December 29, 2020 10 min read

We’ve previously looked at warriors of the past and how their strength and integrity were reflected in their training—and what we can learn from them in this day and age. There is perhaps no better inspiration than a warrior with grit and drive.

But when it comes to fighting forces, there’s not much more elite you can get than the marines.

The brave men and women in the U.S. Marine Corps are put to some of the most rigorous training that is thrown at fighting forces. And even if you may not be training with your eyes set on becoming a marine, there’s still a lot that can be gleaned from the way these warriors train.

What it Takes to be a Marine

Needless to say, it takes a lot of hard work to get up to snuff when it comes to defending the country. There are several different tests that a marine is obligated to pass in order to get into basic training and maintain their position.

Before one even gets into boot camp, there are several requirements that one must pass—this is called the Initial Strength Test. Male marine hopefuls must be able to do at least two pull-ups, 44 crunches in 2 minutes, and run 1.5 miles in 13:30. Women must perform a flexed arm hang for 12 seconds, do 35 crunches in 2 minutes, and run 1 mile in 10:30. If these conditions aren’t met, the marine hopeful is assigned to a conditioning platoon.

There are also body fat percentage requirements; lower than 18% for men, and 26% for women.

However, this is just a preliminary test to get into the regular recruit training—there’s a lot more that happens once you get in.

Strong man doing a plank in the gym.

The Physical Fitness Test

The Marine Corps physical fitness test (or Marine PFT for short) is meant to measure the physical fitness of marines once a year. Much like the initial strength test, the PFT looks at overall physical conditioning, stamina, and strength. There are three events in the annual PFT:

  • Pull-ups/push-ups
  • Crunches/plank holds
  • Three-mile run

Since this is a points-based system, it’s possible to make up for one area by overperforming in another. It also should be noted that you get a choice with the first two events.

The pull-up or push-up event is meant to test upper body strength so it’s up to par with elite standards. While each marine has an option for either the pull-up or the push-up event, the maximum score of 100 can only be achieved for those who choose the pull-ups.

This is because push-ups only require you to move about 70% of your body weight, rather than moving the entirety of your bodyweight with pull-ups. That’s why a perfect score in push-ups is only 70 points, compared to pull-ups with 100.

Crunches and planks are also scored on a scale of 100 points. The task is to complete as many crunches as possible within two minutes, or, hold a plank position for four minutes and 20 seconds.

Lastly, the 3-mile run requires male marines to complete it within 28 minutes, and female marines to complete it within 31 minutes. So, how are the scores calculated?

The minimum passing grade for men is 9 pull-ups, 45 crunches, and completing the 3-mile run in under 28 minutes. That’s very far from a perfect score though. To get the full 300 points, male marines need to be able to do 20 pull-ups, 100 crunches in the two-minute time frame and complete the 3-mile run within 18 minutes. Female marines must perform a flexed arm hang for 70 seconds, complete 100 crunches in two minutes, and run 3 miles within 21 minutes.

This is significantly more difficult to do and really raises the ceiling for what’s expected—at least in terms of a perfect score.

Picture of army troops scaling a rope wall

The Combat Fitness Test

The CFT is meant to test the functional fitness of marines. This is paired with role-specific events that also must be completed. This includes things such as:

  • Scaling a wall (56 inches)
  • MK-19 lift
  • 2,000-yard swim
  • Lift and carry 5 x artillery rounds
  • 20km hike

This is just a small sample of job-specific events that not everyone must complete. However, the CFT itself involves three exercises that each marine must complete. These are:

  • Movement under contact
  • Ammunition lift
  • Maneuver under fire

These also rely on the 300-point scale in order to measure performance. While the activities themselves are the same for men and women, the scores are calculated differently in order to account for gender.

The “movement to contact” involves a timed 880-yard sprint. The standard passing time is 3:26. For the ammunition lift, marines are required to lift a 30-pound ammunition can overhead, in a sort of clean and press. Elbows must lock out at the top. A dumbbell or sandbag is a good substitution if you don’t have any ammunition cans lying around.

The goal is once again to complete this as many times as possible in a set amount of time.

Lastly, maneuvering under fire requires marines to complete a 300-yard obstacle course with challenges that relate to things that one might encounter on a battlefield. This includes things such as crawls, grenade throwing, and dragging other marines. If you’re looking for the full marine experience, this can be mimicked with a shuttle run.

The Exercises that Make a Marine

Examining what makes a marine shows us exactly what’s expected of those who are in the USMC—and as we can see, it mostly comes down to  calisthenic movements and stamina. That is, of course, predicated on the specific role that the marine has. But the general fitness requirements still stand.

Bodyweight exercises such as sit-ups, crunches, and burpees are all important for training, but we’ll focus on more marine-specific movements that you can do as well without very specific equipment.

As always, remember to include some warm-ups and cool-downs in order to prevent injuries and help your body recover after intense workouts

Man and woman in gym doing pull-ups.

Pull-Ups

When it comes to bodyweight exercises, there isn’t much better you can get than the humble pull-up. But with all those benefits comes a worthy challenge.

The pull-up is not an easy exercise to perform. It literally requires you to lift up your body weight in a hanging position, using just your upper body muscles. There are several factors that can be potentially limiting your pull-ups, but that also means that pull-ups can be a boon for your upper body development.

Throw in shoulder mobility issues, and the humble pull-up starts getting less and less humble. But when it comes to a fast and easy workout to do on the fly, there are few movements that come close. All you need is your bodyweight and a bar to work your lats, traps, erector spinae, arms, shoulders, and forearms—among other muscles that work to stabilize (such as the core). It all comes together in one hell of an exercise.

While the pull-up sounds like a simple exercise in theory, there are several nuances that can improve your rep count and protect from injury.

After grabbing the bar with palms facing away your hands should be shoulder-width apart on the bar. The key is to maintain tension in your back by keeping your shoulders pulled back and an engaged core throughout the entire movement.

Your elbows should be nearly straight (without losing the tension in your shoulders), and you should pull yourself up slowly and steadily—not allowing momentum to do any of the work. The slower you go, the more time under tension you’ll have, and the more shredded you’ll get.

The top of the movement is reached once your chin reaches above the bar. Pause at the top, and slowly lower yourself. Once again, make sure that you don’t drop down. You want to maintain control and maximize the time your muscles are under tension. The bottom of the movement is reached once your elbows are nearly straight, without tension being lost in your shoulder blades.

Push-Ups

The push-up—a classic gym class and fitness test exercise the world around. But unlike many other popular things, the ubiquity of the push-up is well deserved.

It’s not as challenging as a pull-up since you’re only pressing a portion of your body weight, but it can still give you a terrific workout in ways that a pull-up cannot. 

The push-up puts the primary focus on the pectorals (and who doesn’t want a big chest?), while also engaging your delts, triceps, abdominals, and lats to a lesser extent. This is a very functional exercise since the pushing motion is used all the time in daily life—from pushing shopping carts to doors. Furthermore, working your shoulders in such a way can also help to prevent rotator cuff injuries from happening.

All in all, the push-up is an amazing benchmark exercise for measuring your general upper body strength. It’s really no wonder that it’s so popular in fitness tests—marine or not.

Another benefit of the push-up is its customizability. There are several different variations that all have their own nuances in the way that they engage your muscles. For example, setting your hands at a wider distance apart will engage more of your chest and shoulders. And if you want to amp things up a bit, placing your feet on an elevated surface will force you to move a higher percentage of your bodyweight. 

A standard push-up will have your hands placed directly beneath your shoulders, with elbows locked out in the starting position. No part of your body should be sagging; keeping your core and glutes braced will help with this.

With your elbows pointed slightly back and head looking forward in front of you, slowly bend your elbows so your chin almost touches the ground. Pause at the bottom of the movement, and reverse back to the starting position.

Lunges

The lunge is a great way to train your lower body muscles. Specifically, lunges target the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves. The largest emphasis is placed on the quads—the muscle on the front of your thigh. These muscles are necessary for straightening your knee out from a bent position. One of the greatest benefits of lunges is their functionality, since the quads are used for all manner of activities, including climbing stairs, running, and cycling—especially if done uphill.

Paired with the engagement of your glutes and various stabilizing muscles, the lunge proves itself to be an extremely functional exercise.

Like the two exercises already mentioned, lunges are highly customizable to one’s experience level and goals. The fact that you can do them weighted or bodyweight can vary the difficulty, and choosing to do them side to side or forwards/backward will engage and stretch your hips in varying ways.

You should begin with weights in your hands and feet placed slightly less than shoulder-width apart. Choose one leg and take a big step forward, bending the knee in order for the front thigh to become parallel with the ground. Balance the rear leg on your toes, and step frontwards. Alternate legs as you go through the exercise.

Deadlifts (Sandbag)

The deadlift is a bread-and-butter lift and one of the big three compound exercises. It’s basically essential in any serious training program, and it builds explosive energy like no other.

If performed correctly, the deadlift will engage and develop every muscle in your posterior chain—from your neck to your heels. Your core and grip strength will be challenged as well on top of everything else.

Deadlifts are a great addition for people who put a lot of attention on their more “superficial” muscles that look good in the mirror since it really forces all of our muscles to stay engaged. 

The addition of a sandbag provides an even greater challenge since it’s much less stable than a barbell. It mirrors more closely the challenges that a marine might face either on the training ground or in battle, since a perfectly balanced barbell isn’t going to be anywhere in sight.

To begin a sandbag deadlift, squat down and grab the sandbag with your hands at about shoulder-width apart. Your chest should be held high and pushed forward, with your shoulders pulled back. Drive through your heels as you lift the sandbag up, keeping it close to your body as you lock out at the top of the movement.

Clean and Press (Sandbag)

This is another exercise that’s well suited for anyone wanting to train like a marine (or to prepare to be one).

It’s a very complex movement since it’s technically two separate exercises, the clean and then the press. However, its functional benefits can’t go understated and it’ll develop a very good level of intramuscular coordination throughout your body. That being said, it’s a difficult movement to pull off correctly.

The sandbag makes the movement that much more difficult, since the center of balance will be constantly shifting—something that you don’t have to worry about with a conventional barbell clean and press.

Begin by standing with your feet about hip-width apart. The movement is initiated similarly to the deadlift above, but instead of stopping when your knees lock out, you’ll want to hitch the sandbag up and do an upright row.

While the sandbag is moving up, you’ll want to dip your body underneath in a slight squat position to catch the bag on your front delts. Lockout with your hips without leaning back, and then press the sandbag directly overhead and lock out your elbows. Let the sandbag fall back down in a controlled manner to your chest, and then let it drop to the floor.

Group of soldiers running in uniform.

The Importance of Cardio

While it might feel good to gas out your muscles with the exercises above, one of the key components of being a marine is having good stamina and overall conditioning.

The ability to move more weight or take a bigger beating isn’t going to matter much if you can’t keep going till the end of the day, and that’s why most marine-specific workout programs place a huge emphasis on running five times a week.

While long-distance runs are good for conditioning and dropping your body fat percentage, it’s also a good idea to mix in some high-intensity interval training. This will benefit your explosive energy and allow for high-intensity movements over a shorter period of time—another key aspect of being a marine.

We might be eyeing the treadmill with some dread, but every good marine workout is going to include running—and a lot of it, at that.

Setting a Good Foundation

If you’re going to train like a marine, there’s no doubt in the world that you’re going to be working hard. But maybe even more important than working hard is supporting all that hard work with a foundation that will guarantee long-term, healthy results.

“Hard on the training grounds, easy in the battlefield”, rings true for a lot of things, but it’s specifically topical when looking at our elite warriors and the way they train. Gassing yourself out without the proper nutrition and rest is a recipe for disaster—whether or not you’ve got battles to win.  


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