 run (over a minute slower than the old standards of 11:54).
That having been said, even the Ranger Regiment recognizes that those scores are in no way representative of actual combat fitness, thus the development of the RPAT, or Ranger Physical Assessment Test.
I’m not going to get into a lot of the specific science of ATP-CP versus anaerobic glycolysis versus aerobic, etc. I’m not going to discuss the Kreb’s Cycle, or pretty much any of the other scientific details of the physiology of sports. We’re going to talk about the principles of applying physical conditioning to realistic combat fitness, in view of the probably real-world requirements of the irregular force, dismounted, light-infantry security patrolling mission for community and/or retreat defense.
“There are those who pride themselves on the number of push-ups, sit-ups and chin-ups they can perform, but no one has stressed how they can carry a wounded Marine the length of the parade ground without killing him. This is what we should know and be able to do. If some want to run in their silk shorts and Adidas, that is fine with me: but the Corps is going to return to physical readiness vs. physical fitness.” –General A. Grey, Commandant, USMC, 1987
The Truth is, combat fitness, physical readiness, has long been sacrificed in the military, and in civilian life, at the altar of physical fitness. This has seen a turn-around in the civilian fitness industry in the last decade, with the development of so-called “functional fitness.” The problem is, like so much in civilian service industries, what is deemed “functional” is anything but. Standing on a balance board, while doing one-legged, one-armed dumbbell shoulder presses with a 2.5 lb weight is neither fitness nor functional.
Functional fitness, or for our purposes, combat fitness, is about being strong enough to do what you need to do, for long enough to get it done. I’m a big fan of old Army field manuals. I actually collect them (my best so far is the 1909 edition of Military Map Reading. My favorite however is probably my 1944 or 1950 editions of FM21-75). In many ways, some of these older manuals are more practical for our purposes, because they focus on the hard skills rather than the technology. The 1941 edition of the Army’s fitness manual, FM 21-20 listed six basic soldier tasks that needed to be addressed by a conditioning program:
- marching/running (marching with a load, and sprinting from position to position)
- lifting/carrying (equipment or casualties)
- throwing (presumably hand grenades, but we’ll include people…)
While the ’44 edition did not have a specific task-conditions-standard PT test officially, by the 1957 edition, it included both a fitness test and a physical readiness test. We’re concerned with the physical readiness test:
- 75-yard dash (running/marching)
- 5-second rope climb (climbing)
- triple broad jump (jumping/vaulting)
- 150-yard man carry (lifting/carrying)
- one-mile run (running/marching)
Training at that time also included a great deal of road marching, of course. In order to max the scores on those tests, you had to complete them:
- 75-yard dash: 8 seconds
- 5-second rope climb: 20 feet
- triple broad jump: 26’6″
- 150-yard man carry: 30 seconds (important to note that this was a soldier of the same body weight)
- one-mile run: five minutes (in boots and utility uniform pants with t-shirt) (What the Fuck!? Seriously? I’m actually inclined to wonder if anyone ever maxed the score on this event. What year did Roger Bannister break the 4:00 mile, in track shoes and shorts? And they thought a dude should be able to hit it in 5 miles in boots and utes? Seriously!!!!?)
Here’s a secret for you. I don’t give two fucks about your general fitness. I care about your combat-specific fitness. Can you shoot, move, and communicate in an effective manner, at your level of fitness? Can you carry the minimum necessary equipment far enough, fast enough, to get to the fight, and still be able to fight? Can you jump up, sprint, dive down, and crawl in order to “move under direct fire” effectively?
(Most of my views on combat fitness are based on my experiences in the Ranger Regiment, even more than my experiences in SF. With the possible exception of the Army’s Special Missions Unit, the 75th Ranger Regiment has the best conditioned soldiers in the US Army, and possibly in the world. I recognize that I’m no longer a 20-year old Ranger. I also recognize that the principles of combat fitness are still critical to me, regardless of how old, fat, and lazy I may be now. I’ve stated it before and I’ll state it again. You can be a lazy fuck-stain of an excuse for a man if you so desire. I am an elitist. I am not ashamed of that fact, and I’m not going to apologize for it. I believe in meritocracy, which means I believe in being the absolute best I am capable of being. Age and treachery may beat youth and enthusiasm, but the old dude has to get to the fight first.)
Combat fitness involves the above six basic soldier tasks, but we can be more specific.
- Marching/Running: We need to be able to carry our basic load, including our sustainment load, as far as we need to, for as long as we need to, as fast as we need to. We also need to be able to sprint for anywhere from 10 meters (3-5 second rushes) to a few hundred meters, with full fighting load on, after dumping our rucks, in order to perform as part of the maneuver element for a basic react-to-contact battle drill. When performing a break contact, we may need to be able to move at near sprint speeds for a few hundred yards, with rucksacks on.
- Jumping/Vaulting: We need to be able to jump over ditches, low walls, and holes, and other obstacles, when necessary.
- Climbing: We need to be able to climb mountains or hills, when necessary, as a regular part of patrolling, with our rucks on. We may need to climb up the walls of buildings, through windows, or even up cliff faces, with at least our fighting loads on, depending on the types of patrols and missions we anticipate having to do.
- Lifting/Carrying: We need to be able to lift and carry our gear, including the sustainment load, for long distances. We need to be able to carry our fighting load, plus a buddy, equipped in fighting load, for short distances, in some fashion or another (this could range from the age-old “fireman’s carry,” to simply grabbing a handful of LBE and dragging his ass behind cover). We may need to be able to carry our fighting and sustainment loads, and more gear, whether that gear is a wounded buddy’s rucksack, his fighting load, or items and equipment recovered from a contact, after defeating a hostile force.
- Throwing: while we may or may not currently have access to devices like hand grenades or flash-bangs, or even satchel charges, the opportunity to procure them post-event makes the reality of needing to be able to throw them pretty important. Nevertheless, for our purposes, this is more applicable to being able to “throw” people around in a combative encounter, while actually in the fight. We need to be fit enough that we can fight, regardless of armament, once we get to the fight, even if we had to walk our asses to get there.
The principle of specificity in exercise says that the ideal way to develop the physical attributes needed for any given activity is to actually practice that activity. This allows us to train not just the neural system (“muscle memory” a term I despise. Your muscles don’t have memories….) but also the specific energy systems (ATP-CP and Anaerobic glycolysis, as well as the aerobic energy system) needed to carry out that activity. Unfortunately, the realities of life means that we also need to utilize exercises that utilize equipment and facilities that we either already have, or can easily procure. It is fair to say that one important limitation on physical training programs is it has to be accessible. If you don’t have access to a building to practice wall-scaling on (I certainly don’t!), then you can only be so specific….Further, the great variety of potential variances in a specific task (like climbing a single story building versus climbing a three-story house versus climbing a cliff beside the river) means that you can take specificity too far. Our physical conditioning needs to focus on the energy systems used, not the specific physical tasks executed.
Energy Systems Considerations
The basics of energy system usage in the body are the aerobic energy system (“with oxygen”) and the two anaerobic (“without oxygen”)systems: ATP-CP (Adenosine Tri-Phosphate-Creatine Phosphate) and anaerobic glycolysis. While trying to avoid the in-depth conversation required to explain these three in great detail, to the point of understanding them, I’ll still try and provide a very basic, flash-card understanding of how each works and why it’s important (It’s absolutely critical that you understand, I am NOT an expert on this aspect. I am not an exercise physiologist, a personal trainer, a doctor, or a strength and conditioning coach. I have a thumbnail understanding of this shit, based on asking different representatives of the above professions why a particular program was working for me or was not working for me.)
The aerobic energy system, simply put, uses the oxygen you breath, to break down the sugars in your system to provide fuel for muscle contractions. Aerobic consumption can be of the actual sugars in your blood stream (glycogen) or of fatty adipose tissue after it gets broken down into glycogen.
This system can provide relatively low-levels of energy production for a very sustained amount of time. The more training you do, the longer the system can function. The more training you do, the faster the system can produce energy, thus allowing you to perform at a higher intensity, despite still being in the aerobic demand zone.
The two anaerobic energy systems are slightly more complex. The ATP-CP system simply uses the phosphates already stored in your muscles, which is present in small amounts, to produce short-term, high-intensity muscle contractions. The value of the ATP-CP energy system however is not the quantity of energy available, but the ready availability. The ATP-CP system, depending on conditioning (and to some degree, the actual size of the muscles), can provide a rapid burst of energy for anywhere up to 20-30 seconds, in a trained athlete. For most of us, ATP-CP bursts are limited to less than 15 seconds of energy production. It is certainly important, but the more important of the anaerobic energy systems, for our purposes, is the anaerobic glycolysis system. This energy system works by breaking down the glycogen actually in the muscle fibers themselves, producing slightly less power than the instant on-demand ATP-CP system, but without having to burn it with oxygen, it is produced faster and with higher intensity. The energy demands of the anaerobic glycolytic system can be sustained for a few minutes, again, depending on your level of conditioning.
The secret to all of this is that the ATP is what actually causes muscle contractions. ATP is already in your muscle tissue, but once it is consumed by the ATP-CP system during the initial seconds of an activity, it must be replaced before muscle contractions can continue. This means that you need to produce more ATP, either through anaerobic glycolysis, or through aerobic oxidative glycolysis. The more well-conditioned you are, the more rapidly those systems can produce more replacement ATP.
Regardless of the confusing ass science behind it (and it gets more confusing the more you read about it), the fundamentals are: you need to understand what energy systems you will be using for your particular activities, and then tailor your PT program to improve your body’s performance within that energy system’s capabilities.
Principles of Conditioning
While we’ve looked at and briefly discussed the importance of specificity, we also need to look at some other principles of conditioning that apply to our needs:
- Progression: Progression is what we use to get from wherever we are today to where we need to be tomorrow. If you’ve never walked twenty miles with 65-lbs on your back, then going out tomorrow and trying to do it in twenty hours is not going to end well for you. Trying to do it in 10 hours is sure as fuck not going to end well for you. If you’re too stupid to understand the need for progression in your training programs, you’re too stupid to continue breathing anyway. If you last did a six-mile PT run ten years ago and you go try and run six miles tomorrow morning, it’s not going to end well for you. Start small and build up. Think of the ancient Greek lesson of Milo. Milo started his conditioning program by going out one day and picking up a young calf. He repeated this daily, with the same calf. By the time the calf was a mature bull, dude was picking up a mature bull! That’s fucking ridiculous of course, but for a culture that prized physical athleticism as the ancients did (amongst a host of less desirable things they prized as well, of course), the lesson of using progressive resistance for conditioning was easily understood in the legend.
Progression is simply taking a systematic approach to increasing the physical demands over time. The general rule to remember is to progress intensity and/or duration no more than 10% per week. If you’re going to increase both intensity and duration simultaneously, don’t progress more than 5% in either area. Most injuries that are going to occur are going to occur not because of the intensity of the training, or the specific exercise used, but because some dumb-ass decided he should progress faster than his body was ready for.
- Overload: The concept of “overload” actually has two basic meanings for us. The first is commonly recognized amongst exercise physiologists. In order to create adaptations to the physiological systems of the body, you must provide a stimulus, by demanding things of your body that it couldn’t do the day before. This overloading is how progression occurs. Overloading, in this context, can actually be achieved through increasing the duration of the exercise, the intensity of the exercise, or both simultaneously. This can range from running a 50M sprint instead of a 40M sprint, or running a 40M sprint in less time than previously. Alternatively, as the third choice, it could involve running the 50M sprint in the time we previously ran the 40M sprint. It’s stupid simple to overload. If you’re adding weight, add 5-10 pounds. If you’re increasing speed, push yourself a little faster. The challenge is to do it intelligently. You have to apply progression and overload, modified with the principle of recovery, discussed below.
The second aspect of overload is specific to combat fitness, and while recognized amongst many combat veterans and trainers, is often overlooked by novices and amateurs. This “secret” is something that fighting men have known for millenia. BG “Slam” Marshall’s work has, over the years, been castigated, and rightly so, for shoddy research practices, leading to what many considered faulty conclusions (I actually tend to agree with much of what the naysayers pick on). One thing that the general pointed out in his landmark classic study of load-bearing and the physical demands on the soldier in combat “The Soldier’s Load and the Mobility of a Nation” however, was not only correct, but has been witnessed, described, and validated by numerous other studies and experiential evidence as well. The fear you will feel during combat increases the physiological demands on the body for any given activity far beyond what that activity demands in peacetime training. Marching 10 miles in a combat zone is significantly more difficult than marching the same 10 miles in peacetime, all other things being equal. So, all of you who talk about humping a 35-lb pack for 15 minute miles, keep on keeping on. Just don’t whine to me when the fight comes about how hard it is. It’ll be hard, because you’re a fucking pussy who wants to make excuses instead of doing the work that needs to be done. A large number of people seem to think the idea of humping a ruck heavier than what you will carry in the real world, and moving faster, for CONDITIONING road marches, is either unrealistic or unnecessary. I’m telling you right here, it’s not only realistic, it’s fucking critical. That’s not just John Mosby trying to blow smoke up your ass. That’s a historically demonstrated fact. If someone is telling you that going slow and light is okay, because you’re not 20 anymore, he’s coddling you. “If we fail to prepare our soldiers for their physically demanding wartime tasks, we are paying lip service to the principle of train as you fight.” (US Army FM 21-20 Physical Readiness Training, 1992). If he’s coddling you, he’s fucking you. We’ll talk more about rucking below though.
- Regularity: No, we’re not talking about your bowel movements. You can safely assume that you will lose 10% of any fitness gains per week of not exercising. That number is not engraved in stone, of course, and it has it’s limits. If you don’t exercise for ten weeks, you’re not suddenly going to find yourself in a vegetative state, unable to move. Simply recognize though, that if you go two weeks or more without doing any PT, you’re going to need to scale back the intensity and/or duration (probably both), when you return (This used to get a lot of guys in trouble, when I was a private. We’d go on two weeks of “block leave” per year. You were expected to do maintenance PT during that time. The guys that didn’t would be obvious when we came back, because they’d fall out on the Battalion or Company runs we’d do for 5+ miles the first day back from vacation. It was a good way to find yourself on a plane ride to Korea for a year-long visit….).
- Variation: Most people who’ve done any research into PT have come across the term “periodization.” While periodization has adherents and critics, depending on whether you’re discussing seasonal periodization or undulating periodization, over the years, researchers and trainers have discovered that you can maximize your potential for overall increases in athleticism by dedicating a period of time to one aspect of training, then changing the focus at regular intervals.
Traditional periodization doesn’t work for our needs, any more than it works for a soldier. We don’t know when we’re going to need to be fit for the fight, so we have to stay relatively close to our peak in all areas, throughout the year (this can suck for those of us who live in alpine regions if we don’t snowshoe or ski, since running in four feet of snow is a motherfucker. Fortunately, I dig snowshoeing….). We use what is called undulating periodization. We never stop doing any aspect of our workouts, we just limit our attempts to IMPROVE to one or two areas at a time, while maintaining the others. After a given period of time, we switch our focus, maintaining the new performance levels in the previous focus area.
Variation can also be as simple as changing out exercises for the same demands. This keeps the nervous system “guessing” to use an old, obsolete phraseology. It simply makes it harder for the nervous system and energy systems to adapt, making overload easier.
- Recovery: Overload must be followed by recovery if you want to continue progressing. If you’re pushing yourself 110%, every single workout, every single day, you’re going to red-line and burn out in a hurry. Hard workouts must be followed by rest periods. If you feel the need to do PT daily (I do, most of the time), you need to focus on different exercises or at least different parts of the body, to allow your body to recuperate and heal itself, before jumping back in. Active rest can work, assuming your workouts were not 100% balls-to-the-walls training sessions. Failure to incorporate recovery periods into your PT programming will lead to overtraining. Overtraining results not only in muscle, bone, and tendon injuries, but will also fuck up your hormonal balance.
- Balance: We’re not bodybuilders or power lifters and we’re not marathon runners. We need to balance our training program between all the different aspects of fitness. The Ranger, Athlete Warrior program, developed to bring the Ranger Regiment’s PT program into the 21st Century, focuses on a balance between strength, endurance, and motor movement skills, including power, agility, and coordination. That’s a pretty good balance to look for.
- Individual differences and moderation: These are two separate principles that are closely related for our purposes. You are not me. What works for me specifically, may or may not work for you. What works for you is probably not going to work for me. I am a very aggressive, Type-A, alpha male personality (thus my preference for elitism). If you’re a laid-back, dope-smoking hippie type, more power to you, but recognize that the specific programs I use would never work for you, without a serious change in attitude and performance. I also have a lifetime of physical conditioning behind me. If I lay off for a couple of months or even a couple of years without doing PT, it’s going to take me a little while to get back to where I was, but still not as long as someone who’s never done anything more physical than 3d grade physical education, playing kickball (or, God forbid, the new trend, soccer without the soccer ball, because that leads to score-keeping, which leads to hurt feelings…..). You need to develop your programs based on what you are personally capable of dealing with. If you have old injuries that need to be molly-coddled, then molly-coddle your injuries (I will tell you though, if you tell me you can’t do squats, because your knees are too damaged, do it over the internet, not to my face. I have a knee-jerk reaction–no pun intended–to that horseshit that involves throat-punching people for stupidity. Squats, properly done, will do more to repair damaged knees than damned near anything else out there).
Further, we’re not all built alike. Some people have more slow-twitch muscle fibers, others have more fast-twitch muscle fibers. Some guys have longer limbs, others have shorter limbs. Figure out what modifications you need to make, in order to meet the standards you set for yourself, and then fucking make them. Just do PT, already.
Specific Conditioning Advice
We have two basic objectives when it comes to developing a solid conditioning program. The first is to improve task-specific performance, while the second is to prevent injuries.
- Improve task-specific performance. Focus on the specificity principle and use exercise methods and techniques that will improve your ability to perform the specific skills you expect to need to be able to perform (I was talking to a neighbor recently about PT and he asked me if I did bicep curls. “Fuck no!” I replied. “Why not? They’re a great exercise! They make your arms bigger.” “Because, I don’t give a shit about how big my arms are. I lift weights to make me better at throwing people through walls.”).
- Prevent injuries. No one wants to cause injuries. I don’t give a shit about your general fitness, as I stated above, but if you’re injured because of shitty PT programming, then you’re not able to train in mission-essential tasks, which means you’re not improving your task-specific performance. Fortunately, much of the time, the same exercise concepts that will improve your task-specific performance will also help prevent injuries by strengthening those parts of the body most likely to be injured in training.
Warm-Up and Cool-Down: Movement Prep and Recovery
Movement preparation encompasses warming up prior to a workout, but more importantly to overall injury prevention, it incorporates two other vital aspects: loosening the joints and muscles for the movements that will be demanded of them, and priming the nervous system to get ready for the demands it’s about to receive. Following a solid movement prep “warm-up,” your body should be ready to perform. The movement prep concept, versus simply “warming up” is the methodology recommended and used by leading strength and conditioning coaches. Movement prep can range from a variety of calisthenic exercises (for 5-10 repetitions per exercise. The goal is to prepare for the workout, not to do the workout…) that incorporate all the movement patterns and muscles that will be used in the actual workout, to simply performing low intensity preparatory sets and reps of the exercise to be conducted. For a run or sprint workout, my movement prep generally consists of a brief walking period, then gradually increasing my speed to my normal running pace for a short distance, to allow my body, and especially my knees, to get ready for what is coming. For strength training, as another example, I’ll simply lower the weight I expect to perform for my actual workout sets, and perform a couple of sets of low repetitions for each exercise, gradually increasing the amount of weight per set. We’ll see more on this below.
Recovery is the cool-down reciprocal of movement prep. The idea isn’t to simply “cool down,” or we’d go jump in a cold shower and be good. Of course, after an extremely intense workout, that might very well kill you. Recovery goals are to safely decrease your heart rate, respiration, and body temperature (“cooling down”), improve functional flexibility, and replace nutrients. For most of us, this means a significant walking period to allow our body temperatures and heart rate to drop, followed by a period of functional stretching exercises, which will both reduce post-exercise soreness and stiffness, as well as increase our overall combat fitness by increasing our flexibility. I tend to use yoga for my recovery stretching, believe it or not (contrary to the common view of yoga as a pseudo-exercise for women to do while wearing tight spandex–not that I’m opposed to that–or some sort of New Age mystical nonsense, yoga was originally developed as a fitness training method for ancient Indian–red dot forehead type, not the tomahawk and feathers variety–warriors. Done properly, yoga will kick your ass all on its own…).
Finally, recovery involves the replacement of nutrients utilized during the training session. These can range from protein shakes and meal-replacement bars to whole foods meals. For my money, based on an admittedly layman’s understanding of sports nutrition, I’ve found whole chocolate milk to be the single best post-workout nutrition source available. It’s got enough protein to help heal damaged muscle tissue, enough sugar to rapidly replace glycogen stores in the muscles, and enough fat and cholesterol to help boost testosterone production. It’s also light enough on the stomach that I can consume a half-gallon of it within the 30-45 minute post-exercise window that strength coaches have told me is so critical. Fortunately, I’ve also had several professional strength and conditioning coaches corroborate my belief that this is a great post-exercise recovery drink…and it tastes way the fuck better than any “protein powder” I’ve ever tried…
Within an hour to an hour and half post-exercise though, regardless of the type of training, I do try and consume a whole foods meal with a solid high-protein, high-fat micro-nutrient ratio, and just enough carbs to help continue replacing glycogen stores.
Aerobic conditioning is obviously critical to combat fitness, but it has been convincingly (and in my mind accurately) claimed that strength is the most important fitness attribute for combat. A marathon runner may have adequate aerobic endurance to move a long ways (like 26.2 miles, motherfucker!), but can he do that while humping a heavy ass ruck, his fighting load, and while carrying a wounded partner? A powerlifter on the other hand, may take a week, but he can move the 26.2 miles, and will have no problem carrying his wounded buddy. That’s obviously a gross oversimplification in numerous ways, but it serves to make the point.
When discussing strength training, there are a couple of critical questions we need to ask first:
- What type of strength are we discussing?
- How strong do we need to be?
- How do we get there with limited time and equipment?
The merits of relative strength versus absolute strength have been debated since the beginning of physical conditioning exercise, and probably before. I’m an advocate for high levels of absolute strength. Some have mis-read that to mean that I don’t think relative strength is important as well, which is incorrect. I do however believe that of the two, for life in general, absolute strength is more important. You can either carry the fucking load or you cannot. I don’t care if you’re 205 lbs (my current body weight) or 105 pounds. If you can’t carry the fucking load, are you going to be able to carry the load when it’s a matter of saving a life? Of course not. You’re not going to magically be able to do so, despite the urban legends of adrenaline-laced, 98-pound mothers lifting Buicks off their children.
At the same time however, obviously, if we look at the basic soldier movement skills discussed above, including jumping/vaulting and climbing, relative strength is pretty fucking critical. A 240lb bodybuilder can probably hold me down, but can he crawl his big ass up a cliff? Can he jump over deadfalls in the woods when conducting a break-contact?
The reality is, we need a balance between absolute strength and relative strength. Not only do we need to be able to haul our happy asses around, we need to be able to throw Ali Baba through a wall, then carry our buddy Joe out of harm’s way.
We need to be as strong as possible. Strength is useful to the extent that it improves your performance and keeps you injury free. You don’t need to be built like a professional bodybuilder or able to lift competitive powerlifting loads. For our purposes, although I’ve beat the dead equine already, strength means being able to carry your gear indefinitely, being able to carry a wounded buddy (while carrying your own gear), or crawling up a wall or cliff. Strength means being able to grab a bad dude and toss him through a wall. These require broad-spectrum strength both absolutely and relatively. For performance-based strength training, this means movement more than it means muscle. We’re not interested in “isolating” specific muscle groups. We don’t care about visually pleasing shapes (although for your wife’s benefit, experience has taught me that being combat fit is seldom visually unappealing to the fairer sex…just sayin’…despite the metro-sexual Tinkerbells’ misconceptions, apparently most American women still like a dude with a large upper body and thick, powerful shoulders, thick neck, trim waist, and powerful legs…Who would have guessed?). The bodybuilder, whether a competitor or an amateur looking to pick up girls at the bar (dude, seriously, do some fucking squats already. My wife loves making fun of big armed dudes she sees walking into a store with chicken legs…), doesn’t care about the movement that caused the muscle to get big, he just cares about getting “swole.” The tactical athlete, on the other hand, needs his strength for lifting, climbing, jumping, and rucking. We don’t give a shit how big the muscle is, just whether it will allow us to create the movement we need, with the necessary level of force. The difference really lies in the much greater balance and core stability we need. Without a strong core, your performance will suffer and you are more susceptible to injury. All functional combat fitness revolves around a strong core. I don’t give a shit about the bench press and bicep curl. The spine, pelvis, and hips are the core of your body. Bench presses and bicep curls don’t do shit for those body parts. Core strength isn’t about doing lots of sit-ups (or God forbid, fucking “crunches”). It’s about strengthening the whole band around the center of the torso, as well as the supporting muscle structures of the ass, hips, and legs.
Our strength training, at a fundamental level, needs to revolve around a few basic movement patterns: a pushing exercise, a pulling exercise, a squatting exercise, and a twisting or stabilization exercise for core development (although the correct choice in the other exercises will make this a simple selection. Since core stabilization is critical to proper injury-preventing form in the other exercises, you can focus on a twisting exercise for the core….But we’ll look at alternatives below).
Much of my strength training philosophy is stolen from legendary strength coach Bill Starr (with a heavy dose of Mark Rippetoe tossed in for good measure). The key is simplicity. I’m not a bodybuilder or a powerlifter. Lifting weights is not the goal. The goal is to get strong enough to perform the tasks I need to perform. Like any of you, I’m pressed for time, space, and money. I can’t afford a monthly gym membership, and I can’t afford an expansive home gym. My home gym consists of an Olympic barbell and several hundred pounds of weight plates. I don’t have the time to spend two hours a day in the gym, performing 18 different exercises of negligible benefit. Like Bill Starr, I use a “Big Three” approach. That is, three basic, multi-joint, compound movement exercises that give me the maximum bang for the buck. Starr’s Big Three were the bench press, the squat, and the power clean. I don’t give a shit about big pecs and laying on a bench, so I replace the bench press with the overhead press.
I need basic, overall body strength. I’m not interested in “isolating” certain muscles to get a perfect “peak” on my biceps. I don’t care about hitting the same muscle from multiple angles (that shit is so biomechanically unsound anyway that it’s almost gay…). I want to hit the weights, get my training done, and get on with my fucking life. I’ve got a wife and kid to deal with, plus I need to do my daily dry-fire regimen. I don’t have the time or inclination to hit every body part with a specific exercise, especially since I know that the body works as a synergistic whole. The Big Three will not only reduce the amount of time I have to spend lifting, but they serve the additional benefit of doing it quite adequately. They literally exercise the entire muscular system of the body, including the core. The overhead press works the shoulders, chest, triceps, and to some degree the upper back. The squat strengthens the legs, hips, and lower back. The power clean pulls in the entire posterior chain of the body: legs, hips, lower, middle and upper back, biceps, and shoulders. All three of these also do incredible benefit for the stabilization of the core. If you wanted to just perform these three, you’d be in a good way. I add some minor others, like neck bridges to strengthen the neck, and some specific core stabilization work for shits and giggles, mostly.
The Overhead Press
The overhead press (OHP) works the shoulders, upper back and chest, and the triceps at the back of the upper arm. The stability needed to push heavy weights over your head leads to an awesome benefit to core stability training as well. While this is not a treatise on how to perform these exercises, some important things to keep in mind:
- Keep a relatively close grip. This will result in a longer range of motion, meaning an increased work load, as well as reducing the chances of injury to the shoulder. Keep your elbows in close to your sides, rather than flaring outward.
- Lower the bar onto the top of your pectoral muscles, at collarbone height, breathe deep, tighten your abdominals and lower back, and push with your shoulders. Don’t “jump” the weight into motion to get it started (this is called a “push-press.” I do it sometimes, for the specific reasons of breaking through a particularly heavy barrier, but I really don’t recommend it).
- Keep everything very, very tight. Thighs, hips, butt and lower and middle back need to be taut throughout the push.
- Explode the weight upward. Pause at lock-out for a moment, then lower the weight back to the chest under control, at a moderately slow rate of speed.
The Front Squat
The squat is arguably, the King of Exercises (arguably only because that honor might go to the deadlift). While I prefer the back squat, since I can lift more with the back squat, my current lack of a squat rack means I have to power clean my weight bar up to a starting position. That functionally limits me to front squats. That’s okay though, because in addition to being harder, front squats also offer greater core stabilization conditioning. Important points with squats of any variety:
- “Ass to grass!” The squat works all the muscles of the legs, hips, buttocks, and lower back. Most people lack flexibility in the hips. The full-depth squat, or “ass to grass” squat is the single best way available to increase functional hip flexibility and strength (lots of so-called “certified personal trainers” will tell you that you should not go past a 90-degree bend in the knees, or you risk knee injury. The opposite is true. If you perform full-depth squats, correctly, you’ll actually strengthen the knees, by thickening the ligaments and tendons over time. There is a certain amount of flexibility already necessary in order to go “ass to grass” however. Most people I’ve watched in the gym lack that flexibility in the hips and ankles. If they try to go too low, the back starts rounding. That leads to injuries in a hurry. The key is to go as low as you can go with a straight back. Over time, going as low as you can go, you’ll increase the flexibility and be able to go lower, increasing the strength of your lower body throughout it’s full natural range-of-motion.
- Explode out of the hole. Blow out of the bottom position as fast as possible, but only after taking a brief pause at the bottom. Do not “bounce” at the bottom. You’ll blow your fucking knees out that way (the cause of the mistaken belief that “ass to grass” squats are bad. Like most things in life, they’re only “bad” if they’re utilized incorrectly or inappropriately). At the top of the exercise, descend slowly back into the bottom position, pause, and repeat.
The Power Clean
Bill Starr said this about the power clean: “The ‘athlete’s exercise.’ If your program only allowed you to do one exercise, this would be the best.” While I am slightly prejudicial, because I’ve seemed to always have a knack for this exercise, and make extremely rapid gains when I incorporate it into a program, I agree. I LOVE power cleans, and they are, bar none, the single best exercise out there (yes, even more than squats! Heresy, I know). Power cleans work, literally, the entire posterior chain of the body. Those are all the muscles that make athletic movement possible: the upper and lower leg, the hips, the entire fucking back, the upper arms, and even the forearms. I’ve even noticed most people get some retarded thick neck development when they do power cleans.
An often overlooked benefit to the power clean is the anaerobic endurance benefits its offers. Not only will it make you strong as an ox, it’ll increase your body’s ability to process energy through the anaerobic glycolytic process. Take someone who thinks they’re in good shape, but they don’t do power cleans. Give them a 135-180 pound bar (depending on their strength) and have them perform a couple sets of power cleans. I can almost guarantee that by the end of it, they’ll be smoked (my metabolic conditioning workouts on Fridays, combining strength training and anaerobic conditioning together involve sets of compound exercises. I will perform a power clean. Once the weight is up to my chest, I perform a front squat. As soon as I return to the standing position after the front squat, I do an overhead press. Perform for five repetitions. Rest for two minutes, then repeat. Do this five times, even with 75% of your normal overhead press weight, and you will want to throw up when you’re done.
For our purposes, endurance, whether anaerobic glycolytic or aerobic oxidative glycolytic, is simply defined as the ability to sustain activity over a given period.
While most combat activities are far more anaerobic than aerobic, we still need aerobic conditioning, if for no other single purpose than foot movements to the objective during infiltration. Interestingly, recent science has demonstrated that anaerobic conditioning will provide aerobic benefits, while the reciprocal is not true. Only performing aerobic endurance training is a mistake with life-ending potential repercussions. This is good news for some of us who hate running (seriously, I spent nine years running anywhere from 6-10 miles a day, five days a week….and I didn’t like distance running when I started. I REALLY hate it now. I’ve just learned to deal with it, and I don’t have to run as far anymore). However, it doesn’t mean we don’t have to do SOMETHING for aerobic conditioning too.
While most of your endurance training should focus on anaerobic conditioning, you do need to add some elements of task-specific aerobic conditioning as well. Most of your endurance training should come in the form of running, road marching, and tactical fitness movement skills training (which we’ll talk about below).
The bulk of your anaerobic endurance training will provide aerobic benefits as well, but should be focused on sprint intervals of various types. The best three methods of general anaerobic endurance training include sprint intervals, shuttle runs, and terrain runs.
- Sprint Intervals: The 30/30 sprint is named for the run/rest ratio. it is 30 seconds of sprinting, followed immediately by 30 seconds walking or slow jogging. This should be done at 80-90% of your maximum effort, whatever that level may be currently. In the beginning, the sprint portion should feel like a hard run just short of an all out sprint. In the beginning, you’re not trying to kill yourself, you’re trying to get your body used to working out. Start out, once or twice a week, by performing 5-10 repetitions, then take a five minute walking break, then repeat another 5-10 repetitions. In a few weeks, when you can perform two complete sets of 10 repetitions per set, you can think about introducing longer intervals. These are referred to as as “track intervals” although they don’t need to be performed on a track (and honestly? Probably shouldn’t be). Track intervals are a time-proven method of increasing both aerobic and anaerobic conditioning and are a staple of most intermediate and long-distance running programs. Incorporate them in place of your once a week 30/30s. Start out with a 100-200 meter sprint, followed by a walk-back recovery. Perform them the same way you performed the 30/30s, although definitely start with no more than 4-5 repetitions per set, and build up in both distance and number of repetitions. We’ll look at specific track interval recommendations below.
- 300-Meter Shuttle Runs: This is my favorite endurance conditioning exercise for a number of reasons. Most importantly, not only does it work really well for general conditioning, but because it actually only takes up 50 meters of ground, you can do this out in the woods, in full fighting load for an extremely intense, combat-specific conditioning workout. Basically, with two markers set 50 meters apart, you sprint from one marker to the other and back, three times, non-stop, for a total of 300 meters. It can also be performed on a 25-meter distance, by simply doubling the number of repetitions. This works so many fundamental movement skills, while improving your anaerobic and aerobic glycolytic systems that it’s a no-brainer to add to any PT program. Starting out, my recommendation to people is to treat it like a 30/30 variant. Sprint the first 50, then jog back, before immediately sprinting the third 50, then jogging back, etc. Once you can do the three 50 meter sprints and jog backs, then sprint the first and second leg, jog the third, sprint the fourth and fifth, and jog the sixth. Pretty quick, you’ll be sprinting the entire 300 meters, and getting some quality movement training in, through the turning, crouching, and sprint starts at each turn-around. Seriously, I’m not sure I know of a better all-around combat-specific power-speed-endurance exercise.
- Terrain Runs: Terrain runs are simply medium distance runs conducted over rough terrain. These should be cross-country, but even roads in hilly or mountainous country can provide many of the same benefits. These runs serve the benefit of accustoming you to running and moving on uneven terrain and slopes, leading to stabilization in the muscles of the legs and core. Besides the obvious aerobic benefits of running 2-6 miles, the anaerobic demands involved in jumping (!!!) and vaulting (!!!) over fallen trees, rocks, and creeks, charging up hills, and braking down hills, will make huge demands on your anaerobic system as well as increasing the strength and power of your lower body.
It’s important to understand however, that terrain runs need to be considered carefully before incorporating them into your program, due to the potentially higher risk for ankle or knee sprains, especially in early morning or late evening low-light conditions, or during inclement weather (you aren’t planning on skipping PT just because of some bad weather, are you?).
The bulk of your aerobic conditioning should not come from just running. It should come from road-marching. Distance running didn’t replace road-marching (or “speed marching” to use the older term for it), as the primary means of aerobic conditioning for infantry and Ranger units in the American Army until the late 1970s, into the early 1980s. Ranger units in World War 2 and Korea used little distance running in their conditioning programs (although it was pretty common in airborne training as early as World War 2, apparently. It’s important to remember that World War 2 Ranger units were not airborne units. Since few of us will be on jump status post-grid down, I’d say the traditional light-infantry Ranger missions are far more in line with what we need than airborne units specifically….). While distance running is a great aerobic conditioning exercise, it falls pretty far from the tree when we look at the principle of specificity. Road-marching is far more “functional.” The biggest benefit of distance running is that it’s a great tool for developing mental toughness. Fortunately, so is road-marching.
The concerns that usually end up voiced with the inclusion of frequent road-march conditioning are largely overblown, if it is used as a tool for conditioning. The argument is that it breaks your body down and takes time away from other physical conditioning activities–like distance running….
The problem with the second issue is self-evident, but the first one needs considerably more addressing. The US Army has done a host of studies on the physical effects of weekly road-marching. It’s no more debilitating than distance running, and in many ways, if balanced with a sound strength training program, and using a well-designed pack, engineered for the human body, is actually less debilitating in the long term. While the 1992 edition of FM21-20 claimed that the benefits of weekly road-marching were the same as if conducted semi-weekly, it went on to prescribe a weekly program for initial-entry soldiers (basic training). The John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (hereafter referred to as “SWC”), recommends a conditioning program of 3x per week for roadmarching when getting ready for SFAS.
Soon after taking command of the 75th Ranger Regiment in 1997, then Colonel Stan McChrystal issued a Regimental policy on road-marching that stated that every Ranger would road-march ten miles, with a 50-lb ruck every week. Additionally, he expected every Ranger would conduct a 20 mile road-march with a 50-lb ruck quarterly. This was intended to not only increase fitness, but also mental toughness. Prior to that, each of the battalions had its own policy on road-marching. 1st Ranger Battalion’s stated policy at the time included weekly eight milers with 45% of the individual Ranger’s bodyweight, with a quarterly 12-miler, and a semi-annual 25-miler. Despite the different policies however, it was often left up to individual platoon sergeants and even squad leaders to determine what their respective units would do to maintain road-marching capabilities (Ranger G.K., who uses the screen name Attack Company 1/75, I want you to pipe in with a comment what your recollections are from this time period on this subject….). In my squad and platoon of the company I was in, in the battalion I was in, we performed a 12-miler every other week, with 65-lb rucks, with the expected completion time of two hours. Yes, that’s a ten minute mile, with 65-lbs on…if that seems particularly superhuman to you, well, shit, maybe it was. Seemed pretty normal at the time though. If it seems impossible to you, you’re a simpering fucking vagina who needs testosterone implants. My platoon sergeant, at that time, was in his early 40s (he’d had a significant break in service following Grenada), and he managed to pull it off too.
It is critical to recognize a couple of things, when it comes to road-marching and physical conditioning for combat fitness. Number one, no, you’re not going to do a ten-minute mile with a 65-lb ruck on in a tactical field environment. In fact, Army doctrine for infiltration movements claims something like 1K per hour. The point is the second aspect of the overload principle we discussed above. My current rucksack load, not counting a 100oz Camelback and a two-quart canteen, and not counting food, weighs 56 pounds, exactly (I weighed it yesterday, in anticipation of the next article). My fighting load, consisting of a war-belt, plate carrier, and RACK (Ranger Assault Carrying Kit) chest carrier, along with that 56-lb ruck, weighs a total of 99 pounds. That’s a lot of weight. I’ve had people (generally guys who were 30-50 pounds overweight, mind you) tell me “that’s too much weight!” Nevertheless, even if I’m only moving 1K an hour (realistically, the Army doctrine is too speedy for the guerrilla. Since we don’t have the luxury of calling on CAS or indirect-fire support if we get in a pickle, we need even more stealth, which means we need to be moving slower) in a field environment, if I can cover a long distance, in a short duration, it becomes significantly easier for me to carry a heavy load for a long distance at a much slower pace. Honestly? I don’t give a shit if you’re humping along at 15 minutes per mile (which is the SFAS standard MINIMUM), or 10 minutes per mile. Just hump your fucking ruck already, and do it fast. It’s conditioning, not tactical training.
So, let’s talk about standards (to clarify, these are NOT the minimum required standards to attend a class. Those don’t exist, because hopefully, some people in classes learn that they need to do PT after all). The first thing to understand is that standards are, quite simply, a MINIMUM standard. No man with any self-respect as a man, would ever strive just to reach the standards. We want to exceed the standards. These just provide a metric to let you know, “Hey, I might be good enough to not get myself and a bunch of other dudes killed!” On the other hand, the minimum standards could also be said to be an indicator of, “Hey, I’m just good enough to go along, but if we get in the shit, I’m shitty enough to get a whole bunch of good dudes killed!”
These standards are not mine, they’re actually just off-the-cuff thoughts on what I personally think a minimum acceptable standard would be, if I were outfitting and setting up a selected group of guys to perform security mission post-grid down. The reality is, like you, I’m going to be stuck with whatever I can scrape together. Fortunately, where I live, there is a metric shit-ton of former SOF and light-infantry veterans, with a healthy dose of extreme adventure athletes thrown into the mix, from hardcore backpackers and through-hikers, to rock climbers and serious alpinists. I might get lucky…
Once again, to reiterate, just meeting the “standards” is never enough. You need to exceed the standards. Also, remember, it’s not enough to exceed them once. You need to maintain that. “Selection is ongoing.“
Road-Marching: I believe, at a bare minimum, just counting rucksack weight, you should be able to hump a 65-lb rucksack, at a 12:00/mile pace, for 8-10 miles. That’s on a road, with hiking/combat boots, and full fighting load as well. Cross-country, or on an off-road trail, I would expect to see the proverbial
15:00/mile pace. Yes, I’m a dick like that. You however, are a pussy if you’re whining about it already. Just do it.
300 Meter Shuttle Run: In shorts and running shoes, hitting this in 00:59 will put you in the 50th percentile of collegiate running backs, according to a University of Nebraska study I read from the early 2000s. I think, in full fighting load, in 2:30 is reasonable. Maybe only 2:00.
One Mile Run: In fighting load, I’d like to see this done, as a terrain run, over moderate terrain, in less than ten minutes.
Litter Drag: This could be a litter, or just a weighted sandbag to replicate dragging a wounded partner. Within your group, figure out the average weight (in other words, for the mathematically challenged amongst us, add the bodyweight of every body in the group together, then subtract by the number of guys in the group) including fighting loads. Add 10%. Pull a litter that weighs that amount, 50 meters, then turn around and pull it back 50 meters, in one minute.
Sandbag Lift and Press: Use a sandbag that weighs the same as your bodyweight. From the ground, pick it up and press it to lock-out, over your head, for a minimum of one repetition. Alternatively, this could be done with a barbell, for convenience. I actually don’t know that this measure of pure strength has much bearing on pure combat fitness, but it sounds like a motherfucker, so when I just thought of it, I added it. Fuck it, I may try it, with the sandbag. I know I can do it with a barbell.
The specific standards I believe are necessary may or may not be relevant to you. They are suitably tough to probably be a good measure of what you should be able to accomplish to expect a pretty good chance of improving your odds of surviving the fight.
If they’re “too hard,” then don’t do them. Make up your own standards. But, just like every other aspect of training, have some fucking standards already. Don’t just go “exercise” (Really? Saying, “Hey, I’m going to go exercise!” really does make you sound gayer than a doorknob at a cocksucker’s convention! Talk about some Richard Simmons bullshit!), TRAIN!
I’m going to close this rather lengthy article with some interesting historical tid-bits from Ranger and SF history and lore.
1) In November of 1943, the combined US/Canadian special operations unit, the 1st Special Service Force (You may have seen the classic movie about them, titled “The Devil’s Brigade”) were tasked with conducting a raid on a German emplacement at Mount La Difensa, Italy. Despite the assurances to the Wehrmacht commander, by Bavarian Gebirgjager alpine troops (arguably, at the time and even today, among the foremost mountain troops in the world. HH6 and I have a friend who served in one of the Gebirgjager brigades in the 1990s. Dude is tougher than boiled boot leather.) that the position was unassailable, the 1st SSF conducted a 10-mile approach march on foot, then scaled an unassailable cliff, then conducted a raid…successfully. Fuck your whining about PT being too hard.
2) In his classic 1960 memoir of serving with Darby’s Rangers during World War 2, James Altieri, who served as a private and original member of the 1st Ranger Battalion during the initial train-up in Ireland and Scotland, and on the initial mission to North Africa, before being commissioned and later serving as a company commander in the 4th Ranger Battalion after the expansion of Darby’s Rangers, describes much of the physical conditioning they endured during the initial train-up and for sustainment training between operations. In one after-action description, he discusses a twenty-mile foot-mobile exfiltration following a raid behind German lines, that involved carrying the casualties out. He finishes the description with the following statement: “Now I fully understood Darby’s unrelenting insistence on physical conditioning.”
You can whine about hard the PT is. You can bitch about how you don’t have time. You can moan about how you’re not 19 anymore. Here’s the Gospel though: “It’s all about mind over matter, and you better not mind, because it don’t matter.” Going for a walk with your dog every morning; “hiking” around your five acre property; driving the tractor around to feed the critters is not PT. Those are daily chores. PT is preparation for combat. Go do some REAL PT already.