Whether you’re a regular working stiff paying big bucks to grunt and sweat your way through a boot-camp-style workout or you’re a young person enlisting to do the real deal, US Army Drill Sergeant of the Year Michael Johnston has a little advice: Get into shape. Now.
The 26-year-old self-described “skinny guy” — he’s 1.8m and 73kg — enlisted right out of high school and served his country in two tours in Afghanistan before becoming a drill sergeant.
After shepherding young men and women through basic training, Johnston, an Idaho native who grew up in Nebraska, competed against 5,000 others before being named Drill Sergeant of the Year in June. He was in Houston recently to be honored at a Houston Texans game.
“You’ve got to take care of yourself,” Johnston said later about the importance of good health. “The older you are, the harder it is to get fit. So start as young as you can.”
Johnston said he has nothing against gym workouts that push participants through grueling circuits, but they’re much different from what happens on a military base. For starters, basic training is a 24/7 proposition for 10 weeks. (A day in the life of a private’s schedule goes like this: seven hours of sleep and 17 hours of up ’n at ’em, which includes one hour of personal time and one and a half hours for meals.)
But there’s much that anyone can take away from the exercises he leads his new privates through. For starters, you don’t need a lot of equipment.
In fact, for anyone to follow the highly scripted US Army basic training exercise plan it’s in a 5cm-thick manual called Initial Entry Training the only equipment you need is a bar for pull-ups.
In the Army, Johnston and others use words like “endurance” and “mobility” in lieu of “cardio” and “strength training,” but the result is the same: stronger, fitter people who may be a little sore but are generally happier and healthier.
What Johnston refers to as the “Core Workout” is done for 60 minutes, six times a week. At your own gym, you may fudge on the time or sleep in on rainy days. In BT, compliance is not optional.
Every workout begins with a warm-up and ends with a cool-down. In between, soldiers build endurance and mobility with a key goal of avoiding injury.
The exercises done in real basic training are much like you see on TV and in movies complete with stern attitudes from drill sergeants. Anyone who’s ever hired a trainer or signed up for a circuit-training class is familiar with sit-ups, pushups, mountain climbers and much-dreaded pull-ups.
All of these are done because fitness equates to strength and mobility, said Johnston. “On a battlefield you’re not measured on how many pushups or sit-ups you can do. You’re measured on mobility. That’s what will get you through it.”
Cardio is more inventive: try marching with a full backpack for three or four hours. Or run interval training, alternating slow and fast running speeds.
What you eat matters, too. Follow the simple rule of carbs before your work out to provide energy; lean protein after a workout to rebuild muscle, he said.
On base, he can’t give nutritional advice. “If it was up to me I’d tell privates to eat steel and raw meat,” Johnston joked. “But I can’t tell a private what to eat. If it’s in the chow hall, they can eat it and in any quantity. But soldiers burn thousands of calories before most people even get up.