Strength for Survival by Mick M.

Growing up, I was never the “Jock” in my family. As the youngest of four boys, I spent a good bit of childhood as a grappling dummy and punching bag. I played soccer and swam on the team but I really preferred spending time exploring nature, building forts, pyrotechnics, reading, and tapping into my imagination. My father is an Air Force Academy graduate and Vietnam veteran who instilled the basics of survival skills in us and focused on cultivating a strong work ethic and obedience amongst his sons. When I was about ten years old, I joined the Boy Scouts of America and to this day never lost sight of the Scout Motto to Be Prepared.

Fast forward twenty years and I’m thirty-one, married with two kids, and I watch the state of our world with skepticism after the financial crisis in 2008 and a couple personal black swans. Living in the Carolina Piedmont, I always made sure I had some extra water, food, and batteries on hand for hurricane season but up until the last couple months my preparations could be considered bare bones at best. There is so much more to be mindful of today with protracted wars, social unrest, encroaching totalitarianism, nuclear disaster, and a looming hell storm of a correction for the global economy, that I would be a fool not to tighten up my emergency preparations.

Take a spin around the Internet and you’ll find an abundance of preparedness sites showcasing advice, gear, food storage, and hydration supplies. One glaring aspect of the survival mentality I frequently see overlooked is the necessity for physical fitness. I am not judging but find myself baffled when I see obese individuals (for instance on the Doomsday Preppers show) espousing the virtues and benefits of prepping. I ask myself how they are going to carry that bug-out bag and all that gear more than 100 yards without promptly succumbing to fatigue. A prepper must be strong enough to handle the physical requirements of chopping wood, harvesting game, hiking challenging terrain, micro-farming, grinding grains, along with executing defensive and offensive tactics. Consider that if you aren’t currently performing or routinely simulating some or all of such aforementioned behaviors, you’ll be hurting with more than blisters and a sore back when the SHTF.

The good news is achieving the strength and endurance required for survival situations is simple, requires little to no equipment, and can be achieved with less than thirty minutes each day. Don’t get me wrong- simple doesn’t mean easy. And the exercises a prepper needs to incorporate in their daily lifestyle will force an individual to dig deep and push his/ herself beyond their comfort zone when they want to submit. We want to focus on intensity over volume. Luckily, most preppers I know already possess degrees of intensity beyond the average citizen.

Now I am no Olympian or physical specimen. However, I do have almost ten years of unarmed combat training which provided a fun, engaging foundation for my survival strength. I encourage all preppers to take some form of martial arts whether it be boxing, judo, Silat, Krav Maga, or a traditional martial art from the local McDojo. You’ll learn valuable skills and cultivate an active lifestyle without the mundane habits of the folks you see doing the same old routine ad nauseam at the local health club.

If you don’t have access to a martial arts school or instructor, fear not. We’ll get you whipped into prepper shape in no time. For those who are overweight or out-of-shape, you must work incrementally toward your goals. Without a baseline level of fitness, trying to overexert yourself by lifting too much weight or not allowing time for rest/recovery will result in injuries, fatigue, and burn-out. As Henry Rollins said, “The Iron never lies,” and she can be a cruel mistress if you don’t respect her. One key to a healthy start is gauging your current abilities and gradually increasing weight, repetitions, and intensity of your routine over time. For all intents and purposes, I’m going to steer this article for fitness virgins or those stuck in the same-old routine. It might be best for those unfamiliar with fitness to check in with their wellness provider for some guidance and be sure there are no unforeseen ailments lingering about before jumping into these challenging and rewarding exercises. 

The primary components of fitness we need to focus on are strength, endurance, and mental fortitude. Here are a couple tests you should perform to evaluate your abilities:

– Can you perform a push-up? How many?
– Can you perform a sit-up? How many?
– Can you perform a dead-hang (suspend yourself)? How long did you hang?
– Can you jog a mile? What time did you clock in?

Push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, and jogging are great baseline indicators for your strength and endurance level. All require little investment other than some sweat, a pair of running shoes, and a playground or low-hanging tree limb.

Let’s say you couldn’t get your torso off the ground with push-ups and sit-ups. You dropped like a rock into a pond on the dead-hang. You were sucking wind the first ten feet into the mile jog. This would tell us you are certifiably out of survival shape and can’t even support your bodyweight. It should also tell you while the rest of us are sprinting for the spider hole, booking our G.O.O.D. bags through the mountains, and harvesting crops in our Liberty gardens, you’ve got a pretty good chance of getting rounded up and tossed in a FEMA camp. Life when the SHTF will require us to be tough and push, pull, run, climb, lift, and carry a variety of odd-shaped objects in an infinite amount of situations. Nearly all the tasks required to survive rely on our whole body working as one machine. Take heart that in all actuality, you need little more than your bodyweight to get into excellent shape and cultivate such abilities.

If there is one principle for both the athlete and the terminally unfit to memorize and live by it is Greasing the Groove. Unless you are of beyond-average financial means, most of us preppers scrimp, save, and incrementally acquire our supplies of food, water, gear, and retreat. Little by little, we should acquire what we need to survive without enslaving ourselves with debt. We search pawn shops, thrift stores, garage sales, and flea markets for deals and bargains. This behavior embodies greasing the groove and the same can be applied to fitness. We start with a small, attainable goal and work ourselves toward that goal inch-by-inch, even millimeter-by-millimeter if necessary, and grease the groove until it flows. Then we set new goals when we catch ourselves feeling comfortable.

Five years ago, I couldn’t do one pull-up. That baffled and shamed me because I thought after years of martial arts I would have been stronger. So I began doing research about pull-up mechanics and strategy and came across a web site ( which emphasizes low-tech, high intensity approaches to fitness. The writings of Ross Enamit, the founder of, introduced me to the concept of greasing the groove which comes down to breaking up a challenging movement/behavior/goal into small, attainable bites and being persistent on your course until you achieve success. There was a low oak branch in my backyard and I vowed to perform one pull-up within a week. First I began by hanging from that branch with my arms extended for as long as possible. I’d go outside, hang for a couple seconds, and go on with my gardening or yard work. An hour or so later, I’d come back and hang again. After a couple days of doing a couple sets of dead-hangs on and off, I transitioned to holding myself up at the top of the branch. I’d grab the branch, jump up, and cling as best I could with my chin above the tree limb. If you can’t jump yourself up to the top of your bar or branch, use a chair to get up there. A couple sets off and on over the course of a day and within two days I had greased the groove until I could hold myself up for twenty seconds. My confidence was up and it came time to test this whole greasing of the groove thing so I decided to start from a dead-hang and pull myself up to the top of the branch. And it worked. Not only could I perform one pull-up but I did two! Then I stopped and came back a half an hour later and did another two pull-ups. Progress inspired me. Today I can do nine pull-ups in a set without feeling overly-fatigued. Greasing the groove worked and it should be applied to all exercises and routines.

Functionality is tantamount to many factors when considering our supplies and skills. The same goes for exercises. Strength training, conditioning, and endurance are equally important. We have to forge ourselves through fitness and be able to lift our 60 to 80 lbs. bug-out bag onto our backs then hike it for miles on end, find water, set-up shelter, secure our perimeter, and refuel without succumbing to exhaustion. Functional, full body fitness has gone mainstream with the explosion of Crossfit, P90X, and other such strength/endurance hybrid training programs. I know numerous people getting great results from such programs but since many preppers are DIY kind of folks, they will be able to get in great shape with no more than a jump rope, an exercise mat, a bar strong enough to support their weight, and perhaps a couple free weights. We want our training to challenge, and not just maintain, the muscles and energy systems our body uses to put us in locomotion.

In Ross Enamit’s book, Infinite Intensity, he presents a fitness routine framework the reader is encouraged to tailor to their own abilities. To loosely paraphrase without plagiarizing it starts with:

Day 1) Strength and Conditioning
Day 2) Interval Training
Day 3) Strength Training
Day 4) General Physical Preparedness Training
Day 5) Rest

Sometimes I follow the four days-on, one day-off recommendation. If I have a really taxing work-out and my body tells me to rest the next day, I do it. Or if I spend the day after a work-out being very active by going on walks with the family, practicing empty hands combat skills, playing hard with my kids, or working in the yard, I might work-out every other day. The key is finding what routine and methodology works best for you as long as you are working smart and making gains on your strength and endurance abilities. Be sure to get a notebook and keep track because written goals and tracked results are powerful motivators with patience and experience as the ultimate teachers. 

I recommend everybody starts with a warm-up period for both your work-outs and to ease into your initial weeks of a new fitness routine. A bit of light jogging, a couple low-rep sets of push-ups, jumping rope for a couple minutes, yoga poses, shadowboxing, arm rotations, etcetera, will get your blood pumping and muscles, joints, and ligaments prepared for action. I’m not a fan of static stretching while cold (think just bending over and trying to touch your toes first thing in the morning). Consider the warm-up period your “pre-hab” to help prevent injuries. If you can simulate a couple of the movements you’ll be doing during your routine that day (the pros call these sport-specific movements), then all the better. You are training your mind for what lies ahead as much as your body. And without oxygen, your mind and muscles strain so be sure to breathe through all movements and be mindful of calming down your heart rate after exertion. As you wrap up your exercise for the day, take five to ten minutes to walk around, stretch out, or use a tennis ball or foam roller to work on sore, knotted muscles. This cool-down period will help your body transition into the recovery process and prepare for the work tomorrow.

A great warm-up for preppers would be to set their ALICE pack on the ground, pick it up and get it secured, take it off, and set it down, ten times in a row (alternate the arm you first start threading through the straps  to maintain muscular balance). In fact, I think the best warm-up for a prepper establishing that baseline level of fitness is to muck that fully-loaded survival pack around for an hour, 3-4 times a week for two to four weeks. We did the same thing in Boy Scouts to prepare ourselves for High Adventure trips to the Philmont Ranch out west or Sea Base in the Florida Keys. If you soon discover you need to drop some weight from your pack, by all means lighten the load, but also take careful stock of your limits and the provisions you must do without. After two to three weeks, you will be ready to move on to additional exercises and accelerate your fitness gains.

Here are a couple strength exercises to get you started. These movements will build muscle and expand cardiovascular capacity. They will improve your ability to lift odd-shaped objects like rain barrels, loaded wheelbarrows, and ammo cans, and get your whole body working as a unit. They will contribute to your overall general physical preparedness. You can readily find demonstrations of the exercises I’m listing on the Internet (search YouTube) or in fitness books available at public libraries. Research the movements in detail and seek out credible sources for tutorials. All can be performed with little or no need to purchase equipment if you are determined and not willing to accept excuses. Pull-ups, push-ups, presses, dips, prisoner squats, bug-out bag lifts, sand bag carrying, isometrics, lunges, and step-ups are only a few low-tech options which will challenge you and simulate many of the movements and actions we’ll need to perform when the Schumer hits the fan. Try to do about five to seven of these different exercises during a work-out. Start with two to four sets of the exercise you choose and perform between four to eight reps without pushing your muscles to failure. As you progress in your physical preparations, you can periodically work toward your current physical limits or move greater loads to push beyond plateaus and test your will. Once again, grease the groove. It always works when combined with determination.   

After two weeks of forced marches with your bug-out bag, you’ll have given a nice boost to the lungs and laid a foundation for your conditioning routine. Conditioning exercises will test and improve your agility, speed, strength, and cardiovascular capacity. Do you want just one extra tank of gas in your supply inventory or forty extra tanks? Same goes with your body. Consistent effort, repetition, and limited rest periods between sets will quickly-boost your endurance levels. Conditioning exercises can be as simple as a couple rounds of jumping rope at various speeds, brief bursts of running/sprinting hills, and laps in the pool. More advanced options include free weight or kettle bell swings, cleans, jerks, and presses to test your muscles and lungs and brain. Marching over hills or mountain trails would both serve as excellent conditioning exercises. One of the best parts of conditioning routines is they don’t need to be long to be effective. In fact, a Japanese scientist named Izumi Tabata discovered athletes made tremendous improvements in their conditioning and work capacity, metabolism of glucose, and the burning of fat by exerting high intensity effort for twenty seconds and actively-resting for ten seconds. When performed in 20 second work and 10 second rest cycles, high intensity interval training (HIIT) will boost your cardiovascular abilities. The best part is many HIIT exercises (cycling, sprinting, jumping rope) can bring results when performed in as little as a single four minute (or less) set. If you need to perform longer or more varied intervals than suggested by the Tabata Protocol, than customize your interval training as you see fit.

In my opinion, there is no better exercise for building your conditioning, endurance, and mental fortitude than the much-abhorred and much-lauded burpee. What is a burpee you ask? Well it is the unholy love-child of a push-up and jump squat repeated until your heart is beating like a drum and your breakfast is creeping up your throat. Burpees will humble even the fittest of athletes and bring exponential gains to the beginner and experienced alike. You start standing with your feet hips width apart and your hands at your sides. Bend forward and place your hands in front of your feet. Kick your legs back so you are in a plank position (the starting position/apex of a push-up). Lower your body down until your chest touches the ground then push yourself back up. Hop your feet back (beginners should step or walk their feet) behind your hands and as you start to stand upright use your legs to spring yourself into the air like a basketball player shooting a free-throw. Rinse and repeat. When everything is telling you to quit, you must perform at least one more repetition. You’ll teach yourself that you are always capable of a little more effort (even if you fail to complete the whole range of motion) and you’ll be conditioning yourself to fight fatigue and push through adversity with sheer will power.  Continue to increase the reps as you make gains and improve work capacity. Burpees are “sick and merciless” and they will make you a mental warrior with a 100 gallon gas tank and napalm in your guts.  

To date, I’ve found a diverse routine consisting of calisthenics, free weights, jumping rope, running hills, swimming, interval training, and close-quarters-combat training, four to six days a week has me in better shape at 31 than when I was swimming the 400 meter freestyle in high school. But I would never be in this place if I hadn’t respected the iron and greased the groove. This back-to-basics approach to fitness (where you don’t require a gym and consistently focus on pushing yourself to new levels of strength and conditioning) will fortify your mind, body, and spirit for trying times when the SHTF or we experience TEOTWAWKI. A solid strength and conditioning routine will also keep you healthy and capable to handle the physical demands of our rapidly changing society. I hope this article helps the fit become fitter and encourages the out-of-shape and overweight members of the prepper community to drop the excuses and start greasing the groove. Remember to always eat your vegetables and there is no better time to start than now.