The Challenge Turned Benchmark
It was a day off on deployment and I walked out of our hut into the tropical heat. A handful of SEAL Team guys were gathered under the pull-up bar, attaching a chest harness to a truck tire.
"We're gonna sprint with this for a mile and see what our times are. You in?"
This is the Special Ops community. It's a physical culture, and people test their bodies as a matter of course. Not because they're still required to by someone else, but because it's who they are. It's fun.
What followed was possibly the most miserable workout of my life. I finished in just under 17 minutes and collapsed on the sun-baked street as soon as I crossed the finish line, writhing in agony.
This workout, naturally, became one of our benchmarks and we all competed to improve our times. The record stood at a little over 13 minutes.
We invited anyone else at our base to try it, but could never get anyone who was not a member of Naval Special Warfare to put the harness on. Thus, the event was dubbed "The NSW Mile."
Rewind about a year. I was living in East Africa on another deployment. My training partner at the time came up with a bright idea. "Let's see if we can put our bodyweight on a bar and walk with it for a mile."
We started small, with 135 pounds on the bar. The first day was an exercise in humility. We were less than halfway done and our shoulders were screaming, our arms were numb, and our chests were collapsing.
We dumped the bars to rest, then cleaned and pressed them back overhead and continued, another hundred yards at a time. We eventually finished the mile by experimenting with just about every possible way to carry a barbell that we could imagine. It took half an hour to finish.
We did it again the next week. Our bodies adapted surprisingly fast, and we made it in under twenty minutes with far fewer stops. It became a weekly ritual, and we steadily improved and added weight.
After leaving the military and starting my own fitness business, I never forgot the unique brand of suffering brought on by the NSW Mile and the rapid adaptations it seemed to facilitate. After doing the mile, nothing else sounds all that hard.
At our facility in Denver, we've started doing the mile as a weekly event again. This time we're cycling through three different versions and logging results.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because I'm challenging you to do it, too.
We have three variations of the NSW mile at our facility: the Safety Squat Bar Carry, the Tire Drag, and the Rickshaw Carry with fat-grip handles.
Load the safety squat bar till it's equal to your bodyweight. Then carry it for a mile.
Throughout this walk, you'll want two spotters walking with you. In the event that you have to drop the bar halfway, you'll need them to lift it off your shoulders.
Trying to throw it off your shoulders yourself is a pain in the ass. Same thing when you finish. Have two guys ready at the line to pull it off as soon as you cross.
Why The Safety Bar?
The safety squat bar is a huge improvement over the straight bar. Carrying your bodyweight on your shoulders for a mile is still moderately hellish either way. But the yoke setup allows you to drop your hands to your sides and makes it possible to keep the weight over your spine without destroying your neck.
The mile done with a bar on your shoulders is a great test of your ability to maintain strong posture. With a straight bar, no matter how well you rack it on your back, you're going to have to lean forward a bit in order to keep the bar centered over your hips.
When this happens, your upper and lower back must support a substantially greater load. The safety squat bar brings the center of gravity forward a bit, and allows you to maintain an upright posture and stack the weight on your spine.
The safety squat bar allows your spine to remain neutral and balanced. Your muscles play a secondary role. The load is carried by your skeleton, and your muscles work to maintain the structural integrity of your skeleton.
Note that regardless of the bar type, if your posture sucks, your skeleton is removed as a primary structural support and your muscle – especially your lower back – must over-exert themselves just to maintain balance.
The primary muscles being trained during carries are stabilizing in nature. Your ability to maintain a strong, upright posture and an open, thoracic spine is paramount.
Your hips, particularly the glute medius, must work overtime to maintain balance and your abs must brace intensely to keep your lumbar spine stable.
The soreness you feel the day after this workout will tell you a little about your posture. If your upper back is a wreck, it's because your chest is caving in and the muscles there are straining to keep your spine from completely collapsing.
If your posture is solid, you should mainly notice soreness in your abs and the lateral sides of your hips, which will be working with every step to keep your spine straight and your pelvis level.
Because so little of one's programming involves heavily training stabilizing musculature, there's a good deal of potential for improvement here. From round one to round two – three weeks later – we each dropped between one and three and a half minutes off our first time, and felt substantially less devastated at the end.
In the first two rounds, I went from 16:32 to 14:17 and felt better after finishing the second one than I did the first. This progress can continue for quite a while.
Grab an old tire from your local tire shop for free, use a hole-saw to drill a hole or two into the center of it, and tie your harness through that. Then add two 20-pound kettle bells to the inside.
Tying the rope around the tire won't work very well because the rope will wear through. As a guideline for how heavy your tire should be, just try the drag once with it. It should take between 15 and 20 minutes of misery to finish. If it's less than that, add weight. If it's more than that, get a new tire.
The tire drag is anaerobic conditioning torture, dependent almost entirely on the posterior chain. There are plenty of ways to build conditioning in the posterior chain, though. What's unique about a one-mile tire drag is the effect it has on your mind.
In the middle of the drag, you will be in soul-crushing agony. You will want to kill whoever came up with this idea. This is when you realize that the only respectable way to make the pain stop is to keep going.
The tire drag is the hardest to standardize. A slight change in the amount of sand on the road – even though you're following the same route – can alter your time by minutes. It's also difficult to standardize from one location to another because of road conditions, variances in tire size, and even the level of wear that each tire has.
So when you're comparing times with this one, don't worry about anything outside of the context of that day, on that course.
The third variation of the NSW Mile that we've tested is the rickshaw carry. We use either the 2-inch or 2 and 3/8-inch Fat Grips. The rickshaw carry places most of the demand on your grip and sucks the least for the rest of your body, but not by much.
There is a strategy to it. The prevailing wisdom is to move as fast as you can with the rickshaw and then drop it just before your grip fails. Some guys try to carry for twenty seconds then drop and rest for ten seconds, but I almost always lose track of time.
That's why I aim for arbitrary targets like road signs and sprint to those before resting.
Like the safety squat bar carry, good posture is crucial. If you allow your chest to cave and your upper back slouches, you won't be happy in the morning. Plus, you'll slow yourself down considerably.
The rickshaw is one of the best ways to develop massive traps and amazing grip strength. You'll likely make rapid improvements from one week to the next.
I have no idea how much the empty rickshaw weighs, but we've been doing the carry with 25 pound bumpers on either side. That may seem light at first, but trust me, you're gonna want to work your way up on this one.
These are the variations we've tried, but be creative and experiment with what's available to you. There are only two parameters:
- You carry something heavy for one mile.
- It must be brutal.
You can use a sled, a Prowler, a punching bag, a slosh pipe, your buddy, dumbbells, kettlebells, or even push a small car. We've tried all of these things.
- We do every version of the mile with minimally padded shoes. You can wear something a little less minimalistic but don't wreck your posture with idiotic shock-absorber shoes.
- Although the safety squat bar is a piece of specialized equipment, it's crucial in my opinion. If you don't have one, it's worth the investment.
- The rickshaw is not terribly common, but you can do roughly the same thing with a trap bar. Just doing farmer's walks with dumbbells is also an option, but the dumbbells will bang into your legs and get annoying pretty quickly.
- We use a chest harness off our Accelerator bungee cord, you can find variations anywhere, or just use a belt around your hips.
- The benefit of using a single small tire and modifying the load by adding weight to it is that you can scale it easily to smaller people. Bodyweight is a huge factor when you're leaning into a harness.
- We've had girls finish the mile with the same tire that we use, minus the 40 pounds of weight in the tire.
- If you're not accustomed to this sort of conditioning, start out small and work your way up to the full mile and full weight. Use half the standard weight, or only go for half a mile the first time.