Here's what you need to know...
- There isn't a group on the planet that beats the crap out of themselves like the military. These guys have the worst lab results due to the conditions they're under - a bigger workload than athletes, poor sleep, stress, and bad nutrition.
- Special Forces soldiers aren't as fit as they think they are, and for them to reach a truly elite level of fitness, something needs to change.
- The military is so terrified of teaching people to squat properly that they would rather have them on a machine doing leg curls and leg presses. Then guys get to selection and are asked to lift a 200-pound human onto their back and carry them around.
- Some think that simply doing CrossFit training will prepare you appropriately for Special Forces selection. Stop drinking the Kool-Aid.
Teach a Special Forces (SF) soldier tactical driving and he thinks he's a Formula 1 racer. Teach a SF guy to shoot a gun and he thinks he's a wild-west sharpshooter. Teach him hand-to-hand combat and he thinks he's the next UFC champion.
I can say this because I was a Canadian Special Forces Operator, but I'm also only half serious about their delusions of grandeur. While it's true that the SF community is full of guys with big egos, it's been rightfully earned through hard work and sacrifice. For the most part, these guys conduct themselves with humility and the utmost professionalism.
My time with them was well spent and I'll never work with a better group of individuals. The SF community isn't about cool shades and "hawt abz"; it's about always seeking out a better way to do things. It's about being given a job to do and figuring out the best and most efficient way to get the task done while avoiding all the bullshit.
The Problem: The State of Health and Fitness in the Military
While things tend to be done better and smarter in these specialized units, and the chances of doing poorly run group PT (physical training) is inversely related to how "elite" a military unit is, there's always room for improvement.
Unfortunately, the SF community easily falls into the trap of thinking, "Well, since I'm fitter than almost everyone else in the military, I must be doing great." I've got news for them, SF soldiers aren't as fit as they think they are, and for them to reach a truly elite level of fitness, something needs to change.
Despite the SF guys' best intentions, the military is still a big machine so even when the cogs inside are screaming to stop, the machine sometimes continues chugging right along. It's time we push for change.
SF Selection Preparation: The Good
Editor's note: Getting "selected" at SFAS will enable a candidate to continue on to the next phase.
Overall, the training plans that have been put out by the military aren't bad, but they could be much better. Here's what good about them:
They encourage candidates to follow a progressive training plan. The average civilian gym rat doesn't have a clue about how to prepare for specific events and even when he does, he finds it difficult to hit the gym and work on his weaknesses.
The plans provide training variation, employing methods outside of just running and weightlifting. They include event-specific modalities such as swimming, rucking (hiking with a 40-60 pound weighted pack for long distances over varied terrain), and running in various forms, such as HIIT, aerobic power training, and endurance training.
They're specific: The plan is specific to the event.
So maybe that raises the question: why not just tell guys to suck it up and work harder? Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. The better laid-out and intelligent the training plan is, the higher the chances that more candidates will successfully pass selection. Does this mean that you're laying things out on a silver platter and that some people who wouldn't have otherwise finished will finish?
Sure. Maybe. But then you can raise the standards again. It's a tough problem to have. It also means that some really great candidates who might have otherwise dropped out because they got injured or didn't have the strength and endurance to finish will get a chance to pass.
In the end, providing a smarter training plan to the candidates at the start of the selection funnel only strengthens and improves the results at the end of the funnel. This leads to more fully qualified Operators.
SF Selection Preparation: The Bad
Here are the four biggest failures in the majority of the current training plans.
1 – Squatting
Guys in the military can wake up in the middle of the night and perform the perfect push-up with both eyes still closed. But the majority of them can't squat properly, and squatting is arguably the most functional human movement of all.
These military organizations are so terrified of teaching people to squat properly (and below 90 degrees) that they would rather have them on a machine doing leg curls and leg presses. Then guys get to selection and are asked to lift a 200-pound human onto their back and carry them around. How does that make any sense?
Almost everyone, and especially tactical athletes, should be squatting on a regular basis, whether as skill work, in a strength program, or in metcon. This provides not only strength and mobility benefits, but hormonal benefits (when squatting heavy) as well.
2 – Nutrition
I wonder if the government is so far behind on nutrition because, well, it's the government and they're a slow bureaucratic dinosaur, or if it's because if they ever admitted what proper nutrition is, they'd be shooting themselves in the foot as they wouldn't be able to sustain it and provide it to the public. Of course, the dairy and grain industry have politicians in their pocket, but that's another story.
In the end, what's preached in the training plans for SOF units is outdated nutrition. It includes things like low-fat, complex carbs in the form of bread and pasta, milk, peanut butter, and a bagel as a post-workout meal.
3 – Strength Training
Doing 8-12 reps or 15-plus reps is not strength training. Yes, you could definitely experience strength gains from it and yes, the more untrained you are the more strength gains you might experience. This is why individualized training is so important. Without an individualized assessment, there's no way of knowing what rep range is truly going to benefit the individual.
Having said that, the average candidate preparing for selection does have a year or two of physical training experience. A 6-9 month training program would be improved by starting with a strength building phase.
While rep ranges can be determined by muscle fiber type, I'm going to assume 99.9% of soldiers undergoing training don't have access to this type of testing. I also understand that strength gains can be made with higher reps (10-12) in the upper body and very high reps (50-65) in the lower body, but I'd still like to see a relative-strength based phase early on in the training cycle that has the following attributes:
- Explosive on the concentric
- 1-5 rep range
- Time-under-tension less than 20 seconds
Also, what's learned through the mind-muscle connection when attempting to lift near maximal loads is crucial for SF candidates to better understand their engine and learn what it takes to really dig deep into their CNS.
In the end, it doesn't really matter how good your muscular endurance is if you don't have the strength to back it up. You can push press a 45-pound bar 200 times, but that's a hell of a lot less useful than push pressing 135 pounds 50 times.
4 – Endurance
The endurance components included in many of these programs tend to be fairly short as they're aimed at testing aerobic endurance. However, 7-10 km runs, short swims, and 2-hour rucks (at limited pace) don't really do an effective job at testing. Maybe a 21 km run, 2 hour row, or a 7 km run/30 min walk x 3 for best possible cumulative time would be more predictive of success on selection phase.
Selection phases are several days in length and include several events each day, so a test that reflects something a little more enduring in nature would be appropriate in testing someone's endurance ability. You can slog through 10 km in 48 minutes by the skin of your teeth, but if you can't get up and do it again a short while later, you're not going to be very effective on selection or in that type of work.
3 Operator Methods of Training and Why They Aren't Right
There are several theories as to what the military should do to better prepare Special Forces Operators. Unfortunately, they all have flaws, too.
1 – CrossFit
I love CrossFit as a sport. This organization has done more to push the envelope of strength and conditioning (whether directly or indirectly) than anyone else in the last decade. They've given the common individual a reason to get excited again about fitness and they've given coaches a challenge unlike any other.
CrossFit has also helped create some changes in military circles for the better. Slowly, the old military dinosaur has moved away from "lift weight and go for a long run, and do push-ups and sit-ups" to more "functional" (I use that word hesitantly) training. But we can still do things better.
While I, nor anyone else I've met, can give you an exact definition of what CrossFit training is, I think most understand the general concept. For our purpose here, I'll assume that CrossFit training is all of the movements we see in the Opens, Regionals, and Games performed at high intensity across broad times.
While some people understand how to blend CrossFit-type training into a training plan geared towards Special Forces preparation, many do not. Believe it or not, there are those out there who think that simply doing CrossFit training will prepare you appropriately for Special Forces selection. My response is to stop drinking the Kool-Aid. Anytime we attempt to throw a single training methodology at any event, we're going to experience less than optimal results.
For instance, there are some things that don't really need to be in an SF program like muscle-ups, snatches, squat clean, handstand walks, and handstand push-ups. Contrast that with some things that do need to be in an SF program to a much higher extent, like swimming, rucking, running, static holds, toughness training, grip strength, mini selections, and density push-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups.
2 – Getting Really Big, Strong, and Powerful
There are some Operators that get caught up in the idea that being effective means wearing the lightest kit possible and being as big and powerful as possible. This usually stems from a "night raid" and "quick-hits" mentality, where they only think about the short duration missions where this could be beneficial.
It would mean they could smash down a door, subdue and restrain anyone that resists, and move quickly in short distance bursts. The trouble is, as soon as shit hits the fan, or a long-range reconnaissance patrol with a 150-pound ruck pops up, they're pretty screwed, as are their teammates who have to carry their dead weight (hopefully not literally).
Unless you're in a very specialized team that only does quick, direct-action hits, you're better off training for relative strength the same way a running back would in football. You can still be freakishly strong and powerful without putting on a lot of muscle mass. By maintaining this balance, you're able to be moderately fast and powerful, moderately strong, and moderately enduring so that you're ready for anything that gets thrown at you.
3 – Ruck, Swim, Run Until You Drop
This kind of training is slowly going out the window but some of the old dinosaurs still think that run, swim, ruck, run, swim, ruck, run, swim, ruck, day in and day out, is all you need to do for training. It's a phenomenal training method if your goals are adrenal fatigue, repetitive use injuries to your ankles, knees, hips, and back, and a general lack of strength. If those are your goals, you've got a super sweet training plan. If not, your training plan blows.
I trained for 4 months for a 50 km race that began with a 32 km ruck run with a 40-pound ruck. I completed that initial 32 km run in under three and a half hours. I didn't get any hot spots or blisters and I was back to training the next day. I also placed third out of almost 400 competitors. Surely, I must have been running and rucking twice a day, every day! Wrong. I didn't run or ruck more than 3-4 times per week, ever.
Do I maybe have a slight propensity for running and aerobic endurance? Yep, probably. Does it mean that someone who doesn't have the same propensity should be running/rucking considerably more? This is very unlikely. I'm a big fan of these type of competitions for military personnel, but there are much smarter ways of training for them.
Where the Focus Should Lie
There's a trend among some SF units that once you're in you don't have to run, swim, or ruck anymore. You can be a great at CrossFit, or great at powerlifting, and still be a really good SF Operator, but in the end it's not the most effective training methodology for the job. The focus should look something like this:
- MMA Drills
- Injury Prevention
- Muscular Endurance
- Relative Strength
You'll notice I haven't given you a training plan to show you how it "should" be done. That's because I'm a big believer in individualized programming. As far as my general recommendations, they wouldn't be as terribly expensive to implement as some might believe. It's imminently doable. The money saved on medical expenses would be well worth it.
If not, then pre-selection training plans can continue to provide the solution, although they need to be improved. The details of such a plan, such as common mobility issues, single leg training considerations, and blending the correct energy systems throughout the training cycle are outside our scope here.
Generally speaking, there isn't a group on the planet that beats the shit out of themselves like the military. These guys have the worst lab results due to the conditions they're under - a bigger workload than athletes, rotten sleep, lots of stress, and bad nutrition. They tend to sit on the far end of a continuum of overtraining and adrenal dysfunction due to the aforementioned conditions and volume of training:
Average Person → Recreational Athlete → CF Athlete → Endurance Athlete → Professional Athlete → MILITARY!
I've seen many people in the military suffering from fatigue, exhaustion, depression, and low libido (read adrenal fatigue). These conditions can occur easily due to the type of training, schedule, living conditions, and work that's expected of the SF soldier. With the amount of money that the military puts into the SF soldiers training, a regular lab test to see what's going on underneath the hood would be more than worth it.
This goes beyond iron levels and cholesterol levels and digs into the important stuff, like cortisol levels, testosterone levels, DHEA, and other important markers of health. I'd also recommend consulting someone outside of the conventional medical system; someone experienced with treating athletes to reach peak athletic performance, rather than just keeping them away from death's doorstep.
I've gone into a military medical center to request lab work on cortisol, testosterone, DHEA, Vitamin D levels, estrogen, and the like, and been told that those things don't have anything to do with my fitness. Of course the guy used to be a medic, so he knew what he was talking about. Right. Thanks for your damaging and unfounded opinion, bud.
The military medical community is largely designed to deal with life threatening injuries and illnesses. If you're not dying, you're good to go. Conventional doctors aren't very well prepared to treat sub-optimal health rather than critical illness, and we need Operators that are more than just "kind of" healthy. Fortunately, there are companies out there that are leading the way on functional diagnostics that allow individuals to find out exactly what's going on inside their bodies, and thereby treating the problems appropriately.
The military could spend $1000-$2000 per year on this service for each of its soldiers and it would pay off ten-fold in both the amount and quality of work they'd be able to do as well as the length of time they'd be able to serve.
The Way Ahead
In the end, members of the SF community are already a cut-above the rest in more ways than just physical fitness, but, there's always room for improvement. The time and money spent on flying candidates out to selection, running selection phases, and training candidates to Operator level and beyond is staggering. The money saved through the implementation of the above steps would be well worth it and would result in a stronger, fitter, and more robust Special Operations Force.