No Guts Over Gun Belts: A Guide To Improving Your Operational Fitness

Nothing will improve your operational performance like increasing your fitness level. Yet, in the technological age we have lost sight of this simple yet important reality. There was a time when being fit was not just a choice for those of us in uniform. It was a necessity. Yet in the age of stun guns, laser guided bombs, ASP batons and a host of other items it is all too easy to forget what it means to truly be warrior fit.

When beginning your fitness journey there are three key elements that will determine your success. However, before we can discuss each of these elements in detail we must dispel the myth of a “workout.” Doing 100 reps of bicep curls, and a meaningless order of exercises is a workout. Training is different, training is focused and has a desired outcome. The first step in changing your body, and your life: have a goal. What is your goal? Is it to be a healthier version of yourself? Strict press 315 lbs? Run a marathon? These are all worthy goals, the key takeaway is that you have one.

Once you have your goal, write it down. Anyone seeking to live the Warrior Lifestyle should have a journal to record their thoughts, make notes and so on. Once you have written your goal down, research methods of training that suit your needs. There are numerous resources out there, but I would highly recommend Starting Strength by the eminent Mark Rippetoe as a starting point.

Now you need to create the operational side of your training. Do you need a gym membership? Do you need to purchase equipment? Do you need to locate an outdoor space? Do you need to repurpose areas of your home? These are all questions you need to answer. In terms of training, when will you train? I advocate the rule of two, which is to say never strength train more than 2 days in a row, and never take more than 2 days off. Remember, balance is key. A warrior must have a balance of strength, speed and endurance. This is the trifecta that forms the foundation of literally every other piece of the puzzle.

Strength Training Basics

Entire articles have been written on strength training, and this is by no means my magnum opus on the topic. So, for simplicity we will break strength training down into core development, upper body, lower body and back development. These focus areas will provide a solid foundation for any strength training program. Simply put, hit these focus areas hard each week and you will make progress.

Whether it’s grappling with a suspect on the ground or having to do a buddy carry in the field a strong core is essential, and I do not mean a ripped six-pack; I mean a truly strong and powerful core. For Strongman competitors and powerlifters, their “v-tape” (the body shape that occurs when the shoulders and lats are noticeably wider than the hips and waist) will rarelybe as exaggerated as a physique athlete. This speaks to the pure core strength required to deadlift 700 plus pounds, or squat a small elephant.

So, what are some exercises that will help you achieve a powerful core? Deadlifts and squats with no belt will develop your core quickly. Remember to breathe and brace properly for maximum benefit. Breathing and bracing is a skill unto itself and warrants practice, but it will help improve your lifts so master it.

Next, I strongly recommend proper “knees to elbows”, forget hanging leg raises. Hang from a pull up bar and bring your knees to your elbows and repeat. The same goes for windshield wipers, do not lay on the floor, hang from a pull up bar and complete your side to side motions for oblique development. Finally, heavy side bends have greatly improved my deadlift over the years, this may “thicken” your waist. However, your musculature simply cannot exceed the width of your hips so build a bigger back to keep that pronounced “v-tape.”

Upper body development is no big mystery. The strict military press (no leg drive) and the push press (with leg drive) will develop your upper chest, triceps and all three heads of the deltoid. In addition, this movement is very functional. We will often need to lift something over our head. If you don’t have access to a barbell and a rack/blocks to perform these movements, hand-stand push-ups have been the go-to for similar development for years.

Investing a quality dip belt, like the Brute Belt™(from www.brutebelt.com) will greatly improve your ability to do weighted chin ups, pull ups, and dips.

Weighted dips will assist in the overall development of your chest and shoulders as well as the triceps. Dips can be difficult for some so I must emphasize that if you cannot complete a triceps dip with good form, select exercises that you can complete that target the same muscle groups. The same goes for the chest variation of the movement. The chest, probably the one area that all men want to develop because after all, training is really about how much you can bench (sarcasm.) The bench press and incline bench-press are my personal go to exercises, however dumb bell presses, push-ups etc. are all effective and excellent choices within a program.

We can’t talk about upper body development without talking about arms. Weighted chin ups and pull ups will cause your arms to grow, it’s really simple as that. In fact, I personally do not do any direct arm work. Exercises such as farmers walks and even deadlifts will also develop your arms, the same goes for rope ascents, or towel pull ups.  If you must do “some curls for the girls” I would strongly recommend focusing on strict form and the contraction of the bicep, putting a little “Body English” into the movement can be ok, but save that for when you have achieved a level of base development and heavy weights are truly required.

When it comes to lower body and leg development I am of the opinion that you must squat.  To this end, you must squat often. I generally suggest squatting twice per week, once as an assistance movement when you train deadlifts (front squats) and again when you train your legs (back squats.) The squat is a technical lift, reaching depth is not easy for everyone, so I would advise starting light and perfect breaking parallel before adding weight. One very important thing to note is that squatting “ATG” (ass to grass) is not necessarily the best way to squat. You must break parallel; however, you do not necessarily need to go past parallel to achieve optimal muscle activation.

I cannot emphasize the importance of deadlifts, and back development enough. Focus on deadlifting with proper form before adding weight. Deadlifts in all variations (conventional, sumo, leg etc.) all have a place. Do not deadlift heavy more than once a week (for someone who is older once every two weeks) the strain can prove too much and if you are “all snapped up” you simply will not be able to train as hard as you need/want to. Finally, row like a maniac! All rows: barbell rows, dumbbell rows, cable rows make sure you row in variation!

Strength training does not need to be complicated, it does however need to focused and emphasize compound movements. Isolation has its place to develop an attractive physique or to correct imbalances, but ultimately if you want to get stronger you need compound (multi-joint) movements. If you are a beginner utilize a progressive overload approach (adding weight each week.) For more advanced lifters training cycles and percentages may be required. Try each method and see what works best for you.

Achieving Explosiveness

The second facet of a well-rounded individual is explosiveness. Explosiveness or power is the ability to accelerate a load quickly. I do not often allow myself (or others) to fall into the “gene trap” but the truth is much of explosiveness is genetic. While the exact interaction of the many genes involved is not well understood, we do know that some individuals are able to recruit fast twitch muscle fibres (power) while others can recruit slow twitch (endurance) muscle fibres more easily. While we cannot control our genetics, we can control the environmental factors (training) which will improve explosiveness to some degree.

So, what are some exercises which build explosiveness? Well the Olympic Lifts are probably the most well-known. The Clean and Jerk builds explosiveness very well, but they are very technical and require constant practice and coaching to perform properly. I am sorry to say that in my opinion trying to learn how to Clean or Jerk without a coach,  using YouTube or other fitness videos instead, is a one-way ticket to the ER. Now, if you are brave (there is a fine line between bravery and stupidity by the way) I would recommend starting with a broom handle or PVC pipe and watching every video you can find on a step by step coaching method for each lift.  I do not condone this, but hey, it’s your body.

What can you do to improve explosiveness without the Olympic Lifts? Well the box jump (jump up and step down) is a great way to get started, as are standing broad jumps. There are also “Olympic Lift variations” such as the dumbbell clean and press and the dumbbell jerk.

For upper body explosiveness, I would recommend doing some sort of throwing. Medicine ball slams for example are generally “commercial gym ok.” You can also look up classic shot put and hammer throw training methods. If that doesn’t work there is always plyometric push-ups. In the plyometric push up, perform a standard push up but push yourself up so forcefully you leave the ground, rinse, and lather and repeat (say 4 sets of 8-12 reps.)

Endurance Training Simplified  

The final corner of the training triangle is endurance training. Endurance training is not glamorous. There are jokes abound about “cardio”, however being strong, or looking good naked isn’t so great when you can’t perform while in uniform, can’t run a mile, or play with your children. There is a reason why endurance or conditioning occupies its own corner of the training triangle it is the proverbial “glue” that joins the other key components of strength and explosiveness.

So, now that we have accepted that endurance is important, what are some endurance or conditioning activities that can be done that are perhaps slightly less painful (or more painful) than walking on the treadmill?

  1. Weighted Ruck. Few exercises are as effective for the uniform occupations or tactical athletes. Hike/Jog/Walk an extended distance with weight on your back and you will feel the burn. Guaranteed. If you can’t afford specific ruck weights, wrap a 10lb or 25lb plate in a blanket and stuff it in your pack. You do have a decent tactical pack, right?
  2. Pushing a Prowler or sled. Load the Prowler up. Push. Push some more. Repeat.
  3. Run hills. This one seems simple and it is. However, running hills is very effective and building up the functional aspects of your quads, hamstrings and calves. Alternatively, pull a “Rocky” and run up some stairs. Repeat for 5-10 rounds.
  4. Circuit Training.CrossFit has made this famous. If you need an example try: 20 air squats, 20 burpees, 20 mountain climbers, run 200 meters. Repeat for 5 rounds.
  5. HIIT training. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is very simple. 5 minutes of rest (low intensity such as walking) 1 minute of intense activity (such as sprinting) for five rounds. Easy!
  6. The Tabata Protocol.The Tabata protocol is essentially HIIT Training. Tabata is 20 seconds of very intense exercise (try max reps on say kettlebell cleans) followed by 10 seconds of rest. You do this for 8 rounds. It hurts. It’s awesome. Try it.
  7. Tire Flips, Yoke Walks, and Strong Man movements.These generally require specific equipment, but they are awesome, and a whole lot of fun! If there is a strong man gym near you check it out

Avoiding Spastic Training

As I have said previously training and “working out” are two very different things. When it comes to programming there are a lot of options e.g. CrossFit, powerlifting, endurance and agility training etc. With these options however comes the major pitfall: spastic training. Spastic training is the term that I use for the inability of an individual to stick with a given program for a meaningful length of time and/or the tendency of that individual to be influenced by social media and adopt a new training style every day, week, or month.

The greatest athletes all have a coach, so, why shouldn’t you? Take your goal, and articulate it to your coach. This will help your coach construct the best possible program for you! If you can’t afford a coach having a specific goal will allow you to find a program that suits your specific needs.  On the topic of goals and programs, you must be committed and I mean with total tunnel vision, to that program for a set length of time e.g. 3 months, 6 months or even longer.

Another tip is to find a training partner. Your training partner needs to be a motivator, they need to share an equal level of commitment and ideally the same goal. It’s not always easy to find a committed training partner, but be consistent with your training and you will soon begin to forge friendships in the weight room with people who have similar schedules and goals.

This next tip is going to cause some hate. However, it needs to be said. When you start a program, IGNORE all the videos, links, posts etc. with titles like “The Best Strength Program EVER!” Why? Well they are going to increase your chance of deviance from your program. If you have a coach be loyal to them, trust their skills; if you don’t have a coach and have purchased a program have faith in your program. The time to click all those links is when you have reached your goal, in the meantime, seek information about facets of your program. I comb the internet for every trick on how to deadlift better, bench stronger, increase my mobility or improve my shoulder health. However, this knowledge is to enhance the exercises that are already in my program, not replace them or the entire program!

Finally, it goes without saying but you must follow your program. Do not change exercises, switch the order of exercises, or disobey the recommended rest/recovery options. Failure to do so will impede your progress. Impeding your progress leads to less results and less results means…you get it.

The Final Word

I hope this article has inspired you to take your training seriously. To become a well-rounded individual and forge a body that will help achieve your professional, personal, and fitness goals.  While this is by no means a definitive guide, it does provide a solid foundation to guide to improving your performance. In Part 2, we will begin to explore the subject of nutrition, and overcoming nutritional barriers to achieve optimal performance. Remember to leave us a comment, and subscribe to gunslingerresearch.com for more content like this. Until next time, stay safe, train hard, and stay humble.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Nutrition!


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