While working on the book, something I ended up spending a lot of time thinking about is my personal training philosophy. Not long ago, I shared the “big picture” of that training philosophy as it applies to all things Martial Marksman, so today I’m digging deeper into one component of that big picture: the physical fitness hierarchy. By that, I mean my thinking on how a Martial marksman, or really any prepared citizen, prioritizes different physical aspects to support the overall goal of being capable across a broad spectrum of activities. This probably includes law enforcement and military members as well, but they aren’t really my focus.
I realize that this topic is a bit fraught with controversy. The gatekeepers of the internet will loudly declare that I’m not a coach, and don’t have enough credentials or experience to have an opinion here. Oh well.
The thing is, a fitness philosophy is personal to each person and how they arrange their priorities. Those who compete in events like power lifting, strongman, obstacle course racing, etc. all have very specific capabilities they prioritize at the expense of others because those capabilities are what helps them succeed. One of the biggest issues I see is that if you ask someone, “What should my training look like?” you’re are likely to get very different answers depending on who you ask and what they prioritize.
In the end, everyone going down this path must develop their own philosophy and fitness hierarchy. In the meantime, I’m sharing the one that I’ve worked out for myself after a few years of training, learning, and experimenting.
Signal to Noise Ratios
First thing, let’s talk about noise. The simple truth is that there is no single “best” path to getting results. Because of that, there’s a lot of competing ideas between groups who want to prove their way is best. When you survey the physical culture space, especially online, you find several distinct “tribes.” Each one has its own set of rules, programming, priorities, preferences, and aversions. Perhaps more importantly, they tend to not get along with the other tribes.
Like a high school cafeteria, you see alliances and shared ideas between groups when it’s convenient, but it’s usually a lot of throwing shade and making fun of each other.
The problem with this is the fact that it creates a lot of noise for beginners who just want to know where to start. The truth is that every tribe actually has good ideas, and it’s all based on the same principles. The issue is that the messages are so mixed up in the intergroup rivalry that it’s difficult to discern what’s important or not.
You also run into an issue where someone fully “commits” to one style even if it’s not terribly appropriate for them. People trend towards what they enjoy and are good at, not necessarily what they should be doing. The average reader of this site doesn’t have a professional job requirement in this realm, so the field is open to do anything.
The Physical Culture Tribes
I’m about to paint with some very broad brushes here. Realize that almost nobody falls into only one category. People also evolve and change preferences over time. That said, this is an attempt to distinguish between the main groups I see and what sets them apart from one another.
This tribe focuses on training the body to move the most amount of weight possible across the “big three” lifts (bench press, squat, deadlift). They utilize extreme focus on technique to gain the most leverage over the weight, regardless of the muscle targeted. They’re generally unconcerned about aesthetics and adopt the idea that “weight moves weight,” so they’ll get as heavy as they can within their chosen weight class and otherwise don’t worry about anything other than being “big and strong.” This isn’t to say that they only do the big three lifts, as there are many “accessories” and supportive muscle groups they’ll train. The focus, however, is always on improving the big three.
They tend to eschew focused conditioning work all together.
Their primary focus is on the two Olympic lifts that move a loaded barbell from the ground to a locked out overhead position: the snatch or clean & jerk. Success in these two movements requires training a series of supporting movements and muscles that cover the whole body.
Olympic lifters have a lot of knowledge around power development. These lifts are very technical and take years to master, which makes participating in them a deterrent for beginners- especially adults. There’s also a fairly high risk of injury should something go wrong.
For their weight class, Olympic lifters are brutally strong even if you might not see it in their size.
This group focuses on training specific muscles through a range of motion that promotes the most amount of muscle growth. This might include large compound movements, but also a healthy amount of isolation activities to target small muscles. Outside of the “mass monster” stereotype, most bodybuilders are interested in an aesthetically pleasing body.
They prioritize low body fat levels to better emphasize muscle mass. They tend to eschew most conditioning activities beyond what’s needed to maintain an ideal body composition and aid with recovery. Bodybuilders are often strong, owing to consistent resistance training, but not as strong as some of the other categories. They have a lot of good advice about modifying technique and nutrition to achieve desired results.
Despite the reputation for “pump work” and “show muscles,” most bodybuilders got there with a steady regime of same big compound lifts as the power lifters, albeit with different programming and technique emphasis.
For most of military history, this was actually the focus of physical preparation. These athletes focus on moving and controlling their body through space. This can be a lot of “grind” strength work, like dips and pull-ups, but also includes “skills” demonstrations like planches, levers, and v-sits.
Calisthenics athletes place great emphasis on strength to weight ratio, so they naturally prioritize low body fat percentages. While they do work with weights from time to time, as with dips and pull ups, they typically increase challenge by adjusting leverage and the angles they hold their body relative to gravity.
They have a lot of great ideas about proper movement mechanics and progression systems. The upper body musculature of “calisthenics bros” often rivals that of bodybuilders and Olympic lifters. However, they often have underdeveloped lower bodies relative to everything else since there isn’t a good way to load the legs with high amounts of tension without actually using weight.
These athletes specialize in strength endurance and odd object lifting. Competitions are less about how much they can move for a single repetition, and instead about how many times they can lift a specific weight or how far they can move a heavy object in a limited amount of time. Or, conversely, how quickly they can move a set amount of weight relative to others- think about lifting a series of concrete spheres weighing in between 200 and 500 lbs and placing them on a stable platform. They’re the ultimate “practical lifter” for regular tasks. Think about it this way- your buddy doesn’t call you to come help move a 500 lb barbell, but they do need help time to time moving and lifting a couch, refrigerator, or gun safe.
Objects like stones, sandbags, kegs, and logs are awkward require a lot of good technique to lift well, so strongmen develop very powerful trunks and legs to brace and drive with. Like powerlifters, they are less concerned with aesthetics and body composition beyond staying within a specific weight class.
Unlike power lifters, strongmen place a lot of emphasis on work capacity and conditioning required to win events. They need to be able to exert a maximum amount of effort for sustained time or repeatedly demonstrate a submaximal amount of strength for as many repetitions as possible.
These are your typical marathoners and obstacle course racers. They place a priority on sustaining a low level of effort over a very long time span. They don’t seem to care all that much about strength development, owing to a belief that getting strong will slow them down. Strength aside, endurance athletes have a lot of knowledge around “building the motor” and developing great cardiovascular efficiency.
Some of the sub groups, like obstacle course racers, do have at least some emphasis on strength since it’s required to climb and traverse obstacles, but it won’t be near the strength levels of the other groups.
This is a rather unique group that doesn’t get called out often. They tend to have a minimalist mindset that says they can get “strong enough” using nothing but iron cannonballs with handles attached and a few carefully selected movements done for high repetitions. They may well be right, though.
Given the wide jumps in weight between kettlebell sizes, you cannot simply progress up in weight. Kettlebells require you to master a particular load before moving on to the next level. During this period, the movements often progress you from a raw strength movement to power production in a natural periodization flow.
Some of the loading mechanics and odd ways that kettlebell movements work lead to many “what the hell” effects, like snatches improving pull ups, or developing dense abdominals from asymmetric loading and bracing.
I liken them to the calisthenics crowd, and the two often blend together from time to time. Kettlebellers have a lot of good advice about turning off your brain and sticking to the of zen of following the same boring program for months on end with an almost religious zeal, milking the rewards of that consistency. They’re the “anti-program hoppers.”
I know…what about Crossfitters? I didn’t include them because they’re not actually a unique crowd. The promise of Crossfit was an attempt to borrow from each of these categories and turn it into a “do all” program. I respect that, honestly. I think it’s a good idea, even if my own biases about how to do it are different.
Coalescing a Martial Marksman Fitness Hierarchy
That was a lot of pre-text, so let’s get to the meat of today: how this comes together for the Martial Marksman. I think there’s a lot to learn from each of these groups. If we zoom out and consider the main priorities for a Martial Marksman, the overall goal is performance. But, performance of what? That depends on the task at hand. One day could be filled with filling and moving sandbags for hours on end. Another day might see a long foot patrol followed by short intense bursts of speed. Yet another day might involve going “hands on” and having to physically restrain or control an opponent.
The catch is that we have no way of knowing what’s happening on any day, so we must be generally prepared to do any of it. Of course, that’s easy to say, and difficult to do. As mentioned, that was the promise of Crossfit. However, the execution is what matters.
The chief complaint amongst athletic coaches and trainers was that Crossfit was a little too random. In the interest of incorporating so many different things and keeping customers “entertrained,” it was difficult to build consistency in any one domain. That’s not an insurmountable challenge, though. Many Crossfit gyms, or Crossfit-like gyms, solved that by using real periodization models.
The other issue with Crossfit is that it evolved into a sport unto itself. The workouts became less about the training value of the movement and technique and more about maximizing cycle time. Again, this isn’t an egregious problem if you establish and stick to standards of performance.
We can learn from both of these issues and their solutions.
Here’s how I break down my personal fitness hierarchy, and by extension what I think is right for the Martial Marksman.
Breaking it Down
Creating a hierarchy like this is always a little confusing, because it’s easy to think that you cannot progress to one level until you’ve achieved another. That’s not my intention here. What I’m illustrating is rather a prioritization model where the higher up you go, the less important the thing is to your overall success. If you’re limited on time and capacity, this hierarchy gives you an indication of where your limited time should go.
In our best dreams, we can achieve amazing health, incredible strength, endurance capacity, and everything else all at the same time. However, real life doesn’t work that way. The body can only adapt to so much stress at the same time, and trying to introduce all of these competing stimuli at the same time results in either injuring yourself or dilutes the adaptation signal so much that you won’t make progress anywhere. This hierarchy lets you visually group different workout styles/priorities so you can pick and choose what to emphasize at different times.
So let’s go through each level of the fitness hierarchy.
Health and Liabilities
Liabilities include anything that could become a medical emergency or otherwise prevent you from training in the future. Most of the things at this level are between you and your doctor. Stay on top of your routine medical appointments, get regular bloodwork done, monitor your blood pressure, and live a good life.
For simplicity sake, the main things I focus on at this level of the pyramid are body composition and mobility. I’m not going into the science of it all today, but as a man you should be aiming to maintain a body fat percentage in the 8% to 15% range, with 12% seeming to be the sweet spot for most men. Everyone has a slightly different comfort zone within that, higher or lower, but do aim for this range.
Does that sound intimidating, if not impossible? I’m not going to lie and say it’s easy. When over 75% of the population is already overweight or obese, advocating for an average adult man to get down to and maintain about 12% is a well outside the norm. The science doesn’t lie, however, and body fat percentages north of 20% (for men) come with increasing health risks and hormonal issues. Meanwhile, body fat percentages between 10% and 15% respond better to exercise, have higher testosterone, and look healthier.
At a minimum, body fat percentage aside, your waist measurement should be less than half of your height. Ideally, it should be between 45% and 47% of your height.
On the mobility side, I’m primarily looking at joint problems that prevent you from moving through a complete range of motion with the core human movements. What are those? Think squatting, hinging, pressing overhead and horizontally, pulling from overhead and horizontally, and loaded carries. If you have issues here, and many men struggle with shoulder issues overhead, then you must address it as best you can. Adding load to a poor movement pattern during strength training is a recipe for injury.
Strength is the mother quality for all future athletic efforts. Once you’re healthy enough to start working up the pyramid, strength is your priority. But how strong is strong enough? I wrestled with that question a lot, and went to the professional. Paul Horn gave me the best answer: it’s when the time and discipline required to reach the next level is no longer worth it relative to your other goals.
That’s not a direct answer, but it’s a powerful philosophical context within the fitness hierarchy. Let me get more specific. These are my foundational strength and power standards:
- Front Squat: 1.25 x bodyweight for 1 rep
- Back Squat: 1.75 x bodyweight for 1 rep
- Barbell Deadlift: 2 x bodyweight for 1 rep
- Barbell Bench Press: 1.25 x bodyweight for 1 rep
- Barbell Incline Press: 0.95 x bodyweight for 1 rep
- Barbell Overhead Press: 0.8 x bodyweight for 1 rep
- Weighted Pull-Up (or Chin Up): Bodyweight + 40% for 1 rep
- Farmer’s carry 0.5 x bodyweight per hand continuously for 25 yards
- Standing broad jump 1.3 x your height
I derived these standards from several coaches who specialize in athletic performance and military school selection. Sources include Rob Shaul of the Mountain Tactical Institute, Dan John, Paul Horn, Mike Matthews, Building the Elite, and more. Due to injuries and other issues, not everyone can achieve all of these goals. That’s fine. I argue that if you are able to do most of them, then strength is not your limiting factor in anything you want to do in life. It also lets you know if you’re disproportionally lagging in any one area.
When you reach most of these goals, you have a solid strength foundation. You may choose to keep building, or go experiment with something else.
The aerobic energy system is your primary metabolic engine. It burns fat, glucose, and even protein to support your day-to-day needs for energy and low intensity activities. It’s also responsible for removing metabolic waste products left behind by high intensity training as well as “recharging” your energy systems and hastening your recovery.
So what makes up the aerobic system? I think of it as two separate mechanisms: supply and processing. The supply side is how well your body circulates oxygenated blood. This includes your heart beat volume, circulatory system health, and oxygen exchange efficiency in the lungs. The processing side happens at the cellular level in your muscles. Here, the mitochondria take that oxygen and run it through metabolic processes to produce energy for doing more work.
While the amount of energy the aerobic system supplies at one time is relatively limited, you can train it. Cardiac output training improves the supply side particularly, but also has effects on the processing side.
It’s difficult to measure aerobic capacity in isolation without sports physiology lab, but you can get close enough. Here are my proposed standards:
- 1.5 mile (2.41 km) run on flat ground within 10:30
- 8 mile (12.87 km) ruck carrying 25% bodyweight within 2 hours
- 2000 meters on a rowing machine within 7 minutes
- Bodyweight (lbs) in calories (i.e. 180 lbs = 180 calories) within 10:00 on an Assault Bike
Again, you don’t have to achieve all of these. Pick one or two methods and focus on it as your preferred aerobic training avenue. Track progress over time. You can always do even better than these targets, but if you’re able to hit them then you know that your aerobic capacity is not a limiting factor in life.
If all you did was focus on the bottom three levels of the fitness hierarchy, you’d be doing pretty damn well. Hitting the health, foundational strength, and aerobic capacity targets alone puts you well ahead of the vast majority of men in the world. You will develop better habits, discipline, and mindset that translates into every other part of life.
Your doctor may even start asking you for advice.
So what if you want to go a little further? Whereas I consider the lower levels of the fitness hierarchy to be “MUST DO,” now we’re getting to the “should do” level. By that, I mean you don’t need to do it, but it’s certainly a benefit if you do. When you’ve developed a solid aerobic capacity base, engaging in anaerobic conditioning workouts take less time and produce very powerful results while still training both systems. The downside is that these workouts are stressful and can interfere with recovery from other workouts.
The aerobic system is only able to produce so much energy at once, and sometimes it’s not enough. If a mountain lion was chasing you down the street and you were limited only to the energy produced by your aerobic system, then you’d be dinner for sure. Nature always finds a way, though. The anaerobic metabolic system exists to supplement your energy supply during spikes in demand that cannot be met by the aerobic system alone. In practice, it can only operate at full power for about 2 minutes, but most people aren’t using it that way.
How it Really Works
I’m not going into the science here because it’s a huge article by itself (and practically a chapter in the book), so I’ll summarize it for you. Let’s say your aerobic system has a maximum output of 60 “units” of energy. Your anaerobic system can output a maximum of 80 units, but only for a short period. You find yourself doing an activity that requires 80 units of energy. Your body cranks up the aerobic system to full capacity, 60 units, but still needs another 20 to perform the activity without failing. To meet this demand, the anaerobic system also activates to supply the remaining 20 units.
20 units of energy represents 25% of your anaerobic capacity in this example, so you could reasonably keep up this pace for quite a while. At least 30 minutes and maybe even an hour or more.
If the activity required 130 units of energy, then you’d max out your aerobic system and 90% of your anaerobic system, too. At that level, you’d probably crash in 1 or 2 minutes.
To train for performance, you need to improve both your aerobic capacity and your anaerobic power production.
Training the System
As with the aerobic system, the anaerobic system is also trainable. By taxing your anaerobic capacity in short bursts of 10 seconds to 90 seconds, you teach your body how to improve anaerobic energy output, process metabolic waste that it produces, and tolerate pain.
The two energy systems go hand in hand. When you improve your aerobic system, you don’t have to borrow as much anaerobic capacity to pay the bill (letting you go for a lot longer time). When you also improve your anaerobic power, you’re able to output more power and for longer durations at more intense levels.
Here are my targets for anaerobic effort:
- 300-yard shuttle run within 60 seconds (25-yard increments)
- Generate 55 calories within 45 seconds on an Assault Bike
- Row 500 meters within 90 seconds on a rowing machine
Hitting one or more of these targets means you’ve developed a solid anaerobic base. Great job! Now keep going and see if you can do them even faster, or for more rounds. When it comes to anaerobic conditioning, it’s not just sprint efforts- though they are the most direct way to do it. The next level up has benefits as well.
By “fighting strength,” I’m referring to converting the strength and conditioning you’ve developed in the previous levels into doing something. In the real world, outside of pure strength sports like powerlifting, we don’t measure athletes by the maximum force they can generate in a single all-out effort lasting a few seconds. Rather, it’s the ability to demonstrate some percentage of strength repeatedly over and over again.
Consider things like the US Secret Service snatch test, which requires candidates to snatch a 24 kg (53 lb) kettlebell a minimum of 200 times within 10 minutes. The NFL Combine famously uses a maximum rep bench press test with 225 lbs on the bar. Instructors for Navy SEAL hopefuls suggest being able to bench press, squat, and pull up your own body weight for 15-20 repetitions. Army SOF selection attempts to break the will of candidates not by giving them more weight than they can handle, but by making them perform moderate intensity activities for torturous amounts of time.
You get the idea.
Defining Fighting Strength
For our purposes, fighting strength includes two athletic characteristics: power and strength endurance. Power describes the ability to display moderate to high levels of strength in a very short amount of time. Think of it as accelerating a weight. Examples include jumping, snatching/cleaning a weight, and throwing an object. Strength endurance is the ability to display low to moderate levels of strength continuously over a long period of time. Examples include carrying objects over distance, competing for maximum repetitions at a set weight, punching a heavy bag, or completing an obstacle course.
Fighting strength focuses on weights that are 20% to 50% of your maximum strength ability. This means that both power and strength endurance are downstream of your maximal strength level. In other words, improvements to your absolute strength raise your capacity for both power and strength endurance.
Imagine a barbell weighing a total of 95 lbs. If your maximum strength level allows you to pick up a 135 lb barbell one time, then that 95 lbs represents about 70% of your maximum strength ability. You could lift it, but probably not quickly or for many repetitions. After a significant amount of training for absolute strength, you’re now able to pick up a 350 lb barbell. That same 95 lb now represents only about 27% of your maximum ability and lifting it requires significantly less muscle fiber recruitment. This opens up the opportunity for you athletically move that 95 lbs is ways you previously could not.
Developing Fighting Strength
You don’t have to train these attributes. They can develop as a byproduct of other training you’re already doing, such as some methods of conditioning or part of your strength program. This may be adequate enough for you, which is why I say it’s “optional”can do.” But you’ll see better performance across the board if you spend at least a little time focusing specifically on fighting strength. This specific training is what converts your strength foundation into something usable for everyday life and athletics.
So where you look for training here? Personally, I think the kettlebellers and strongman athletes have the most applicable training programs. Both training styles involve improving the amount of work you can do with both explosive movements and “grindy” work. While you can use these training methods to improve your strength and conditioning, I think you’ll get a lot more out of them if you’ve already built up your capabilities.
At the peak of the fitness hierarchy is the catch-all “specialization” level. Everything here is optional. If you’ve got a a busy life full of other priorities and stressors, you might just not have the time to engage here. Maybe your’e just looking for the minimum amount of time and work you need to do in order to remain capable and healthy. That’s cool! The lower levels of the fitness hierarchy take care of you.
Focusing on specialization means sacrificing time and energy that you would otherwise give to some other attribute lower in the hierarchy. For our purposes, specializations go into one of three buckets: maximum strength, maximum endurance, and maximum aesthetics. The point of bucketing them all together at the top of the pyramid is that you can do only one at a time.
Let’s dig into each of these a little bit more.
This means focusing your training into lifting the most about of weight physically possible. Think of powerlifting competitions where 700 to 800 lb squats and 400 to 500 lb bench presses are the norm. Achieving this level of performance is impressive, and there’s certainly something to be said for knowing you’re probably the strongest guy in the gym.
Powerlifters and Olympic lifters have the most knowledge here.
The downside is that the programming style, training time requirements, and physiological adaptions required to reach these extremely high levels of strength come with costs.
Powerlifters are famously bad at conditioning. Stories abound of men who can squat 600 lbs but get winded going up a flight of stairs. Similarly, they’re big on saying things like “weight moves weight” and use it as an excuse to eat enormously large amounts of food. They get stronger, sure, but they also get fat.
Here we’re talking about focusing your ability to output effort for incredibly long times. I don’t just mean marathons, but ultra marathons of 30 to 100 miles on a regular basis. This, too, comes with some tradeoffs since the adaptations and training methods required to reach such levels of endurance work counter to maximum strength.
High levels of muscle mass are a detriment to extreme endurance performance. That’s not to say that you would become weak by pursuing this specialization, but you will have trouble maintaining the strength and muscles you have built- especially if you aren’t committed to maintaining a regular strength program on top of the brutal endurance training.
In the earliest days of bodybuilding, the focus was not on growing monstrous amounts of muscle mass. Instead, athletes emphasized a balanced and proportionate physique in the style of Ancient Greek statues. When I speak of aesthetics, this is what I’m referring to.
By nature of training for performance first, the Martial Marksman’s body already takes on a more appealing shape. This aesthetics specialization is about putting a little extra in places to “finish the look.” Examples include little details like rounding out the backs of the shoulders, increasing neck thickness, or developing the calves to be in proportion with the body.
I suspect that without a competitive event to train for, this is the specialization that most men pursue. We want to look like we work out.
Again, nothing is free. The time and energy required to focus on these smaller details and develop them usually means more time lifting weights and less time available to focus on conditioning.
How The Martial Marksman Leverages Specialization
A phrase I heard recently captures the main idea of using specialization in your fitness plan: training detours. A mistake that nearly everyone makes is thinking they should stick to the same program year in and year out. While there is a certain zen to that, as the kettlebellers love to tell you, even the most elite athletes think of their training in terms of seasons.
If you think of your training year in terms of four quarters, then you have four 12-week “blocks” to work with. With each block, or season, you shift the emphasis a little bit. One block might consist of your bread-and-butter balanced “park bench” training, while another shifts emphasis to training for an event (like a run & gun), or picking one of the specialty areas to focus on.
You might even use a training detour to go down an entirely different training style. If you’ve been spending months with barbells doing the core lifts, maybe a detour with nothing but kettlebells and calisthenics would be a welcome change up. The idea is that while you’re taking a detour, you aren’t likely to lose much (if any) of the attributes you’ve built up.
You don’t have to stick to 12-weeks, either. It’s easy to break this up even smaller blocks of 6 to 8 weeks. Personally, I found this is ok for periods of hyper focus on a single attribute like aerobic capacity or bodybuilding “pump work,” but otherwise 6-8 weeks feels too frequent to jump around and switch things up.
You don’t have to fully commit to a specialization, either. When using a training detour, it might be as simple as maintaining your regular strength workouts, but spending a little extra time doing specialist activities. Say, something like two days per week of strength training and two or three days of something else.
Wrapping the Fitness Hierarchy
This was a long one, and I hope you got something out of it. Over time, I’ll fill in more details from these components. It’s important to get the whole foundational article out there, though.
Here’s another graphic summarizing a lot of what was here. Make a copy of it, print it, and adopt it for your own.
Know that there is no single way to work your way up the hierarchy. Devotees of each discipline insist their their way is “most optimum.” But remember one of the Martial Marksman training principles is there is no optimum. Just because it works well for someone else and their circumstances does not mean it will work just as well for you. Part of this journey is experimenting enough with different styles and ideas until you settle on what works best for you and your circumstances. Then let the rest happen.