Overcoming the Military PT Mentality

Q: Sir, I could use some assistance:

I need to gain muscle, as I am 6’2″ and around 155 lbs. I’m an extreme ectomorph, and my doctor proclaims me at 3-4% body fat. I have an 8 pack, and when I flex it is all muscle and striations, but I know I am underweight for my height. Or at least could use some more strength and size for my activity level. I eat completely clean: only veggies, lots of protein (meat, eggs, and whey etc.) and very little fruit.

I am 30 years old and have been training non-stop for 9 years. I have been hospitalized three times:

First was in the service as a Navy SEAL/rescue swimmer. I got injured overseas, shrapnel leading to a ruptured bowel, removing my small bowel. I spent two months in the hospital and had two emergency surgeries to resection the bowel. I lost twenty pounds of muscle gained over five years of training.

Then a year later I got hit again (IED) leading to a shattered collar bone and scapula.  This had to be replaced with a titanium plate.

Once home, another year later, I was a victim of a hit and run on the bike. This has left me with a titanium hip and femur pin and a fractured skull.

I am medically cleared to train with no limitations, and have been going hardcore for two years. It has been a hard way back, and I could use any advice to a routine to gain muscle and not lose my conditioning or definition. I am always told I am overtraining and addicted to exercise, but I really fear fat and softness, since I am so dense now.

I am awaiting the VA to authorize med benefits, so I have very little funds, but I hope you can help me. I am always doing plyos, lifting, etc. People say I am way overtraining. My VA doc has ordered me to get up to 165 lbs. minimum. I would like to get to 165 w/the same 4-8% body fat and not lose my conditioning.

I am awaiting payment from the VA for benefits! So cash is tight, but your input would be appreciated. Below is my current routine which I have reduced. In addition to the following routine I also bike a couple of days (20-50 minutes) for commuting and enjoyment, and I often throw in more sprints/conditioning.

I am trying to find a program that is full body, high frequency and is body weight oriented mixed in with heavy barbell lifts. I want to keep my BF at level now 4-5%, and keep or increase conditioning (do 100 burpees in 5 minutes 40 seconds right now) increase strength with weights and body weight (do about 5-6 chins right now) and add whatever size is necessary to accompany the strength gains.

Now I am 6’2″ and about 155 lbs. @4-5% body fat.

Here is my training log.


My Answer: Well first off, let me thank you for serving and protecting our country.  Let me get right to the point about military PT: it sucks as far as building muscle.  There is a certain mindset with regards to military PT, especially the elite units such as the SEALs, Green Berets, etc.  And that mindset is this: work the soldier to a pulp with 1,000’s of repetitions of push-ups, burpees and running.  Ultra high volume where you train through the burn of lactic acid on one meal a day.

This is not the best way to gain muscle or strength.  In fact, this type of training makes you lose weight.  They did studies on elite soldiers who went through such tough training like Ranger school.  Not only did these guys lose weight, but their testosterone levels were very low, so low they were considered impotent.  When these guys got through the training and began eating 3 square meals a day and training less, they started gaining some of the weight back, but their T-levels were still depressed months later.

So what I would suggest is to change your training mindset.  Get out of the high rep balls to the wall mentality.  Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Focus on creating high muscular tension from heavy weight and lower reps.  What places more tension on a muscle?  A dumbbell military press performed with 50 pounds for 1 rep or 1 pound for 50 reps?  Obviously heavy weight produces more tension than light weight.  High rep calisthenics such as push-ups, burpees and mountain climbers don’t build muscle.  Burpees and mountain climbers certainly work you out and exhaust you, but there’s very little muscular tension from these exercises.  That’s why you’re performing endless repetitions of them.  Muscle grows under mechanical tension.  If you’re partial to body weight exercises, then don’t go for high reps and plyometrics.  Do harder calisthenics such as pistols, one arm push-ups, pull-ups and dips, as these exercises maintain more tension on your muscles.So lower your reps down to the 6-10 range.
  2. Train less frequently.  You should avoid exercising every day.  Workout 3-4 times a week, that’s it. No two workouts a day either.  Find something else to do aside from working out.
  3. Keep your workout under an hour.  Training longer than an hour depletes your testosterone and lowers your immunity.  You’re more likely to overtrain if you consistently workout longer than an hour.
  4. Rest longer between sets.  This may be very hard for you, because you’re a balls-to-the-wall trainee, but rest at least 2-3 minutes between sets.  Use a stopwatch and make sure you rest 2-3 minutes.
  5. Avoid some of the cardio.  I’d tell you to avoid all cardio, but you bike to work.  So other than commuting to work, avoid all other cardio. No jump rope, no Tabatas, no sprints.  That’s an order.
  6. Eat more food and don’t eat so clean.  You really don’t need to eat so clean.  You need the extra calories to build up some muscle and optimize hormone levels.  So this means you can eat lots of carbs.  White carbs, starchy carbs.  Just stay away from sugar.  But feel free to eat pizza and burritos.  Eat all the foods you love to eat.  Don’t go hungry.

You may be worried about losing some of that definition, but you will need to sacrifice some of that in order to gain weight.  Concentrate on getting stronger on just a handful of exercises.  For you, I would suggest you follow the 3-5 Method:  3-5 exercises, 3-5 sets, 3-5 reps, 3-5 minutes rest, 3-5 days a week.

Choose 3-5 from the following:

Bench presses
Military press
Reverse lunges
One arm push-ups


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