How strong does the soldier or special operator need to be? There is a great deal of ignorance and stupidity proffered across the internet these days regarding this subject. After 20 years of research, coaching, and training all over the world, I have a definitive answer for you. But first I wish to address the subject as a whole and in generalized terms.
The question of how strong a soldier or operator needs to be is no different from the same question of athletes. How strong does an athlete need to be? The obvious answer is strong enough to perform the task or activity. That answer ignores the many nuances of biomotor activity, especially strength, which has no less than 12 sub-classifications. Over the past decade I have watched with horror as the rise of the strength and conditioning “coach” or “specialist” has come to dominate the internet and fitness magazines.
What no one has bothered to explain to the public is that a strength and conditioning coach is but one member of a sports training and coaching team and frankly, they are the least important. This is born out by the well-founded observation that most elite athletes succeed in spite of their S&C coach, not because of him. But that’s not what is portrayed all over the internet. What has happened on the internet is thousands of S&C coaches are trying to sell products and their name. They only have one skill and one slice of the pie. You should know what comes next. When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
As a result, we have the S&C crowd proclaiming that everyone needs a massive one rep max in everything or the functional/HIT crowd pushing anything that will exhaust you to the point of collapse. Both are dead wrong, which explains why none of them are actually producing champions, soldiers or operators. The majority of people engaged in any of these pursuits are getting injured and dropping out. The “fitness industry” as a whole has a pathetic 3-5% success rate by their own metrics. On the other hand, the athletic world, those actually producing world champions, approaches the issue first by practicing the activity and specific tasks (skill) and then addressing weaknesses with targeted strength and conditioning drills. That is the small role of the S&C coach. You didn’t think that the S&C coach was the key to Superbowl success, did you? Of course not!
This then brings us to various measures of strength because today so many military recruits, SOF candidates, and tactical athletes are wasting their time and money trying to build massive 1RMs. You may be aware that every sport has a fitness model that defines the idealanthropometric characteristics as well as specific physical characteristics and entry standards. If not, you may be familiar with the combine system used by most professional sports, which is a part of that model. It’s a fairly common sense issue. The LA Lakers are not signing any player under 6’5″ and you’re not going to be an NFL lineman with a 275lb 1RM bench press. Duh!
You may have also heard various strength coaches mention that certain types of elite athletes all have a minimum bench press, squat, clean, etc… These are all interesting points and they are all completely invalid. These coaches ought to know that but they’re selling something you don’t need so they have to make it sound good.
The issue comes down to specificity. The fact that a Division 1 football center needs to have a 500lb bench press has zero bearing on the soldier regardless of MOS. As a matter of fact, too much strength and too much muscle mass very quickly becomes a severe liability. When you specialize too much, gains come at the expense of other skills and/or biomotor abilities. As it happens, the soldier is the ultimate generalist, not a specialist. However, that doesn’t mean he has to sacrifice. The fact is that you can, up to a point, develop all or most biomotor abilities at the same time. Beyond that line, specialization is required. Therefore, the more you chase strength you don’t need, the more you loose stamina, speed, and so on. This proverbial line is the level that classical multi-disciplinary athletes throughout the ages trained to either intentionally or attained by virtue of their training.
This line in the sand for maximal strength is not the final word on strength for soldiers. I can tell you that developing maximal strength up to that line in the sand across all movement patterns is OK and will avoid the problems cause by specialization. However, it’s of no use to the soldier or most athletes. Strength athletes specialize beyond this point in specific lifts. Contact sport athletes stay at it, just below it or just over it in certain sport-specific lifts. All other athletes stay below it and because they are not maximal strength athletes like powerlifters or Olympic lifters, they rarely go anywhere near their 1RM. As if to add injury to insult, even the best strength athletes in the world only go above 70% 1RM 20% of the time. The message is clear, maximal strength training is not the way to go for anything, including maximal strength athletes.
The best powerlifters and Olympic lifters actually spend 80% of their entire yearly training time lifting weights below 70% of their 1RM. That alone should erase your predilection with maximal strength training. Athletes who rely on running, speed, agility, excellent hand and eye coordination and so on (just like soldiers) train far lower down. The majority of their work is done between 20-50% 1RM and frankly, it can be far more painful than max strength work. Their focus is on skill, stamina, and speed. The purpose of their training is to give them a little boost. The team that runs harder for longer with the most skill wins, not the team who has the most heavy squatters and biggest biceps.
Now that I have tormented you this long, let’s examine the numbers. When it comes to maximal strength, that line in the sand where generalization meets the need for specialization, these are the 1RM numbers:
- Pull-up: 60% BW
- Snatch: 120% BW
- Overhead Press: 125% BW
- Bench Press: 150% BW
- Lunge: 150% BW
- Clean: 150% BW
- Squat: 200% BW
- Deadlift: 250% BW
This isn’t quite as straightforward as you might suspect. Body composition plays a big part in this. You might be tempted to think about those fat powerlifters and Olympic lifters who are fat because they need the body mass to offset the weight they are lifting. That doesn’t apply here because these numbers are 60% of the drug and gear free world records. That means the weight is light enough that using excess body mass to offset the load isn’t in play here.
When calculating the numbers above, you want to use your ideal weight. For me, at 68 inches in height, that ideal body weight is 165lbs and I know from experience I can go up to 170lbs and still have that all around performance. But what if I was an overweight guy and weighed 215lbs? Have a look at the difference relying solely on bodyweight makes:
- Pull-up: 98lbs vs. 129lbs
- Snatch: 197lbs vs. 258
- Overhead Press: 205lbs vs. 269
- Bench Press: 246lbs vs. 323lbs
- Lunge: 246lbs vs. 323lbs
- Clean: 246lbs vs. 323lbs
- Squat: 328lbs vs. 430lbs
- Deadlift: 410lbs vs. 537lbs
As you can see, the difference is profound. But the truth is that we don’t really give a damn about 1RM. The reason is that 1RM and performance at specific percentages of 1RM are not linear beyond 60% 1RM. At 60% 1RM we can be confident that you can perform 12-15 repetitions if your 1RM is accurate. The scale is linear and accurate from 60% to 100%. However, this does not mean that you can lift 50% 1RM 25 times or 40% 1RM 35 times. Not even close. The association with 1RM ends at 60%. Below that, you must specifically train the muscles to do what you want them to do, and, you can train them to do exponentially more work below 60% 1RM than you can above 60% 1RM. It is by training at 20-40% 1RM that champions are made. This is why maximal strength training, while useful once in a while, has no true bearing on performance beyond a few repetitions. That won’t cover the ability to perform a single kickoff return. Athletes and soldiers make their money training for muscular endurance, general endurance, speed-stamina and other biomotor abilities, of which, maximal strength is the least important.
Now we turn to my mad scientist alter ego. The average ideal body weight for men is 170lbs/76kg. The average working loads for male athletes are between 20-50% 1RM. At the end of weeks of calculations, it may startle you to discover that you can literally compute training loads down to three to six standard loads:
- 3 Loads: 16, 24 & 32kg
- 6 Loads: 12, 16, 20, 24, 28, 32kg
Using these loads, preferably with competition style kettlebells, you can train all but two movement patterns. Those two are trained using a pull-up bar and dip bars. Saving you the long drawn out math, we now come to that age old question of strength for soldiers. What standards do you actually need to train to? My answer is the same as the Russian answer given to me over a decade ago. If you’re knocking out at least 25+ reps with a set of 24kg kettlebells, performing at least 25 dips and 15-20 strict pull-ups, then the enemy and everyone else should be extremely disturbed at your presence. For SOF and Mountain troops, squats and cleans should be performed with a set of 32kg KBs, while the rest are performed with 24kg KBs. These troops must also add weighted pull-ups and swimming to their training.
I know it feels like I made some sort of quantum leap there, but what I did was save you a full three hours of mathematical explanation. Now let’s discuss reality and 1RMs. Show me a guy who can knock out 20 reps with a set of 32kg KBs and I’ll show you a guy who can absolutely murder a 328lb barbell back squat and run up a mountain in full kit with no problem. Show me a guy with a 328lb back squat and I’ll put my entire paycheck on the fact he can’t do 20 reps with a set of 32kg KBs.
It’s time to change your paradigm.
**Additional notes: The exercise in question is the Double KB Squat and we can add in the Double KB Clean as well. Otherwise, there is no reason to ever use more than 24kg for any other exercise.
3 Loads and 6 Loads refers to the kettlebell sets you would need. You can use the traditional three sets (16, 24 & 32kg) or six weights as described.
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