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7 military fitness tricks for working out without a lot of fancy gear

When service members go to basic, all the people who weren't fitness addicts or athletes are excited about how fit they can get in just a couple of months of training. But, it's not like the training cadre had magic wands. They made the recruits work for those muscles.


Some veterans forget these lessons and a lot of civilians buy into the fitness industry's hype about gym memberships, diet shakes, and magic pills. But vets, think back to basic and to active duty. Did you platoon sergeant bring you smoothies in the morning? No, they just instilled these 7 lessons in you:

1. Set goals and increase them as you get stronger

Photo: US Marine Corps Cpl. Octavia Davis

The military loves the cliche of "crawl, walk, run." While literally crawling may be a bit of a slow start to a workout program, it is good to start low and build up. Veterans who have let their standards slide shouldn't jump straight into the hard stuff.

Try making two lists. The first is aspirational, everything you want to be able to do or do again one day. Run five miles without walking, do 100 pushups in two minutes, whatever. Then list everything you're pretty sure you could do right now. Jog 0.5 miles, 5 pushups, whatever. Finally, start setting weekly goals to get from the second list to the first list. You can adjust these later if need be.

The second list, what you can do right now, is "crawling," the in-between goals are "walking," and "running" is when you tear up the aspirational list and make a whole new set of milestones to go after.

2. Anything is a weight

MRE boxes and water jugs will provide resistance. Promise. Photo: U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Jonathan Wright

Soldiers and Marines conduct ruck marches with packs weighed down by actual gear. They practice buddy carries by carrying their actual buddy. And, they often use sand bags or water jugs for resistance during squats and lunges.

Similarly, you shouldn't feel limited at home by a lack of special equipment or gym membership. Load a backpack with dense objects for a more strenuous run. Do curls with a toolkit or light luggage. Complete squats or lunges with a gallon of water or another object in each hand.

3. Make a course

Photo: US Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tony D. Curtis

During PT runs, the instructor may designate specific points the formation has to sprint to or a distance they have to lunge across instead of run. While it's easiest to do this at an athletic field where yard markers or bases can be used as reference points, it's easily done anywhere.

Try sprinting past a set number of telephone poles before jogging past twice as many, then repeat the process 9 more times. Or alternate between lunging and jogging, changing exercises every time you pass a mailbox.

4. Change up your movements

Photo: US Army Capt. Lisa Browne Banic

The Army has about 9 different versions of crawling (low crawl, high crawl, bear crawl, gator crawl, etc.), a dozen variations on walking (range walk, crab walk, ruck marching, etc.) and a few unique ways to run. Each of these changes works different muscles in different ways and the novelty helps break up the monotony.

Try the same thing with your workouts. Don't just go for a jog every day. Do a five-mile run one day, sprints another, and alternate between lunges and  jogging on another. Change gator crawls in for pushups some days or try calisthenics on your normal core workout day.

5. Workout with a buddy

Workout with a buddy, but don't actually carry them unless you are taking turns. Photo: U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Michelle Kapica

Troops may go on a run or hit the gym every once in a while on their own, but they're usually there with others dudes from the squad or platoon. And every morning they work out as a unit, running in formation or doing muscle failure exercises and calisthenics as a group.

So pick a buddy with similar goals and get to work with them. It'll help you stay accountable (more on that later) and will make it something to look forward to, not just a dreaded task.

6. Do actual, physical work (or fake it, if there's no work to do)

Photo: U.S. Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Christopher S. Muncy

Service members spend at least 30 percent of their time just packing and unpacking connexes or inventorying gear. While many soldiers think this is a horrible waste of time, it's actually a secret program to make troops super strong.

Moving furniture yourself, working in the yard, or even taking the stairs can help you incorporate exercise during the day. If you don't have any work to do or stairs to climb, you can incorporate a little "fake" work. Dig holes and fill them back in, chop wood, or just re-organize your room or bookshelves.

7. Use accountability and consequences, not just discipline

They don't have to attack you or yell like a drill sergeant, but finding someone who will help make sure you work out is a good thing. Photo: US Army Staff Sgt. Terrance Rhodes

Look, no one who isn't a fitness addict wants to spend all their time in the gym and be super diligent about dieting. Even in the military, a lot of people would love pizza, beer, and sleeping-in as opposed to hard work and dieting. But the military has NCOs who will destroy people who skip formation because even disciplined people can give in when other priorities create conflicts.

So, figure out a way to hold yourself accountable. The workout buddy discussed above is a good start, and there are apps where you can earn money for going to the gym but lose money for missing it. Adding calendar notifications to your phone or having a friend who will shame you a little can also work.

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