Everyone has heard of P90X and Insanity, and they are highly recommended by hunters. Except anyone can see progress if they have never trained before. After reading a bit more about strength training, high-intensity interval, and low-intensity steady state, it was time to give one of the sport-specific regimes a try. The only issue is not being experienced enough to design a specifically-tailored program.
Enter Rob Shaul of Mountain Athlete, or now known as Strong Swift Durable. He was once famous in the CrossFirt circle but then started seeking out more general conditioning and sport-specific training of mountain athletes. He launched his new gym in 2007 based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and quickly gained traction by posting free online training plans and sessions. Upon request, military-specific training soon followed the year after. In 2009, the gym introduced a fee structure for their training plans.
At first, I was going to order the second edition of Backcountry Big Game Hunting Program and was going to modify it to include sandbag maneuvers loaded two times the bodyweight. Except it wasn’t clear which exercises can only be done with a barbell and which can be substituted with a heavy sandbag. This was back in February before a new version was updated to exclude gym-specific equipment. Dropping nearly $60 USD on a program with only a few samples wasn’t a wise gamble.
Upon contacting Shaul and explaining how the local gyms don’t have access to Olympics weights due to not having faith in their clients for safety reasons, or are inconveniently located on the second floor where structural integrity is a concern. The only gym which has serious equipment belongs to a CrossFit organization which doesn’t rent out time slot or space to people who don’t wish to participate in the classes and seminars. He, then, recommended the Afghanistan Pre-Deployment Training Plan.
The Afghanistan Pre-Deployment Training Plan offered by Strong Swift Durable for $29.00 is a six-week, five-times a week training program requiring about 45 minutes of dedication a day to two hours for endurance events using only sandbag and dumbbells.
At first glance, much of the training regimes is quite similar to the one endorsed by the Canadian Forces shortly after the country committed itself to ousting the Taliban. Canadians who follow their own country’s military preparations should not be surprised at the resemblance given the context.
The program was specifically designed for NATO troops deployed in Afghanistan. There is some transferability for western hunters as well as mountaineers and alpinists. Upon looking at the exercises, it is easy to understand why a wide variety of people benefits.
The only equipment required are:
- a backpack;
- a watch with stopwatch option and countdown timer;
- 40 cm to 45 cm bench or box;
- a pair of 7 kg dumbbells, or 11 kg dumbbells for men; and
- a 27 kg sandbag for women, or a 36 kg for men
There are a few details left out, for instance, the rucking scheme calls for carrying body armor (7.4 kg — 15.9 kg), a helmet (1.1 kg — 1.6 kg), and a rifle. Instead of carrying a real firearm, rubber rifle or sledgehammer (4.5 kg) is recommended. The rest (8.5 — 17.5 kg) can be added on top of the 11.3 kg load prescribed. In lieu of combat weight, a 30 kg concrete mix bag do just fine. A weighted vest would distribute the load more evenly.
With apps like Runtastic Timer or RunKeeper with decent sound quality, there is no need for a stopwatch. Just string the smartphone around the neck or throw it in the backpack. Having a wristwatch is less clunky and don’t require looking at the screen as often.
In regard to weights, look for dumbbells with wide bases. A wider bottom will assist in being able to stabilize while doing the weighted pushup. For a sandbag, go with a set which are filled with landscaping bark or rubber mulch. If sand is the only option, let it shift around the bag loosely and not compacted down. Using adjustable weights will feel like being slammed into the wall by a hockey player.
The quality of the backpack makes a huge difference in the ability to ruck and perform step ups. Some internal frames and frameless cannot handle having concentrated weight acting as hypergravity and thus should be packed more carefully to distribute the weight evenly. Strong Swift Durable recommends using sandbags, dumbbells or barbell plates for loading the backpack, but most backpacks don’t handle them well and require an external frame. Fortunately, most backpack hunters already own a good external. If nothing else, ALICE, Kelty and Jansport frames can be found easily off of eBay in surplus stores for less than $50.
For the step up and rucking routines to work with internal frames, knowledge of how to distribute the load of the backpack equally is a must. Otherwise, the backpack feels very unnatural and uneven.
Keep in mind, the plan was last updated in 2012 and did not really include much for building the shoulders other than the get ups, dips, push ups, and pull ups. Complexes for the upper body using sandbags or dumbbells would squeeze nicely into this program for better transferability to backpacking.
Most importantly, the program hammers the leg and increase the VO2max. It calls for: running two or three times a week; lunges, loaded step ups and ruck once a week each; strengthening of the spine with a variety of planks and building the core muscles, lengthening the spine and strengthening the stabilizing muscles by borrowing concepts from Pilates and yoga; basic calisthenics with push-ups, pull-ups and dips along with weighted versions; and improving total body strength with a variety of Turkish getup with a sandbag.
Watching the YouTube videos, and several productions from the same team, is must as without an experienced person spotting, one can easily injure themselves. For instance, during the sandbag get up, it is easy to pull several muscles encasing the scapula if they don’t plant their feet or the pivoting arm in the right position. Do a refresher once or twice a week to maintain proper form.
There are a few complex maneuvers which do require having a good solid spine before being able to perform them. For instance, the variety of pushup into row listed in the program can be split into doing horizontal bent rows and pushups separately. But if one really wants to do the push up into row correctly, they should strengthen their core and spine with holding a plank for 60 seconds. So, if one wants to squeeze the most of the program, having a good solid base of bodyweight training is a prerequisite.
More importantly, one must follow the program to the letter or they risk overtraining if the exercises are prescribed in random orders. Skimping on the mobility drills based on the perception they are mere warm-ups is erroneous. The drills ease the downhill motions during backpacking, and assist with the more complex exercises.
The progressions are simple and one will see significant gains with the. If they are too difficult in the first couple of weeks, just cycle the first week a few times before moving on. Most importantly, do not skip a routine. Doing so usually knocks back a person for a week, and delaying the peak performance.
The most noticeable transferability to real life are the lunge and squat complex known as “leg blaster”, calf tabata, sandbag get up, hip mobility drill and real-world rucking. The other exercises in the program are crucial for building up the stabilizer muscles and major groups which aid in progression at much faster pace. Given the program was designed for immediate deployment, Rob Shaul has done an excellent job of preparing a person at a moment’s notice.
If one was to do the plan again, then investment into weighted vest and rubber rifle instead of improvising with a 4.5 kg sledgehammer and heavier sandbags would be worth it. Additionally, ankle mobility drills would contribute to the program as well and oversee much greater progression.
Overall, the Afghanistan Pre-Deployment Training Plan is a very simple program which sees more gain in a short amount of time compared to more complex programs available on the market. For athletes seeking to return to the basics, one cannot get any simpler.