The mission of the Ranger Regiment changed dramatically during my time there. Each change was accompanied by different tactical and physical requirements. Despite these changes, the basic physical fitness foundation was never lost. That foundation is arguably what brought the Regiment to where it stands today. My own physical preparedness mirrored this constant progression, grounded firmly in a mastery of the basics. I will admit that I was never the best at anything when it came to PT. I walked among Giants - guys that played NCAA Division I or professional sports were not an oddity in the Ranger Battalion. But what I lacked in extraordinary fitness I made up for in two areas: consistency and grit.
The Regiment is a standards-based organization with the roots of those standards in physical fitness. If you cannot meet these standards, you will be released from the unit to honorably serve elsewhere in the Army. These standards require Rangers to complete a 5 mile run in 40 minutes or less, score 80% in each event on the army physical fitness test (plus 6 chin-ups), and complete a 12 mile foot march in 3 hours or less. At face value, these standards seem like an easy gate to pass, but they can prove difficult to maintain for years at a time while also maintaining a rigorous schedule of training and deployments. It should be noted that these standards were created during peacetime, by men who saw a different set of combat requirements (if they saw combat at all) from the modern Ranger. However, regardless of their subject relevance to modern combat, the standards are there, and thus have to be met while still maintaining the ability to effectively operate.
My early PT experiences in the Ranger Battalion basically consisted of running as fast as possible, as often as possible. These were hardly a good example of comprehensive physical training, but that was the flavor of the time. Some guys gravitated towards the gym, but the intention was never to build strength. They wanted to get big. If lifting made them run slower, they stopped lifting. This was the pre-GWOT way of life.
As I mentioned previously, I was consistent in my physical preparation, meaning that I was healthy and could always operate near my top potential when I needed to. As an E-8, I was the only one of my peers (that I can remember) that had never had a surgery. This isn’t simply a case of Superman genetics. My father and brother were both career soldiers with long stints in the Airborne and SOF communities, and both underwent multiple and varied surgeries. I attribute my avoidance of going under the knife to three key aspects of my consistency in training and training methodology.
The First was balance. Balance meant maintaining my desire to work on weaknesses and strengths, but to remember that my primary job was to be a Ranger. My goal was never to be a marathon runner, a body builder, nor a weightlifter. Any work that was directed towards training to "excel" in an area that surpassed my abilities in any other area was a vain waste of energy. Maintaining this balance kept me from overtraining a specific system or developing gaps that could lead to injuries. I never let my desire to get really good at one thing detract me from developing a solid, well-rounded program with the end goal of preparing me for my next mission. I'll touch on knowing those missions later.
Second was durability. Durability means having the strength and rigidity to protect my joints from the specific dangers of training and operations. Rangering is hard on the body. Rangers run off the “X” under nods at full speed during infil, wearing 90lbs of kit. We do multiple static line jumps onto hardstand runways every training cycle. Even something as simple as hopping off the back of a truck wearing your plates creates an enormous amount of wear and tear and presents opportunities for catastrophic injury to your hips, knees, or ankles. I've taken some NASTY diggers on target, usually running to or from a helicopter at night across uneven terrain. (I’ll admit, it looks really funny).
So how have I always maintained relatively healthy joints? I maintained strong legs and a strong midline. The process for doing this consists simply of three movements: Squats, Deadlifts, and Presses. These movements were non-negotiable in my PT plan. Even if I could only make it to the gym for an hour over the course of a week, I would make my priority to squat. This base of strength is what I attribute to most of my long-term health. I could never run a 30-minute five-mile or turn a two hour 12 miler, but I never missed a mission or training event due to an overuse injury.
The third key aspect was Knowing The Mission. Like the prior two points, there is nothing earth shattering here. If you are truly going to train like you fight, you have to physically train in a manner that directly correlates to what you are about to do. During the glory days in Iraq, an "offset" infil meant 10 city blocks, we were still breaching heavy shit, climbing walls and ladders, and wrasslin' the occasional big boy on a nightly basis. To train for this mission, I focused on maintaining maximum strength and speed in short bursts.
In Afghanistan, the mission sometimes called for grueling 10+ kilometer marches at altitudes exceeding 9500 feet above sea level, breaching stuff a stiff breeze could knock over, and dealing with malnourished Afghanis weighing in at 110 pounds soaking wet. I trained to move well under a heavy load over extreme terrain for long distances.
Between my PSG and 1SG time I had to attend RASP 2, as all senior NCOs do, to assess for my next billet. I treated this as a mission and once again trained for what was at hand, losing over 20lbs of muscle to be the ideal assessment and selection candidate who exceled at the course’s graded PT events. Here it was especially important to maintain a base of strength, because it’s impossible to runfast on a sprained knee.
It is easy to see how each mission called for a different level of fitness, but regardless of the mission requirements, strength was always my anchor.
The last thing I'd like to say is this: Anyone that tells you to "listen to your body" in a SOF unit or at a selection doesn't care about your success there. Of course you don't want to do long term damage to yourself, but life in a SOF unit leaves your body always feeling like it could use an off day. Grit is a necessity in those environments. Just don't waste your grit on stupid shit.
Jake Denman’s career as a Ranger spanned 15 years, with assignments to 2 Battalions, the Regimental Headquarters, and as cadre for what was then known as RIP and is now known as RASP 1. Jake deployed to combat 15 times, totaling 54 months in roles varying from Rifle Squad Leader to Senior Enlisted Advisor for a Regional Joint Task Force.