Tired of driving to the gym in the rain, only to wait in line for a few whole minutes for a piece of equipment? Does missing a workout drive your cortisol levels through the roof and negate training progress?
Are precious gains in muscle mass stifled upon having to walk an appreciable distance, to get to your plush gym complex, replete with chromed barbells and Hammer Strength equipment? Cheer up. It could be worse.
Try training with drive gears from armored vehicles, welded onto the ends of axles, in sandstorm conditions under improvised plywood shelters. Imagine a loud siren sounding mid-workout, and having to run for your life, lest enemy fire force you into an extremely catabolic state.
And yes, returning to the gym in flak gear would be considered poor procedure. Is this a fictional account; a hypothetical case study into exactly how not to train for bodybuilding progress?
No. These are experiences some military personal endure, as they work to resolve the problematic Middle East situation.
Yet, despite these, in some cases, supposedly undesirable training conditions, and the extremely mentally and physically taxing nature of their work, combined with less than ideal nutritional options (according to some), many soldiers are able to make excellent training progress.
Military Weight Training:
The gym descriptions presented here do paint a pretty grim picture of training conditions in and around the military occupied Middle Eastern areas, but there are more sophisticated facilities, if one is willing to search them out, or improvise if their area is more isolated.
Obviously, exercising with weights in the Middle East (at various camps in and around Iraq and Saudi Arabia, specifically) can be fraught with danger, in more ways than one.
Insurgency activity is an ever-present reality, as is the potential for burnout, due to the stressfulness and working conditions associated with trying to stabilize a war-torn country. However, the risks, according to many, are small compared to the benefits gained by staying in physical shape, and the emotional release the weights provide.
Indeed, training also provides an opportunity to socialize, and bond, with fellow troops, who experience similar stress levels, due to their respective roles. The practical benefits of staying in shape are of obvious importance - ask any soldier faced with having to swing into action without a moment's notice (a daily reality for troops serving their countries).
As we all know, a strong body often equates to a strong mind, and the strategic, and logistical, duties various troops are charged with rely on a razor sharp intellect to perform to the highest possible standard. Anything less could prove disastrous. Such is the importance of exercising within the military, it has become a priority for many.
As one can imagine, and as eluded to earlier, the training options for military personnel are limited, compared to their counterparts, and the rest of civilization, back home. As you train in comfortable surroundings, what is the reality for these men and women?
How do they train, and what conditions do they work under? What training progress is made? The real life accounts given here will provide a first-time glimpse into lives of soldiers who pump iron.
Military Weight Training:
Staying in good physical shape is a fundamental prerequisite to being a soldier. When faced with attack, one has to be willing to fight with all the strength they can muster, lest the enemy gain the upper hand. The routine life of a soldier also requires tremendous physical prowess.
Weight training is one popular way these men and women stay in shape, as they conduct their duties. But it is not a simple case of going to the gym at one's leisure, and working to a perfectly periodized regime. No way.
Making the most of what is available forms the basis of a soldiers' routine, and the ability to self-motivate is fundamentally important.
Just what training options do Middle East based military (the subject of this article) have? Well, perhaps surprisingly, there are quite a few. These range from the plywood covering/axle handle 'set up' mentioned earlier (run at the time by Polish military), to infinitely more extravagant affairs.
An example of the latter would be the massive complex at Camp Slayer (a U.S. run section of the Victory complex near the Baghdad airport, and one of Saddam's private areas), where, in the so-called "fish bowl" area, one will find three floors of strength and cardio equipment.
An MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) facility in Karbala (in the South of Iraq, again run, at the time, by Polish military) has also provided an excellent array of training equipment, as well as various entertainment options.
However, few of these types of gyms exist for the military troops mentioned here. The majority of troops use basic equipment, housed within tents of various shapes and sizes.
These are, however, to a large degree excellent, and provide a similar training experience to the larger complexes - only on a much smaller scale.
Various Government agencies appreciate the importance of ensuring all troops are well catered for, and that their recreational needs are met.
Fortunately, this means the MWR budget (which is geared toward providing sufficient recreational options for all U.S. military) stretches far enough to allow for most of the gym equipment seen in many of the major Western sporting centers.
Military duties and obvious occupational hazards aside, the life of iron-pumping soldier, by many accounts, is a good one. Positive benefits include no gym fees, and the freedom to use the equipment whenever one wishes, outside of work hours - of course.
"We trained at the base facility, and the equipment was pretty good." Currently stationed in Eskan Village, Saudi Arabia, Jonathan says new gyms are being built all the time, and equipment is constantly being updated.
"The type of equipment we have in Saudi includes, Life Fitness, Hammer Strength, IGX Dumbbells, as well as many types of free weights. All the equipment is practically new and in good condition. It's a man's gym."
TCF Network Administrator Drew Endacott says free weights tend to be the norm, although there are, according to Drew, who is based at Camp Al Teqqadum, Iraq, many leg machines and various pieces of strength equipment to be found in some of the gyms. "The MWR facility at Karbala was most impressive.
In fact, we were getting so many machines that we had to move several older items into storage to make room. The equipment included top of the line treadmills, ellipticals, Stairmasters and basketball goals," says Drew. "On base, the facilities are often excellent."
Lance Corporal Damion Ricketts, a Marine, also stationed at Camp Al Teqqadum, says of the training facilities he encountered: "When I got to the gym here I thought it sucked because there was very little in it; a few dumbbells and a bench. Of course, being a Marine, I knew I had to adapt and overcome. Damion felt the standard of equipment where he was based, was basic, but good.
To compliment the weights, various aerobic type activities are on offer.
SSgt Jonathan Walsh says that in addition to weight training, he took part in basketball, swimming and softball to keep fit. Basketball tournaments, volleyball, football, and Ping-Pong are all the rage, according to Drew.
"Incredibly (to me) the Polish are crazy about ping pong. There were at least a dozen cats who brought their personal ping pong paddles to the war zone that is Iraq. Football is big, of course, and the Eastern Europeans and Iraqis play for blood."
SSgt Walsh had nothing but praise for his gym facilities in Iraq. "The gym I trained at in Iraq was basically two large sized tents, and it was pretty much hardcore. It's a good thing to do while you are deployed and sometimes it's the only thing to do. There was a decent amount of equipment but everyone always wants more."
Civilian BDE Senior Network Engineer, Chris Watson, feels the training conditions at the Victory Complex, where he is currently based with the 54th Signal Bn, are of a very high standard. "The facilities are about equal to what you'd find in a college gym of the same size.
They don't have an ab machine, but everything else seems fairly ok. Some of the equipment is made locally (Like the bench presses) and the squat rack takes good balance and timing to utilize properly." Other aspects of this facility work in well with Chris's training goals. "We've got a Smith machine and a good room to stretch out in and take aerobics and other classes.
The treadmills are incredible and work with my Polar monitor, so they are high on my list of praises," says Chris. Chris, an ex football player and power lifter, feels the biggest obstacle to achieving his bodybuilding goals while living in Iraq, is the food.
"Imagine your high school cafeteria for three meals a day - everything here is high-carb, high salt, and/or cooked to death with no flavor. I eat two-times-a-day because of my schedule (1400 to Midnight) and it's just hard to get proper nutrition."
Various Military Gyms.
Former Iraqi government palace and amusement complex, Camp Slayer, as it is now named, serves as a logistics and operations base for US intelligence and weapons-hunting teams. It also hosts U.S. eavesdropping and other classified operations.
Situated near the Baghdad Airport, and surrounded by man-made lakes filled with carp, Slayer, part of the Victory Complex of palaces, previously served exclusively as a base for the weapons hunt.
The complex now houses, in around two-dozen guest dwellings situated along three artificial lakes, approximately 1,200 troops, as well as various CIA and FBI officials, covert Special Forces teams, civilian experts and others. Reports have it that Slayer, as a base, is the most desirable posting in-country.
In non-military jargon, it is one of the more popular places to be based whilst militarily serving ones country. Marble walls and floors, the aforementioned man-made lake, palace babes, and paved streets, bring a touch of class to what is essentially a war zone. Palace babes? I won't elaborate, but suffice to say there are, according to reports, some pretty attractive members of the female species, on site. They are off limits, of course.
After securing Camp Slayer, military personnel found it to be in an advanced state of decay. It had been looted, and lacked air conditioning and running water. That was then.
The former palace has since been transformed into more livable conditions, with chandeliers, wingback chairs, gilt-edged tables and pieces of sculpture rescued by the troops from the complex's five major palaces. Troops, and others garrisoned there, also have access to running water, functional toilets, showers, and an internet connection.
The gym at Camp Slayer was, and is, by all accounts an impressive affair.
Situated in the typically extravagant, Saddam built, Fish Bowl area (so named because of the hideous eight-foot long brass fish in the cardio area), the gym has four levels and is cylindrically shaped with wall to wall marble. On the ground floor are the cardio machines, down lower are two huge weight rooms and upstairs are two other floors of weights and aerobics rooms.
To lend some perspective, the Fish Bowl is only one structure among five large palaces within the Victory Complex. These include the Perfume Palace (the main one), and others that were found in various shambled states (one looked like it had come straight out of a WWII Dresden picture, as it had been severely bombed before becoming occupied).
According to Drew Endicott, who was based at Camp Slayer in 2004, the Fish Bowl gym was stocked with top-of-the-line equipment. "About three weeks after I got there they got a shipment of eight brand new Precor treadmills.
Top of the line stuff. It even smelled new. It was such a treat under those circumstances to just hop on any treadmill in the gym at the Fish Bowl, and have it work like new." Compared to probably any gym in existence, the Fish Bowl was, and is, unique; in a class of its own.
Says Drew: "the most noteworthy architectural aspect of the Fishbowl is the marble walls and stairways. One has a different feeling when ascending or descending these exquisite structures when thoroughly drained after a workout.
The second floor has two free weight rooms which overlook the aforementioned lake. On the lake are numerous tiny islands on which are built structures but no one goes out there. Swimming in the lake is forbidden. Snakes, I think. But I never enquired."
One noteworthy site at the Fish Bowl are the number of servicemen replete with M16's, machine guns and grenade launchers - not your everyday gym occurrence, but then again, this is a war zone. Regular gym patrons, however, are forbidden to bring gyms bags onto the floor. The reasons for this are obvious.
South of Baghdad can be found Karbala, the second holiest city to the Islamic Shia sect. Karbala was once used as a Christian graveyard prior to the Islamic conquest, and today, holds special significance as a site of worship for many Iraqis. It had, until recently, been a major military outpost, run by Polish, then U.S. military.
It has since been handed back to the Iraq Government. As of August 2004, it housed one of the more adequate gym-training facilities, which included much of the latest training equipment. The Karbala-base gym comprised a plywood building which had been added onto a permanent structure.
This gym, at its busiest, would attract some of the biggest and strongest bodybuilders among the military personal stationed there at the time.
Drew Endicott elaborates: "There were some big boys on that base. Two I called Ivan and Igor, were the strongest men on base. Real animals, they attacked the weights as if it were personal. They worked out together and were more of a machine than two individuals. As I said, they were the strongest... until Gigantor showed up.
He just rotated in anonymously which makes me think that to the Poles, at least, he was just another guy. But when he took his shirt off it was a sight to behold. At the gym in Las Vegas I would frequently see Jay Cutler work out. I do not have to describe that otherworldly physique... but Gigantor had him." Indeed, the Karbala gym would rival many of the more hardcore establishments in the U.S.
"It holds fond memories for many of
the personnel who trained there."
Although the Karbala gym ("owned" by three entities: the MWR, US Military Police detachment, and an unknown benefactor) provided sufficient equipment and entertainment options, the quality of the resources, unlike Slayer, was dubious at the best of times.
The bench presses, for example, came with Arabic labels and were of lightweight construction compared to similar models sourced in the U.S.
Click Image To Enlarge.
Jason Wright & Some Awesome Bodybuilding.com Fans
On Tour Of Duty At Camp Habbaniyah, Iraq.
However, overcoming this problem wasn't too difficult given Drew (who, at the time, worked as the gym manager) assessed their shortcomings and acted immediately.
"We had the KBR maintenance crew take the benches to reinforce the bar stands. Anyway, once the benches were modified I felt a lot better about watching the big cats "go heavy," says Drew.
One thing that struck Drew as being strange, at Karbala, was the compulsion for various Iraqi's to put duct-tape on much of the equipment. According to Drew, the duct tape would only last a few minutes once the user engaged the machine.
"The handles on the rowing machine were often wrapped in duct-tape and the user would end up with it stuck to their hands. Actually that user was me and I chewed them out royally for ruining my second favorite machine. Since there is no way to remove duct tape completely I had to start wrapping a towel around the handles."
Karbala, as mentioned, provided many other activities as an adjunct to the weights. Pool competitions were popular events - depending on the table used. A table of Iraqi origin proved exasperating, as, due to its unusual contours, balls would fly in all directions, mimicking mini mortar attacks.
As Drew explains, "The Thai forces before they withdrew, in particular, spent many man-hours trying to level the playing surface of one table. At length it became what I called an "airborne table" in that the pool balls would skip along the surface, reach the edge, and then fly off the table. Which got very annoying since the impact could be confused with a mortar attack.
We had a billiard mechanic drive in from Baghdad to rebuild the table...
Yes, there are such manifestations of decadence in the economy here. In fact, he had to come back since the first job was to typical Iraqi standards. The first thing I did with our refurbished table was to hold a pool tournament, which took three full days."
An example of improvisation skills many in the military possess was witnessed at Al Hillah (a city in central Iraq on the river Euphrates, 62-miles South of Baghdad). According to Drew, this base, for a gym, had a small tent, with very little equipment. "The gym was inadequate," said Drew.
"The KBR (the KBR are a subsidiary which holds the military's logistical support contract) people had scrounged together a small gym of their own. A Precor bike and some free weights, a couple of benches, that was it.
But it was adequate. The Polish who ran the base were clearly used to a minimalist experience."
From the comparatively opulent Camp Slayer, to the modest Al Hillah: where there is a need for training; there will be those willing to make the best of what they have.
Given the relative importance of keeping fit and strong, to honor ones commitment to their respective military branch, or to maintain sanity and stave off boredom, training regardless of the conditions, is a very popular military pastime.
Training Conditions & Experiences:
Don't Try This At Home.
Training in the ubiquitous sandy conditions of the Middle East presents a set of problems alien to many living in the West. Those who train closer to sandy areas, or who have to walk some distance to their gym, find that typical training shoes simply do not last - the sand causes them to wear thin over a short period.
Going barefoot in the gym is one way to counter this problem. In addition, equipment housed in tents (exercise bikes, treadmills, rowers, elliptical machines etc) often attract sand, which gets into all moving parts and causes it to wear out sooner than it otherwise would.
When the equipment eventually breaks down, it takes around six-months to get any replacement parts. This presents its own set of problems, as fewer pieces of equipment means less in the way of training options, and many disgruntled troops.
At Camp Karbala, to prevent the machines from completely breaking down, due to inevitable sand in the moving parts, a maintenance crew would take them away for servicing each week for a few hours.
Says Drew Endicott: "the sand is murder on "driven" machines. The machines which are powered by the user, such as the bikes and ellipticals, fared much better. They were serviced, but at a lesser frequency."
One major complication with training in the Middle East is the overpowering heat, which can severely dehydrate if one neglects their water intake. "The mantra is, "hydrate, hydrate, hydrate" says Drew. "People learn to take it seriously."
Another, less common, reality for those who train in a war zone is incoming enemy fire. As soon as the siren sounds (which alerts all in a large radius to a potential threat), all must drop what they are doing and run to grab their helmet and flak jacket, and keep these on until the all clear is given.
It could take hours before things return to normal (in some cases it can take weeks at a time). Needless to say, if one is immersed in their training and the siren sounds, the workout is as good as terminated.
Standing around, or walking, during an alert, is strictly forbidden.
Once all problems are circumvented (all part of 'the adapt and overcome' philosophy espoused within the military), the actual training experience can be, at once, unique and productive. In fact, many a competition would arise amid a climate of testosterone and ego.
Indeed, competition against oneself and/or their closest neighbor serves as a way in which to channel aggressive energies (of which there is much in a war zone) toward a positive end.
Training in a war zone, under completely alien conditions, one has to expect the unexpected. On Drew's first day training at Camp Slayer, he experienced every gym-goers worst nightmare.
"After I got off the treadmill, I leaned up against these huge mirrors on the wall. There was nowhere else and I was not in shape to go looking. I heard a heart-stopping "Crack!" and froze. What had happened was that I had cracked the glass. I was waiting for a rain of artery-slicing shards. Which never came.
In Civilization one expects mirrors to be mounted against a firm surface such as a wall. In Iraq they (or at least these) were on some sort of spacers out from the wall. I never saw that before and hope I do not again. The cracks were up to about three feet in length."
Then there was the time in 2004, where Drew was charged with running a lifting contest. Now before you think power lifting or weightlifting, it should be remembered that things are always going to be a little different when various cultures mix in what amounts to a war zone.
After some advice from a fellow American (the strongest one on base), Drew got started on organizing the contest: a dimensionless lifting event (basically determined by ones bodyweight).
There was no clear winner, but the KBR strongman, whom Drew took the initial advice from, tied with a US soldier from a small MP detachment. "Even though I had never put on such a tournament we managed to get through it to rave reviews," says Drew.
At least a couple of these cats were in some sort of pro league or something." When the six contestants (who had made it through via selection) arrived for the tournament, it was clear things would be serious. "All the GIs had been eliminated which left the Poles (both Ivan and Igor at that point, Gigantor had not yet rotated in) and the Bulgarians.
Bear in mind that I do not speak their language, they did not speak each other's, the only lifeline was the multilingual Bosnian KBR employee, says Dew. "Even though he was off work I pleaded with him to stick around. Thank god he did."
Unbeknown to Drew, the lifters preparation activities were to be very scary to say the least (think your average power lifting meet amplified by 10).
Power lifters are known for their, lets say, somewhat strange behaviors before a lift, but what Drew saw almost had him running for cover. "I know now but did not know then, that power lifters do weird things to get themselves up for a lift. Soon I had a dozen men who routinely bench-press a quarter of a ton literally at each other's throats, screaming, pointing, and ready to draw knives.
I thought they had lost control." Luckily these behemoths reserved all actual violence for the weights. The result? On his last lift the Bulgarian Lieutenant moved just under 400lbs to secure the title. And upon doing so, he completed a 405 just for the fun of it. This came after five hours of steady lifting.
Did Drew learn anything from his second contest? "One thing I did which seriously added to my own workload, was to put all totals on the whiteboard in both kilograms and pounds. Maybe because my degree is in mechanical engineering I wanted to be rigorous, but others said they would not do that. It would sure have made things easier on me. Live and learn."
Says Drew: "The two bodyweight percentage weightlifting contests which were run were successful given the circumstances, and made clear they were ideal MWR events. They cost zip since the equipment is all on hand, and there is nothing weightlifters like better than hearing the oohs and aahs during a lift.
Anyone has a chance of winning, of course, yet no female ever competed. I think the issue here is that she would have to have her weight posted for the entire world to see. One issue is that our weights were marked in either metric or British units, but not both. That complicated adding up each lift."
To conclude, reported training results of those serving in the Middle East were overwhelmingly positive. What? Gains in muscle size and strength without the latest fancy supplements, and periodized training routines? You bet.
In fact, with regular feedings (which based on most accounts are very substantial), good basic equipment, no alcohol and other drugs, and little in the way of fast food, the soldiers I spoke with made great progress.
Says Drew, "no alcohol plus no fast food, plus long days, equal weight loss". Combine this Spartan way of life with regular workouts and good food, and results tend to come fast.
Corporal Ricketts says he made most of his bodybuilding progress while serving. Damion gained 25lbs of solid muscle, despite 12 hour days in the scorching heat. "I made most of my progress over there. I was very small before I left," says Damion. "In a seven month period, I pretty much changed my whole body."
Says Damion of his bench press progress: "I started out benching 125lbs for 6 reps my first couple of weeks then went to 145lbs for 10 reps in a month and a half. My max now is 235lbs after 7 months in Iraq.
I looked at myself in the mirror every night after getting back from the gym and thought I was so big I just couldn't stop going. It is like an addiction. I love the sound of dumbbells clashing in the gym. It is music to my ears."
SSgt Jonathan Walsh also made great progress over a five-month period. As the accompanying picture shows, Jonathan added a substantial amount of mass to his frame during his five-months in Iraq.
and lose more weight around the stomach."
Jonathan's routine included, in addition to the aforementioned sporting activities, a four on, one off split:
According to Jonathan, training results came fast, but he said he still has more work to do:Results have been positive for Drew also. The Middle Eastern heat, combined with a non-junk food existence, has helped Drew to peel off the pounds, to reveal a cut physique, which belies his years. "It is far easier to keep weight off here. My blood pressure is 96/55, so I guess that qualifies me as being fit.
| Blood Pressure.
Blood pressure, force exerted by the blood upon the walls of the arteries. The pressure in the arteries originates in the pumping action of the heart, and pressure waves can be felt at the wrist and at other points where arteries lie near the surface of the body.
Since the heart can pump blood into the large arteries more quickly than it can be absorbed and released by the tiny arterioles and capillaries, considerable inner pressure always exists in the arteries.
The contraction of the heart (systole) causes the blood pressure to rise to its highest point, and relaxation of the heart (diastole) brings the pressure down to its lowest point.
Normal blood pressure readings for healthy young people should be below 120 mm for systolic pressure and 80 mm for diastolic pressure, commonly written as 120/80 and read as "one-twenty over eighty."
My training program, as with most people, reflects the facilities. There are few actual machines that I have seen. Slayer had a couple of chest-crossover things plus a Smith machine, so free weights are the rule over here."
Drew's training, which he does five to six-days-per-week regardless, typically begins in the cardio tent with 15-minutes on the treadmill, at the highest possible intensity.
Says drew: "If you get off a treadmill after fifteen minutes and can walk unaided, you wimped out. A good run ends when someone asks, "You okay, buddy?" Drew then moves on to the weights tent, where he pounds the iron for however long he can manage. "The treadmill is where I pay for my sins, the weights are my reward."
Structure is something Drew would like to address in his training, but prefers to play it safe at this stage of the game. "I do not follow a plan, regrettably, although I did when I first got into the gym scene. As an engineer, I listen to the Machine. When it says, "I need a break!" I give it a break. If it says, "More!" I am only too happy to oblige.
So far we seem to get along, me and the Machine." Drew weight-trains his upper body only, preferring to direct the majority of his lower body efforts toward the treadmill. "I do not do any leg work since I discovered quickly that doing such nuked my treadmill efforts. We all make tradeoffs and mine is toward the treadmill."
Chris Watson, who considers himself overweight (around 27% body fat) at 38, has just started lifting again, after a lengthy lay off due to injury. He is a on a 60-day plan to lose weight and gain muscle ("and be ready to see the very hot Mrs. Watson").
Chris's Routine Consists Of:
For cardio, he does a two-mile walk around Lost Lake about two to three times a week.
As shown, despite the changes in training environment, the men profiled in this article have shown some amazing progress.
Acclimating to completely different conditions, including temperature and cultural climate, and adapting to a different technology in the form of training equipment, eating facilities and living arrangements, is basically what life is all about for troops, and their supporters, serving in the Middle East.
One gets the feeling, they wouldn't have it any other way. Adapting, overcoming, and prevailing is, after all, what they do best.