Train Like a Warrior: The Air Force Spec Ops-Inspired Workout

Train Like a Warrior: The Air Force Spec Ops-Inspired Workout
As one Air Force Special Ops trainer puts it, “Lifting weights is not enough.” If you want to get into the best shape of your life and build explosive functional strength, train like the most physically demanding operators in the military: Air Force Special Ops. With expertise from Master Sergeant Hannigan.
The Air Force Special Ops Workout with Master Sergeant Hannigan

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What is this?

America’s Unsung Special Operators

In the early morning hours of May 1st, 2011, two heavily modified Blackhawk helicopters carrying members of SEAL Team 6 and other special operators slip into Pakistani airspace.  Their mission, though logistically complex, is straightforward: kill or capture Osama Bin Ladin.

What few people know is that in the days before the raid, another brand of elite military operator was on the ground in Pakistan: meteorologists.

Why meteorologists? Weather played an enormous role in the timing of the raid, which had been delayed once already by thunderstorms and wind. Satellites can do a lot but without expert eyes on the ground pointed skyward, military planners can’t be sure bad weather won’t cripple an assault force.

Air Force meteorologists, or “weathermen,” reportedly did the advance work to ensure that when the SEALs made their push in to Pakistan they had clear skies. While most people know of the Navy SEALs and might have heard of Army’s DELTA, not many are familiar with Air Force Spec Ops. But if you look a little closer at this elite, specialized group of operators you begin to realize: the weathermen are just one flavor of badass under the umbrella of Air Force Special Ops.

Air Force spec ops

Air Force Special Ops is composed of four different disciplines, though each train to a similar insane level of physical fitness and technical proficiency.

  • CCT – Combat controller
  • SOWT – Special Ops Weather Technician
  • PJ – Pararescue (Medic)
  • TACP – Tactical Air Control Party

These elite specialists are the connective tissue between ground forces and our military’s assets in the sky. Tactical Air Controllers embed with frontline troops to provide close air support. Pararescue, or PJs, often operate behind enemy lines to provide medical care for injured soldiers and downed pilots. Combat Controllers are single-man attachments to elite units that provide command and control for air assets in remote, hostile environments. Air Force Special Ops do everything on land, water, and in the air that other elite units do, all while fulfilling their challenging, highly technical specialist roles.

The bedrock of this select group is elite fitness. And you better believe it’s elite. The washout rate for selection is north of 75%. Training is 730 days of the most grueling physical preparation imaginable from 6 AM to 4 PM, five days a week.

Working with Master Sergeant Hannigan and Primer contributor Brad Borland, who is former military, a competitive natural bodybuilder, and has a masters in kinesiology, we’ve put together a straightforward, challenging circuit inspired by Air Force Special Ops conditioning that anyone can use to become more powerful in their own life.

Air Force Spec Ops parachute

Train Like an Air Force Spec Ops Warrior

As one Air Force Special Ops trainer puts it, “Lifting weights is not enough.”

“No day is ever a ‘typical” day for a Spec Ops trainee,” says Master Sergeant Hannigan  “Workouts will consist of a mix of cardio, strength training, and specific physical skill work such as rope climbs, rucks, or water confidence work. Trainees spend a significant amount of time in the ‘front leaning rest’ position.” Translation: push-ups. A lot of push-ups.

Rucks, or “Rucking” are an integral aspect of Air Force Spec Ops training. Because of their highly technical roles, Air Force special operators usually haul heavy extra gear like radios. “Air Force Special Operators often have the heaviest packs while on a mission; therefore, they train heavier – up to 70lbs plus water in a ruck,” says Master Sergeant Hannigan.

He continues, “Air Force Special Operators work with all sorts of other military units including U.S. and foreign Special Forces.  Therefore, they need to be in physical condition to match, if not exceed, all other military units’ abilities.  They need to be able to swim like a SEAL, Ruck like a Ranger, and run like a marathoner.”

Air Force Special Ops

The Circuit

Our AFSO-inspired circuit is actually two circuits – strength and conditioning – plus a dynamic warmup. This allows you to alternate circuits on your gym days or, to get a taste of an Air Force trainee’s life, do both on the same day.

How many Circuits per workout?

The workout is scalable. “Depending on your existing fitness level, choose from a range of rounds – 3 for beginners, working up to 6,” says our fitness expert Brad Borland.  Reps are also determined by your fitness level… and grit. Start with 10 reps per exercise and progress to 20.

To mimic the Air Force’s emphasis on Rucking in a more practical way, Brad recommends adding some Farmer’s and Suitcase carries.

As with any new workout, focus first on safe, injury-free training. “It’s important to ‘grease the groove,’” says Brad, “and undergo numerous bouts of the fundamentals prior to taking on more challenging and advanced movements. This way you will reduce the risk of injury and build a solid foundation.”

1. Dynamic Warm-up

2. Strength Circuit

“The strength circuit is structured so that the individual is alternating from upper to lower body-centric movements,” says Brad. If you need to build up to the exercises, try the regression alternatives first.

Air Force training

3. Conditioning Circuit

The Power of Persistence

You hear it over and over from Air Force trainers and trainees: your biggest physical limitation is your own mind. The point of Air Force Special Ops’ intense training is, of course, to get in elite physical condition but it’s also about building the mental toolkit to be persistent. To be an elite operator, you need to be able to get the job done even when your body is screaming and the odds seem impossible.

So next time you hit the gym, bring your warrior mentality and watch your conditioning and strength gains go up with this challenging workout.

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Stillman Brown is a writer and TV producer who has created prime time content for National Geographic, Discovery, Travel Channel and many others. His interests span science & the natural world, personal growth, and food. He lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

  • Nick D

    I can’t say that I believe this to be accurate. Shooters and their supporting elements (CCT, PJs, etc.) do big compound lifts coupled with conditioning like the sled push/pulls, sprints, LSD runs, etc. But calisthenics and plyometrics mentioned in this article (exception for pull-ups because they are a king exercise) are secondary and tertiary means to being combat ready/effective. I’ve worked with Marine Recon, Air Force CCT and TACP dudes, they are monsters . Nothing about them says or looks like air squats and they’re insanely STRONG.

    I’m not being negative here, I appreciate any article that get’s people moving and attempting to get in better shape. But check this out as I think this is a more accurate depiction of post selection/school/training operator’s outlook on training: http://havokjournal.com/fitness/military-and-special-operations-fitness/

    • Stillman Brown

      Hey Nick, thanks for sharing this perspective & article! Our piece is definitely geared toward general fitness enthusiasts, so emphasis on the “inspired” part of AF Spec Ops Inspired. I’ll say this – I’ve personally added a few of the exercises here to my own workout and it’s plenty challenging, but I’m also not trying to qualify as an elite operator.