By CPT Carl Amolat, USAR, MTI Contributor
BLUF: During the perpetual state of flux called moving on from the Active Duty Army to the Army Reserve with a subsequent mobilization to Kuwait over the past year I relied on wisdom from a multitude of sources including but not limited to Mountain Tactical Institute, Uphill Athlete, and StrongFirst.
Background: I am a middle-aged Army officer and emphatically not a natural athlete. I have a penchant for heavy barbell and kettlebell lifting. Recently I crossed the LD into the fourth decade of life, with 18 years of military service under my belt. I usually drive a desk and on occasion a non-tactical vehicle. My hobbies include Brazilian Jiujitsu (BJJ) and Muay Thai.
Training History: Since 2001, as a student at the Naval Academy Preparatory School (NAPS), I’ve been an obligate fitness enthusiast always trying to balance the myriad of fitness requirements inherent to military service. From 2006-2009 I served in the US Navy, and from 2009-2022 I served in the Active Duty US Army.
In my twenties, I discovered hardstyle kettlebell and barbell training and found my way into CrossFit. From 2013-2014 I followed both Mountain and Military Athlete. From 2015 to 2022 I used assorted barbell programs (chiefly Wendler 5/3/1 and Greyskull Linear Progression). In 2017 I discovered BJJ and Muay Thai and have trained in both ever since.
In the summer of 2022, I moved into the Army Reserve. From July through mid-September 2022 my training focused on kettlebells and calisthenics on my back porch’s courage corner, purely aerobic roadwork, BJJ, and Muay Thai. I went with the kettlebell approach since barbell-based training was logistically prohibitive at the time.
In August 2022 I was offered a chance to mobilize for Annual Training, a six-week class at the Ground Safety Officer’s Course (GSOC) at Fort Novosel, Alabama, and a winter deployment to Kuwait. Needless to say, I accepted the offer.
Annual Training (09 September 2022 through 07 October 2022): En route to Fort Knox, KY for annual training with my Reserve unit (mostly consisting of officers and senior noncommissioned officers) I evaluated and redesigned my strength and conditioning programming. Wanting to build a high level of relative strength while maintaining or even improving work capacity and endurance seemed like a tall order for younger fellows, let alone a going-on forty-year-old desk jockey, but I managed it.
First I identified the problem: how do I build a high level of relative strength without losing too much endurance and work capacity? What facilities exist out there? Is there mandatory physical training?
Thankfully I discovered there was a fully equipped gym within easy walking distance of our barracks and at the time no mandatory physical training. Knowing these facts, I subsequently mined my old training logs and found 2x/week strength training splits in the old A/B format (usually an upper body lift one day and a lower body movement the second) a natural fit. An article by Geoff Neupert on the StrongFirst blog titled The Top Set Method: A Stress Free Strength Routine provided the guidance. The split looked something like this:
- Session A: Bench 5×5. I added other assistance work in if time allowed for it, but at a minimum, I would get those five sets of five and get to work.
- Session B: Squat 5×3 and Deadlift 5×3. Only assistance work I used, if at all, were pull-ups (sets of x2)
My top set during this time started at 185 lbs on the bench press, 255 lbs on the squat, and 300 lbs on the deadlift. I trained in a ‘step cycle’ fashion, spending two sometimes three sessions at the same loading since for some reason there weren’t 2.5 lbs plates at this gym and ten-pound jumps for the bench would be above the ‘hard but doable’ guideline for me. By the time I finished out at Fort Knox, my lifts finished out at 195 lbs on bench press for a set of five, 265 lbs on the squat for a set of three, and 310 lbs on the deadlift for a set of three.
For work capacity, I did kettlebell snatches with a 50 lbs kettlebell in sets of five on the minute for about 20-30 minutes at a stretch. For endurance I ran, trying to stay aerobic on the track. A big hole in my training, I note, was I didn’t test my endurance in any fashion to give myself a baseline.
During this Staff Exercise, something was gnawing at me, however. The issue of a potentially disruptive schedule, especially when new to the job. During this time I looked to Mountain Tactical Institute, found the Fundamental Four article, and bookmarked it.
GSOC (08 October thru 22 November 2022): There was no mandatory physical training at the course, and there was a fully equipped gym less than 100 meters from the schoolhouse. During that time I continued the Stress Free Strength routine from Annual Training for my three main lifts. I added standing Russian twists on my Squat/Deadlift day for 2 sets of 10 at around 45 lbs.
I ran (pun intended) a Cooper Test for my aerobic ability during this time, which consisted of a 12-minute run. I finished out at 2.04 kilometers which is an average rating for a 30-39-year-old man.
During that time I added swimming, step-ups with a 20 lbs backpack, and rowing to my endurance work. The work capacity during that era was relatively simple from one of the StrongFirst e-mail newsletters, consisting of x5 swings with a 70 lbs kettlebell every minute on the minute for 6-10 minutes determined by rolling a single die (1 equaled 6 minutes, 2 equaled 7 minutes, 3 and 4 equaled 8 minutes, 5 equaled 9 minutes and 6 equaled 10 minutes). Sometimes I’d do this after benching, or before an aerobic endurance session.
I continued, when possible, classes at a local martial arts facility in the evenings, though I do not advise BJJ after lots of heavy squats and deadlifts.
I ultimately finished this six-week period with my lifts topped off at 200 lbs on bench press for a set of five, 250 lbs on squat for a set of three, and 335 lbs on deadlift for a set of three.
Still, the issue of the potentially disruptive schedule I thought of back at Fort Knox continued to gnaw at the back of my mind. Full body splits were the solution, that way if I missed a lifting day during the week I’d still be covered. I revisited the Fundamental Four split built around the bench press, front squat, deadlift, and weighted pull-up, finding it a natural choice.
I did have to make some modifications to the split due to the logistics of most gyms and my own physical state at the time:
- The program, as written, would take up too much space and too much of my time.
- Instead of 8×3 deadlifts, I used an old standby from one of Pavel Tsatsouline’s StrongFirst programs: the Rule of 10. I used the 5,3,2 set/rep scheme starting at a load I could do for 10x reps and progressing 5 pounds each subsequent session.
- I really wanted to hone in on my form on pull-ups per this article from StrongFirst: One Good Rep before I decided to tackle weighted pull-ups. I decided volume was best, and starting with doubles superset between each of my sets. The plan was to increase my numbers by 10% every two weeks until I got to sets of x5 between sets and then I’d start adding with weighted pullups (more on this later).
The resulting strength split looked like this:
- Bench 8×3 increase load till 3x Hard But Doable superset with 2x pull-ups
- Front Squat: 8×3 increase load till 3x Hard But Doable superset with 2x pullups
- Deadlift: 5,3,2 superset with 2x pullups
Mobilization Part 1 (21 November 2022 thru 20 February 2023): I beta-tested my first modification of the Fundamental Four on 21 November 2023. I ran the bench andfFront Squat while increasing the load each set for a 3RM, coming away with 205 lbs for both. For deadlifts, I did a straight 5,3,2 at 290 lbs.
During a brief respite at home before we headed to Kuwait by way of Fort Hood, Texas I kept up with the lifting, and easy runs. I also beta-tested another way to tackle chassis integrity and work capacity. For this latest one, I would do 3 sets of 5 goblet squats with a 24KG kettlebell then do 20-40 minutes of five kettlebell swings on the minute and finish out with 10-15 minutes of kettlebell Turkish getups for singles. The duration of the swings were dictated by a roll of a single die.
They say if you want to make God laugh tell him your plans. I hit a snag in December when I tweaked a tendon in my left elbow. Yet again I was forced to make a modification to this program:
- Bench 8×3: Increase load till 3x Hard But Doable superset with 10x leg raises on the bench.
- Front Squat 8×3: Increase load till 3x Hard But Doable superset with a single unloaded pull-up. Every so often I would increase the number of reps by a single rep.
- Deadlift: 5,3,2 superset with 10x Hand Release Push-ups between sets.
After I visited the Troop Medical Center and was advised to rest it for a while and start lighter at the gym, we traveled to Kuwait. I did a brief reconnaissance of facilities (there were many fully equipped gyms within walking distance of our barracks) I got back into the gym again I put the above split back into practice. This time my bench and front squat were at 175 lbs (I went light this time) and the deadlift began at 280 lbs.
For endurance, I would walk the 1.6 kilometers to the sports track, run or ruck aerobically for 22 minutes (the intent was to increase by 10% every two weeks), and then walk back to the barracks for hygiene 1x/week.
My work capacity efforts were as discussed earlier, but I began using 28KG and later 32KG kettlebells in my efforts, with up to 15-20 minute sessions on the getup.
Shortly after we arrived my unit implemented mandatory PT on Friday mornings. My week would consist of a strength day, work capacity/chassis integrity day, endurance day, rest day, unit PT, another strength day, and another rest day during this timeframe.
This program continued until I hit a snag on 13 February 2023 whereupon I managed 4×3 at 200 lbs and 1×2 at 200 lbs on the Bench Press. I considered that a stall. I took a rest day, then on Friday of that week I did six sorta-max singles on each of my main lifts. I found myself heartened by achieving my first of two personal records on the bench press, hitting 225 lbs for a single for the first time. I attempted 415 lbs on the deadlift (a ten-pound jump on a personal record) but the plates fell off on the way up.
Mobilization Part 2 (20 February through 19 April 2023): I went back to the drawing board as I after hitting the aforementioned stall but was heartened by the personal best for the bench press. On the StrongFirst forum I ran across a program below by a BJJ player by the handle of Justin M:
“I also train BJJ 2-3x per week. A program I have enjoyed as supplementation to BJJ has been doing some A+A KB work followed by some barbell ladders 1-2x per week. I usually train BJJ on M/W/F and do the gym workout Tue/Sat so I’m not training more than 3 days in a row.
- KB Swing, 5/emom, 20-40min
- Bench Press
- Front Squat
Weekly Barbell Cycle
- 60%, 2-3-5 [20″ rest between rungs], x4 [1′ rest between ladders]
- 65%, 2-3-5 [20″], x3 [2′]
- 70%, 2-3-5 [20″], x2 [3′]
- 75%, 1-2-3 [20″], x3 [3′]
- 80%, 1-2-3 [20″], x2 [4′]
- 85%, AMAP
The early week’s volume drives some hypertrophy and the ladders promote consistent power.”
I implemented it for my twice-a-week strength work. My chassis integrity sessions shifted into 3×5 goblet squats, 15-20 minute getups with a 24KG, 28KG, or 32KG kettlebell, and 3-5 sprints of 57.2 meters on our basketball court.
Endurance remained as previously discussed, with 35-40 minute running or rucking sessions and at times I implemented setups and running 400 meter laps all aerobically with a continuously running clock. As did unit-level PT.
Towards the end of this phase, I was selected to go on temporary duty in Egypt for a week. Fortunately, there were fully equipped gym facilities at the camp.
Mobilization Part 3 (20 April thru 24 July 2023): In Egypt I tested the bench press, squat, and deadlift with 6 singles, finding that my max bench was 215 lbs, max squat was 255 lbs, and max deadlift was 335 lbs. I found myself reverting to A/B twice a week strength splits built around the three power lifts. An article by Dan John on T-Nation titled 2 Times a Week for Twice the Gains and a second article on a Pavel Tsatsouline Powerlifting split 80/20 Powerlifting intrigued me. Having decent power clean and power snatch form I elected to implement them in my training.
In my reading of the book Easy Strength by Dan John and Pavel Tsatsoluline I encountered the concept of ‘block training’ whereupon one trains one way for 2 weeks and another for 2 more weeks and alternates. Towards that end I came up with two ‘blocks’.
- Day 1:
- Deadlift 5,3,2 off of 8 RM (Divide Sorta-Max by 1.243) – 270 lbs start.
- Bench 5×5 (Priority is to hit 5 Sets any way I can…not necessarily 5×5…work till I get to 5×5 on that load)
- Day 2:
- Squat 5×5 (Same as for the Squat)
- Bench 5×4 at 80% load of 5×5 day
- Day 1:
- Power Clean 5-6 Singles (3-or-so Heavy reps)
- Bench 5×5
- Day 2:
- Power Snatch 5-6 Singles (3-or-so Heavy reps)
- Front Squat 8×3 (Big 24 from Mountain Tactical Athlete)
I continued work capacity efforts as previously described, and as the mercury began to climb I began to swim in lieu of running due to a pronounced dislike for treadmills.
Towards the end of this block, in July 2023 I tackled the MTI Relative Strength Assessment with the following results at a bodyweight of 185 lbs.
- Front Squat: 235 lbs
- Pull-ups: 8 (Significant because in December I could barely do five without pain in my elbow)
- Bench: 235 lbs
- Deadlift: 385 lbs (I attempted 415 lbs but missed lockout by 1.5 centimeters)
This resulted in a score of 5.42, a ‘Good’ score for a Mountain Athlete, and for a 40-year-old desk jockey, I consider that a good result.
Other physical feats I managed on this mobilization included:
- Completion of the 30-kilometer Norwegian Footmarch (sadly I missed time due to a bout of nausea mid-march by 32 minutes)
- Completion of the Danish Contingent Footmarch (25 kilometers with 13 kilograms of ruck) in 4 hours and 27 minutes (I had six hours to complete it)
- Army Combat Fitness Test overall score of 463/600 (I conserved energy in this test to pace it out)
- 3RM Deadlift at 290 lbs
- Standing Power Throw: 8.1 meters
- Hand Release Pushups: 34
- Sprint-Drag-Carry: 2:07
- Plank: 90 seconds
- 2 Mile Run: 17:53
- Tackling the Marine Corps Combat Fitness Test and passing all but the grenade throw
The book of Proverbs has a saying, “In the multitude of counselors is wisdom” and by following wise coaches such as Rob Shaul, Pavel Tsatsouline, Dan John, and others I was able to design simple, yet effective strength and conditioning cycles able to adequately meet most of my physical requirements.
Following my 20 July 2023 Relative Strength Assessment I began to implement TLU programming from Mountain Tactical Institute combined with Brett Jones’ versatile Iron Cardio protocol along with easy roadwork. I am keeping up with this programming for a while following my demobilization.
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