Military Deployment Prep: A Program for Hardening the Soldier

When Pavel asked me to make a contribution for an article, I was honored. His request was made in a forum post discussing the preparation of a combat unit for the mountains of Afghanistan. As military deployment prep is more or less what I do professionally, I thought I would provide an overview of my philosophy, as well as expand on the ideas from that forum thread.

Al Ciampa StrongFirst
Al Ciampa knows how to handle military deployment prep.

Prior to a discussion of training prep, let me share what I have come up with as a general algorithm of movement foundation that not only allows the military elite to perform better, but also works well with the unhealthy population I serve as part of my profession. You’ve heard this all before and there is nothing new here, but I’ve witnessed this algorithm solve a lot of problems.

Step 1: Crawl

In the very fitting “crawl, walk, run” method of training in the military, the first step is crawling. Tim Andersen and Geoff Neupert of Original Strength turned me on to this. Now, we teach proper diaphragmatic breathing, and then use crawling to train it. It’s difficult to breathe into the chest and shoulder girdle while your upper body is dynamically loaded in this fashion.

Get up on your hands and feet and crawl forward and reverse as part of the warm-up. It doesn’t require a long distance, but does require a certain technique. As Anderson and Neupert explain: keep your butt down, chin and chest high, move the opposite limbs together, and strive to pull the knee outside the elbow as high as it can go.

Our best crawlers move slowly and their limbs move almost independent of the pelvis and spine. Crawling is the foundation of movement and accomplishes everything I see most people spend hours attempting to attain: distracting with bands, foam rolling, stretching, “mobility” work, more bands, etc. But crawling achieves all the same goals in a fraction of the time. Remember, military application – there are many more things to worry about other than PT.

Step 2: The Get Up

Once you own the ability to crawl (though you can surely work on both together), start practicing the get up as described by Pavel in Simple & Sinister. Seek to transition gracefully between positions, own each position when there, and push the loading up as you develop your get up.

Where crawling ties Dan John’s knots together, provides mobility, and offers body control, the get-up does the same under slow loading. Recently, I had a 6’2”, 240lbs lean and strong (powerlifting) airman get crushed by a 16kg bell in the get-up and fail to crawl with any sort of control. If this is you, go back and rebuild the chassis.

Step 3: The Swing

The swing now takes your graceful movement under slow loading and turns flesh into steel through ballistic loading. Again, you should refer to Pavel’s work, so I won’t repeat what’s been said. These three skills don’t have to be ordered, except that if you can’t crawl well, maybe spend more time crawling and less time doing get-ups and swings, and do them with lighter loads. If you’re not graceful with your get-ups but crawl well, ease off on the swing loads for a bit. You’ll be surprised to see how these three skills work off of each other, and improve almost together.

The Specifics: Military Deployment Prep

Okay, let’s get to the meat: more bang for the buck – this is the overall theme for a military application. Yeah, it’s awesome, all of the sexy exercises we have to choose from, between CrossFit and Arnold’s encyclopedia, but if a movement is superfluous or unnecessary, then ditch it.

Swings

One-hand swings should be performed as described in Simple & Sinister. Two-hand swings have to be overspeed. But here’s my version, an excerpt from my training manual:

“A proper swing is a tug-of-war between the opposing body lines: posterior v. anterior. The glutes, hamstrings, and quads forcefully catapult the bell forward, while the lats, abdominals, and hip flexors catch it and throw it back—compress the posterior spring, fire the spring, compress the anterior spring, fire that spring, then do it again. Both the hinge and plank position are maximally tight—maximum feed-forward tension—for the time the bell spends flying out, one is “relaxed- tight”.

Throw the bell from the coiled spring of the hinge into the tight plank—stay connected to the bell—”catch” it in the plank and throw it back down. Recoil the spring and snap back to plank. Repeat for a set of 10. Check your heart rate. Wow.

Most people have a lot of trouble with this when they first start swinging—just get the basic pattern down and be patient. Use an appropriate load. My progression to this very violent overspeed swing is to train a floater swing first—the default swing of the StrongFirst community. Floater swings consist of driving the hips explosively, throwing the bell into a tight plank, however, the bells ascent is not arrested but is allowed to “float” momentarily at the top of the arch. The bell should then be guided back down into the hinge without too much effort. These swings concentrate on hip extension power.

It is important to train this initial version of the swing before you begin to overspeed them—train them until you’ve burnt the motor program into your brain, perhaps about 3-6 months. Hear this: if you include over-speed swings into your training too early, that is, before you can float swings gracefully and powerfully, without much thought, you will degrade the mechanics of both swing types and get no where at best, injury at worst. Be patient, put your hours in on the floaters, then include a few overspeed swings as you progress.

A word on sit-ups here: I don’t advocate training sit-ups regularly, in fact you should only perform them on test day. If folks performed sit-ups properly, then there is a possibility that they wouldn‘t cause problems. However, most do not perform them correctly, especially under testing situations, and so even a short stint in the Military can lead to life-long low-back pain. Sit-ups place the lumbar spine against the ground to be used as a fulcrum to fold the body in half over—something it did not evolve to support. If you do sit-ups properly—that is, keep the midline open and lead the action from the chest, only flexing only at the hip—then the most you’ll probably get is a sore tailbone. But that technique costs a lot of energy and requires a lot of strength, so most members I monitor perform them in trunk flexion followed by hip flexion—and there’s where the problem exists. Do your heavy-ish swings to improve your sit-up numbers.

 

Use the swings in the Simple & Sinister fashion with a twist: 10 x overspeeds, 10 x right, 10 x left, for 3-4 total rounds (90-120 total swings). Do these 3-5 times per week. I even like this swing session after a long ruck.

Foot March

You can’t get around LSD work for aerobic capacity, from fatty acid metabolism to mitochondrial function, these “loaded carries” for distance harden the body and prep the physiology for the future environment. Pavel talks about “losing weight without the dishonor of aerobics,” and I agree, but don’t take it out of context. Here, we’re prepping for function, not fooling around on a stair master watching Oprah.

It is not clear if power work (re: Simple & Sinister) alone provides physiological changes in mitochondria that contribute to the conditioning increases.1 A controlled carbohydrate diet, too, does not offer changes at the mitochondrial level, but does increase the efficiency of fatty acid use.1 We do, however, know that LSD training at low heart rates, as per Lydiard/Maffetone, increases mitochondrial volume and output, and so, endurance performance.2

So, you can run slow for distance to get the effect or you can walk quickly with a load for distance to get the same effect. Put a heart rate monitor on, ruck fast, and then run slow. Then compare your numbers. You’ll find the same aerobic effect from the two training efforts. So, let’s use the one with the secondary benefits that allow for peak performance in the specific environment we face. There is no substitution for efficient fat metabolism and mitochondrial function while under load in a mountainous environment.

Two walks per week are the minimum – one short, quick, and heavy; and one long, lighter, and slower. Use the short one to work the balance between the glycolytic and oxidative systems, and to prep the body for the daily loaded patrolling. Use the long one to really stoke the fires of the oxidative system. Keep your heart rate low and push it out for five or six hours.

Military Deployment Prep Program

The swings and walks will cover all the bases for power, endurance, and energy systems training. The heavy get-ups will take care of your strength work. Crawling will fill in the holes in most people’s movement. There’s the minimum.

If you have time and resources, do the deadlift, military press (use the single-arm kettlebell press), and pull-ups. Find Pavel’s Power to the People and do timed singles. These work well for strength and save time. Do this two to four times per week – and use the appropriate loads. See Easy Strength. If you have more time, sub out one or two of the swing workouts for five to ten minutes of long cycle clean and jerks or snatches – or roll the dice, as in Enter the Kettlebell.

Sample Week

Monday:

  • Crawl
  • Deadlift
  • Get-ups
  • Swings

Tuesday:

  • Crawl
  • Short walk
  • Press
  • Pull-ups

Wednesday:

  • Crawl
  • Deadlift
  • Get-ups
  • Swings or Clean and Jerks or Snatches

Thursday

  • Long walk
  • Optional: Swings

Friday

  • Crawl
  • Deadlift or swings
  • Presses or get-ups
  • Pull-ups
  • Sprints: 10 x 100m or 7 x 200m or 5 x 300m or 3 x 400m
  • Recover between efforts. Don’t do sprints if you chose swings over deadlifts.

What About Running, Push-Ups, and Sit-Ups?

Most units in prep do two sessions per day, so split these up as you see fit. What, no running, push-ups, or sit-ups? You’re not going to be doing much running overseas, so don’t fall into the, “We’ve always done this, so we’re gonna do this” mentality when it comes to running. I’ve already discussed sit-ups, and if you’re not scheduled to take a PT test, you don’t need to waste your time with push-ups.

Now, understand that push-ups are a specific enough event that if you don’t practice, you won’t nail your best numbers on the test. But your swings and get-ups will keep you close, so not much practice is required before the test. Just practice your high-tension techniques as you move (Pavel’s Irradiation concept), and your push-up muscles will stay in shape assisting the movements in the program. (Of course, don’t consciously stay tight while crawling or foot marching – this is reflexive tension).

Conclusion: What’s Critical for Military Deployment

There’s my take on deployment prep: applicable, minimalist, and effective – backed with both science and experience. Crawling is critical. The swings are critical. The heavy get-ups are critical. The walks are critical. Not necessarily in that order. Some variation of this has worked well for me and for those I’ve advised for many years now.

References:
1. Hopeler, H., & Fluck, M. (2003). Plasticity of skeletal muscle mitochondria: Structure and function. Medical & Science in Sports and Exercise 35(1) 95-104.
2. Seiler, S., & Tonnesen, E. (2009). Intervals, thresholds, and long slow distance: The role of intensity and duration in endurance training. Sportscience 13(1) 32-53.
Al Ciampa
SFG I
Al Ciampa has been a barbell athlete for 25+ years. A former powerlifter and bench press specialist, he has a raw bench press of 605lbs in training and 585lbs in competition, at the time, setting an IPA record. He served in the US Army first as a LRS-D team member, then as director of the Army’s hand-to-hand combat program in the South Korea: Modern Army Combatives Program.

After his service, Al co-opened and led training for a fitness and health and wellness center that served military units and the local public, where he specialized in strength and conditioning and nutrition. Feeling a desire to support the military again, he now works as an exercise physiologist and health educator for the US Air Force, specializing in rehabilitation, strength and conditioning, nutrition, and instructor development.

Al has an MS in sports and health science, is an SFG Level I, and is certified through the FMS, ACSM, and USAW. He has been recognized for excellence by the Secretary of Defense, Mr. Chuck Hagel.

64 thoughts on “Military Deployment Prep: A Program for Hardening the Soldier

  • Thank you very much for the great article!

    I’m a few months out for a selection myself and was wondering what weights you would recommend for the two rucks. I have access to backpacks kettlebells and a 30kg weight vest, so the sky (or rather my strength) is the limit…

    Also, in the pre PT test period, how would you recommend incorporating the staple exercises such as push-ups, sit-ups etc. into a template such as the above?

    Just FYI, I’ll be needing to do a weighted obstacle course, a standard PT test, a cooper test and some swimming at the least.

    Thanks again,
    Kevin

    • Kevin,

      – Depends upon your course … but generally, work up to 50lbs for the light walk, and 75lbs for the heavy walk.

      – Pepper push ups into your training here and there – drop down during a run or walk, insert them into a circuit, knock out a set in between swings or snatches, etc. You don’t ever have to do sit ups, provided you are doing your heavy swings properly. Heavy carries and hard sprinting using your arms also improves/maintains sit ups.

      – Save for the confidence obstacles, o-course practice improves o-course performance. Swimming is a skill that must be practiced. The Cooper test is a large battery and most agencies do not use every event. Do you know which events you’ll be tested on?

      Thanks for your comment.

      Al

      • Al,

        Thanks for your response.

        Looking forward to implementing your advice. Will be looking into how I can possibly fit a barbell into into my home (spaces aren’t as big here in Switzerland…)

        My apologies for not being specific enough. I’ll be tested on the Cooper’s 12-minute run, a 400m swim for time, a generic fitness test and the afore mentioned obstacle course. Nothing too drastic, it’s for getting into police school here in Switzerland. I’m in reasonable shape but on the high end of the age bracket, so I’d like to make a good impression.
        The last time when I had to do anything similar was back when I was 19 and starting out in the Swiss army.

        Thanks again!

        Kevin

  • Sir, First, thank you for your service in providing the freedom we all enjoy in America ! Second, I am conditioning my son to join the USMC. I would very much appreciate your feedback on the following training regime. It may seem intense, however, he really wants to try out for SpecOps Force Recon. Any comments you have will be greatly appreciated !
    Mondays and Fridays – 1-3 circuits of the following; superset KB snatch and pull-ups, superset KB cleans and pull-ups, superset KB swings and pull-ups. 1 min rest between super sets. 1-3 circuits of KB renegade rows, KB floor press, KB shoulder press all 12 reps, 30 sec rest between sets and 1 min rest between exercises. Plank rotations 30 sec each position, crunches with 8lbs as many in 1 min. All exercises with 24 kg bells
    Tuesday- 3 mile run for time
    Wednesday- 3 circuits of the following: wide pull ups, close chin ups, med pull ups, rope pull ups, wide push ups, close push ups, med push ups, SEAL push ups, dips. Increasing reps by 2 each time all exercises can be completed 3times thru. Finish with 3×8 thrusters with a 80 lb sand bag and 3×8 rotational dead lifts with same sand bag.
    Thursday – we walk down a 100 yd 35′ hill and run back up with 20 lbs weight vest 5 times. Increasing weight by 5 lbs when all five are completed.
    Saturday – 3-6 mile hike with 50lb pack in boots.
    Thank you very much for your time.

    • Mr. Joe,

      I know you didn’t ask me, but I am a Marine and felt I could give some insight, if not a complete answer. I am not Force Recon, but I am a Scout Sniper, and spent some time in a regular infantry company before. How long has he been doing the above program? He is probably already in great shape for boot camp compared to many recruits.

      Boot camp prepares guys for rucking in a pretty manageable and incrementally increasing way. SOI, where he will be trained as a basic rifleman has a few more rucks and daily PT. Remember boot camp is 3+ months, SOI, 2 months, plus some in between time. The fastest he could get to the Basic Reconnaissance Course would be 6 months from when he leaves from boot camp. That is best case. Honestly he should probably follow something very close to the program Ciampa laid out above for now. For pull-ups I highly recommend the Fighter Pull up program from Pavel or Grease the Groove.

      I have not been to BRC, but from what I have heard PT is a mix of calisthenics, swimming, rucking, and some other odd stuff thrown in like boat carries. Maybe one of the many BUD/S prep PT plans would be good to follow.

      Also, to my knowledge Force Recon is a little more exclusive and he will probably be with a regular Recon unit for a while before he can go there. Another thing he may want to look into is MARSOC. It is modeled after Army SF in many ways. Something to look into. I’m actually getting out of the USMC and enlisting Army planning on going to SF selection. I’ve actually been using many of the movements and principles Al mentions above. Best of luck to your son. Keep focused on that goal. Quitting is not an option.

    • Mr Joe,

      You’re welcome … and thank you.

      I agree with David … he’s probably in better shape than most recruits and you may be spinning his wheels with those circuits – better to work on strength and power and let conditioning be a byproduct of that focus. Your son’s application, as David describes, is already a ramp up tool and not something that is “GO!” from day one, like a selection course. So, he could do a program similar to what I have laid out and be very successful in boot.

      IMO, add a ruck day, break up the circuits and vary the rest – focusing more on strength (pullups, pushups) and power (swings and snatches – 24 is too light!). There is no need to do crunches. Depending upon his strength levels and how far out he is, there could be some benefit to DLing and pressing right now. Getting him used to sprinting, tumbling, rolling, jumping in boots and BDUs will help too – like an obstacle course type stuff. Does he fear heights? Work this into the program too.

      And David pretty much summed up the mental aspect (the most important part): “quitting is not an option”.

      Good luck … I’m sure you’re proud of him!

  • Great article. Been waiting for this one for a while. The StrongFirst solution to military fitness. I think it would work great for LEOs also, maybe with the exception of the rucking for them. I’ll definitely be using this as the basis of my training for deployments now.

    I do wonder though, being this is geared towards pre-deployment prep, would you change anything if preparing for a more intense selection type course (like SFAS)? Or keep the same template and just up the volume and intensity of the rucking?

    • David,

      Thanks for the comment and questions …

      First, understand that rucking, swings, and get ups make a fantastic foundation for Military fitness – even though they don’t carry packs (they do carry “kits”), LEO and FIRE would simply ruck shorter, heavier, and quicker (don’t run). There is just no substitute exercise for rucking in a tactical application.

      Second, with the foundation above, DLs, presses, and pull-ups, or whatever your big go-to movements are, should be cycled over time in accordance with sound principles of exercise physiology. In between cycles, your foundation provides the bridge; during cycles, the foundation provides assistance work. However, I am not convinced that a generalist tactical application requires strength cycles at all, if the swings and get ups are heavy and explosive (swings) enough.

      Third, deployment prep is similar to selection courses in that high conditioning and endurance levels are required. These are best trained through power and LSD work, absolute strength (again, I’m not completely convinced here), and peppered with short-term glycolytic work towards the end (reduce the rest between sets of swings, e.g.). Now, they are dissimilar in that selection is a weed-out process and a deployment is a job. You just keep at your job and become somewhat detrained over time – everyone is moving slower together.

      Selection is another animal all together – the cadre is there to see if you can endure and are actively throwing things at you to see how you respond. Strength and conditioning will of course help, but one of the weed-out tactics of these courses is to keep you loaded up. The Army especially uses the “giant tick” on your back to wear you down – it’s constantly there, digging into your shoulders and sucking the life out of you, making everything else that you do that much harder. Aside from whatever specific activities required to pass – the PT test, e.g. – rucking is the central tool for prep. It doesn’t matter if one can walk 20mi in 5 hrs with 50 lbs, once … it matters that one can do this day after day for many weeks, with a rifle, LBE, and whatever else they make you carry (sometimes even a cadre member :).

      So, right … this long answer to your question means that pre-dep prep is as described, but selection prep would increase rucking volume and use the swings and get ups to maintain strength and power while reserving energy for the walking. DLs, presses, and the like would have to be cycled out far before you increase the walking volume. And you still have to check the boxes on those activities that will also be assessed.

      • That was a great article, Al! I’m not military professional, but I really appreciate your template for practical and minimalistic conditioning.

        I’d like to ask how you generally program your rucks? For reference, I’m an office worker, so I’m not challenged physically on the job; which is why I’d like to develop this work endurance. How many short, hard rucks per week do you find to produce greatest return on effort? What kind of weight do you use for these and what length of time? Do you find a particular time of day to be preferential? Similarly, what kind of weight would you use for the LSD? I’m sure a lot of this is relative, but I’d really appreciate any guidelines you might have.

        Thanks in advance!
        Tim

        • Tim,

          Sorry to be so late in responding, but we don’t get prompts when a reply is posted to an article.

          This is all relative, Tim. What are you currently doing for your training? Any rucking? What is your goal with walking?

          Retired from active-duty, I personally walk in the early morning before work. I like walking in as the sun is coming up. I use a range of loads – for long walks and “usual” walks, ~40lbs; heavy walks require 60-75lbs. My short and heavy is 6.5 miles; my long is 15-25miles; my usual is 4-ish miles. I use walking for mental and physical health … in that order.

          Thanks for your question.

          Al

  • Awesome article Al. Appreciate your time on the forum!! This article provides really good stuff.

  • After reading some of Al’s comments in the forum here, I reached out to hire him as a nutritional consultant. I was only hoping for “eat this at this time,” and “don’t eat that,” but what I have received goes far beyond that. We spend as much time talking about the mentality of getting strong as we do talking about the mechanics of it. Far from being a simple coach or consultant, Al has gracefully accepted the role of a mentor – a role he is well suited to play.

    Al, congratulations on an excellent article and the well-deserved recognition it signifies. Thank you for all of your help.

  • Thanks Al, great article!

    Can you post a video fo the crawl to make sure we’ve got the form right?

    -KUJO

  • Article was great and so true. I am in the Air Force and can contest that the programing above does work. Keep this information flowing: crawls have improved all asspects of training flexability and strength major improvement. Loaded carriers have helped out a lot also keeping me upright shoulders back on the 100 mile courses. Thanks again and keep this information coming.

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