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Getting fit and healthy is a very real battle for many of us, and it’s one that statistics suggest we are losing. Even though we have more access to information and resources than ever before, we cannot seem to turn the tide against rising problems with physical and mental health. But what if there were…

The Optimum Way To Build Strength And Fitness… Lessons Learnt In Special Forces

What is the best way to build strength and fitness?

The obvious answer is a good structured programme that progressively builds your strength and fitness over a realistic timeline. And if you don’t have the knowledge and experience to do this yourself then using a good coach to build it for you. But this is only one piece of the puzzle, and for optimum results you need all of the pieces in place.

Life in the UK Special Forces is a fast and furious world of high-pressure and hostile environments, where each person needs to be at the top of their game. So as you would expect the six month selection process is a gruelling affair that is designed to get rid of anyone unsuitable (which basically means nearly everyone who attempts it). My course started with 220 people on day 1 and by the end only 17 remained, less than 8%.

There is no single one way to prepare for selection and everyone uses the strategy they think will work best. Building strength and fitness was only part of what was needed to be ready for such a demanding course, but the overall principles are the same.

I believe there are 5 steps that make up the optimum strategy for building strength and fitness for life:

Number 1 – Have A Plan

As I have already mentioned, having a well structured programme is essential for success. It’s easy to walk into the gym and randomly pick up some weights or go for a run with no real time or distance in mind. And sometimes that is exactly what is needed, a ‘do what you feel’ day with no expectations attached. 

But if you want to get the best results then you need to plan and track everything you do. This will keep you accountable, motivated, focused, and most importantly, help you stick to a routine. It all comes down to consistency, which is the only way to make real progress.

Read more about tracking training here.

Number 2 – Health First, Performance Second

If you want to be fit and strong then you must have a foundation of overall great health to build upon. If you don’t do this then you will be fighting a constant uphill battle. While I was still serving in the military ‘fundamental skills’ were core to being a Special Forces soldier: It wasn’t about advanced skills in weapons or tactics, it was about being very good at basic soldiering skills such as maintaining operational effectiveness in harsh environments.

In order to unlock your potential, in every area of life, you need to be a healthy person first. And simple steps like a food first approach (primarily whole unprocessed foods), reducing stress (regulating screen time, meditation, exercise, exposure to nature), and prioritising sleep are the best strategies for long term success.

Read more about ‘health first’ here.

Number 3 – The Mind Is Primary

Embrace that the mind is primary because once a person’s mind is strong it is easy to facilitate a change in the body. Self-imposed limitations are shackles that hold us down and prevent us from achieving our potential. When you set a limit, it constricts what is achievable, but if you stop limiting yourself, big transformations will start happening in every area of your life.

I witnessed this myself throughout my military career, first during recruit training for the Royal Marines, and later whilst on selection for Special Forces. The physical work is achievable for most who turn up but many still fail (most in the case of selection). Success is 90% mental and I witnessed many strong guys disappear by the end of week 1 whilst physically weaker guys go on and triumph.

As it is in the military, in sports, in life, it is the psychological aspects that create the hurdles most people fail at.

Read more about mindset here.

Number 4 – Forget Willpower, Build Habits

Stop relying on willpower. Massive success does not require massive action. It requires small BUT consistent action. And habits ARE those small consistent actions that define your outcomes, because your results are a lagging measure of your habits. Successful people are not where they are because of the willpower or motivation you don’t have; it’s because they have better habits.

We all love to have defining moments and big accomplishments. Which is only natural. They are impressive and exciting and it feels good to do something great. But your life today is essentially the sum of your habits. How in shape or out of shape you are is predominantly down to the habits you carry out on a daily basis.

Read more about willpower and habits here.

Number 5 – The Power Of Process

Shift your focus from goal setting to system building. Goals are the same for winners and losers, the difference is the quality of their systems. You do not rise to the level of your goals you fall to the level of your systems. Focus on the process for continuous improvement, and long term results.

If you only focus on goals you end up with a yo-yo effect, dieting being the perfect example. Once you hit a certain weight that goal is no longer there to motivate you and you find yourself reverting back to old ways. Building a system is not about a single accomplishment it is about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement.

In a word, process is about consistency, and without it you have no hope of getting where you want to be.

Read more about the power of process here.

And consistency here.

Where To Go From Here

I used all of these steps in the build up to selection for Special Forces, but these steps apply to any endeavour in life. There are many paths to getting fit and strong but this will get you optimum results.

So what actions can you take to make all of this happen?

Find A Good Coach

If you have been training for a while, have developed a good knowledge base and can safely and correctly execute a wide range of movements then with a bit of research you should be able to construct your own programme.

This should be developed around your overriding aim and take into account factors such as your age, nutritional strategy, free time, etc. But be aware that it’s easy to overcomplicate this process because there are an infinite number of exercises, sets, reps, and programs to choose from.

If don’t have the necessary knowledge or skills, or if you’re somebody that wants to skip all of that, and just want to be told what exactly to do then your best option is to a knowledgeable coach who will get to know your story and struggles, your goals, and your lifestyle, and develop a workout plan that fits your schedule.

Work On The Fundamentals

Get the basics right and the rest will fall into place.  As tempting as it may be to buy that detox diet or master blast workout, the sooner you move away from the ‘shiny objects’ and start implementing the basics the quicker you will start achieving your true potential.

  • Get enough good quality sleep.
  • Eat more whole foods & less of the rest.
  • Move in a variety of ways that build and protect the body, not break it.
  • Work on your mindset to increase positivity and reduce stress.
  • Embrace the people & experiences that bring happiness.

Develop A Strong Mindset

There are many ways you can achieve this for me one thing stands out; embracing failure instead of avoiding it.

In an ideal world the attitude to failure is that it’s an absolutely integral and central part of any worthwhile endeavour and of breaking performance barriers in any area of life. It should be relished as a psychological tool to motivate, a practical source of essential feedback and even the motivation that makes eventual success feel so good when it finally comes.

Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world and instead it has become the norm that failure is bad. However, temporary failure is an essential part of improvement and of long term success. And if you really want to improve in something you have to actively seek out those situations that really expose you to your weakest, most amateur limitations. 

None of us are perfect, we all make mistakes and we all fall down. Through failure we can identify errors, receive reminders about them and eventually overcome them.

Think Big But Act Small

Think big in terms of what you want out of life but remember that success is the product of daily habits not once in a lifetime transformations. Small improvements are the actions that accumulate into remarkable results.

You can think of it like the compound interest you get on your savings account.  The effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them. You don’t notice much difference on any given day, just like you don’t notice the difference of a few pence each day. But the impact over months and years can be enormous.

The problem is that it’s easy to dismiss small changes because they don’t seem to matter much in the moment. Going for one gym session won’t get you in shape, eating one healthy meal won’t shift how much you weigh, learning French for an hour won’t make you fluent.

And the same is true of bad decisions. Choosing TV over going for a run won’t make a difference that evening, nor will one takeaway make you overweight. But when you repeat actions day after day then small wins or tiny mistakes become life changing results.

Watch Your Moving Average

Progress is not a linear progression. Consistency does not have to be a straight line.

You will have good days and you will have bad days, that’s just life. But the worst thing you can do is get into an ‘all or nothing’ mindset where you take no action unless things are perfect. Instead, remember that it is your moving average that counts. Keep showing up and look for the small wins each day. Do that and I promise you will get to where you want to be.

Final Word

Building long term strength and fitness is not something you achieve overnight, it takes time, effort and dedication. But you can give yourself a huge advantage by taking heed of the strategies listed above.

By layering these actions on top of each other you will create a system that makes it far easier to get the results you want. It is the combination of these factors working together that leads to the optimum results.

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