Soldiers are Athletes

During my seven years of active-duty Army service, I witnessed soldiers perform incredible feats of strength and endurance. I've seen:

  • Artillery soldiers load hundreds of 95-pound 155mm rounds and fire them nonstop, 8 hours a day for a month.
  • Supply soldiers run 96-hour fuel and water transportation missions with no sleep.
  • Infantry soldiers carry upwards of 150 pounds of gear across miles of rugged terrain.
  • Mechanic soldiers perform vehicle recoveries waist-deep in the mud with chains on their back and a 100-pound tow hook in their hands.

Additionally, soldier athletes require a high level of general physical preparedness and work capacity for faster recovery and efficient performance. 

This article discusses aerobic endurance and maximal strength—two components of fitness I feel are the most important for the development of a soldier athlete.

Aerobic Endurance

The Army Public Health Center identified running as one of the top reasons for injury to service members. Are these injuries always avoidable? Absolutely not. When you're sprinting across rugged terrain in full gear, injuries occur. But should they occur during unit PT or routine daily tasks? 

In the Army, we love to run. We run around two to four times a week during PT, usually on a very hard surface like pavement. Running is a great way to develop aerobic endurance. However, it's a high-impact exercise that is very rough on bones and joints when performed continuously over time. 

Most of us have experienced shin splints or knee pain at some point. Soldiers get enough running during routine unit training, so we shouldn't run more than what is required of us. 

Instead, we should use low-impact exercises to develop and maintain aerobic endurance. Here are two incredible, low-impact sled dragging methods to increase your aerobic endurance.

Sled Dragging 

Long Stride Power Walk

Choose a sled weight that simulates the amount of gear you carry when in full combat kit. On average, this is 96 pounds or 30% to 40% body weight. 

Do not run with the sled! Power walk! 

Take long strides pulling with the ball and heel of the foot each step. Do not take short choppy steps. Dragging with long strides mimics how we run by engaging the hamstrings, glutes, and hips more efficiently. 

If you cannot perform the sled drag this way, lower the weight. Drag the sled nonstop for 13 minutes and 30 seconds. If the exercise becomes too difficult during this time, reduce the weight but do not stop dragging. The Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) states that a soldier in top physical condition should be able to run two miles in this time frame. Training outside of this time teaches our bodies to conserve energy. The distance covered while dragging the sled does not matter. What's important is that you do not stop moving.

Power Walk Intervals

Put on your ITOV (with plates) and ACH. The weight added to the sled will be your body weight. Power walk as fast as you can but do not run! Perform ten sets; a 10-second drag with 30 seconds of rest is one set. 

After completing ten sets, rest for three to five minutes, then perform again for a second or third round of 10 sets (depending on your level of fitness). It's okay if you can only complete one round—this workout is tough. 

Perform this routine once or twice a week on your endurance days. Continuously add sets or weight every other workout, shorten the rest time, but do not increase the drag time. 

This method of dragging simulates demands we would see on the battlefield—short bursts of intensity followed by brief rest. If it gets too easy, get creative. Carry kettlebells, throw chains around your neck, or carry a buddy on your back. Just be careful, and do not get carried away.

Perform these sled dragging workouts, and you'll see a dramatic increase in aerobic endurance. I guarantee you'll shave minutes off your total two-mile run time on the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT). Additionally, you'll add a significant amount of strength to your trunk and posterior chain. 

The key is consistency!

Dynamic Squats, Deadlifts, and Bench Press

Before you squat, deadlift, or bench press, I recommend learning proper form and technique. elitefts has many great articles on both lifts and the dynamic method. If you have a 1-rep max on these lifts, put 40% of this number on the bar. If you don't, pick a weight you can lift for at least ten reps. I suggest performing dynamic bench on an upper-body day and squats and deadlifts on lower-body days. However, due to the time constraints we often deal with in the military, they can all be performed on the same day when endurance is the goal of the training session. 

Ensure you do not perform dynamic lifts the same days you lift heavy. 

Squat for nine sets of three reps with 45 seconds to one-minute rest between sets. Perform all lifts with as much speed and explosiveness as possible without breaking form. Once you have completed all nine sets of squatting, rest for three to five minutes. Perform the deadlift for eight sets of three reps, once again resting 45 seconds to one minute between sets.

Perform dynamic benching, squatting, and deadlifting once a week, adding five percent more in weight each week for three weeks (40%, 45%, 50%). 

In the last week, drop the rep/set scheme down to eight sets of three reps for bench and squats and six sets of three reps on the deadlift. Once three weeks are finished, cycle back to 40%, this time doing something minor to change the exercise. 

This setup will prevent your body from becoming adapted to a constant continued stimulus in a profession where physical demands are constantly changing. For example, switch from flat bench pressing to a floor press, pull sumo instead of conventional, or use a safety squat bar instead of a straight bar for squatting. I recommend using a power bar or a deadlift bar for deadlifting and switching to a trap bar when you have an ACFT coming up. You can also add bands or chains for additional stimulus and to accommodate resistance (more on this some other time). 

Dynamic lifting will increase aerobic endurance, speed, and explosiveness. I guarantee you'll be smoked from dynamic lifting. You'll get all the aerobic benefits without beating up your body the way running or sprinting does.

Increasing Maximal Strength 

How strong are you? Can you carry your buddy in full kit? 

Many soldiers cannot perform this task—it's extremely difficult. Still, I would argue that soldiers should be able to lift and carry at least one-and-a-half times their body weight. Strong muscles, strong bones, and strong connective tissue equal less injury, better performance, quicker recovery, and more a powerful soldier. 

A strong soldier is durable. In other words, the stronger you are, the more of an ass-kicking you can handle regardless of what it is trying to kick your ass; terrain, weather, or the enemy doesn't matter. 

To become durable, we must incorporate heavy resistance training into our weekly training cycle for strength development and hypertrophy. Program a heavy upper day and a heavy lower day. Forget about your gym bro back day, chest day, and arm day split—this is not optimal.

Soldiers are required to bend, twist, kneel, crawl, squat, lift things off the ground, and press them overhead, all while wearing full combat gear. 

Soldiers need a strong trunk and back, a healthy spine, strong hips, glutes, and hamstrings, and this requires a special type of training. 

I suggest using five sets, five to eight rep schemes with one- to three-minute rest intervals between sets. I like five to eight reps because it puts us right between the optimal number of reps for maximal strength, which would be one to five reps. Hypertrophy would be six to 12 reps or higher. 

For more advanced soldiers, I suggest studying the conjugate system and the maximal effort method, which is the greatest method for developing absolute strength. However, because of the fatiguing demands of the Army profession, the maximal effort method can be very taxing on the central nervous system in conjunction with regular military duties. Feel free to play around with your sets and reps. 

Basic Program Template

Below is a basic program template any soldier can follow, especially beginners. All you have to do is choose which exercise you want to use each day. These workouts should take no longer than one hour to complete.

Heavy Upper Day

Pre-Fatigue Warm-ups (use light resistance):

Workout: 5 sets of 5 to 8 reps 1–3 minute rest intervals

  • Press- Choose a variation of the Bench press or OH press
  • Secondary- Choose incline, decline, or flat bench dumbbell press
  • Pull- Barbell Row, dumbbell/kettlebell row, or cable row
  • Secondary- Shrug, high row, or face pull
  • Superset- Cable triceps extensions, dumbbell hammer curls, dumbbell side delt raises one giant set, 12 repetitions on each exercise, perform 3 rounds with no rest.

Trunk: Perform 3 sets of 15 to 20 reps of the following exercises with minimal rest

  • Obliques- Cable torso twists, kettlebell side bends, kneeling oblique cable twists, cable side bends, cable Pallof press
  • Rectus Abdominus- Standing cable crunch, standing band crunch, kneeling cable crunch, laying leg raise, suspended leg raise
  • Back Extensions- Mix this exercise up with chains around your neck or by holding weight across your chest
  • Reverse Hypers® (if available)

Heavy Lower Day


  • Sled drags with light weight for 60 yards or 1-2 minutes of nonstop dragging

Workout: 5 sets of 5 to 8 reps 1–3 minute rest intervals

  • Squat or Pull- Choose a squat or deadlift variation 
  • Secondary- Barbell RDLs, dumbbell RDLs, or cable pull-throughs
  • Erectors- Back extensions or good mornings
  • Hips- Lateral sled drags or lateral box pushes, choose a distance that challenges you

Trunk: Refer to previously listed trunk exercises


  1. United States Army Public Health Center. (2021, March 19). Army injuries, causes, risk factors, and prevention overview. Retrieved February 4, 2022, from

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Chuck Simons is an Army veteran. He lives in Pinellas Park, Florida. As a strength coach, he works out of the Tampa Bay area and holds a Westside Barbell Certified Special Strength Coach certification. Chuck is a competitive powerlifter in the APF and a part of Barbell Barbell.

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