You’re at 10,000 feet. It’s been a few days at this altitude and you wonder when you’ll stop breathing hard. Not that it matters because if you’re not able to track, shoot, and pack out that elk, it’s likely your family will not survive the winter.
The exhaustion threatens to beat you down. You’ve given your extra rations to your wife and children. Now there are new mouths to feed. You weren’t sure you were going to see them again after it happened. Now that they’ve shown up, rations are going to have to be redistributed. After all, they’re like family.
Building a raft, a snow hut, debris shelter, working a bow drill, digging holes, carrying injured family members – that exercise program you bought didn’t prepare you for any of that.
Fit for What?
Information on physical fitness is a lot like the food supply in the United States. There’s a lot of it and most of it is not good for you.
There’s fitness as sport, workouts to get you “beach ready,” exercise routines that have as their goal nothing more than leaving you in a pool of sweat or vomit, "8-Minute Abs", and body destroying cardio fests.
When anyone embarks on a fitness regimen, the question that should be asked is: “What am I trying to get fit for?” It is particularly critical to have the right answer to this question in a prepping or survival situation. Fitness is relative and depends on the goal.
Your gym work has to support the technical skills you’ve developed and the tasks you will need to perform.
You may be walking long distances; have to engage in hand-to-hand combat; lift and carry heavy objects; sprint away from danger; have the energy to do the planting, feeding, and mending on the homestead; or pack out the elk you shot.
Is it possible to train to accomplish all these tasks and still have time to eat and sleep? What if you weren’t the all-state quarterback in high school? What if you don’t have the time or money for a gym membership? What if you’re in your mid-50’s (like me) or older?
This isn’t about “working out.” Working out is for stressed executives, soccer moms, and former high school athletes trying to relive their glory days. This is about training.
The First Rule
The first rule is to avoid injury. Whatever program you choose shouldn’t hurt you. This is not about competition. Pain and injuries to shoulders, knees, and lower backs are epidemic in gyms.
When most guys go to the gym, they try to do what the culture and our instincts tell them to do: build as much muscle as possible. As guys, we are usually more interested in “show” rather than “go.” There are a couple of problems with this approach. One problem is that muscle mass is metabolically expensive. It takes a lot of energy to move that extra weight.
The big muscled guy will tire out much more quickly because of the additional oxygen required by his larger frame. In addition, bigger muscles aren’t necessarily stronger muscles.
If food is scarce, having a low body fat percentage and six-pack abs will be more of a sign of impending starvation than sex appeal.
In the words of strength coach James Radcliffe, “Bullets are better than bowling balls.”
You could argue that you need to have endurance, agility, speed, flexibility, strength, and quickness. You don’t have time to work on all these specific attributes. These are good if you had the time but I think for a prepping/survival situation, there’s a better way to approach your training.
Your training program should improve your ability to move the way humans were born to move. The training will help you to do it with power, efficiency, and strength. The movements are squatting, pushing, pulling, lunging, rotating, and gait (walking or running).
All these seem simple until we try to do them under load or for long duration.
Going Long or Going Strong?
If you are new to training, or you haven’t exercised in a while, know that almost anything thing you do will get you better (assuming you don’t hurt yourself) for about six to eight weeks. Then your progress will stall. This can be okay depending on your starting condition and the intensity of your program.
[blockquote cite="Strength coach Mark Rippetoe"]Strong people are harder to kill than weak people, and more useful in general.[/blockquote]
Think of strength as the big glass that you will pour all the other physical qualities into. Being strong makes it easier to endure.
Sports physiologists talk about different types of strength: absolute strength, relative strength, explosive strength, strength endurance, power endurance. Power endurance is what you want to work on. The following discussion of energy systems will make the reasons for that clearer.
I could get real geeky here but I’m going to try to avoid that. We’re going to be talking about three main energy systems:
The alactic system is used for short bursts of power for sprinting fifty yards, knocking someone to the ground or pulling a slab of concrete off of your buddy. The lactic system is used for muscle-burning activities like running 800 meters, the high intensity exercise programs like P90x, or wrestling around on the ground with a bad guy. The aerobic system is used for things like long distance running or hiking. Which one is most important to train? I would argue that being able to do repeated bouts of explosive, powerful movements (alactic) for extended periods of time (aerobic) makes the most sense. Training these two make the most sense because of the tasks you will most likely have to accomplish in most survival scenarios. Training in these energy systems is also less likely to compromise your immune and musculoskeletal systems.The aerobic system is an important base for just about every movement. Please understand that I am not talking about chronic endurance training of the sort that marathon runners undertake. This will cause you to lose muscle mass and explosiveness and leave you prone to injury and illness.
You are probably stronger in one of these energy systems than the others. When it comes to physical training, most of us play to our strengths. This can be a mistake. At 55 years of age, I can do 15 pull-ups and deadlift close to 400 lbs. at a bodyweight of 178 lbs. I don’t like working on my endurance. The takeaway for me is that the thing I’m reluctant to do is exactly the hole in my armor that I need to cover up and I’ve adjusted my training program accordingly.
Principles Over Tools
I’m as much of a gear head as the next guy. This carries over into my fitness training. It’s something that I’ve only recently gotten under control. There are all kinds of tools to get the job(s) done. You have kettlebells, dumbbells, cables, clubbells, barbells, “ab blasters,” suspension trainers, fancy machines, a universe of running shoes for different situations, and the Shake Weight.
You can actually get everything done with just a duffle bag or Alice pack. Add some gym rings and you can go to another level.
If all you have access to is bodyweight, you can make incredible gains in the areas you need them. I can detail a variety of programs using all these tools in a later article.
You should cross train. What I mean by that is you should combine lifting heavy objects with an endurance activity like ruck marching (start with weight as light as ten pounds and work up to 40 or 50 lbs.). If you have access to a pool, lake, pond, or the ocean swimming is a great addition that can work all the energy systems.
Figure out ways to increase load. If you don’t have access to weights, use big rocks or a duffle bag containing chains or pea gravel wrapped in plastic garbage bags.
Start running hills. This can help ease you into sprinting. Some of us have too much mileage to do anything that resembles fast running and that’s okay. You can substitute jumping and medicine ball exercises to aid your explosiveness.
In the end, your strength and fitness have to complement your technical training. If you can’t repair a motor, take care of your livestock, use a gun properly, or use a map and compass, all the physical training in the world won’t keep you from going over the edge.
Think about pressure testing your strength and skills by entering adventure races, orienteering competitions, local Strongman or Highland Games competitions, and IPSC contests. It can only help.