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.

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

  • Excellent article Al! I’m very interested in meeting you as soon as you’re settled in Abilene. Let me know when you’re schedule will allow some free time to meet up.
    In Strength,
    Jason

  • Thank you for the great info. Have been doing cf for 5 years with Chris. Always striving to get better and more fit. Thanks

  • Really interested in the crawl and having trouble seeing it in my head. How about a video clip of good technique? Thanks for the article – another great installment.

  • I am overwhelmed with your knowledge, passion and desire to strengthen the human body and to help others achieve what you have. “PROUD” can not begin to describe how I feel. I wish you continued success in your chosen field. Being an active part of the Medical Community I am well aware of what a sedentary lifestyle will yield. Although, you train men for combat I know people from all walks of life would benefit tremendously from spending just one hour with you. You are a true LEADER!

    N.Ciampa, BA, ASN, RN, CCN

    • Thanks Mom!

      What was that box that we put our career predictions into so many years ago? Anyway, wasn’t mine recreation? Well, my job certainly feels like recreation to me. I love it. It’s been long road.

      Still, I’d probably also like to be guiding small groups in mountainous terrain for long weekends.

  • Pavel & Al

    I have reached out to other military fitness “gurus” in the past and never even received a response. Thank you for the simplicity, courtesy, and generosity in all the help you have given. I have learned more in the 48 hours from the two of you then every other program or book I have ever purchased. Will be in touch and keep you updated.

    Sincerely,
    Flats

    • You’re welcome, Flats … but, there are no gurus around here, only a community that keeps collectively learning, growing, and improving.

  • I have been a Soldier for 31 years. I’m still a Soldier but plan to retire within a couple years. I agree with everything Mr. Ciampa write here. I still don’t do situps when prepping for the APFT but I do a lot of strength work for the core (as an SFG of course I do).
    I just had flashbacks of rucking 3 times a week; 1 fast 4 miles, 1 moderate 8 miles, and 1 long slow distance (15 miles) under at least 50 lbs before adding water (not a joke). Now, when I pick up a 24kg, I realize that it wasn’t as heavy as I once thought it was. I miss those days! I wish Strongfirst was around back then!
    Great article! And I hope to see you down range.

    • Rick,

      I wish that I had learned from Pavel 30 years ago … so much in life would have been easier.

      Thanks.

  • Great article Al. I retired from the USAF back in Dec 2011 and can attest to the effectiveness of this style of programming for having no problems with the PT test or deployment fitness. The last 4 years of my career were driven primarily by the PM along with Goblet squats and some loaded carries. I hardly did any direct sit-ups or pushups but had no problems with them or the run portion of the test.

    • Michael,

      You were most likely around for the changes in the AF fitness program. The AF physical assessment standards are, by athletic comparison, low. I keep telling folks, a “big bang for your buck” program will support your efforts on the test.

  • I need to add my voice. You have become my new hero. This is fricken’ brilliant One of those articles that comes along and takes your breath away. Between this and the hamburger post by Pavel a few days ago Strong First is batting 1,000.

  • Awesome article, Al. I recently received my bachelor’s in exercise physiology, and am extremely interested in doing the kind of work that you do. If you have a spare minute some time, it would mean a lot to get your advice on how to pursue this career.

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