How to Get in Shape for Military

No matter which branch of the military you join, you'll have to pass a physical fitness test and go through basic training. But basic, it isn't. The combination of physical training and field exercises is an intense experience meant to make you strong and capable. Make sure you're ready for it by starting your own training well ahead of boot camp.

The Army physical fitness test includes a 2-mile timed run. (Image: pixelfit/E+/GettyImages)

Tip

The best way to get fit for the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines is to do regular cardiovascular and strength training as well as stability and flexibility exercises.

Lose Weight If Necessary

Before applying for acceptance by the military, weight loss may be in order. Carrying excess weight isn't good for your health in general, but it affects basic training by slowing you down, possibly making it too much for you to handle.

It could also prevent you from being accepted by the military, according to strength and conditioning coach and former Navy SEAL Stew Smith, who reports that thousands of applicants are refused because they don't meet the height-weight/body-fat standards.

Whether you're trying to get fit for the army in four weeks or you've got 12 months, your weight-loss strategy is the same: Create a calorie deficit by increasing your activity level and eating a healthy diet. The workout to get in shape for the military, including running and resistance training, will help you burn a lot of calories, but you'll have to be diligent about your diet if you want to lose weight and have the energy to train your hardest.

Run and Run Some More

Basic training involves a lot of running. To pass the Army's Basic Training Physical Fitness Test (PFT), for example, you'll need to complete three events, including a timed 2-mile run. Male recruits, ages 17 to 21, must complete the run with a time of 16:36 or less, and female recruits of the same age must finish in 19:42 or less, according to Smith. For men and women, ages 22 to 26, the minimum requirements are 17:30 and 20:36, respectively.

So, not only do you need to be able to run 2 miles, but you also need to be able to run at least an eight- to 10-minute mile. You may be able to do that now, or you may be a long way from that goal. If you're in the latter group, running is going to be central to your training program.

Even if you're able to meet or exceed the 2-mile standard, increasing your endurance beyond that mark will help you perform better in physical training and field exercises. A regular running routine will also help you burn calories and fat if you have a few extra pounds to lose.

Running Training Program

According to Smith, to become an above-average runner requires training five or six days a week. Even if you just want to pass the PFT with an average score, you'll need to train three days a week.

Smith recommends doing longer runs of 3 to 5 miles two or three days per week, and two shorter interval workouts two days per week. Longer runs will help you work on your endurance, while interval training will help you increase your speed.

For an interval training workout for the Army, Smith recommends setting a goal for your 2-mile pace, then dividing that into eighth-mile, quarter-mile and half-mile distances. Go to a track and practice sprinting these distances as hard as you can. Recover at a walk or jog for the same distance you ran; then repeat. You may not be able to reach your goal time yet, but as you train, you'll get closer to that goal.

Workout to Get in Shape for the Military

The other element of getting in shape for the military is building strength and muscular endurance.

No matter what branch of the military you join, you'll need to demonstrate upper-body and abdominal strength and endurance. The PFT for the Army includes doing two minutes of pushups and two minutes of situps, and the Marine Corps PFT includes pullups and crunches, according to Today's Military. Find out what your PFT includes and then plan a program to reach and exceed those goals.

While those moves should feature prominently in your training, you'll also need to build total-body strength, agility and flexibility. The U.S. Army recommends that workouts include bodyweight calisthenics exercises, stability training and flexibility training, along with running and other forms of conditioning.

Building Total-Body Strength

Smith advises training five to six days a week, doing upper-body and core exercises on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and lower-body exercises on Tuesday, Thursday and, for a six-day plan, Saturday. He recommends including:

  • Pushups
  • Pulldowns
  • Bench press
  • Rows
  • Squats
  • Plank
  • Crunches

The U.S. Army also recommends including conditioning exercises that will build endurance and strength:

  • High jumps
  • Mountain climbers
  • Single-leg pushups
  • Rear and forward lunges
  • Situps
  • V-ups

You can arrange these exercises in a circuit, doing one set of each exercise without rest between sets. Rest for one or two minutes after the first round; then repeat the circuit for three to five total rounds.

Specific Exercise Training

Along with building total-body strength, practice doing the specific exercises as your PFT requires them to be performed. Work up to doing two minutes of situps and pullups by doing as many as you can at one time. Continue to increase your reps as your strength and endurance improve.

The other exercises you do for total-body strength will also build the strength you need to do the PFT exercises, so be sure to include variety in your program.

Hip Stability and Flexibility

The U.S. Army highlights hip stability and flexibility as key components of a workout to get in shape for the military. These are important for developing functional strength and ease of movement. Exercises to improve hip stability include:

  • Lateral leg raise
  • Lateral bent leg raise
  • Lateral medial leg raise
  • Squats and lunges

Though flexibility isn't part of most PFTs, the Coast Guard does include a sit-and-reach flexibility test. But the U.S. Army still stresses that flexibility is an important part of a training program. According to U.S. Army Basic, stretching will help prevent injury during rigorous training, which could stall your progress and potentially put a stop to your training — and your military goals.

U.S. Army Basic recommends an intensive stretching program of 10 to 15 minutes a day. Do stretches for all your major muscle groups, including the chest, arms, abs, back and lower body. Examples include:

  • Doorway chest stretch
  • Side stretch
  • Seated forward fold
  • Hip flexor lunge
  • Standing thigh stretch
  • Overhead triceps stretch
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