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Starting Strength in the Real World

A Commanding General’s Intent, and What it Means for Your Training

by Major Grant Broggi, SSC | August 13, 2019

artillery group

When a Marine commander takes command of a unit, one of the first things they do is publish their intent for the individuals that they now command. A commander’s intent for a unit can be likened to a “vision” for those under his charge, or more clearly, what purpose those individuals (Marines and Sailors) should feel they serve day after day. The new Commanding General of the Fourth Marine Division (4th Mar Div) recently published his intent for the roughly 17,000 Marines and Sailors that make up the division, laying out his purpose and what they should accomplish.

The 4th Mar Div, unlike the other divisions in the Marine Corps, is comprised of the reserves. The other divisions in the Marine Corps are made up of all active duty Marines – Marines that put on the uniform and serve 365 days a year. This is not the case for the 4th Mar Div. Here, there are only a handful of active duty Marines, and the overwhelming majority are reservists, meaning they are only active two to three days per month (one weekend plus two weeks in the summer). The division has the same standards, the same requirements, and must be ready at a moment’s notice to answer the country’s call, just like the other divisions, except for that one small caveat. They only have 38 days a year to be a Marine, which equates to less than 10% of what the active duty divisions have. Yet somehow, year after year, since the division’s inception in 1943, they have been able to accomplish their mission: augmenting the active duty divisions with combat-trained personnel during a time of war. 

How is this possible? How can a unit that trains 38 out of 365 days a year be prepared for battle, to fight alongside the active-duty component? I’ll tell you how. While the current general may have just recently laid out his intent for the Marine Reservists that make up the 4th Mar Div, it’s a summary of what the division has been doing for over 70 years. It’s a concise four points that every Marine can remember even if they only put on the uniform 38 days a year. And if these four points are applied to your training, you will have success in the weight room just as the division does on the battlefield.

As an adult male there are two things on which I have spent the majority of my time: being a Marine and barbell training. These two things have consumed my thoughts, and they are completely intertwined throughout my life. But what does it mean for you? Well, when I heard Brigadier General Michael Martin’s (commander of 4th Mar Div) intent I realized he was doing me a big favor. He was letting me know how to focus my efforts as a Marine Officer on my unit, while simultaneously letting me know how to focus my efforts as a barbell coach on my lifters. So consider yourself one of my lifters, and apply these ideas to your training.

The Four Tenets of the Commanding General's Intent Applied to Your Training

1. Mastery of the Basics, Brilliance in the Basics: You cannot do the complex if you cannot do the simple.

For the Marine: “Brilliance in the Basics” is not a new term in the Marine Corps. It’s something that General James Mattis first coined during Operation Iraqi Freedom in the early 2000s when giving his “vision” to all of his subordinate commanders before heading into battle. Over my time in the Marine Corps, I have heard this term in just about every training evolution I have participated in. It’s the concept that you must get really good at the basic thing before you can even try to do the complex thing. Or, that when you have mastered the basic thing (loading your rifle), you will be ready to accomplish the more complex (conducting an ambush).

For the lifter: You already know you need to be strong. If you did not, then you would not have found this article. You know that you get strong through the big barbell lifts: the squat, press, bench press, and deadlift (because they use the most muscle mass). So now, you just need to master those movements. Master the basics. Don’t worry about your paused squat, about adding bands and chains, about rate of perceived exertion, sumo deadlifts, or dynamic effort. That will just waste your time. Worry about the basics. Worry about how to perform the basic back squat safely and efficiently. Worry about how to pull a set of five deadlifts in complete lumbar extension, even when it’s heavy and very, very hard. You are not a professional athlete; if you were, you would be getting paid to workout. Instead, you are paying to work out. Master the basics. Hire a coach, and be brilliant in the basics.

2. Blocking and Tackling: Offense and Defense

For the Marine (specifically the Marine Reservist): Blocking and tackling is applied during those 2-3 days per month that you wear the uniform. It’s a sports analogy that goes back to the first point of mastering the basics, but it holds true to training Marines for combat. Machine gun drills, offensive attacks, reinforcing a defensive position, these are the blocking and tackling drills that Marines must be focused on regardless of their particular job in the Marine Corps. There’s nothing complex here, time is limited, just block and tackle, hone the basic offense and defensive skills.

For the lifter:

Blocking: block the things that keep you out of the gym. Block your excuses. Block your aches, pains, and minor injuries (they will come). Get to the gym three times a week and train. That’s it. That's the offense. 

grant broggi coaches the squat

Tackling: tackle your workout. Time is limited for you as well; you are busy with a lot to accomplish. You know what your workout is – you have your numbers from your last session. Do not waste time: get to the bar, get under the bar, put in the work, and measure your progress.

3. Repetitions and Sets

“The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in war.” –  SgtMaj Mike Miller

Brilliance in the Basics and Blocking & Tackling all come together through the third point, Reps and Sets.

For the Marine: It means conducting your drills again, and again, and again. As an Artillery Officer, I have watched countless Section Chiefs (The Marines in charge of a howitzer) train their gun crews (5-7 cannoneers assigned to a gun) on how to employ (emplace, load, and shoot) their howitzer. Some can do it quickly, some not so quickly. Some need lots of yelling, hand pointing and red faces, while some look like the masterful conductor of an orchestra. The difference between a highly proficient gun crew that can quickly shoot artillery rounds and one that looks like a circus is reps and sets. The proficient crew has not wasted any time, they’ve maximized every minute they are wearing the uniform, and have built confidence by doing it over and over again.

For the lifter: It’s not an analogy. It’s what we do. Three sets of five. Over and over again. The workout doesn’t change, the load changes. Strength goes up. Reps and sets. Each rep builds confidence, each time you get under the bar even when you think that it may not move builds confidence for the next set. This is what makes us stronger (literally); increased stress to drive adaptation. Workout after workout. Rep after rep. Set after set.

4. K.I.S.S. Keep it simple, stupid.

When the top advisor to the General recently explained the General’s four points, he stated the following when he got to number four: “Is there really anything more we need to add?” And then he quit talking. In this case, I feel there are a few things that we could.

For the Marine: Regardless of your job in the Marine Corps, be brilliant at it. Every Marine is a rifleman, so stay true to the “blocking and tackling” of what truly is offense and defense. Get better through repetitions and sets, train yourself and your Marines over and over again. Keep it simple – not everything can be prioritized

For the Lifter: Get a coach and master the basic barbell lifts. Be consistent, get to the gym three times a week, and be ready to perform your workouts. Hit the reps and sets, three sets of five repetitions, add weight each time. Force your body to adapt. Keep it simple, because there’s no need for additional exercise, crazy rep schemes, or tying yourself up with rubber bands. Train your body, over and over again.

The Fourth Marine Division came to be in 1943 for service in World War II. By early 1944 they were fighting the Japanese throughout the pacific, making four major amphibious assaults over 13 months. Elements of the division were once again deployed in support of both Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s; providing combat-ready units within 32 days of activation. To this day Marines from the division are deployed in support of operations across the globe. The division recently lost three Marines to an IED attack in Afghanistan on 8 April 2019.

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