Training the Warrior-Athlete

Jun 22, 2022

(Originally posted in 2013) 

Sergeant Harold Hill coined the term "Warrior-Athlete" to describe the training needs of the modern day soldier. Over the past decade, the needs of the modern day soldier has evolved from an endurance-based paradigm to a modern day athlete model.

The special-ops soldier (and really any soldier) should be handled as the highly valued asset that their training program has created. Instead, these warrior athletes are often involved in training programs that have a high injury rate and actually decrease readiness.

What follows are suggestions for training the warrior-athlete based on what has been term by Master Sergeant Glen Mercer the "Professional Athlete Model."

Two cautions:

1. I have never been a warrior. I have not served in the military so, I can only offer advice based on what I think I know.

2. The professional athlete model does not fully apply to the military. No offense or disrespect meant to professional athletes but, my experience has shown that in the professional sports model talent is most often inversely proportional to work ethic.

Professional athletes are talented but, may be work averse. In the military work ethic and commitment will be outstanding. This means that those responsible for the implementation of training must realize that a soldier will do what is asked no matter what the cost to the body.

Where the professional athlete may simply slow down, stop, or refuse to comply, the soldier will not. The man with the military mind-set can and will be a danger to himself in a training situation and often will willingly produce the overuse problems that we seek to avoid.

Soldiers will have a “task completion” mindset that will put them at great risk of overuse injury on a consistent basis. The take away message here is that training must be extremely well designed to avoid injury and, that coaches must realize that pulling back is as important or more important than pushing. The work ethic of soldiers creates great opportunities for coaches to make progress and great opportunities to create injury.

Step 1- Evaluate

A mission without intelligence and maps is doomed to failure. The same applies to a training program. To simply prescribe exercises with no thought to the person completing the program is like going on a mission with no previous intelligence gathering. You are doomed to failure.

Sgts. Hill and Mercer as well as others within the military have adopted the Functional Movement Screen developed by Physical Therapist Gray Cook. Cook's screen is simple and easy to use and is now used by those who train elite athletes all over the world. Describing the Functional Movement Screen is beyond the scope of this article but you can visit to learn the specifics of this vital evaluation tool. The important thing to understand is that the FMS evaluates how the soldier moves at the most basic level. It is not a physical evaluation but rather a screen. The screen will direct you to pursue a certain quality or, to avoid a certain pattern.

Physical evaluation for soldiers should focus on a broad range of quantities. Technique is the critical key in any physical evaluation. There must be a consistent system of testing if soldiers are going to be compared to each other. Some areas of the military have advocated doing away with a pullup or chinup test. I feel this is a major error that over time will lead to a significant increase in shoulder injury. It is critical that a proper ratio of pushing to pulling is maintained.

Continuing to test pushing strength via pushups and discontinuing pullup testing is a prescription for shoulder injury. These two tests evaluate opposite abilities. If given my choice, I would eliminate pushups before pullups or chin-ups as most soldiers or athletes will never lack for pushing strength. Any pullup or chinup test must be strict with full extension of the elbows, chin above the bar and no swinging or kipping. Failure to follow these guidleines invalidates the testing and renders results useless.

One overlooked testing area for the modern soldier is power. Standing vertical jump is a simple test of power that can be easily used in the military.

Selecting a Training Program

Many in the military appear to be looking for a ‘canned” type of program. Some have adopted CrossFit type training, others have moved in other directions.

What is important in choosing a training style is that the correct tool is chosen for the job. I have a saying I like to use:

“Chain saws are bad for trim work”.

The point is that tools are just that. The key is selecting the right tool for the job. I am not here to indict CrossFit or Kettlebells or any other system. My objective is to point out the need to develop a proper tool for the job rather than simply trying to find an existing tool that can be modified for the job.

The key point is to understand that the best tool may be bodyweight. Bodyweight and a set of adjustable Powerblock type dumbbells may be the best and most effective choice for military training. The only real equipment needed are a chin-up bar, a TRX or Jungle Gym suspension system for bodyweight rows, and an 18” box that can be used for 1 Leg squats, Rear-foot Elevated One Leg Squats ( often seen in the vernacular as Bulgarian lunges), and step-ups.

All of the exercises above are simple, relatively easy to learn and have a proven safety record. In addition, only four pieces of equipment are needed. Simply multiply this by the number of trainees and you have a program.

Circuit Training

Although I am not a fan of circuit training, circuits may be a fact of life in military situations. The key to using training circuits is to properly design them for maximum benefit. Circuits should alternate between:

-Upper push ( push-up or variation)

-Knee dominant ( 1 leg squat or variation)

-Core ( ideally isometric type planks vs sit-up type movements)

-Upper pull ( chin-ups, rows and variations)

-Hip Dominant ( 1 leg Straight Leg deadlifts or Bridges)

These simple five exercises can be done for strength or endurance depending on the need.

Developing Strength Without Size

The reality of physiology is that fat free mass is best developed with heavier weights and lower reps. A misconception exists in the training literature that lighter weights and higher reps should be used when you don't want to gain size. The reality is that lighter weights and higher reps may actually cause more size gain than heavier weights and lower reps.

The key to training is to know the goal.
Do I want strength?
Do I want endurance? 
What is the goal?

A soldier needs both strength and endurance. Therefore training must be done for both strength and endurance.

The simplest way to do this is to alternate strength days ( 6 reps) and endurance days ( 15-20 reps)

Training Program Goals

The number one goal of any good training program is to prevent injury in the training process. Some of the systems currently in use by the military like Crossfit and kettlebells can have a high “in-training” injury rate. This is completely unacceptable.

Goal number two is to prevent injury in the mission. This means that training should improve things like balance and landing skills. A properly designed strength training program that focuses on single limb actions is great for injury prevention. It would also make sense to include basic plyometric training exercises to develop landing skills and the eccentric strength needed in landing from parachute drops, zip lines etc.

Goal three is to improve mission performance. I know that many authorities might see this as goal one however, injured soldiers cannot go out on assignment. This is where the professional athlete model makes sense. The military spends significant amounts of time and money to select and train a special forces soldier. It only makes sense to protect the asset as best possible.

Training With Injuries

The motivated  soldier will desire to train while injured.

We have few simple rules:

-      If it hurts, don't do it. This seems simple but, it is not possible to work through pain.

-      Eliminate provocative exercises. In other words if you know an exercise produces pain. Find an alternative.

-      Eliminate repeat offending exercises and contraindicated exercises. If you have hurt your back squatting, squatting may not be a good idea. Switch to one leg squats. Certain obvious exercises should be avoided. They include but are not limited to: behind the neck presses, behind the neck pulldowns, kipping pullups, dips, and upright rows. These are just bad exercises that will produce pain in most people with any shoulder pathology.

Tips for Instructors

Instructors must demand perfect technique. Cheating will eventually cause the body to breakdown. In general chin-up and parallel grip pull-ups will be less demanding on the shoulder joint than the traditional palms forward pull-up. It is critical in these exercises that you demand complete ROM.

The same applies to pushups. Require that trainees go all the way up and that they go down to a fist touch on the chest (partners hand). The head should be neutral do not allow the neck to extend in a “look up” posture and do not allow trainees to crane the neck to touch the nose first. Keep a neutral chin-tuck position.

Training must be done only to the point of technical failure, not failure. Technical failure is defined as the point at which no more perfect reps can be completed.


The highly trained soldier may the most valuable asset in the armed forces. These men should be treated as such.

This means that training must be designed first with safety in mind. In the qualifying procedure it may be necessary to see who is willing to push beyond physical pain however once an operator has qualified pushing beyond the technical failure point is ill advised.

These highly skilled, and highly trained warrior athletes should be cared for and maintained as the high value assets they are.