Women in Service

by CJ Gotcher | January 20, 2016

women military service

When it comes to women serving in the combat arms in the US, there is no more debate as to “if.” Secretary Carter has formally announced that all combat positions, including special operations, will be open for women to apply. For the women who choose to apply, it won’t be easy for a number of reasons, not least of which is the military’s often archaic approach to physical training. My hope here is to outline an effective training template for women looking to fill the more physically demanding combat arms roles now available to give them the best chance for success.

Strength First

The program here is specifically aimed at women within the DOD’s height/weight standard (this is who I mean when I say “you”). However, most of these program recommendations apply equally to the average woman and lightweight/underweight men who lack the lean mass necessary to complete critical military tasks.

The literature is clear on the benefits of added strength and muscle in preparation for military training, especially for those who aren’t already strong:

“Less than 7 months of lower extremity weight-training [is] significantly associated with stress fracture incidence.”[1]

“In addition to being positively associated with load carriage and lifting, LBM [lean body mass] is related to other military task performances… LBM tended to be positively associated with the ability to push, carry, and exert torque.” [2]

“Paradoxically, it may be that the least fat women trainees were at greater risk [of injury] for the converse reason: too little lean body mass.” [3]

If you can’t do a pull-up with forty pounds of added weight or deadlift twice your bodyweight, how do you expect to climb a rope with a pack or safely execute a buddy-drag for a man who may weigh 70 pounds more than you? The good news is that despite some broscience to the contrary, you are not a Krillin-esque sidekick, unable to meaningfully improve despite years of training. A review of the literature shows that although your top-end strength may not be as high, your muscles respond to training at the same rate as your male peers. [4]

First, take advantage of this fact by devoting some time to a dedicated strength program (even if you already have at some point in your career). Center your training on the full-body foundational movements: the squat, deadlift, press, bench press, power clean (or power snatch), chin-ups, and dips. Spend at least 5-6 months on a basic progressive program like Starting Strength. Commit to the training. Buy the books that underlie the program you choose or find a qualified trainer to coach it since the effectiveness of the program past the first month or so will depend on your technique and how well you adapt it to your personal capability and history.

During this crucial period, ensure you’re using proper technique in the lifts and keep extra training to a minimum. I have yet to meet anyone who developed great initial strength while running 40 miles a week, man or woman. At the very start of your strength program, I’d only do one assistance exercise beyond the major barbell lifts: chin-ups.

The strength required to complete dead hang pull-ups or chin-ups is critical to many service tests and challenges. Four or five days a week, do 5 max-minus-one sets (end the set when you really could do one more). Use weight-assisted platforms, bands, or (as a last resort) a box assist to allow you to do at least 4 reps per set. When you can consistently finish 10 reps in a set with a given assistance, use less help (so you’re back to 4-5 reps a set) and continue with the routine until you’re doing them support-free. When you can do 10 at bodyweight, add weight and continue as before.

Focus on form first, keeping your neck and body upright, pulling the shoulder blades back through the rep, and eliminating the help of a ‘kip.’ I have yet to meet a woman within height/weight standards who couldn’t do at least 5 excellent pull-ups after 6 months of consistent, progressive pull-up training (and that’s being conservative).

About 3 months into your strength program, add in conditioning once a week, focusing on high intensity intervals. For “conditioning,” I’m referring to events other than running, rucking, or swimming, which are important and will come in later.

My personal preferences for conditioning are the Prowler, rowing ergometer, Versa-Climber, and Wingate, but anything that allows you to complete full-body work at maximal intensities will be useful. The purpose here is to begin increasing overall volume and prepare you for the next phase.

“Life is a Marathon”

Strength never disappears entirely from our focus, but we’ll have to dedicate more energy towards conditioning and run/swim/ruck training after we’ve exhausted the early strength gains and progress slows.

Aerobic fitness is critical to getting through most military accession programs – for those who are already strong, a poor 1-mile run time is one of the single greatest predictors of injury rate at initial entry training.[1,5,6,7,8] In fact, a study of Army Basic Combat Training found that women who could perform at the same level as men at the 1-mile run were no more likely to be injured than men.[3]

This makes some intuitive sense. Immediate performance at combat arms tasks like carrying a downed man, lifting and loading an artillery shell, and heaving a stuck Humvee out of a ditch all depend on strength. However, what fails many people in these programs is the daily grind – the constant shuffling and running from place to place and the inability to recover from excessive volume.

Since women have less hemoglobin per unit blood than men [9], you can’t just get away with being relatively lean, strong, and in “generally good shape.” You’ll need to become excellent, and the easiest way to do this is to increase conditioning volume slowly and progressively. At first, simply add in a second conditioning day per week of steady-state work (working at about a 7-8 out of 10 on effort for 30 minutes) and decrease your strength training volume, perhaps following a 3-day Heavy-Medium-Light routine instead of hitting it hard every day. Each week, increase your conditioning work: one more interval, a little faster or longer on the steady-state work, etc.

This doesn’t mean you won’t or shouldn’t continue to gain in strength – you’ll just have to progress more slowly, only increasing weight on the bar perhaps once a week.

Lastly, you’re going to need to include dedicated time running and (depending on which branch of the combat arms you’re intending to join) rucking and/or swimming. The most common injuries for women in military training appear to be lower body overuse injuries (stress fractures and the like), due to poor running-specific preparation.[8]

Running is particularly important to passing both military tests and getting through many of the training programs and, unfortunately, it interferes with strength training pretty harshly. To minimize the interference between the strength program and increasing running volume, start running on a “countdown” from the start date of your intro pipeline. Then, 6-8 months prior to your training, you should substitute a progressive running program for your weekly conditioning work (which can and should still be done around your strength training to maintain or even continue to grow muscle).

Your goal here is not to train for a marathon, but to adapt your body to the kind of running volumes you’ll experience during training. The Navy SEAL Physical Preparation Guide provides an excellent template for the kind of intelligent, slow increases in weekly volume that produce results and can be implemented concurrent to a strength program.[10]

Start with fewer miles than you think you need to and progress slowly. This kind of patient progress may be frustrating, but it’s critical. “Incompletely recovered lower body injury” is a serious predictor of re-injury and dropout from combat training [7], and excessive mileage too quickly is a great way to fumble it at the finish line.

One thing I’ve been asked is: “So how do I know I’m ready?” No metrics are set in stone here, and I don’t like them to begin with – “metrics” tend to become ceilings to ram up against rather than goals to be surpassed. As a woman aiming for the combat arms, you want to be in the top 5% of military women for strength and the top 10% for aerobic fitness. As an initial goal, I’d encourage you to work towards a double-bodyweight deadlift for a set of five and a mile run time of 7:45 or faster, and to keep getting stronger and faster from there.


Underlying all your training is your nutrition. If you want to serve in a physically demanding combat profession, eat with the intention of fueling a badass killing machine. Here are the basics:

First (and this is the hardest one for many women), get about a gram of protein per pound bodyweight, the majority through lean meat, dairy, and egg sources: lean beef, chicken, turkey, pork, cottage cheese, low-fat milk, Greek yogurt, eggs and egg whites, fish, shrimp, and other seafood. This amounts to roughly 8 palm-sized servings of meat a day for most women, though it will be a little less in real life since most vegetables and grains have protein that will fill out the amount. These foods kill three birds with one stone, providing calcium, and iron (of which most women are deficient) and supporting lean muscle gains.

Single-ingredient natural foods are better than processed ones and should make up most of your diet, but don’t get too neurotic about whether a food is “clean enough” or “Paleo enough.” Also, be careful about drastic food restrictions. It’s very difficult for a vegan to get enough protein to drive the muscle growth we’re looking for. Vegan bodybuilders have proven it is doable, but there are no quinoa and pea protein powder MREs. Sudden shifts between home and field dieting can lead to gastric distress and other problems at the worst possible time.

Get a vegetable in each major meal of your day if you can (don’t sweat it for meals immediately around your workout). Despite what you may see on your Facebook feed, carbohydrates are not your enemy. They’re the fuel for repeat athletic (read: high power) performance and will be a necessary part of your diet. Try to get the majority of your carbs from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains rather than soda and Pop-Tarts.

Supplements are optional and a small part of your program, but used intelligently, they can be helpful. Take 5 grams of creatine monohydrate a day. Use whey protein if needed to meet your protein goals and/or around your workouts, but most of your protein will be in “food form.” Take BCAAs between meals (at least 3 grams of leucine per “dose”), either alone or with a small amount of carbohydrates (I prefer steam-in-the-bag vegetables), to help stimulate muscle growth and maximize recovery. If you’re not getting any fish in your diet, consider up to 4 grams of EPA/DHA from fish oil a day.

The entire depth of sports nutrition is outside the scope of this article, but if you want to deep-dive this, look into the works of smart nutrition coaches with an eye for strength training; coaches like Jordan Feigenbaum, Mike Israetel, John Berardi, and Rachel Cosgrove.

Too fat, or Too Small?

One concern that comes up when it comes to women and strength training is body fat. “Will I be too fat to make height/weight standards,” and “how fat is too fat?” First, considering the challenges of some of these schools, let’s start with a better question: “How small is too small?”

In WWII, there was no chart for “overweight,” just a “minimum” and a “standard acceptable weight.” Since women have to hold more body fat for health than men [11] and since you’re looking to build lean mass well beyond the minimum, first add a 5-15% buffer to the “standard acceptable weight.” For an easy quick reference, this means a BMI of 23-25 (24 happens to be the publicly-advertised average BMI of the top women competitors of the CrossFit Games). Aim for a body fat percentage of 14-18% at this BMI.

This is your initial target. If you’re still progressing in your heavy strength training, gaining muscle mass, go ahead and progress bodyweight past this point (not more than a pound a week) and keep driving strength gains. If you’re at a higher bodyfat or are already plenty strong and want to lean out more, cut weight towards the bottom edge of that range.

At the lower and middle ranges of this scale, you’re well clear of the Army and Marine Corps’ height/weight standards. At about 25 BMI, you’ll cross an imaginary line and have to be “taped” to measure body fat. If you’re gaining weight slowly and training to build lean mass, you should stay under the body fat requirement without issue, and you can always test yourself in advance if you’re ever concerned and adjust if necessary.

You might get some flak for needing the tape (I’ve experienced it, and I know plenty of other servicemembers who have). If you’re slaying it in your training and a corpsman tells you a BMI of 26 is “dangerous for your health,” show him this study: Nutrition and Training Habits Associated with the Strongest and Fittest Special Operations Forces Operators.[12] When our nation’s Special Operations Forces average an “overweight” BMI (26.3), he can stuff it.

Ends and Pieces

There are a few final items I want to include that don’t quite fit above:

Relative strength is key, so being strong and lean are both important, but never lean down to the point where your menstrual cycle stops in training. This remains true even if you’re strong and ripped (not just underweight). Amenorrhea is independently and significantly correlated to injuries in basic training, likely due to related hormonal imbalances. [1]

The menstrual cycle’s effects on athletic performance are unique to the woman involved. Rather than go into the details here, I’ll point you to a solid article by Greg Nuckols on the topic. [13] For the TL:DR crowd, exercise tends to decrease the generalized negative effects of the menstrual cycle, and actual impacts to performance are likely to be small, although some women experience significantly greater discomfort regardless. Most contraceptives should have little to no impact on performance. Use your training as an experiment to see how you respond to strength and high intensity training and adapt accordingly.

If you smoke now, quit smoking at least a month before training and minimize tobacco use altogether. Smokers (both men and women) consistently show lower pass rates at baseline accession schools.[6,7,14] Part of this is due to the health consequences of cigarettes and part of it is because access to tobacco in many of these pipelines is either limited or banned outright. Going cold-turkey is hard enough when you don’t have a 12-mile ruck to do.

The Call to Service

Opening up the combat arms to women will be a difficult adjustment for some, and some growing pains are sure to follow. Some of these are inevitable, but we can help prepare for them with effective physical training; developing stronger, faster, and more resilient candidates who can excel at the standards in their pipeline schools. We have the technology. We can rebuild you. Let’s make it happen.

References: See pdf

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