Fitness is a way of life for Marines. The Marine Corps will push you past your limits, and it will ask more of your physical and mental strength than you’ve ever had to use before. In combat, there is no reset button. It is always on hard mode. And the difference between winning and losing a battle comes down to mindset and preparation.
So how do you prepare for Marine Boot Camp? Simple. Let’s start with a quick story.
My first firefight in Afghanistan took place at 9,000 ft of elevation. At that altitude, there is 30% less oxygen than at sea level. Carrying extra ammo, mortar rounds, water, and food means that packs also weigh more than in training — well over 100 pounds.
Al-Qaeda-backed forces attacked our platoon of 38 Marines with a force of over 100. Two Marines in my squad were severely wounded, including my fire team leader, Corporal Tyler Einarson. He had been shot twice in the chest.
Wearing sixty pounds of combat equipment, I had to help him move nearly one hundred yards up a steep slope to the medevac site — all while being unable to breathe as much as sea level. It took all my strength to help him move up that hill. When the enemy fired at us, I stepped in front of his body to protect him with my body armor. We had to stop several times so he could catch his breath.
Only with the help of fellow Marines and because of our preparation were we able to overcome the terrain, altitude, and, ultimately, the enemy to get our Marines to safety. That first day was exhausting — but we continued to fight for six days until the enemy’s will to fight was broken.
How to Physically Prepare for Marine Boot Camp
I advise getting a gym membership for 3-6 months prior to shipping out to boot camp. There are a variety of gyms, but I am going to focus on the simple $15-$30 a month gyms that get you access to weight training equipment. If you can afford a personal trainer — that’s great. But I will focus on the lower tier option, making this fitness program available to everyone.
If you can’t afford a personal trainer, there are plenty of people who lift that would be glad to help you out. Ask someone in the gym between sets how to do a certain exercise — or look it up on YouTube. There are too many resources out there for you to say you can’t find the information or “don’t know” how to do it. Being a Marine is about finding a way to accomplish the mission, regardless of the obstacles.
Focus on building muscle strength, which means working in the 6-20 rep range. Each week, you’re going to try to add more weight or repetitions to your lifts — thereby forcing the muscle to grow.
It’s important to lift the weight until failure — that means you’ve done nine reps but there’s no way you could do 10. The muscles are shaking, and it’s just impossible. If the assigned rep range for that week was 6-9, and you lifted 10 or 11 times — it’s time to add more weight.
If you’re lifting weight and it’s too easy, don’t stop at the number. Ensure you are training the muscle to failure. This is the only way to force yourself to get stronger.
If you’re lifting more weight or adding more reps every week — you know 100% that you are getting stronger and growing muscle.
Focus on Compound Lifts
This fitness program focuses on exercises that recruit a lot of muscle mass. These are going to be the squat, deadlift, incline bench press, military press, and pull-ups. As you grow older and can lift more, there are ways to recruit muscle growth without loading the spine — like using weight machines that isolate the muscle groups (the plate-loaded leg press, for example). However, you’re going to be wearing heavy packs while hiking for miles, so this program will progressively build strength along the entire posterior chain (your back).
If you don’t have access to the equipment listed here — search the internet for alternatives. There are a dozen alternatives for each lift (dumbbell or barbell), so there’s really no excuse.
After warming up and doing our big lifts, you’re going to do accessory lifts to further tax the muscle groups.
This workout program is designed for beginners or intermediate lifters. It’s going to be a 4-day-a-week upper/lower split. You’ll have 2 different workouts for each one, so an Upper A, Lower A, Upper B, and Lower B.
This should give your muscles enough time to recover between workouts and give us time for cardio fitness and rucking. Remember, the goal is functional strength and conditioning here, not aesthetics. This is just one way to train, not necessarily the best way. It’s a well-rounded fitness plan for beginners and intermediate lifters. As you grow stronger, you’ll learn what works best for your body and be able to adapt your training to your goals.
Weight Training Form
Lifting with the correct form is important to properly recruit the muscle groups involved and to avoid injury. If you’re swinging the weight up, it’s probably too heavy. Again, you want to focus on what your muscles can lift and then push beyond that. The goal is to force the muscles to grow, not show off in the gym. Stay humble and lift with the correct form for the movement.
When you lift the weight, try not to swing or kip it up. Use a slow cadence to lift and lower the weight: take 2 seconds to lift the weight (concentric phase), pause at the top and flex the muscle, then 3 seconds to lower the weight (eccentric phase).
This way, your muscles spend more time under tension. Lifting a weight 10 times in 10 seconds is not the same thing as lifting it 10 times in 60 seconds.
To start, concentrate on these basic lifts to develop strength:
In the squat rack with a barbell high up on the shoulders, palms facing forward and gripping the bar greater than shoulder width, squat by reaching your hips back and down, weight in the heels, until your thighs are parallel. Return to standing by driving your weight through the heels, keeping your chin slightly higher than level, and shoulder blades down your back.
Keep your back and core tight. Do not round through your lower or upper back—this is very important. The weight you select should be one you can lift with proper form — not necessarily the heaviest weight you can move.
With a barbell on the ground, stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Squat just as in the first exercise, grabbing the barbell overhand, hands shoulder-width apart. To lift the barbell from the ground, pull with the upper body as you straighten the legs in one smooth movement. Do not straighten your legs and then pull with the low back; this can cause too much strain on the low back.
Incline Bench Press
The flat bench press can put unneeded stress on the shoulder joint. I highly suggest an incline or decline bench press. Alternatively, you can use the chest press machine at your local gym.
Lying down on the bench, grip the barbell, hands slightly wider than shoulder width. Lift the bar from the rest and bring it over your chest. Lower the bar slowly until the bar almost touches your chest just below the collarbones. Keep your feet down and your core tight, then press the barbell until your arms are straight. Resist the urge to arch your back or lift your feet—this is a sign you have too much weight.
Military Press (aka Overhead Press)
Place the barbell on the rack at shoulder height, and with hands shoulder-width apart, grab the barbell and hold it to your chest. Lift the barbell directly overhead until your arms are straight, and slowly lower it back to the position at your upper chest. You can substitute dumbbells if you don’t have access to a barbell.
For the Marine Corps Physical Fitness Test (as well as the Initial Fitness Test), you must complete at least three “dead hang” pull-ups. This means no “kipping” (swinging your legs to gather momentum), no bringing the knees above the hips — and returning to the full bottom position, arms locked out, to complete a repetition. Your drill instructors will be adamant about this and will not count incomplete pull-ups, so don’t waste your energy.
Mount the pull-up bar with hands slightly wider than shoulder width. You can use an overhand or underhand (chin-ups) grip. Lower yourself to complete lockout, then lift your chin above the bar. Return to the bottom position, arms fully locked out. Add weight if possible.
Rucking is simply walking fast with a weighted vest or backpack. If you have hills nearby or are lucky enough to live in the mountains, take advantage of more difficult terrain as you get stronger.
Rucking is hard on the body, so we are only going to be rucking 1x per week. When heading up a hill, it helps to swing your arms to increase the momentum in your body. You should be able to maintain a 15-minute per-mile pace.
When rucking, wear hiking boots or running shoes with a lot of padding. When I was a Marine, I used to put thick gel inserts into my combat boots instead of the standard insert to help with shock absorption. You’ll be wearing a lot of weight and marching on concrete, asphalt, hard dirt paths, and scrabble. While you’ll only be allowed basic combat boots in recruit training, it’s important to take care of your body — so choose your footwear wisely while preparing.
How do you train for Marine boot camp? First, you’ll need to get your physical fitness in order. All Marine Corps recruits must pass an Initial Strength Test at their recruiter’s office and once they ship to boot camp before they are eligible to begin training. But Marines are expected to complete a Physical Fitness Test bi-annually (that’s twice a year) and scores from the PFT are used to calculate promotion points. That means that your physical fitness is very important.
Secondly, mental fitness and motivation are the keys to surviving boot camp. No matter your level of fitness, Marine Corps recruit training is designed to push you to the limit. You will be more stressed, more exhausted, and sore than you ever have been. A positive mental attitude is your secret weapon in Marine boot camp.
How to Mentally Prepare for Marine Boot Camp
Training hard on your physical fitness will improve your mindset. If you are constantly seeking self-improvement, looking to lift more than last week — you will develop mental toughness. Every time you hit the gym, you’re looking to get better. This mindset will start to bleed out into everything you do.
Physically speaking, you’ll need to be able to run 3-miles in order to graduate boot camp. This goes for everybody: males must run it within 28 minutes, and females within 31 minutes. But these are minimum requirements. If you can only complete the three miles within 28 minutes, you’re going to suffer while in recruit training. When I shipped out to boot camp, I could run my 3 miles in just under 26 minutes, and it was rough. By the time I was a sergeant, I was running my PFT in 19:40. That’s not quite maxing out my score at 290 out of 300, so there was still room for improvement.
Strength is also a key to training for Marine boot camp. You’ll be expected to do pull-ups (or for females, a flexed-arm hang) every single day to work on your upper body strength, and you’ll be hiking with heavy flak jackets, packs filled with canvas tents, rain gear, and entrenching tools, not to mention your weapon and Kevlar helmet. A good strength training foundation is key to your performance here.
Marine Corps Mental Fitness
This cannot be overstated: a positive mental attitude is the key to surviving boot camp. Your drill instructors want to see that you can perform under pressure and stay motivated no matter what the circumstances. The way you react to your physical fitness training program is going to guide your mental fitness. If you dread taking your morning run or hitting the gym, check that out! You can shift your attitude by choosing to react differently to adverse situations.
Our culture is obsessed with the quick fix, the 10-minute workout, and increased levels of comfort. In order to become a Marine, you must work hard all day long, keep increasing your physical fitness as a way of life, and choose to make feeling uncomfortable comfortable. There’s a saying you will hear if you earn the title: “The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in war.”
That’s the basics! If you want to learn more, please consider buying my book “Surviving Marine Corps Boot Camp: The Ultimate Guide to Preparing for Marine Corps Recruit Training.”