Checking In

This is a piece I wrote for the curious users on StartingStrength.com. You can view it HERE.

Taken in Afghanistan, 2018

A handful of years ago content on 70’s Big was hard to come by. You fine folk have been asking where I’ve gone ever since, and now I finally choose to let you know in the face of extraordinary circumstances. I am a United States Army Special Forces soldier, also known as a Green Beret. Ever since I put on the hat, I poured myself into this job in order to prepare for and participate in war. I wanted to kill people that deserve to be killed, save people that deserved to be saved (medically), and free people that deserve to be freed. And I did all of those things on my first deployment along with all kinds of combat and near-death experiences. I don’t think I’m cool; it’s more that I’m lucky to have been in a handful of fire fights and done things in order to live through them.  I assure you, there are much finer men than me who have been in much more combat and done much better things than I have.

While there were exciting times, there were others full of terrible loss. There are much finer men than me who have been in much more combat and done much better things than I have. I don’t think I’m cool; it’s more that I’m lucky to have been in a handful of fire fights and done things in order to live through them.

While there were exciting times on the first deployment, there were others full of terrible loss. We lost a US Army Infantry soldier and I lost a long-term relationship. Because of those hardships, I spent 2018 preparing for a second combat deployment and, just as importantly, bettering myself as a healthy individual.

About one month into the next deployment we were on a combat operation in a very mountainous area. My element conducted a short hault and I discussed how we would clear a set of compounds that were tactically in a disadvantageous area. The area I stood had been cleared by EOD personnel and had foot traffic around the area. I shifted my weight under my ruck, took a step, and was blown up. As my best friends and teammates treated me, I gave them medical instructions to help their care. My teammates were heroes that
day. Despite the initiation of a “troops in contact”, I didn’t die in the dirt in a far away land. Instead, they put me on a helicopter and countless other fine individuals did and continue to do their jobs of caring for me.

I am a double below the knee (BTK) amputee. The fact that my right leg is a BTK is amazing and a testament to the fantastic surgeons at Walter Reed. My testicles were also blown off, so I require testosterone replacement therapy for the rest of my life and whether or not I can have children is an unknown. I work hard every day to improve and will continue doing so. There’s no definitive date because there are too many variables, but I’ll leave the hospital some time later this year.

Lastly, the next question I’m asked is whether or not you can do anything for me. Your support is invaluable and all I could ever ask for. There are currently more of us wounded and killed, my friends included. If you should feel inclined to donate money, the Special Forces Foundation is an amazing organization. All of the money goes to us “wounded warriors” and the Gold Star families (the wives and families of personnel killed in action). I know the gentleman who runs it personally, and he’s both honorable and kind.

As for me, I’m good. My big medical issues are progressing as planned. Physical training and rehab are a part of my daily future, but I also rest and taking care of myself via meditation and journaling. I’ll take some time to let this situation percolate, but I’ll be back. There’ll be more writing, podcasts, and other ways to facilitate teaching, learning, and sharing. I’m especially interested in stories of extreme human experience and the lessons learned from them. Strength and conditioning will always be here,
but my scope of practice has grown. It’ll be just like old times, but I’ll dive into any topic that is interesting and helpful.

When I was MEDEVAC’d, I went to the Role II and received 68 units of blood. Which is a lot. Above all else, I’m grateful to be alive. I’m honored you still think of me and even more honored when you want to donate. You can do so through the Special Forces Foundation (SFF). There’s also a fundraiser being conducted on my behalf called Climbing for Casualties. My friend Matt Randle will conduct an asinine climb in Nepal and donations go to the SFF. Look for @climbingforcasualties on Instagram. Again, thank you for your interest and I look forward to getting my legs jacked, pressing over body weight, entertaining you, and learning along the way. Stronger every day.

Justin, Rip, and AC pose by the Bill Starr Memorial in WFAC around 2009.

Memorial Day 2018

We’re at the end of a long weekend where most people party, drink, and generally enjoy having Monday off. In the past, I routinely made the point that the way to memorialize service members who have died is to live as honorable a life as possible. But this year I’d like to add to that, because I’m not quite sure having parties is how everyone would celebrate the death of their own family members.

Regardless of your political view on war, the recent wars, or the military itself, this is a day to acknowledge both a sacrifice and the reason for it. Most of the time, when a young person swears to defend the Constitution of the United States of America via military service, they are doing so because they believe they are serving their country. Our “country” includes the people in it. A service member knowingly makes a decision that reduces their freedom in hopes that it benefits the country and the people who exist in it.

While it’s true a service member has chosen their path of their own volition, it doesn’t mean the sacrifices are not multiple and varied. They are told how to look, what to wear, and what to do. They are often sent on training trips away from their family, and the silly bastards in the combat arms are subjected to a litany of annoying discomfort, pain, and environmental duress. Other trips take them overseas, and at times those trips are in third world countries and war zones. And if it wasn’t enough being away from family, freedom, and the United States of America, people die. And if they don’t die, they are exposed to things physically and emotionally that will affect them throughout their lives: chemicals in the air, burn pits, horrible food, TBIs, sleeping on cots, and generally getting worn down from all of it while carrying 50 to 100 pounds of gear on a regular basis.

Children miss their parents, relationships end, and hearts break for one reason or another. And suicide rates remain high.

It’s not all shit and death, but it’s not waving flags and barbecue. Love or hate the military, my point is the people who do it believe they are doing it for you. For everyone. And themselves. And they would die for you to maintain the right to criticize it. And they do. And you don’t know their names. And that’s okay, because nobody wants a pat on the back.

So, if you use Memorial Day for drinks and parties, just take a moment to acknowledge the masochistic decision to serve the country we all enjoy. And then please get back to living honorably.

Flexible Training Programs

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis article is written by my good friend Shaun Trainor, owner and operator of Project Warrior in Fairy Meadow, New South Wales, Australia. Shaun spent 12 years in the Australian military with the last half of it in 2nd Commando Regiment, a special operations unit. 

The subject of Justin’s recent post (Category Programming) on training around an erratic schedule is one that is near and dear to my heart. One of the things that used to frustrate me when I was trying to design a training program was that almost everything out there has a weekly structure. Obviously that makes sense for the majority of people, because they have a Monday-to-Friday job, but it makes it difficult for those of us who work in the military, law enforcement, or emergency services.

I spent 12 years in the Australian military; the last 6 in SOF. Obviously this was a job that required a high level of physical preparedness, but it was also a job that at times made it extremely difficult to train effectively. On any given day I was doing anything from hanging around the office, drinking coffee, to climbing a caving ladder up the side of a ship with 90lbs of gear strapped to me.

The problem
Say I’m running a basic Texas Method and Friday is my squat intensity day. But what happens if I spent Thurday night in an exercise that involved clearing a 30 story office building until 4AM? How do you think my squats are going to go?

The obvious answer is that I take the session off, or just go really light, and it’s no big deal. Everybody has life interfere with their training. However not everybody works an unpredictable schedule that may involve intense physical demands for a week or two on end. There is only so much that this can happen before the whole effect of the program starts to be destroyed.

Military personnel – especially those deployed in combat roles – as well as Police, Fire & Rescue, and paramedics can all been dicked around so much as to make a weekly program almost unworkable. This was certainly my experience.

Weekly Template
After spending quite some time struggling to implement a normal strength training program as an operator, I then tried a template solution. I determined what sessions I wanted to do in a standard week, and then shuffled them around week to week to fit what was going on. For example, you might decide that you were going to squat twice, deadlift once, press once and bench once. You can then decide what you’re going to do each day, depending on what’s going on with work/life.

This worked a little better than trying to stick to a weekly program, but I didn’t love it. Depending on how busy my week was, I’d often get behind my allocated sessions. If the disruption last more than a few days – as it often would – then the template didn’t work very well.

Rotation system
After that I tried a much more basic approach. I realised that any sort of weekly program wasn’t going to work for me when my job was busy, or when I was deployed. There’s too many variables when you’re overseas, and you often don’t know about a mission until a day before. Detailed planning in these sort of situations doesn’t work very well.

I tried a much more basic solution: a Rotation System.

  1. Squat
  2. Deadlift
  3. Press

Each training session, I would hit one of the lifts. The next session, whenever that was, I would move on to the next lift in the order. The order is designed so that you can still hit the sessions back to back if you’re lucky enough to get three days in a row to train.

No matter how much (or little) you’re getting to train, your work is balanced between the main lifts.

Sporting the Project Warrior gym shirt

Sporting the Project Warrior gym shirt

Rep Scheme 
The rep scheme for the day is down to you, but considering this is a very basic program I usually run a 3×5 or 5×5. There isn’t a great need for complex rep schemes because this isn’t a long-term solution; it’s just something that’s designed to keep you ticking when work is sucking donkey dick. If you want some higher intensity you could work up to a heavy triple then drop down and hit a 3×5.

Accessory Work
Depending on how physically demanding your last few days have been, you can either add in some assistance work or simply leave it there. If you’re beat up and tired, then at least you got some squats in. If it’s been an easy day or two, then you might throw in 1-2 accessory exercises. Keep the total number of sets at six or under for your accessories. The whole reason you’re doing this type of skeleton program is because training isn’t your main focus at the moment. If you’re overseas or on shift for Law Enforcement, then you don’t want to cripple yourself with assistance exercises because you don’t know what the coming days will bring.

Conditioning
Conditioning is going to be driven by context. Some people will be able to let this slide for a few weeks without much hassle, others will need to keep up regular conditioning as well as their lifting. I fall more into the former catagory, but if you are in the latter then at least keep it either very short or very long. Either do something like a single Tabata or a few Prowler sprints, or go for a long, easy run. Don’t get sucked into doing the 10-30min ‘mess you up’ CrossFit type workouts.

Bench Press
I’m sure there are people who are already agitated about the lack of bench in the rotation. If you want to keep benching during this, you have two options. You can alternate press days with bench days, so that every second time you get to a press day you bench press instead. That’s what I personally did. The other option is to include it after you press. If you take this option then I wouldn’t press more than a 3×5.

Deadlift
Whether or not you deadlift is going to depend on your specific situation. If you’re overseas and you might have jobs coming up, or if you’re wearing armour all day – on a CQB course, for example – then you probably don’t want to pull heavy. A couple of times I went out on missions with sore legs. It sucked a little bit, but it wasn’t terrible. I only did it once with bad DOMS in my lower back, and it was not a fun night. Trying to clear compounds in Helmand with my back blowing up wasn’t a good idea. However if you don’t need the same level of readiness at a moment’s notice, then there isn’t a problem deadlifting as usual.

If you don’t want to do heavy deads then you’ll need some other sort of posterior-chain exercise. RDLs and good mornings are an obvious choice. While power cleans aren’t a bad option you’ll probably need to still do RDLs as well.

Speed and banded deadlifts work well to keep your numbers up without having to pull heavy weights. If you’re going to do speed deads, avoid the temptation to start putting more and more weight on the bar until suddenly it’s a heavy triple.

I spent another six months in Afghanistan last year, and on Justin’s advice the majority of my deadlift days consisted of RDL 5×6, followed by 3×15 banded good mornings. It let me bring up my posterior-chain without the sort of fatigue that deadlifts can bring. When I got back to Australia my deadlift bounced back to where it was before pretty easily.

Short-term Solution
Is a rotation system the perfect training program? Absolutely not. It’s designed to be used when work or life prevents you from using something better. It was my answer to the unpredictable and arduous nature of my profession. It should keep you ticking over, and split your work between the main lifts in a simple to program fashion.

Since my last trip I’ve retired from active duty and opened my own S&C facility (Project Warrior). I use a variation of this with any of our new lifters that we get who can’t, for whatever reason, commit to a weekly program.

Category Programming

Some times life gets in the way of training. Whether it’s a surprise work project, family issues, or forced physical activity, it can throw off a well-intentioned strength program. The best way to mitigate the damage is by trying to hit the most important lifts the way the program wanted (i.e. getting a bit of volume if it was supposed to be a volume day). This might mean performing an abbreviated training session by cutting some exercises. Other options include removing a whole training day, shifting the entire week forward or backward a day, or having some light or medium sessions before getting back into heavy training.

But there are some of you out there that can’t even commit to a regular template because your schedule is so erratic — like parents with a newborn baby, shift workers, nurses, fire fighters, police officers, and military personnel. I see this the most in special operations guys; training, missions, or scheduled physical training will interfere with training templates.

The following is what I like to program for these populations — especially SOF guys — that need to tack quality strength training onto their demanding schedule.

Categories

There are three or four categories that will comprise a strength training session. There is the Main Lift, a Pressing Movement, Assistance Work (or Pulling Movement), and a Trunk Builder. The trainee will pick one exercise from each category for a given session. The more deficient a trainee is in a given area of strength or muscular balance, the more they should emphasize that weakness in their week.

Deadlifts don't have to be back breaking to be effective

Deadlifts don’t have to be back breaking to be effective

Having categories allows the trainee to pick what exercises they can do based on what other stress they have had to endure in the week. For example, if there has been a lot of pounding on the knees via running or rucking, then squatting or cleans may not be desirable and will only limit recovery. Instead, that trainee may choose to do medium deadlifts.

Also, each session doesn’t have to be “balls to the wall”. Even doing a light or medium session with basic barbell exercises will maintain or build strength, muscularity, and prevent injuries. Hard charging athletes and SOF guys typically need to be taught the concept of rest or lower stress training.

The category method is essentially an organized autoregulation of strength training. It still provides a good systemic stress and if two or three sessions are preformed a week, then strength can be maintained or built on top of a rigorous schedule.

Main Lifts include squat, deadlift, power clean and jerk, and front squat.

Presses include press, bench press, and push press.

Assistance Work includes pull-ups, chin-ups, barbell rows, and RDLs.

Trunk Builders include side planks, Turkish get-ups, and spinal stabilization exercises (e.g. Stuart McGill stuff).

Note the exercises are all compound movements that work lots of joints and musculature. If you have limited time to strength train — as SOF personnel often do — then make the most of that time with movements that use large muscles that take the major joints through a full range of motion. Prehab/Rehab and Mobility work is not included here as it should be a separate, yet consistent, element in a training program.


Mike uses front squats in his program to build his squat and stone lifting strength. 


The trainee can vary the above exercises (i.e. they can perform cleans by themselves or clean and jerks instead of the power variation), but exercises don’t need to be cute. Chains, bands, or weird-ass partial movements are unnecessary for most athletes. Once a good strength base has been established (in the barbell lifts as well as balanced musculature), training can shift into more explosive or speed training to maximize the strength-to-weight ratio, but most athletes and SOF guys are in a perpetual state of being beaten down and recovering that a shift in training usually isn’t necessary.

Generally the Main Lifts and Presses are done for three sets of three to five reps whereas Assistance Work is done for three to five sets of five to ten reps. Certain exercises will require a different set and rep scheme — like deadlifts, clean and jerks, power cleans, and Turkish Get-Ups — but their inclusion is more important than their rep schemes.

I keep referencing SOF guys because I made this template when programming for them, but this can work for any person who has a crazy schedule or simply wants more freedom and variation in their program. If you’re busy or getting beaten down throughout the week, try this Category Method of programming and choose exercises you want to focus on for a couple of months. Even if your schedule isn’t crazy, this type of programming may give you some stimulating variety in your training yet still focus on a handful of lifts you want to improve on.

This kind of template will allow someone to be consistent in their training regardless of what else is going on in their life. And with strength and muscularity, consistency is the first step to success.

 

Veteran’s Day 2013

In Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, the Terran Federation is a limited democracy in which full citizenship comes with a price. Earning citizenship and suffrage — the right to vote — was accomplished by two years of voluntary Federal Service (AKA military service). The concept that a society be made of people who have contributed to their country and government was important to Heinlein, who served in the Navy after graduating from the Naval Academy. Earning that voice in government, in Heinlein’s eyes, is better than anyone “who is 18 years old and has a body temperature near 37 °C.”

The idea that veterans are deeply rewarded for their sacrifice is an admirable one; something that would inspire appreciation for gained freedoms and instill a foundation of work ethic. In our society, veterans make analogous sacrifices. First, they pledge an allegiance to uphold the longstanding tradition of morals and honor of their respective country. Second, they knowingly surrender various birth-given rights and are held to a higher standard for their actions. Third, they play their specific role in an organization that provides and maintains the security of freedom for all countrymen. And fourth, they do so with meager compensation and the occasional “thank you.”

Some might say that the veteran has chosen their fate; their own volition led them into their job just as a civilian has chosen theirs. Yet the difference is that veteran made that decision knowing what was at stake. The Airman who works on jets or the Ranger who puts two rounds into a terrorist consciously made a decision that subjects them to the needs of their respective branch. They chose to reduce their freedom so that you and I can under appreciate ours.

Many of you will feel noble on these holidays by publicly saying, “Thank you, troops,” but your words will only accomplish so much. Your support does mean something to a veteran, but you can do so much more with action. While all service members sacrifice, some leave war with mental or physical scars while others return home in a casket draped with their flag. What remains is a person struggling to cope, whether it be with what they could have done to save their best friend or how to move on without their spouse in their life.

70’s Big and I ask you to do more than just speak words today. I ask you to donate $1 to two foundations: The Wounded Warrior Project and The Special Operations Warrior Foundation. Both are legitimate organizations that help veterans or their remaining families in a variety of ways (read their mission statements here and here respectively). I make no apology for asking you to donate your hard-earned, well deserved money; I know it’s hard to come by in today’s economy, yet show your thanks to these veterans with action. I can tell you that veterans, including the fallen or disabled, are powerlifters, weightlifters, strength trainees, CrossFitters, bodybuilders, and S&C enthusiasts. They are husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, and friends. Some of them need more than words and we have the ability to help them. $1 for each charity is all I ask for you to show that you truly support your troops (Update: The Special Operations Warrior Foundation has a $10 minimum).

Donate to The Wounded Warrior Project here. 

Donate to The Special Operations Warrior Foundation here. 

(Non-American countries can post equivalent charity foundations in the comments)

Thank you to current and past veterans for making the choice to serve your country at the expense of limiting the most important values of all: freedom and liberty.