Many people, including myself, are what I like to call “fit lites.” We exercise to look and feel good—forty-five minutes to an hour, three or four times a week. We huff and puff a little, but not too much.
At the other end of the spectrum are the fitness elites: Marines, Navy Seals, Army Rangers, and firefighters. They are sans fat, chiseled, and indomitable. For them, being fit is not just a part of their job; it’s a matter of life and death.
Now, I am not looking to join the military or become a firefighter. I would get myself killed before even stepping onto a battlefield or tangling with live flames. But the G.I. Joes and Janes have a lot to teach us fit lites to make us stronger, faster, and harder, and that’s something I could enlist in. For the inside scoop on how to do this, I asked former Navy Seal and military fitness expert Stew Smith. Here’s what I learned.
There are no gyms at boot camp. Remember high school P.E. class—the sit-ups, pull-ups, push-ups, rope climbing? It’s back. All the fancy weight equipment at your health club is not as good as exercises that simply use your body as the weight. Machines tend to isolate certain joints, whereas an exercise like a pull-up uses many muscles in the back and arms. Calisthenics should mimic basic movement, Smith says. Otherwise, a guy who does the weigh circuit nearly every day at the gym could strain himself picking up a bag of groceries.
Squats and lunges are the lower body equivalent of the pull-up, simultaneously working the thighs, hips, and buttock muscles. The stronger you get, the more you can work each leg separately, holding the other in the air, to get the ultimate workout.
You can also use dumbbells as a way to replicate body movements. On Smith’s Web site , a link from the military’s site has photos demonstrating the three variations of a basic dumbbell exercise. The easiest begins with arms at the side, lifting them to a bicep curl to the chest and then extending them straight above the head. The intermediate version starts at a squat with the dumbbell on the ground and the advanced version with a pushup.
Set Fitness Goals
If you do the same thing every day, your body will get tired and injured and you will be bored, Stew says. So try to incorporate different activities. One way to try something new would be to review the requirements of all the military branches  and law enforcement tests to see which best suits you. If you like swimming, you might want to look at the Navy or Coast Guard fitness requirements and workout plans. Prefer running or walking? Go Army or Air Force. For focusing on running speed, try the FBI test. (Unless you are true masochist with a lot of time to spare, skip the Seals and Rangers workouts.)
“I tend to have people focus on performance fitness first, as it is easier to gauge going from five to ten pushups or running a mile a minute faster than losing five pounds, and it’s more fun,” Stew said. “Just focusing on aesthetic fitness can leave you in an endless cycle of checking the scale and counting inches lost.”
To get the most out of your workouts, it also helps to make friends with a stopwatch, as speed and increased repetitions per minute are part of almost all the fitness regimens.
Burn Baby Burn
Stew didn’t say it outright, but it was implicit in everything he said. It’s got to hurt. Gearing up for a physical test to join the military is not a stroll in the park. In his blog, he recommends military hopefuls exercise at least once a week until their body physically gives out—until they literally can’t lift your body off the floor to do a push up, not even from their knees. The rest of the days are for “foundation building,” which sounds equally painful. For those days, Smith advocates pyramid training in which the number of repetitions in each set increases by a multiplier until reaching the “top” of the pyramid and decreases by the same amounts until there are none left. As a Navy Seal, Smith frequently did a pyramid training drill with 225 pull-ups!
Special Ops forces aside, we could all strive toward a little more military fitness. I, for one, plan to start doing intervals of sit-ups and push-ups as well as lunges and pull-ups. Although I’ll never be G.I. Jane, I would like to be a little more battle ready, even if it’s just for the demands of everyday life.