Physical Preparation for Basic Training

Updated: October 17, 2020
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    New recruits often wonder how to get physically ready for basic training. There’s a very old stereotype, stretching back to before the all-volunteer force, of basic trainees showing up for boot camp completely out of shape and having to be bullied into fitness by a very angry drill instructor.

    That scenario was a logical result of the military draft, but in modern times we know that the worst possible thing a human being can do is to show up for prolonged physical activity without being physically ready to do so.

    That’s one reason why modern recruiters started designing fitness programs for new recruits who need it–some even going so far as to conduct their own military-style workouts for their enlistees to help them prepare for the rigors of boot camp.

    Many articles written about getting physically ready for boot camp place an emphasis on a certain kind of workout or exercise routine. But there are no one-size-fits-all fitness plans and a good doctor will tell you that you need to tailor your early workouts to your own physical needs.

    What do we mean by this? At the very least, it pays to consult a doctor about your current health and get some suggestions for getting started on a fitness program.

    Those who are very out of shape must avoid overtaxing the heart, be mindful of their joints and other sensitive areas that can be damaged easily with the wrong speed of lifestyle changes. In the earliest days of a new fitness routine, slow and steady wins the race–rushing ahead can bring injuries which delay your progress.

    The First Step

    Many will tell you that the first step is to schedule a doctor’s visit and explain what you need to do. But before making that phone call, it’s a very good idea to take stock of your current lifestyle habits, fitness activities (however small or limited they might seem to you at the time) and possibly even start a food diary to keep track of your health outside the gym.

    The food diary idea is something your doctor will likely recommend to you anyway, so it’s a great idea to come to that first appointment with the diary already started and available for your primary care physician.

    To properly document your current health, make a list of the following things and describe their place in your life:

    • Overall food habits–healthy or not
    • Amount of daily exercise you currently get, regardless of how–walking, stair climbing, yard work, and active hobbies all count, not just gym time
    • Alcohol intake
    • Tobacco use
    • How much sleep you typically get each night
    • The overall role of sugar in your diet–too much, not much, etc.
    • How much junk food you consume daily, weekly, etc.
    • The amount of healthy food you feel you consume per day/week
    • Habits that you feel contribute to your overall health
    • Habits you feel detract from your overall health
    • Your health goals

    A lot of people make these lists and discover that it never registered how little healthy food (or how much) they eat per day. The same goes for the amount of sugar and tobacco people consume.

    It’s simply not a top-of-mind issue for a lot of consumers, but putting your habits down on paper can be a serious motivator to begin lifestyle changes. You might not be aware of how much of a certain food, activity, or indulgence you have each week but you will know yourself better after committing it to paper.

    Talking To Your Doctor

    It’s not enough to tell your care provider you want to have a more healthy lifestyle–you should tell the doctor what branch of military service you plan to join, how soon you may ship out (or how soon you WANT to ship out) and what kinds of changes you feel you need to make in order to survive basic training and beyond.

    Talking to your doctor is important, but the TIMING of your appointment is key. You should plan on starting your physical training regimen to prepare for basic training at LEAST six weeks beforehand. Two months is better, and even more prep time is ideal. Don’t delay the appointment with your care provider as the timing of your new fitness program will be very important.

    Why do you need the doctor’s help when planning all this? Because different body types have different needs–if you don’t have weight issues, but your stamina is seriously lacking, your fitness program might look a lot different than for the new recruit who should lose a few pounds (or more) before showing up at the Military Entrance Processing Station.

    The same is true for those who may have a measure of fitness but have a need in certain areas–the weight lifter may have less overall endurance than the long-distance runner and that runner may lack the muscle development needed to manage basic training pushups and other rigors.

    Naturally these are just examples and there are many shades of gray, but the overall concept is easy enough to grasp–your needs are unique to you and should be treated as such when planning major lifestyle changes.

    Getting Started

    The prevailing wisdom about starting a new fitness program is basically, “Don’t get discouraged when the early weeks of your new plan don’t show results as fast as you thought or hoped”. This is one area to quiz your doctor about–ask how long it will realistically take you to start seeing results and do some expectation management.

    Here’s the rub about physically preparing for basic training–it’s not just how many miles you run, how many pushups you do, and how many minutes per day.

    One thing new troops learn about in their professional military education is something referred to as the Whole Person Concept–the military places an emphasis on overall improvement for your entire life–not just your career.

    That includes education and fitness. And where fitness is concerned, the Whole Person Concept includes getting enough sleep, enough nutrition, and reducing damaging vices like tobacco use and alcohol.

    You’ll need to concentrate on the nutrition aspect of your life in tandem with your new workout. Building muscle requires protein, endurance requires carbs, and working out means replacing the electrolytes and water you lose while doing so. This is all down to a science in the minds of many personal trainers, and it will take you some time to figure out the balance for your own body through some trial and error as well as informed advice from your doctor and any research you do on your own.

    Preparing Your Body: It’s Not Just Your Workout

    Here’s what nobody wants to read about boot camp–you won’t be allowed to use alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, or even junk food. The personal experience of this author included a two or three week period where no sodas or desserts were permitted–especially in the chow hall line.

    Basic trainees may be informed that the drill sergeant will give you permission to drink a soda or eat a dessert, often “once you’ve EARNED IT.” This may not be the experience for every recruit in every branch of service, but it is best to assume that you will be deprived of caffeine, candy bars, and smoking for a long time.

    Why mention this here? Because this is one area where many basic trainees struggle in the first two weeks of their new training environment–the coffee lover who doesn’t wean themselves off caffeine before basic training will experience “fuzz brain,” headaches, sometimes even depression while coming down off their caffeine habits.

    The same is true for smokers, but the symptoms can be even more intense. These withdrawals are a serious distraction for some and can interfere with their training experience. Get your body ready for such deprivations long before you have to and your training experience will be far more manageable than if you have to detox while being shouted at by your drill instructor.

    At no time should you attempt a crash diet of any kind and that includes going off caffeine and/or nicotine. That doctor’s visit we keep talking about as one of your earliest steps in the fitness parade before basic training? You should tell your doctor about any vices you need to get rid of before you ship out–there are prescriptions you may be able to take to help you quit smoking–some include antidepressants, and don’t knock it until you try it!

    By taking these measures months before you get into uniform, you’ll save yourself a good deal of discomfort and distraction in the training environment, and never forget that your recruiter is a very good source of information in this department as they have seen every type of approach to entering basic training possible–totally unprepared all the way to fit and ready to fight.

    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

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