Fitness Conditioning And Training For Combat Survival.

I have nailed down what best prepares myself and my fellow Marines for the combat environment - highly functional training. This will only be a brief overview of combat conditioning, but will give you an idea of how to start.

So I hear you're training for the military. Well guess what? You're doing it wrong.

Before I get into why your training is wrong, let me briefly get into what happens when you run down the street in a combat environment. In order to do this, we will use some comparative analysis. Run 300 feet. Dive down to the ground and spring back up every once in a while. Now maybe do it wearing a pack. Still not such a big deal. H-ll, do it in full combat gear. Hey, you work out. You lift weights, you run. No problem. Broke a sweat that time.

Shots fired. Wrecked cars everywhere. Someone yelling something you can't quite make out. Your mind is racing trying to figure out what is the best cover and how to get to it quickest while shooting on the move.

This is only an assault course at the Mobilization site. They call cease fire and you drop to a knee, lungs burning, legs useless, panting, your back screaming. Your heart rate is at 200-300 beats per minute and you are experiencing auditory exclusion, one of your bodies responses to threat as it focuses on the senses it needs the most, site and tactile.

You run, you work out. Why is this happening?

Well, at no time on the assault course did you run in shorts and a t-shirt, or bench press. So pay attention while I save your life.

Training For Combat Survival

What you are doing in the gym is not preparing you for the rigors of a combat environment. Don't think of this only in terms of locating, closing with, and destroying the enemy. Think of how much physical endurance it takes to stand a twelve-hour post in one hundred and twenty degree heat in full combat gear. The better conditioned your body is, the more efficient it will be when pushed.

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Now on to destroying the enemy. During combat operations, what do you do? Do you run with no gear for three miles? Do you lift a weight for three sets? No. The most difficult factor on combat operations is unpredictability. You never know what you will have to do next. Therefore it makes sense to train 'across a wide range of athletic abilities' as the fine folks over at Crossfit say.

At the close of my ten years in the military I have nailed down what best prepares myself and my fellow Marines and Soldiers for this unpredictable event. It is highly functional training that utilizes explosive movements, carrying heavy and unusually shaped objects, and events that combine resistance training with cardio.

The separate pieces to this puzzle are bodyweight exercises, kettlebells, tire pulling, and fireman's carry. You must also be able to adapt your training to environments where you do not have access to a gym, or traditional training equipment. Too often I have seen Marines or Soldiers cease working out because there is not a gym readily available.

The programming factor is that it must be ever changing. By it's very nature there must be no real 'program' that is followed blindly for weeks regardless of the results. We must also train the body as one piece, and strengthen it the same way. This will make out joints and connective tissues that are stronger and more resistant to injury.

My template for this training system was ideal, as it was myself. Often programs are devised using subjects who are either genetically gifted, or average. I am a genetic defect. In Marine Corps boot camp at the age of twenty-one I weighed in at a whopping one hundred and fourteen pounds at five foot eight inches.

I was weak, and had no endurance. Now I run between one hundred and sixty and one hundred and seventy pounds, am freakishly strong for my size, and have bulletproof cardio. I am also highly resistant to injury due to training my entire body as one unit, and therefore not creating weak points as traditional 'bodybuilding style' isolation movements can.

During my time at Ft. Dix in 2007 I demonstrated this by throwing a two hundred and sixty pound soldier over my shoulders for a fireman's carry.

+ Click To Enlarge.
The Author Performing A 245 lb. Fireman's Carry
At 160 lbs. In Equinox Palo Alto, CA.

This will only be a brief overview of combat conditioning, but will give you an idea of how to start. Think of this as the blunt end of the stick. In the future I will write other 'sharp end of the stick' articles getting into more detail on kettlebell training, bodyweight training, field expedient training, etc.

Tire Pulling

Tire Pulling is the blunt end of the stick. Too often people look at this kind of training and say "Oh, that's the strongman training. I don't do that."

No, of course not. Why would anyone want to be a 'strong man'?

We do. So we start with tire pulling. The best part of this is that it costs virtually nothing. While it is nice to use a real dragging harness, you can fashion one out of some rope and loop it around your shoulders, or use a backpack. Then you just need a used tire. Drill a hole in it to thread your rope through, or even secure an eyebolt in it.

Weight is not the biggest factor in your tire choice. What will end up making the drag harder is the surface. A tire over loose gravel will be easy to pull. A tire over pavement will be a nightmare. We like nightmares, they prepare us for the coming reality.

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Weight Pulling.
Video: WMV - iPod Video

Now you simply drag the thing for three miles. Do it before you start telling yourself it would be too easy, or sounds nuts, or isn't a real workout. Make sure you are well hydrated.

This will build the strength in your posterior chain that you need for survival as an infantryman. How often do you do bench press movements in the field? Never. How often do you work your back and legs? Constantly.

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You will also find a cardio effect you most likely were not expecting. When I went from tire pulling three times a week for miles to humping a pack, humping the pack became a snap.

You can increase the difficulty by filling a duffel bag with forty or so pounds and carrying it over your shoulder as you drag the tire. You're about to find out just how weak you really are when it counts.

I often here people bragging about how that set of squats was really intense and they 'almost passed out'. Okay Champion, get back to me after you're done with that tire and duffel bag.

Another very significant factor in this style of training is the psychological. Those of you who have done intense infantry style training know that your mind wants to give up long before your body will. A big factor in distance tire pulling is mental.

+ Click To Enlarge.
The Author's Brother Integrates Short Distance Tire Pulling
Into His MMA Training. The Tire He Is Sitting On Still Has The Rim In It.

Hopefully by now you are beginning to get a better idea of how this training can benefit you if you have the distinction of serving in the combat arms. Another excellent resource for this style of training is It is not the same form I practice, but has much in common with it, and I have benefited greatly from Coach Glassman's efforts.


In the end this is all about finding what works best for you. In order to do this however, you must have intellectual honesty, and not fool yourself because the truth you find may be uncomfortable.

We must always remember that tactical fitness has a different goal than that of traditional sport training, because the sport that we train for is so unique. Our sport is ever changing and provides competitive opportunities for which we cannot possibly plan. It also requires sustained physical and psychological output which is unmatched by any other sport.

We do not train for looks, we train for survival. We perform feats others may think are impossible, and that is just our warm up. We work hard and never quit because it is not a matter of points scored, or reaching the finish line, it is a matter of survival.

We are the warrior class, and we will train like it.

About The Author:

    Jordan Vezina is a professional fitness trainer with a focus on combat conditioning and tactical fitness living in San Francisco, California, and is the owner and operator of Average To Elite Training Systems. He served five years in the United States Marine Corps Infantry, one year in the California National Guard Infantry, worked as a Staff Agent for Gavin DeBecker and Associates, and is trained in Anti/Counter Terror and Close Quarters Battle.