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MARSOC uses applicants' feedback to redesign workout prep program

Jul. 21, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
A MARSOC critical skills operator.
A MARSOC critical skills operator. (MARSOC)
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MARSOC fitness tips: don’t skimp on the swimming and carry a 50-pound pack everywhere.

Officials at the Marines’ special operations command recently released an overhauled ten-week physical prep course, one designed to physically pulverize and incrementally condition Marines looking to attendMARSOC’s rigorous 19-day assessment and selection training.

Similar to the original ten-week course released in 2010, the new program amps up its three pillars: swimming, rucking at speed over distance, and upper body strength. The new program changes are thanks to a team of MARSOC operators and fitness experts — and to Marines who completed A&S and shared their feedback.

At the core of the program are six workout cards and four swim cards, each focusing on a different fitness proficiency. One day is PFT preparation while the next zeros in on core strength or ruck-based exercises. Following the program is no guarantee of getting a coveted spot in MARSOC, officials say, but it will give you a pretty good idea of what to expect.

Gunnery Sgt. Peter Boby, the staff noncommissioned officer in charge of MARSOC recruiting team East and Okinawa and one of the Marines who planned the overhaul, said balance and simplicity took precedent during the course’s redesign.

“We had a look at ‘how do we incorporate exercises that aren’t specifically skills-based,” he said. “We looked at stuff that was pretty basic and pretty simple that could be done on base using an ammo can, ruck and rifle.”

The decision to change the prep workout came following analysis of initial test scores from previous A&S participants. Direct feedback from graduates of A&S and the seven-month individual training course that follows, taken in interviews and surveys, also played a role in the course correction.

The top two trouble areas were a lack of proficiency in the swimming portion of training, and incorrect form on one of the most common exercises: pullups.

“Most young Marines are pretty damn strong, but when they’re training, they’re not in the gym with somebody watching them,” Boby said. “You’ve seen it in other workout programs, it calls for thousands of repetitions. And we’re not looking for that, we’re looking for quality.”

Though it’s tailored to the rigors of special ops work, Boby and his team hope they’ve created a workout that even fleet Marines who are not planning to try out for MARSOC can use and adapt. He said he hoped to see the regimen gain wide popularity in the Corps.

“These sessions are scalable to almost anyone’s ability,” Boby said. “Marines can do most of them in PT gear. But an advanced trainee can do them in boots and utilities, or even while wearing body armor.”

Combating attrition

MARSOC officials have long struggled with the challenge of preparing Marines to succeed at A&S. The original 10-week preparation course launched after Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway ordered MARSOC in 2010 to cut its washout rate to 20 percent; at the time, 46 percent of MARSOC applicants failed during the A&S phase.

The washout rate has fluctuated wildly in the years since MARSOC started in 2006 as training was adjusted and the applicant population evolved. In 2007, nearly 63 percent of Marines didn’t make it through A&S; in 2008, the washout rate was cut to 38 percent, then brought down to just over 35 percent the following year, before increasing again in 2010.

In 2012, MARSOC created the Assessment and Selection Preparatory and Orientation Course to stem the attrition rate, offering MARSOC hopefuls three weeks of daily workouts and conditioning before A&S began. ASPOC was renamed A&S Phase 1 in 2013, while the original 19-day course became A&S Phase 2.

MARSOC officials told Marine Corps Times that 40 percent of candidates had failed to make it through A&S in 2013, though they attributed the increased attrition rates to a younger population of recruits: mainly corporals and sergeants in their first term.

It’s not clear whether their program tweaks are working now: When Marine Corps Times asked this month for the most recent attrition data, MARSOC officials declined to provide it.

The next A&S course kicks off Aug. 15.

The workout

Each week in the A&S prep challenge follows a similar pattern: Mondays begin with a short 1.5-mile run, followed by completion of a movement card, and then another run of the same distance. Tuesdays are about rucking fast over short distance: one to two miles with a 45 to 55-pound pack with a time limit, another movement card, and another ruck of the same distance. Thursdays are dedicated to swimming in the new program, and Fridays are about sprinting: half in the pool, half on land. Each Saturday for all ten weeks, prospective candidates do a long-distance ruck hike that gets longer as the prep course progresses, from four miles on Week 1 to 12 miles on Week 10.

Periodically, the course also calls for participants to complete a physical fitness test: all MARSOC critical skills operators are required to make a first-class PFT score of 225 or more.

There’s a lot more variety in the new ten-week program than in the original prep course too. While the previous course asked would-be CSOs to cycle through a “short card” of 21 exercises multiple times per week, the new course progresses through six different movement cards with little repetition. Boby said grouping the workouts by focus and keeping them different every day helped Marines to think about what they were doing and encouraged better technique.

“We didn’t want to put together a program that said do lots of this, do it every day, and do more of it next week,” he said.

With a host of new exercises in the program, from tire flips to partner drags and ruck and sandbag-based calisthenics, it’s easy to see similarities to popular existing workout programs that take fitness beyond gym machines, from Crossfit to the Marines’ own High Intensity Tactical Training Program. Boby acknowledged that the program had been influenced by the experience of its creators; he himself carries a number of Crossfit certifications, and the rest of the small team of NCOs and Staff NCOs who designed the course brought their own backgrounds to bear, including Olympic lifting experience.

Boby emphasized that the 10-week course is not a carbon copy of any one program.

“[Other workout regimes] don’t specifically target the three pillars of our program,” he said. “Being very good at crossfit would be helpful, but it wouldn’t be tailored for these three specific components.”

The program was also workshopped by MARSOC’s resident experts at its Performance Enhancement and Resiliency Program. It contains more rest and recovery days than the original and careful guidance on nutrition, hydration, foot care and total health.

Boby said the extra rest days were a result of feedback from previous A&S participants, and designed to make sure Marines stayed on course with the program.

“We found that a six-day-a-week program was a bit too much, in that guys would instinctively drop a workout when they didn’t have the time or just didn’t feel like doing that particular workout,” he said.

It is possible to overdo it in preparation for training, Boby said, from failing to observe the designated recovery days to overloading their rucks with too much weight.

“We don’t want guys to show up broken and barely holding it together,” he said.

Half SEAL, half Ranger

Stew Smith, a former Navy SEAL who now specializes in fitness training for the military and special operations, said the A&S prep course falls somewhere between training regimens for the other branches of special ops.

“One thing I like about the MARSOC world is there’s a blend between SEAL and [Army] special forces,” he said. “SEAL training has a lot less rucking than Army SF training. MARSOC’s right there in the middle, and has a lot of both.”

Overall, he said, the course reflects the realities of elite military training, where troops frequently interspersed endurance work with periods of high-intensity activities.

“The one thing that’s for sure is there’s no 30 to 45-minute gym workout that’s going to prepare you for a day of special ops training,” he said. “Those ruck days, that’s a four-hour workout. You’ve got a full day of work, and then you add in a couple-hour workout, that’s good preparation.”

Retired Navy Cmdr. Bob Thomas, director of the Navy Wellness Center in Pensacola, Fla., said the training reinforces the physical ideal of the compact, agile operator, rather than someone overly burdened with muscle or lacking physical versatility.

“The days of the big body-building Adonis are gone,” Thomas said. “What [MARSOC instructors] are looking for is exactly what is the theory of this document, which is basically, ‘we want a guy who can go all day, get to the fight, and go all day to get out.’”

Thomas said the new program is reminiscent of the Army Special Forces program “Ranger Athlete Warrior,” which is geared toward creating “tactical athletes” with mental and physical wherewithal.

Even the required preparation calisthenics and the post-workout warmdown exercises would help make Marines stronger, said Taylor Poulin, a Marine veteran and Crossfit coach and competitor. After reviewing the workout, Poulin said he planned to add some of the exercise sequences into his own regimen.

Smith did point out one potential weakness of the course: even though the swimming portion had been expanded from once to twice a week, he suggested that non-proficient swimmers might need to increase their time in the water even further. He said the least comfortable swimmers should get in the pool three or four times a week, and practice regularly with fins as well.

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