Strength Training for Special Operations Prep (2)

Strength Training for Special Operations Selection Prep

Strength & Power Training Methods 

 

Strength and power development is one of the primary pillars of SOF prep training along with conditioning (running, rucking, swimming), work capacity, and movement (including breathing) work. This article provides an overview of how to create strength training programs.

What is strength?

 

Strength is the peak force that can be produced during a movement. In other words, it’s the amount of force you can apply to an external object (ground, barbell, log, another human, etc) during any activity. More simply, it’s the ability to lift heavy things and move them around. 

When we refer to strength anywhere in our work, we are talking about what most people think of as ‘functional strength’ or force production that you can use in the real world to do things other than picking up barbells in the gym. 

How much you deadlift is a form of strength, but it only loosely correlates with the strength needed to carry a 70-pound ruck for 12 miles, scale a wall, or drag a partner. However, if you train according to the principles outlined throughout our book (and this article) you’ll develop a broad base of strength that will allow you to transfer those general capacities (think squatting, lunging, deadlifting, pressing, pulling) to specific capabilities when you go through the SOF training pipeline. 

Trade-Offs 

 

All adaptations lead to a cascade of effects in other systems in the body. Strength and power training are no different. As discussed in our book, maintaining movement capacity and reinforcing movement fidelity during the training process is essential for staying healthy. 

Increasing force production (strength and power) is often at odds with both of these goals. This is why we focus on how we do things as much as what we are doing. This often leads to slower short-term numerical progress but avoids the pitfalls of strength and power training methods developed by powerlifters or football players whose primary objective is force production, not becoming a special operator. 

Those types of athletes are willing to make the trade-offs in movement necessary to become freakishly strong and powerful. In fact, those trade-offs are often necessary to excel in those sports. There is a reason why powerlifters look like they are stuck in max back squat posture: they are.   

So, why even play this strength and power game? Because having relatively moderate levels of strength and power allows you to harness the upside of those qualities without leading to the downsides that accompany higher levels of force production. 

The stronger you are, the less the 70# pack will break you down, or the less the boat or log will feel. You’ll be working at a relatively lower percentage of your max force output, so you have more of a buffer zone as you fatigue. This reduces both mental and physical fatigue.  

You’ll also be more capable of absorbing forces if you take a bad step with a heavy ruck, or if someone else stumbles and shifts the load of the boat or log onto you. In other words, you’re less likely to get injured. 

Standards 

 

Our strength standards are at or slightly above the point of diminishing returns for the relationship between force production and movement capacity. We intentionally overdevelop strength going into selection because we know that 1-2 years of running, rucking, swimming, and doing calisthenics will lead to strength losses. By going in with a strength buffer, you can weather these losses without falling below what you’ll need to survive selection and training.   

Use our strength standards to assess where you’re at right now. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses – don’t worry about hitting every standard. Below we cover how to use where you fall relative to the standards to individualize your strength training.

  • Barbell Deadlift – 1.75x bodyweight (bw)
  • Trap Bar Deadlift – 2x bw
  • Barbell Back Squat – 1.75x bw
  • Barbell Front Squat – 1.5x bw
  • Weighted Pull-Up (any grip, usually neutral or supinated) – 50% bw men, 40% bw women
  • Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squat – 1x bw for 10 reps
  • Kettlebell Overhead Press – 45% bw men
  • Bench Press – 1.25x bodyweight 

Power 

  • Broad Jump – 8 feet men, 7 feet women
  • Vertical Jump – 25” men, 20” women

Looking for training? The BTE Training App automatically calculates your strength and power scores and provides an in-depth overview of where you need to focus your training efforts. This data will regularly and automatically adjust your training program to maintain strengths and improve weaknesses.

Coordination 

 

The primary means by which your body learns how to produce more force is via coordination of the nervous system and muscles. The more you do a movement within the methods described in this article, the more efficient, faster, and thus powerful the contractions within a muscle group become. 

Your brain also learns how to synchronize the contraction of multiple muscle groups throughout a movement to produce more force in specific movements. Over long periods of time, this also leads to other structural changes to tissues throughout the body that helps you produce and absorb more force. 

You don’t need to know the physiological details of how this happens to put strength training into practice and realize the results. Focus on coordination via exercise technique, program design, and effort (see below) to optimize your strength and power production. 

Effort

 

The second component you want to focus on during training is effort. The more intention you put into each rep, the more force you will produce. For example, if you are doing a barbell back squat and you move the weight at a peak velocity of 1.2 meters per second, you’ll produce significantly more force than the same weight at .8 meters per second. If your effort is to always move the object as quickly as possible regardless of load, you’ll get more out of each set. 

There are a few caveats to the statement above: 

Technique

As discussed, coordination is the most important variable during strength training. How you do a movement (technique) dictates which muscles work in what ways. You always want to put in 100% effort, but not at the expense of ideal technique. For this reason, sometimes you’ll have to use lighter loads and slower speeds (reduced complexity and stress) to improve learning. Viewed from a different perspective, training with ideal technique is just another form of focused effort. Trading technical quality for sheer physical effort isn’t really a net increase in how hard you’re trying, it’s just risking injury and building vulnerable movement patterns in order to avoid mental work and maybe temporarily boosting your ego. 

Eccentrics and Isometrics

We implement intentionally slow eccentrics (lowering or lengthening portion of a lift) or isometrics (holding position) to focus on improving a specific portion of a movement. Effort still needs to be high to maintain quality movements and contraction, but speed won’t be the indicator of effort in these situations.   

Energy System Demands 

If your focus is on developing work capacity, strength endurance, or targeting a specific energy system capacity, maximum contraction on each rep is usually not desired. Instead, the focus will be on total work done per unit time. In these situations, focus on the cues and intentions of the method being utilized. This is covered here in depth.  

Structure of workouts

 

Volume & Intensity

 

The next variables to manage when building your strength workouts are volume and intensity. However, volume is really the only variable to consider since intensity is dictated by the adaptation you are targeting. For example, if you’re lifting at 90% of your one-rep max, the only capability you’re targeting is strength. 

However, all capabilities can be developed in a range. For example, extensive strength and hypertrophy methods (high volume) tend to fall between 60-75% of your one-rep max. Extensive, or max strength methods fall between 75-100% of your one-rep max. 

With strength work, the lower the intensity the more volume you can recover from and adapt to; thus in most cases it’s helpful to adjust intensity within the range that allows you to program more total work. Each of the methods below provides a general range and example for both intensity and volume. Remember that performance is idiosyncratic – while guidelines are helpful, you need to adjust based on objective and subjective feedback. Keep this in mind when creating training programs for yourself or others. 

Movement Categories

 

We structure strength workouts based on movement categories, not muscle groups. As discussed, force production adaptations are specific to the movements you train. While these movements are general in nature, they are specific enough to translate well to real-world strength and power as an operator. 

Every primary lower body movement is a variation of triple flexion and extension of the hip, knee, and ankle joint. A hip hinge movement (think deadlift) emphasizes movement at the hip, with some movement at the knee and very little at the ankle. A split squat variation emphasizes movement at the ankle and knee with some hip movement. Think of these movements as occurring on a continuum from more hip dominant to more knee/ankle dominant. 

The execution (technique) of a movement changes which muscles and connective tissues are stressed and how. This is why we place such a large emphasis on the quality of work. 

What you do only matters as much as how you do it.  

We focus on training a variety of different movements because every locomotion activity (walking, jogging, running, sprinting) combines some combination of triple flexion and extension. By training coordination of the muscles (and the axial skeleton that they control) across this continuum, you improve your ability to produce and absorb force regardless of the activity you are doing or the type and amount of load you’re dealing with. 

This is also why we use different types of stances (split stance, staggered stance, lunges, step up, hip hinge, squat) and various loading patterns (goblet or rack holds, weights at sides, weight on the back, weight in one hand) throughout workouts. 

The only time we use isolation movements is for part practice. To review, part practice is designed to target a specific component of a larger movement that you want to improve before integrating it into a more complex movement. For example, single-leg hip lifts are a great exercise to learn how to control the position of the hip and rib cage while creating hip extension with the hamstrings and glutes. You might use single-leg hip thrusts as part practice before integrating that component pattern into a larger, more complex movement like a deadlift. 

Structure & Frequency

 

Every strength workout is organized as a full-body workout with the following structure: 

  • Warm-up
    • Breathing Exercises
    • Movement Capacity Exercises 
    • Bounding / MB Circuit 
  • Movement / power
    • Lateral or linear speed/movement, change of direction, power (1-3 exercises) 
  • Primary:
    • Lower body 
    • Upper body push
    • Upper body pull
  • Secondary (accessory work) 
    • Lower body (secondary emphasis)
    • Core

*The movement / power and secondary sections vary widely based on the individual, their goals, training stage, etc. 

We use this structure because we program one to three strength workouts per week depending on the needs of the individual and how close to selection they are. No other structure allows enough volume to maintain or build strength. 

Sometimes we’ll use an upper / lower body split for an operator who doesn’t need to do long duration runs / rucks for the foreseeable future. If you’re training for any selection, this isn’t you. 

Use the following guidelines when creating programming for each section of the structure outlined above: 

  • Movement / Power: Use the methods described in our book
  • Primary Strength: Use the methods outlined below
  • Secondary (accessory work): Lower volume and intensity targeting specific weak areas or focusing on learning / reinforcing a movement competency
    • Typically 2-4 sets of 6-15 reps (rep-based) or 30-60s (time based)

A training week should include at least one movement from each of the primary upper and lower body movement categories split between all strength training sessions.  

We program anywhere from 1-3 power/strength training sessions per week depending on the individual and where they are at in their training process. Below are basic guidelines based on your capability and where you are at in the training process:

  • Strength deficit (not anywhere close to standards) – three training sessions per week
  • Slight strength deficit (within 20% of most standards) – two training sessions per week
  • No strength deficit (can hit most standards) – one or two training sessions per week
    • Often times we’d do one full volume session and one half volume session
    • This is also where we may bias sessions more toward power, once strength is easily at or above standards
  • Peaking – Assuming you’ve prepared properly and are at least close to most strength standards – one or two sessions (at most) per week in the final month or two leading into a selection  

Methods

 

We separate strength into two subtypes of programming – extensive and intensive.

Extensive training blocks are used to refine movement quality, build movement fidelity, and drive work capacity. Loads are typically lower (50-75% of a one-rep max) and volume and quality (along with other psychological skills) are the primary goals of this type of training. Methods used during these blocks are not suitable for higher loads since the volume tends to be so high. 

Intensive strength falls into the more ‘traditional’ strength programming with lower volume and a wider variety of intensities and speeds. These methods are used to develop max strength and to maintain strength once you have a solid foundation. There are literally hundreds of methods that can be used.

Extensive strength methods

 

Eustress 

 

Covered in-depth here.

Cluster Sets

 

 A cluster set is a way to do a given number of reps with a heavier than usual weight by breaking the set up into segments separated by a quick rest.

This allows you to use more weight, and do more total work, while still doing the movement well. You stay “fresh” and maintain good form.

For example, a set of 6 single-arm dumbbell rows might be broken into a cluster of two quick sets of 3 reps. You’d do this by performing 3 rows, setting the weight down for about ten seconds (just long enough to take a few breaths) and then — with the same arm — completing the next 3 reps. 

When doing bilateral work, we break up higher-rep sets with specific breathing rests. For example, in the 5-3-2 protocol, the trainee does 5 reps of a lift, sets the weight down/racks it and performs 3 deep breaths followed by 3 more reps, 3 more breaths and finally 2 more reps. 

Total volume is similar to eustress methods – 30-100 total reps with intensity always relatively low (less than 80%).

Intensive strength methods

 

Gym PR 

 

A Gym PR, also known as a daily max, is done by testing how much weight you can lift for one single max-effort rep without grinding the rep or losing speed, range of motion, or technique. It’s the heaviest weight that you can lift easily and without the use of belts, wraps, stimulants, or death metal psych-ups. It’s different than a meet PR, which you would do in a powerlifting meet with all the assistance legally available, death metal, and a nose full of ammonia salts and where you’d grind out a rep no matter what as long as it meant getting the number on the board and setting a new personal record. The Gym PR is something you can do every day, calmly, easily, and without risk of injury.

You work up to it using an open format. There’s no fixed number of sets and reps. Say you’re doing a Gym PR for a deadlift and you can usually lift around 300 at the most.

You warm up and load 135 on the bar and pull a few sets of 2-3 reps, breathing easily between sets and moving fast.

Then you add another 50 pounds on the bar (185) and pull a double.

Toss tens on either side (205) and pull another two reps. Still fast and easy.

Consolidate it down to two plates, take a sip of water, and pull another rep. Easy.

245 goes up almost as fast for one rep.

You add another twenty pounds and 265 feels like you could still get some more weight on the bar and stay fast. So you add ten more pounds.

275 feels good, and it’s still pretty fast but definitely heavy. You add ten more pounds and it goes up with perfect form but you’re pretty sure that any more weight would slow you down and make you grind the rep out or lose technique.

So you cut it there and move on. That’s your gym PR for the day – 285 pounds. This shouldn’t take more than 10-15 minutes total and it should feel pretty easy the whole time.

For some lifts like the bench press, we typically use a triple instead of a heavy single. That means it’s a Gym PR for three reps instead of one. This is to save your joints and reduce the odds of you chewing on a barbell if your spotter isn’t paying attention or you don’t have one. 

Escalating Density Training (EDT)

 

Escalating Density Training is a way of doing as much work as possible within a fixed amount of time.

For instance, you might choose a period of 5 minutes, and see how many total reps you can do in that 5 minutes. Next time, you might try to do more total reps with the same weight as before. As you get better, the time gets “denser” — in other words, you do more reps in the same total time. 

EDT is a good way to get an intense workout in a relatively short amount of time.

It also depends on your ability to regulate the pace of your workouts yourself, and sense into your level of energy and fatigue, so that you can work in your “zone of optimal challenge” and get the most out of your workouts. Unlike some of our other training protocols, there’s no limit to how high you get your heart rate in EDT workouts.

You can make the session as intense as you want to with one catch: the movement quality has to be excellent. Thus, it’s usually better to do fewer reps (say 3-5 reps at a time) with short breaks, instead of trying to do more reps in a row.

In other words, instead of doing 15 reps all at once, do:

3 reps + a moment of rest + 3 reps + rest + 3 reps + rest + 3 reps + rest + 3 reps

Your goal is to do as many of these sets as possible within a fixed amount of time (usually 5-15 minutes) with good form.

EDT can also be executed as a circuit with two exercises. When more than two exercises are included in an EDT circuit the effectiveness drops significantly.

Example program

 

There are a lot of variables to consider, so don’t worry about being perfect. The human body is amazingly resilient and your training program doesn’t need to be perfect. Don’t let worries about tiny programming details keep you from putting in consistent work. Do the work, move well, listen to your body, and adjust accordingly. 

The goal of this example phase is to build a foundation of movement competency with moderate loads. Movements are fairly basic (nothing complex) and total volume is moderate – not towards the higher end of what is possible. This was an introductory block for a new client to see how they responded. 

 

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2 thoughts on “Strength Training for Special Operations Selection Prep”

  1. Is there any value in prescribing percentages or do you tend to rely more on RPE/RIR in your strength work?

    1. Yes, percentages can be more effective in certain situations; e.g. a strength emphasis phase for a more advanced trainee. But, when training for selection, we’ve found RPE/RIR to be more useful because there is more variability in day to day readiness due to the overall training load and competing demands.

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