Secrets of the Special Forces

January 27, 2011, 3:04 pmmenshealth

If you want to be the ultimate combatant, you need ultimate fitness.

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By Dominic Cadden

Photography by Mark Mawson

On a bracing morning at the Singleton army base near Newcastle, 20 fidgety soldiers have assembled in the early light. Under the watchful gaze of three selection officers, they fall into line and wrestle coloured bibs over their heads. It’s time to warm up for the first of a series of tests that will decide whether they possess the right stuff to join the ranks of Australia’s finest fighting units, the Special Forces.

“There’s no excuse,” observes one of the selection officers. “They’ve had 15 weeks to prepare for it, and with recommended training programs. The biggest surprise is how hard the warm-up is.”

Physical Training Instructor (PTI) Sergeant Gareth (no last names here, to protect identities) steps forward to lead the candidates through a rigorous routine of sidesteps, backward running, heel kicks and rapid sprints on the spot. As the men begin to blow harder, the instructions get more convoluted.

The climax sees the blue bibs tackling an obstacle course anti-clockwise, while the white bibs go clockwise. Each group then needs to change direction, go over the log on the second pass, under it on the third. White bibs must loop back out to the left after the finish line, blue to the right. The pace quickens, legs tire and instructions fly thick and fast. Soon, there are men flapping about like landed fish. In true parade ground fashion, the worst offenders receive a spray from the onlookers.

“If you can’t follow simple instructions from a PTI,” yells Sgt Gareth, “how can you follow complex instructions in the field?”

It takes a “special” type of fitness to be in Australia’s Special Forces – the type of total package any competitive bloke would love to have at his disposal. You need to be strong at the same time as having serious lung power; fast, yet able to call on the stamina to complete a four-hour march. Agility and flexibility are needed for complex, often awkward manoeuvres, on land and in water. And then you need that final key ingredient Special Forces officers everywhere look for – mental toughness. Display all those qualities and you become a member of a rare breed. Slip up and you are sent back to the pack.

Personally, I like the idea of being a rare beast.

All the quickfire twists, turns and tumbles serve a dual purpose.

In addition to revealing levels of agility, “we’re also checking for injuries, especially ankles and knees, and range of motion in the shoulders”, explains Sgt Gareth.

The two-minute time limit to complete each circuit adds to the pressure, and one stout guy is puffing away as he goes through the demanding course with two hands on a full-scale, full-weight (three-kilogram) replica rifle. He’s the only one “armed” and, on the sideline, Warrant Officer 2 (WO2) Anthony twirls his baton and pats down his beret at the prospect of tearing someone a new one.


Next, it’s straight into the push-up test, which is performed to the strictest military standards. Hips, head and neck must be kept rigid, otherwise the push-up won’t be counted. You can pause and bend the knees in for a breather, but the knees must not touch the ground. Arms should be level with the chest – not the shoulders – and go down to right angles, then come up to full extension, with the body at a 45º angle.

“You will receive a bollocking – or coaching, as we like to call it – if you do a rep incorrectly,” says Sgt Gareth. “If you’re coached three times, you’re out.”

For two minutes, the troops pump away with selection officers marching up and down, bawling in their faces, pushing down raised bums with the heels of their boots and taking sloppy reps off the count. The scores range from 62 to 92 push-ups, plus one bloke who fails to make the pass score of 60. He’s forced to change into a “fail” bib that’s as red as his face.

The sit-up test is done to a three-second cadence, so that there’s no momentum from swinging the body. The start position sees each aspirant’s head, neck and shoulders off the mat, palms on legs and feet anchored by another man on their way to a target of 100. Again, if their bum comes up or their hands are used for momentum, they’ll be bollocked – three times and they’re out. “It’s rare that we have a failure on this test,” says Major Max. Even at 60, the major must still pass the entire test every year himself, or get the boot from Special Forces.

If their feet weren’t anchored, the results would be very different, says Major Max, but not anchoring the feet puts some of the muscles in the lower back at risk. “The plank could be a more appropriate test,” he adds, “but we’re restricted to what’s in the Training Combat Manual.”

For the “heaves” test, the men line up in front of a beam as thick as a thigh and “heave” themselves up until their chin goes above the beam, then lower themselves until their arms are fully extended. The men can use any grip, or even change grips. Many use an underhand grip or one hand over, one hand under. Sgt Gareth’s not a fan of either. “Heaves are supposed to replicate climbing onto a platform, a building or a helicopter,” he says. “So for practical purposes, you should be using an overhand grip – you can’t climb onto anything with an underhand grip.”

Related link: Get the ab-shredding core workout of the Special Forces

The blokes with the gym-chiselled arms fly past the pass mark of 10, the shorter, nuggetty blokes tend to battle just over it. I’m keen to have a bet on who will be at the head of the pack by the end of the course, but it’s a hard pick – there are so many different shapes and sizes, and everyone seems to have their strengths and weaknesses.

“You have five minutes to put on your running shoes and take a piss!” barks Sgt Gareth. “But you must take your weapon with you!” Fortunately, this is one time the “both hands on the rifle” rule is not enforced.

Next is the dreaded “2.4” – a 2.4-kilometre run over a sloping road course in 11 minutes and 30 seconds. Sounds simple enough, except for the part about running in army trousers and long-sleeve shirts while carrying seven kilos of equipment and hanging onto a rifle.

Ten minutes pass and it seems that the whole group has taken a wrong turn. Finally, they come over the hill, with Sgt Gareth, the Aggro Talking Clock, spurring them on. “11:05 – MOVE IT, MOVE IT, COME ON! – 11:10 . . . ”

No-one smashes the cut-off mark, with the bulk of the pack coming perilously close to the limit. Five don’t make it in time.

Individually, each task looks manageable for a trained-up weekend warrior, but the pace of the switch from exercise to exercise has been unrelenting. There’s barely time to walk the 200 metres to the indoor pool before the blokes are in the water, still in their clothes and runners. First, they have to tread water for two minutes, then immediately swim 400m in less than 18 minutes.

This is important, as commandos are often required to operate in the water, explains Sgt Gareth. “It’s also become important to do more general training in the pool – it might be 2-3 hours at a time – so we save knees and legs from all the running and marching.” Before I have time to think he’s going soft, he adds: “It’s also good because I can see them all and make sure no-one’s loafing.”


The men are making slow progress in their heavy gear, with most choosing to do breaststroke over freestyle. “The gun swimmers might do freestyle the whole way, but breaststroke creates less drag and it’s better from a tactical standpoint – you’re not really going to be doing freestyle in the field with your kit,” says Sgt Gareth. “We’ll also be looking at allowing sidestroke in future, since it’s efficient – you can carry your weapon out of the water – and we use it in training.”

Later, changed out of their sodden outfits, the men have a chance to draw breath before throwing on a 28kg pack for a 15km night-time march that will test the strength of their minds as much as their bodies. More trials will follow, at the end of which the “special” ones will be chosen.

Looking to find your own inner warrior? Here’s a five-part prescription from PTI Sgt Gareth, one of only two PTIs in Australia to wear the vaunted green beret of the Commandos, and WO2 Anthony

1. THE LOTTERY BOX

“The training cycle of the Special Forces soldier is very different to that of training for a sport, because we are training for maybe 12 different skills sets,” says Sgt Gareth. “So you have to look at your fitness holistically.”

Routine is the enemy of the Special Forces soldier, a profession which requires you to prepare for the unexpected.

“I often see young guys who’ve only done a specific form of training – same routine, same time every day – and they’re just not robust. They struggle with a change of environment or a variation in activity and they get injured.”

Work or family commitments might force you into a routine just so you can fit exercise into your life, but you can still employ one of the cornerstone fitness secrets of the elite soldier’s physical training – the lottery box.

“By all means have a set program as your base,” says Sgt Gareth, “but then have a box in which you’ve got pieces of paper with different extra activities that you do on top of your scheduled training.”

The lottery box is not necessary for every session, but try it at least once a week.

“It helps toughen you mentally, because you’re not prepared for that activity. After a hard session, it’s really about how you pick yourself up both physically and mentally and go that extra yard.”

Try these numbers for your lottery box – a mixture of functional exercise, speed, agility and endurance – then add several variations of your own.

  • 1500m run (about four times around an oval) as fast as you can manage.
  • 5km jog.
  • Agility circuit of box jumps, hurdles/climbs over obstacles and burpees. Time each circuit.
  • Core exercise circuit (see below for core workout).
  • 300m backstroke (if you have access to a pool).
  • Cycle 10km.

2. ATTACK YOUR WEAKNESS

“People gravitate to what they like to do and that’s generally what they’re good at,” says WO2 Anthony.

“But you have to do a couple of sessions a week dedicated to what you’ve identified as your weakness. For us, the reason is simple – there has to be a common standard that you know everyone can do.”

Running is commonly a weaker area of the Australian soldier, according to Sgt Gareth. “People ask me how they can get better at running.

There’s an obvious answer – join a running club. If you’re weaker at something, you first have to get your technique checked out, but more importantly, you might need that extrinsic motivation.

“The only way to get better is to do drills, run hills and do some sprint work. Don’t think you’re going to get around it by doing extra gym work or running on a treadmill.”

3.THE ADVANCED LOTTERY BOX

“It’s all very well to have someone who can do something because he’s told to, but what we’re looking for are people who are intrinsically motivated to push themselves through any situation,” says Sgt Gareth. “When they’re physically tired, when they’re hungry, when they’re mentally fatigued; you only get accustomed to these things through exposure. So we will do things like keep them awake with some nebulous task, then test their motor skills with an agility drill.”

The advantage of the advanced lottery box for the average trainer is that it helps condition you for all those situations that often become excuses not to train – you’ve barely slept, you haven’t eaten, you can’t make your normal workout time or you’re jet-lagged. We can’t all be athletes who peak perfectly for our next bout of exercise, so here’s what you can put in your advanced lottery box.

  • Schedule your training for when you’ve gone several hours without eating – you’re hungry, but not faint.
  • If you usually train in the morning, do a session just before bedtime. If you’re an evening trainer, work out as soon as you wake up.
  • If you usually run, aim to cover half your normal distance carrying a medium-weight backpack (5-7kg).
  • If you swim, run, paddle or cycle, aim to cover your normal distance, but in a series of sprints and active rests.
  • Wake up in the middle of your normal sleep cycle and attempt a workout.
  • Attempt your normal weights routine in reverse order, or to reduce the total time taken to complete the routine, do the exercises as a circuit.

4. WORK YOUR CORE STRENGTH

“The average load that a Special Forces soldier needs to do a job is recognised as 28kg, which is about 7-8kg of webbing (equipment on belts around the waist) and the rest on their back, so the men must have the core strength to handle that load,” explains Sgt Gareth.

“Core strength is an injury-prevention measure. The stronger you are in the core, the less back injuries you’ll be exposed to, your skeletal structure will be supported more and you will function better.” (Note: “Doing sit-ups isn’t developing core strength.”)

Here are four functional exercises for the core: Get 'em

5. TAP INTO CROSSFIT

“CrossFit,” says Sgt Gareth, “is very big in the special-operations community worldwide.” A strength and conditioning system that combines weightlifting, sprinting and gymnastics exercises in short workouts that change every day, the specialty of CrossFit is that it doesn’t specialise. The exercises are usually highly functional and often have the aim of completing the workout with correct form as quickly as possible, with the level of resistance and rest periods between sets of exercises determined by your own strength and conditioning.

“If you put in 100 per cent every day for the 20-odd minutes it takes, it can be a good way to maintain your agility, strength and flexibility,” says Sgt Gareth. “For our soldiers, it’s good because they can take the principles and set up a workout wherever they might be, but we prefer progressive training when possible.

“You can’t do CrossFit in isolation. Where it tends to fall down is that there’s no real endurance component to it, so you should always supplement it with something like a long run or cycling.” To start dipping into CrossFit’s infinite variety of workouts, visit crossfit.com.

USE IT!

“A common element among our blokes is that several of them have done a marathon and many of them have done a triathlon of some sort – whether that’s short-course, Olympic-distance or even an Ironman,” says WO2 Anthony.

“Many of them have also done some kind of multi-sport adventure racing. They might not have won and they might have done each of these things just once, but then they set themselves the next goal. Once they’re in the unit, there’s a purpose to everything we do in our training.” And it should be the same for you.

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