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Health & Fitness Your mission: Unlock the secrets to military-grade fitness

U.S. Army Capt. Kristen Griest, right, participates in an obstacle course as part the training at the U.S. Army Ranger School June 23, 2015 at Fort Benning, Ga.

Scott Brooks/U.S. Army via Getty Images

No one thinks harder about the nuances of functional fitness than those for whom fitness is not a game. But the selection processes and training regimens of elite military units tend to be famously brutal and cloaked in rumour and secrecy, which makes it difficult to apply their insights more broadly.

Still, there are some hard-and-fast requirements. A recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research reveals some telling clues about which physical abilities are the best predictors of success in the U.S. Army’s storied 75th Ranger Regiment – though such clues, military experts are quick to point out, don’t tell the whole story.

Would-be rangers have to complete a gruelling obstacle course called the Ranger Physical Assessment Test (RPAT) that involves climbing ropes, scaling walls, dragging an 84-kilogram sled, and running more than five kilometres, all while wearing combat boots and nearly 10 kilograms of body armour. They have to finish in less than 40 minutes to pass.

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A test such as this requires full-body strength, power and endurance in various proportions. So how do you train for it?

A team of U.S. Army researchers combed through data from more than 1,000 recruits who completed this test between 2014 and 2017, looking to see if success or failure could be predicted from the baseline physical tests the recruits had previously completed – things such as deadlifts, push-ups, jumps and sprints.

All seven of the tests they analyzed were linked to RPAT success, but there were three in particular that had significant independent predictive power: broad jump (standing start and you have to stick the landing); pull-ups (overhand grip, straight body, locked elbows at the bottom each time); and average time in a pair of 300-yard shuttle runs (back and forth between two lines 25 yards apart, with two-minutes rest between runs).

In these three dramatically different tests, you get a pretty good idea of what it takes to be the kind of person who scales walls and hauls loads – and perhaps, in some indirect and attenuated way, the kind of person who cleans their own eavestroughs and goes tobogganing with their grandkids. The results will undoubtedly be pondered carefully in military prep courses and CrossFit boxes around the world.

Here’s the caveat, though: These tests tell you almost nothing about how an elite soldier will actually perform in the field. “Every component of the Special Operations community has a selection to screen new members,” a human performance expert in the U.S. Special Operations Command told me when I sent him the study for comment," and none of them rely on testing a candidate’s athleticism.”

More important, said the expert (who was not authorized to speak for attribution), are factors such as willingness to embrace struggle and sacrifice for a higher purpose, and the ability to understand a mission and prepare for it appropriately. Since pull-ups are a well-known component of pretty much every military selection process, he added, showing up with the ability to meet that standard is a good sign beyond the simple muscle power required.

And there are other, less obvious clues too. Coleman Ruiz, a former Navy SEAL who led training and selection processes at both the basic and advanced Naval Special Warfare training schools, learned to look for candidates who checked any two of the following three boxes: their parents were divorced; they were suspended from school at least once; and/or they were a varsity athlete (in high school, at least).

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“Lots of empirical, social-psychological reasons for this,” he says.

As important as these harder-to-quantify factors are, though, none of them matter if you can’t get through the RPAT or its various equivalents. The basic physical abilities do matter and Ruiz, too, spent lots of time trying to figure out which ones matter most.

“After pulling tens of thousands of pieces of hard data,” he says, “there was one that correlated in some statistically significant way to a higher likelihood of graduating from our basic special warfare training school: pull-ups.”

So there it is. Whether you go with the stats, the real-world experience or the psychological analysis, the path to intrepid physical mastery runs through the humble pull-up bar. As the old G.I. Joe public-service announcements used to say, knowing is half the battle – now you just have to do it.

Alex Hutchinson is the author of Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Follow him on Twitter @sweatscience.

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