Individual Training at Home Station

A quick note on this section, if you are training for some sort of more “hooah” type job selection pipeline (i.e. Special Ops), you’ll need to spend much more of your time running, swimming, rucking, and doing tons more cals than what is discussed below. You must condition your body to handle the enormous repetitive loads that will be imposed on you long before you reach selection, or else you will almost surely break down with injury. If you’re an Air Force type looking to get into Special Ops, go to and read everything on the site. If you’re in a different service and serious about going that route, ask around because there is plenty of good training advice from those that have been there and done that.

Basically, I think all soldiers should be programming some sort of sprints/jumps/throws/lifting heavy stuff/bodyweight work/conditioning into their own training. F’ing earth-shattering I know. Sounds simple, but it is amazing how little people actually do all this. The base gyms are full of people training like bodybuilders and putting little emphasis on performance. Now, there is nothing wrong with bodybuilding; I admire the dedication it takes, have had many friends involved in the sport, and I’ll even throw a couple sets of curls in at the end of my upper body workouts for no other purpose than to get bigger arms. Still, military folks need some go with their show. There is little chance that your buddy’s life will actually depend on your physical preparation, but because a small chance is still a chance, you need to train like it matters. Read that again and let it sink in. Your buddy should have the respect to do the same for you.

I purchased James Smith’s High-Low Manual back in ’06 or so and it really changed the way I trained for the better. It has since been discontinued, but the simple concept of alternating high and low CNS days was revolutionary to me. Before, my training week looked like H-H-H-H-H-H-off, with three days of heavy weights, and sprints, throws, and balls-out conditioning on off days, on top of PT three times a week. Since moving to more of an H-L-H-L-H-L-off, or even H-L-H-L-H-H-off training split, my performance has greatly increased and injuries/general fatigue have been greatly decreased. It’s easy to fall into the “more is better” trap, especially considering the type of meathead Type-A personality the military attracts, but it is something that can actually hold you back. Now I train all high CNS-stressors (sprints, jumps, throws, ME/RE weights, and intense conditioning) three times a week, with light calisthenics, circuits, and heart-rate monitored aerobic capacity/recovery work (per Mark McLaughlin’s work) three times a week on off days. As the weather gets better I’ll usually add a fourth CNS intensive day in the form of a “Strongman Stupidity Saturday” where we break out the Farmer's Walk Handles, Prowler, sled, heavy med balls, etc. and do medleys until exhaustion. This training is done for mental conditioning, fun, and to keep myself from getting too “scientific” with my training as I have done in the past. Jim Wendler talks about the need for this sort of training for football players in his 5/3/1 for Football book, and I believe the same logic applies even more so for soldiers. I don’t dispute that training in a lactic environment at some point is necessary for soldiers, but I think too many rush into this sort of training without the proper previous preparation and end up hitting a plateau quickly or getting injured. Anaerobic-lactic training is also difficult to recover from, and recovery is already being stressed by multiple demands outside your training efforts. Weight days are usually M-W-F and rotate between a four day upper/lower  split, or a three day upper-lower-upper split when doing a strongman style day on the weekends. For those that like the outdoors, weekends are also good for a nice long ruck. As a bonus you can even take your family along and get some quality time in together (just don’t make them carry the ruck/weighted vest when you get tired). You can even tell yourself you’re being “sport-specific” and congratulate yourself on your superiority.

As far as the specifics of programming the work, the first step is just getting it done. Once you’ve been consistently doing the above for a month or so you can begin to try and optimize your programming. I program my own training and I think everyone should do the same, but for those new to these concepts I’d make it real simple. Buy 5/3/1 For Football and follow the sprints, jumps, and throws progression. While we do want increased speed and explosiveness, we are not professional athletes and usually don’t have all day to train. The levels programmed in the book are not over the top, and can be realistically adhered to by most (I personally decrease some of the reps for pure speed work out of time constraints to allow for full recovery, but the book is a good starting point). For weight work, if you don’t want to have to put much thought into it, follow the 5/3/1 program three days a week as prescribed. If you want to put on a little more size follow Joe Defranco’s WS4SB III program. Ideally, you will learn to program your own training, but if you’re lost I’ve found these two programs work well, provide flexible templates, and can be readily modified to include the military specific requirements you may have. Again, this is geared towards the military meathead, not the military ultra-marathoner. If you want to look like an ultra-marathoner go do CrossFit (I kid… mostly). Do your intense conditioning either after your training session, or later in the day. For cardiac work, read all of Mark McLaughlin and James Smith’s posts on the subject and make it fit your schedule if you can. If pressed for time I suggest focusing on alactic capacity work as you are most likely getting plenty of longer duration work from PT already. This may not be in-line with some of the more accomplished author’s ideas, but I have found it to empirically work very well. I dropped my 1.5 mile run time by 30 seconds in six months without doing any actual running (would not recommend being that extreme about it but I was experimenting on myself). The way I work calisthenics into my programming is to do a light circuit of pull-ups, pushups, situps, prisoner squats, lunges, etc. as a warm up before my cardiac work. I started by doing about ½ of my max reps in the “testable” exercises (pull-ups, pushups, and situps) and then added reps every month (usually one pullup and five pushups/situps). I should mention that I have a pretty good base on these exercises from doing about a half a million reps of each over the last 11 years and that this is not a way to build your cals extremely quickly (i.e. if you’ve been slacking and then realize you have two weeks before your PT test). It is a great way to maintain/slowly build up your cals without wasting a lot of valuable training time doing endless repetition work. Before I broke my leg a couple years back, I had worked up to doing an easy circuit of 22 pull-ups and 80 each pushups/situps before my longer duration cardio sessions over a period of about a year. If you can already max your respective services standards this is a great way to maintain your current levels. While none of this is rocket science, if you do the above consistently you will be better off than 90% of your fellow personnel who are slamming NO-Xplode and have their own day dedicated to training arms on deployment. For those that really don’t want to think too much about their training, follow the main lifts as prescribed in the 5/3/1 Manual and go here:, or here:, or search for Cosgrove’s articles on metabolic conditioning here on Elite and pick a more metabolic conditioning workout to follow up the main lift with.

The holy grail of military meatheadism is having the ability to train the way you want to, without outside training influences degrading your hard work. I’m personally in this situation right now and it is something that I cherish and will not take for granted. For those that are stuck doing strength-sucking PT multiple times a week, I actually suggest doing your strength training later in the same day. Will running three miles in the morning affect your squat workout in the evening? Or doing a couple hundred pushups at 0600 hurt your bench at 1800? Maybe, but only if you let it. Dave Tate talks about optimal vs. reality and this is one of those situations. Personally, and for those I’ve trained and trained with, we always got better results from training on the same day as our PT sessions. This leads to more light/off days which means better recovery which means better results in the long run. As work capacity increases, the effect of the earlier workout becomes less and less. I truly believe the body is capable of much more than most realize. Do a Q/A search in Matt Kroc’s training log as I seem to remember some great stories about going straight from 5 mile runs to the squat rack and making it work from his time in the USMC. Obviously, I wouldn’t do a powerlifting competition after running three miles, and for working up to true maxes I’d suggest picking a non-PT day, but for most this just seemed to work better. I’d also like to stress the importance of training your neck, especially leading up to a deployment. Not only does having a big neck look cool and help you pass your waist to neck ratio body fat test (if you’re in a branch that still does that), but it will also help prepare your body for wearing your Kevlar helmet continuously while deployed and training to be deployed. If you are already deployed, I wouldn’t bother too much with it as you’ll already be wearing your helmet enough. Neck training can be done with a harness, or even simpler with manual resistance from a buddy (thank you USAFA strength coaches for helping introduce me to the ‘pleasures’ of manual resistance training).

Finally, the military will take you to a lot of places where you probably don’t want to be and you may not be able to train the way you like, or at all. The key is to make the best of the situations and not add stress by obsessing over your total. I’ll illustrate this with a personal example: I entered basic training as an in-shape 18 year old high school football/baseball/rugby player/wannabe meathead weighing about 190 lbs. I think my bench was something like 235x5 or so (not anything special but at least I’d been training). I finished basic six weeks later weighing 170 lbs from all the running and couldn’t even bench 185x5 when I went to the gym the day after we were done. This was my first taste on how the military viewed the relative importance of strength vs. conditioning. My 1.5 mile run was down to 9:17 but I was weak(er). I managed to put 15-20 lbs back on during the first year at my military institution of choice only to lose most of that during survival and evasion training that summer. I still managed to graduate at about 230 lbs four years later so time is on your side. For most military meatheads, this is a cycle to be repeated over the rest of your career. Obviously, this will depend a lot on your career field, but training and deployments can bring maximal strength improvements to a grinding halt. The key is to not use these times as an excuse to get weak, but also to not stress out too much about it as there’s not much you can really do. I’ve seen guys like Jason Ferruggia recommend a full month off of hard training per year and talk about the vast improvements his athletes can make while only really training for half the year. Think of these times as mandatory extended deloads, which we could all probably use once in awhile anyway, and use them to bring up whatever personal weak points you can.

Unit Training at Home Station

If you’re like me, you show up at your unit and -while not being a colossal man-mountain of awesomeness like Jack Bauer- you’re a little bigger/stronger/faster than the average bear. This usually gets you put in charge of implementing the PT program, which usually means you get to be the one in front of everyone leading the exercises and calling cadence. Accept this and suck it up because this is how you start to be able to effect a change in the program. I’ve lead my fair share of sessions where I put the group through the basic stretch/cals/run program, but every time you lead one of these stinkers you can add a little of what works and subtract a little of what doesn’t. As an “Ossifer” it’s a little easier for me than some, but go to the decision-makers in your unit and pitch your ideas for the program. Do your research and be able back up your opinions with confidence and valid data. Even as a 2nd Lt, I was able to make the program pretty much my own after a year or so (with some great help from a couple like-minded junior NCOs). I got to my next unit and guess what the program was: stretching, cals, and a three mile run done three times a week. Again, I was made a physical training leader and in time and with a lot of help, the program became much more successful at preparing our personnel for the rigors of daily life, the PT test, and our specific doomsday scenarios. Like anything in life, you’ll always have the haters, but that is usually those who are lazy and don’t like it when you make them actually work hard, or those who are scared to break from the status quo even if they are mired in mediocrity.

The training you implement does not have to be super complicated or advanced to improve unit fitness. Block periodization is great on paper, but much more detailed than what your unit needs. For many reasons, the concurrent (complex-parallel) model works much better (the varied physical requirements a soldier needs, etc.) and this will be discussed further in the case study at the end of this series.

A new trend that is starting to take hold in the military is doing mandatory CrossFit for PT. While I appreciate the simplicity of being able to follow an already printed out workout daily, this is not something that I would feel comfortable recommending at this point in time. Cross Fit is fine, and while I like to jokingly debate its merits with a buddy of mine that has his own Cross Fit gym, you could do worse than to do it. I just think that you need to think about what you are going to implement as a PT leader. You need to tailor your unit training to whatever your unit’s requirements and missions may be. Even though I made specific training recommendations above, those suggestions provide flexible templates to construct your own training programs, rather than just blindly following an exact workout made by someone you’ve never met, who lives a thousand miles away, and who did not have you or your unit specifically in mind when he wrote it.

Next: Individual and Unit Training While Deployed

Later: Case Study on Implementing a PT Program While Deployed