Guest post written by Simon Niklaus, a Swiss soldier and founder of simonniklaus.com.
At 20, I was called up to do my mandatory military service. A year earlier, I had decided to try and get into a particular unit of the military police. The required standards were clearly defined, and with a lot of motivation and a clear goal, I trained in the required disciplines. From the intelligence test to the psychological test to the most difficult of all: The fitness test. The fitness test wasn’t too specific to the army and didn’t include traditional military exercises. In each area, I had made enough points, and after the conversation with the colonel, it was clear that my dream would become a reality.
From that moment on, it was decided which troop I would be joining, but I had no idea what to expect physically. Out of per, I trained what I enjoyed doing: I focused on powerlifting and practiced martial arts now and then to have some functional cardio training as well. I didn’t practice any specific military exercises. Because I had done well in all disciplines at the enlistment, I wasn’t worried I would have any problems.
As you can probably imagine, powerlifting alone is not the best preparation for the special forces. It wasn’t long before I felt like beating myself up over this stupid idea. Especially in the beginning, it was not an easy journey, but with time my body could get used to the different loads. Up to this point, however, many agonizing hours passed, which required enormous perseverance.
To spare you this torture, I have compiled the most essential physical capabilities that one must have in the troops, ordered by importance.
What Are The Most Important Military Exercises In The Army?
In the military, it’s necessary to have basic skills in any fitness area; you need to have enough endurance but also strength. If you excel in one place but do poorly in the other, you will either be selected early or constantly in the catchment. So you must find the motivation and ability to train in all the disciplines!
The right way to think of it is that you want to be a four-by-four, not a sports car. While the sports car dominates mercilessly in its discipline, the robustness of the four-by-four allows for good enough results in all areas.
One of the most critical skills in the military is adapting to suboptimal and sometimes terrible conditions. No one cares how fast you perform under perfect circumstances. They expect you to perform under sleep deprivation and dehydration, with blisters all over your body, and under time pressure. Only those who can withstand poor conditions and find a way to perform mental and physical military exercises at full capacity can become good soldiers. For this reason, it is crucial to train in all the aspects listed below. That being said, there are certain things you should focus on. The disciplines increase in importance towards the bottom.
1. Bodyweight exercises
The first military exercises that come to mind when you think of fitness training in the army are fancy obstacle courses and soldiers performing hundreds of pushups or crazy acrobatic feats on pull-up bars. While these skills look very impressive and obstacle courses are extremely fun, they are, unfortunately, also a bit overrated.
You should be able to do a few dozen pushups and a few pull-ups. But these basics are relatively quick to achieve, and the energy to excel in such areas is lacking in other places. However, if you are an endurance athlete and have trouble with basic bodyweight exercises, you should invest the time.
2. Lifting Weights
Lifting heavy weights has many benefits. It strengthens your bones, tendons, and ligaments. It helps you pull wounded comrades out of the mud and close tank doors faster. On top of that, you also look better doing so.
Having enough strength is definitely essential. But again, don’t get bogged down in one discipline, or you’ll fail in others. If you have some good mass, fine; keep that mass. It will help you kick down doors or carry comrades. But if, because you want to bench press 10 lbs more, you neglect your endurance training or other military exercises, you’ll regret it just like I did back then.
A strong bench press, squat, and deadlift can’t compensate for poor stamina.
Sprinting is just as important as enough strength. When you are a rookie in the military, you sprint dozens of times every day. You sprint when your sergeants call you, you sprint when you leave some of your equipment behind, and you sprint as punishment when some of your comrades don’t meet the time limits.
A pure shock for many newcomers to the military is the gigantic amount of material shoved into their arms right from the start. An old, 20 lbs plate carrier, four pairs of heavy combat boots, your personal weapons, a bulky tent, clothes, several different backpacks, bags, flashlights, a suitcase with communication equipment, a sleeping bag, a blanket, and a helmet. The list is endless, and the material checks even more.
Of course, a lot of this equipment has to come on training operations. And who will carry it? – Right, you will. Sometimes you have the privilege of carrying a “wounded” comrade and his equipment on top, which doesn’t necessarily make the whole thing any easier. That’s why preparing for long marches with much extra weight in bad backpacks is strictly advised. I can also recommend buying a plate carrier beforehand and using it for your military exercises.
5. Long-Distance Running
You may be confused that long-distance running is near the top of my military exercises list. You probably think one soldier wouldn’t have to run long distances often, and you’re right.
Sometimes, you will probably have to jog for half an hour during morning exercise, but the reason lies elsewhere.
One of the biggest challenges in the military is dealing with a lack of sleep and sometimes lousy food. The mental aspect is one thing, but the physical element is less controllable. Your body needs sleep to recover. If you don’t get enough sleep, it is significantly more susceptible to illness, inflammation, and overuse injuries.
Therefore, your body must already have adapted to the strain on the musculoskeletal system before you move in. For example, if you go jogging for a maximum of 15 minutes in training, and then in the military, you run around all day with a weighted vest, sprinting somewhere every few minutes and then get little restful sleep, your shins and feet won’t keep up for very long. Running long distances prepares your musculoskeletal system for the strain, preventing stress fractures and periosteum inflammation, and is, therefore, invaluable.
Countless comrades in my company were selected because their bodies could not withstand the constant strain.
Besides these benefits, good cardio can make your day easier in the military.
You would rather be the one running in the front or the middle section than the one always struggling to keep up. Therefore, I recommend running shorter distances almost daily as one of your military exercises and occasionally mixing in some long runs; that will prepare your body perfectly for much of everyday army life.
6. More Important Than All The Military Exercises
No matter how you prepare, there will always be things that will cause you trouble. Because of this and the mentioned aspect of sub-optimal conditions, mental toughness is paramount when it comes to fitness in the military.
There is a high probability that you will have comrades worse than you in many respects. Because the group is only as strong as its weakest member, the challenge often lies in not despairing and supporting your comrades. You must be prepared to control your ego and persevere when you are the weakest link in a particular task. But you must also be patient and understanding when you are at the front. In the military, tasks are almost exclusively mastered in groups.
If you’re a poor team player, you should work on that aspect more than physical military exercises because it’s not about your personal performance but the team’s fitness.
The Moment I Realized That I Should’ve Done Some Military Exercises
I realized that I’d messed up terribly right after moving in. We got our first truckload of clothes and gear on the second day. After receiving all the equipment, I shouldered the backpack and the two heavy, unwieldy bags.
Then, barely ready, the sergeant shouted, “follow me!” and sprinted off. I expected us to run to our transport truck, but the sergeant didn’t stop and raced straight across the training area. When I arrived, I was utterly exhausted, drenched in sweat, and thought: Nope, this will not be fun.
Physical fitness is essential to military training and service. To be physically prepared for the challenges of army life, the military exercises to focus on are strength training, endurance training such as HIIT or sprinting, and long-distance running. You should always strive to balance weight lifting and cardio!
Mental toughness is also a critical factor in succeeding in the army. Staying focused and motivated is necessary, even when things are difficult. Additionally, having good team-working skills is invaluable in the troops as working together is how tasks are completed. By being physically and mentally prepared, you can tackle any challenge that military training throws your way.
Simon Niklaus is a Swiss soldier, a fitness lover, and a passionate martial artist. He is also the founder of simonniklaus.com, where he clarifies questions about the military, fitness, and martial arts.
Rob is a Certified Personal Trainer and Nutrition Coach through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. For the past 10 years, Rob has been navigating the health and fitness landscape to better himself and those around him, focusing on tools such as calorie and macro counting, intermittent fasting, and HIIT training techniques.