Functional Fitness for Special Forces Athletes

Functional fitness can be described as the ability to perform a broad array of natural or realistic physical work. For Special Forces athletes, that work involves all the tasks associated with performance in combat.

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The demands on the Spec Op’s soldiers body will vary with load and duration (factors of intensity). A physical fitness that enables Special Forces athletes to perform maximal combat-related work would be ideal. In this sense, we are arguing that fitness should follow function—that combat fitness should be functional for combat. A preparation effort in which a program based on functional movements executed with representative intensity of combat should be most effective.

“Functional exercise” involves multiple planes and multiple joints. Most human action (work) seems to involve a relatively limited number of fundamental movements (such as lifting, pushing, pulling, throwing, and locomotion). However, many exercise routines (especially weight training or body building as it is popularly practiced) follow a “reductionist” approach that strives to de-construct a movement in order to apply focused stress on a singular joint and muscle group. Unfortunately, the human body does not work that way. The body works together as a system and exercises that serve to de-construct what are essentially irreducible (though admittedly complex) movements, can create imbalance, unnatural stress on muscles and joints, do not generate an ideal adaptive response, and most importantly do not mimic the reality that the Marine athlete will experience. “The key to functional exercise is integration. It’s about teaching all the muscles to work together rather than isolating them to work independently.”

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• Fitness should follow combat function.

• A Functional Fitness Program must be balanced in approach so that the Special Forces athlete develops power, strength, flexibility, speed, endurance, agility and coordination.

• A Functional Fitness Program must have intensity and great variety. It is characteristically general and balanced. The intensity leads to positive physical adaptation and the variety keeps the stimulus fresh and helps avoid over-training related injuries. Repetitive exercise routines can actually serve to limit motion and stimulus and this limitation can lead to dysfunction and injury. The great variety also helps to keep the training interesting for Special Forces athletes.

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• A Functional Fitness Program must be scalable, allowing for the range of fitness levels of various unit members. This scalability is an acknowledgement that Marines will have different starting points in their personal fitness level and also allows the individual Special Forces athlete’s to progress at his or her own pace. The program itself must be deliberately progressive, working to improve physical skills and advance the Special Forces athlete’s physical condition.

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• Emphasis must be placed on making athlete’s “injury proof.” That is, by strengthening the muscles and joints and increasing bone density (another physical adaptation to exercise), Marines are less likely to sustain a debilitating injury resulting from physical stress–either in training or once deployed. The Functional Fitness Program, in this sense, focuses on “prehabilitation”7 rather than waiting for an injury to actually occur and thereby having to resort to rehabilitation. Likewise, a Functional Fitness Program must have an educational aspect in which Special Forces athlete’s are taught efficient biomechanics for functional movements like running, lifting, jumping (and landing). The use of efficient biomechanics in movement serves to reduce the incidence of injury and make the athlete faster and more agile. Essentially, the athlete is instructed on how to become a more efficient machine—a machine that can perform optimally in the rigors of combat with less likelihood of injury.

  1. When an athlete is injured through physical stress, he or she is more likely to recover more rapidly if the body has been exposed to functional fitness exercise.9 Moreover, being injured is not a time to relax.

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• A Functional Fitness Program will seek to minimizeand rapidly transition into some sort of active recovery. Marines can work around most injuries and continue training in a somewhat modified manner. In fact, the period of recovery from injury should be an opportunity to learn a new physical skill and become stronger in a new area. The body will tend to heal faster and the Marine will be stronger in the long run. When a Special Forces athlete is injured in combat, he or she may face a daunting task of rehabilitation. Ideally, we want the Marine to be able to return to duty. However, even if that is not possible, we want to restore the Marine to the optimal level of physical functionality that he or she can achieve. Physical therapy and physical fitness can work almost seamlessly here to speed recovery. A Marine Functional Fitness Program must include this role in rehabilitation of injured warriors.

• The link in humans between the physiological and the psychological realms has been well established in science and medicine. This link has particular relevance to the development and preparation of Marines for battle. Combat stress is both physical and mental—and very real. Marines can sustain both physical and mental injuries in combat. Rigorous exercise can prepare Marines for these forms of battlefield stress by making them physically and mentally tougher. The stress of functional fitness can elicit both physiological and psychological adaptation. The principle here is that body can be conditioned to better handle combat stress. A Functional Fitness Program can play an important role in this pre-combat conditioning by applying a “combat-like” form of stress on the human system—using rigorous exercise that mimics or mirrors combat function.

• The Functional Fitness Program is the commander’s program. The program must be flexible–adaptive to individual and unit requirements. The program must acknowledge the need both for base fitness (GPP) and occupational or mission specific training. A commander will adapt his program to integrate training based on the mission and operating environment as he knows more about these. For instance, an infantry battalion commander who knows he will be deploying to a mountainous area (such as Afghanistan) will elect to place more emphasis on developing the physical skills related to this mission. Coaches do something similar with off-season training that prepares the athletes to make a smooth transition into pre- season and in-season training. Of course, Marines have no off-season, but sometimes commanders will have advance notice of their mission specific challenges and will plan accordingly.

Questions from our readers online.

Question: “Coach, where can I find a special forces workout plan? Check out the Spec Ops workout Ebooks here

Question: Coach, I am really into bodybuilding – do you think that is a good way to train for all of this?

Answer: It is ok if you run or ruck to the gym and do the same on the way home. Also cut out any cable rows, preacher curls and peck deck and add in a lot of bodyweight stuff like pushups, pull ups and sit-ups. Bodybuilding workouts are not really that good for anything other than making you think you look good.

Question: Coach, how can I build endurance for Special Ops? Yes; slowly work your way up to longer workouts and this will help you build your endurance.

Question: How can I sign up for the Army and try out for SpecOps?

Answer: Check out the main website for the Army here:

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