Superior Training For the Military Athlete

Article written by Davis “Knuckles” Libbey As a Former Marine and current Contractor who has served in various roles in both Iraq and Afghanistan, I have spent a lot of time ensuring my team-mates and I were in optimal physical condition for our mission set. Whether it was developing the conditioning for long range and poorly supported missions or the short term missions of a protective detail in a non-permissive environment, one type of training has been helpful in all aspects: Strongman-style training. When I was a young infantryman prior to 9/11, I thought all I needed to do was unit level Physical Training (PT) to be in optimal combat condition. What I didn’t understand then was that calisthenics, running distances of over three miles, long distance swims, and unit hikes were great for only making me a one dimensional endurance athlete capable of handling a moderate load. What I didn’t understand then was:  being better prepared and conditioned for the realities of armed conflict would require reducing some of the steady state cardio work and engaging some less traditional training. 


Long distance running is the core of standard military unit training. Infantry units love this form of PT because it’s easy to perform, it doesn’t require any extra gear, and it keeps you in decent cardiovascular shape. Unfortunately running distances of three plus miles in shorts and a t-shirt doesn’t replicate the realities of the conditioning required for combat. Combat happens in bursts. Your conditioning should reflect that. I know a lot of individuals and units have started moving towards more of a HITT style program that concentrates on moving moderate loads for repetition through traditional planes of motion. I think it is a step in the right direction… however, it’s not the best answer. What that style of conditioning still lacks is being able to move real and awkward loads in various planes of motion for variations of distance, time, or repetition. It also significantly lacks in the ability to strengthen the Posterior chain.  

I think that a better answer or as an adjunct to HITT style training try incorporating real individual tasks with ever increasing loads. How many times when doing fireman’s carry sprints have you been told to pair up with someone your own size? How many times did you do those things with full kit and a combat load? While carrying a crew served weapon? If you haven’t, why not? Lifting sandbags and duffle bags full of sand will better replicate the reality of carrying dead weight. Do you work on farmers carry? Carrying ammo cans full of sand is great conditioning, it’s even better when done carrying your full combat load. These strongman type events replicate actual combat tasks, like having to carry ammo to a machinegun position or having to carry a wounded team-mate. Think of conditioning as an opportunity to train for real world circumstances.    

Unconventional Loads Like I stated above, loads in combat are often unconventional and heavy. Because of this, I think focusing on non-traditional style loads, like those found in the strongman world, is extremely helpful to the military athlete. You would be hard pressed to simulate the strength and stamina it takes to drag a litter with a wounded buddy in all his gear up hill to get him to a medivac point in the weight room. Strongman training, especially with reference to conditioning, loves sleds. Pulling a sled with a heavy load does a great job of replicating the task. Flipping tires at first glance seems pointless from a military athlete standpoint but upon further inspection if you have ever had to change the tire of a tactical or non-tactical vehicle in a hurry on the side of a road where people might not like you so much, you will see very quickly how useful it can be. Other events like stone to shoulder and stone over bar for reps will teach you how to safely manage loads in a hurry.

Grip Grip strength was something I never paid much attention to until I went to an advanced shooting course put on by a world class competitive shooter. I had been in the Marines for 6 years and was an instructor at Special Operations Training Group at Camp Lejeune. I had always been taught that a firm but comfortable grip was the way to go for pistol. The aforementioned instructor taught us that squeezing the pistol with a vice like grip would improve recoil management and accuracy. He was right. My pistol shooting improved from a basic level to equaling guys who had been in the game much longer in days instead of years. I have shot that way ever since. The problem was, early on my grip would fatigue. My hands would cramp up and my forearms would be on fire. I started focusing on grip strength with farmers carry and deadlift. As I became more involved in strongman (and powerlifting) type training I found that I had less fatigue in my grip. The other thing that became substantially easier was hand-to-hand training. No matter what the type of combative training you do as a military athlete (most of which are an MMA variation these days) grip strength is only going to aid your technique. If your technique is poor, grip strength can even compensate for your weak spots. There are also some more mundane reasons to improve grip, like having to carry ammo cans long distance and things like that but you probably figured those out already. I will cover all of the reasons Lift Big Eat Big can make you a better shooter and warrior in depth in the next article.   

The Posterior Chain

The Posterior Chain or P-Chain, are the muscles running from your traps to just below the knee. As a Military athlete this is the base of the good portion of what you do. Back injuries are one of the most common injuries in the field of the military athlete. Being injured makes you a liability to your entire unit. Strongman, when done correctly, strengthens the P-Chain and teaches you how to move loads, and your body, safely. Building mass on your back also makes your life a little easier when conducting combat operations. Massive traps will have the load of your body armor and ruck sack more comfortable, pair that with strong and well-conditioned erectors, glutes, and hamstrings and that load won’t be so horrible.  

Aesthetics/ Presence

Besides making you better at your chosen profession, Strongman training will help your appearance. One thing we often talk about in the security world is presence. When you roll out of the vehicles with your unit and you look all like you can deadlift a tank, the enemy is likely to move on to a softer looking target. Yes, other forms of training can give you size and strength. Can they give you that, plus mobility and speed under load? There is another advantage, looking awesome in uniform. Whether you are out at the bar on Saturday night or showing up for formation on Monday morning with arms so big you can’t properly roll your sleeves, being a Strength athlete feels good. Knowing that the size and athleticism you have gained through Strongman training not only makes you look awesome but makes you better able to protect and save your buddies lives is a double win.  

When seconds count, when seconds are the difference between life and death, being crazy strong and lightning fast is an appreciable advantage. There are a lot of ways to train as a military athlete, I am not some elitist who will tell you Strongman is the only way to go. I will say this, there are certain advantages that Strongman will give you that you would be hard pressed to find in any other single system of training. Strongman was born out of real world tasks, things that take real strength. Nothing takes more physical and mental strength than being responsible for the lives of the person to the left and the right of you. Besides strength, conditioning, athleticism, and aesthetics, Strongman training is fun. When done in a team or unit setting, motivating one another, knowing that you have the strength to help a comrade in need is a gift in its self.

Train Hard, Win the Fight.

Knuckles… OUT!

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