Survival Fitness and Health- Part 4, by JBH

This article is about physical fitness, because I believe it is most important for those who want to survive some of the potentially devastating and even not so devastating situations that one can encounter today. I’m not an athlete but have been involved in fitness training for decades and done quite a bit of research as well. As an introduction to the concept of fitness, I identified its components– muscular strength, cardiovascular fitness, flexibility, and body composition. I also have gone over the first and most of the second of the four principles/variables applicable to all fitness activities: specificity, intensity, duration, and frequency. We already covered cardiovascular intensity, but will now look at the correct intensity for strength work, though it is hard to define. Earlier, I said that the correct intensity is roughly 70% to 80% effort with very occasional short forays into 90% plus ranges. Let’s begin there and a word of caution.

This essay series is for informational purposes only. Fitness concepts are discussed that the reader may find informative, however the reader is advised to visit their health care provider and obtain medical clearance prior to embarking on any exercise program. The author is not a health care professional and assumes no responsibility for injuries or detrimental health effects the reader may sustain from performing any fitness regimen.

Intensity (continued)

With strength work, it gets more complicated to some extent to define the correct intensity. If you can lift a 100lb weight with all your effort one time, your training weight should likely be in the 70 to 80 lb range.

You also have the variable of repetitions. Perhaps you can lift 80 lbs five times with all your effort. You should not do this on a regular basis. You will get nowhere. If you are a new trainee, you may see some quick gains, but your progress will quickly stall. If you have been lifting for a long time, you will stall almost immediately.

Work In Waves

With strength work, you are best to work in waves. In the previous example, you may start with five reps of 60 lb. This will probably be easy. The next week you go to 65 lb, the next week 70 lb, and so forth. By the time you get to 80 lb, it will probably be possible to go to 85 lb or maybe 90 for five repetitions with great effort. Once you get there, you should back off to perhaps 65 lb and start over. Swallow your pride, and take a break.

If you study weight lifting, you will find out there is a multitude of set and rep schemes that can be employed– five sets of five, three sets of ten, and three sets of three. The principle above can be applied to any of them. However, the key element is that once you are struggling hard with the weight for the desired number of reps and sets, you should back off by at least 20 to 30% in one or more variables and then make another run at it. This will yield long-term gains and will help you avoid injury.

Applied to Calisthenics or Cardiovascular As Well

This principle can be applied to calisthenics or cardiovascular work as well. Leave a little effort in the tank, and leave a few reps off the push-ups. Run just a little slower. Slowly work up your efforts. Approach zones of max intensity infrequently and don’t stay long. Almost never train to failure. After you work five or six weeks and just barely squeak out 50 push-ups, back off to 35 or 40 and slowly work back up. That is your best shot at getting 55 push-ups.

This seems counter intuitive; however, the best trainers I have known have been very good at this. An old Seal friend that I used to run our Navy program with pointed out to me one time that you always watch your trainees when you are doing your group calisthenics. Also, you always switch exercises to a different body part when you see the first sign of failure in any of the trainees. Most of the other guys probably had a little more left (some a lot more), but you do not expend it. He was very good about managing intensity in group settings and got great results.

The old time strong men (those guys lifting crazy weights in crazy ways) always saved the heavy lifts for demonstrations. They were almost universally adamant about “leaving a little in the tank” each workout. Many had to show up at a physical job every day and could not miss work. It should be noted this was before the age of steroids or even for that matter wide spread advanced medical care, so this was kind of like a survival situation.


How long should you work out. Duration is a difficult question interrelated with intensity and other elements with lots of different opinions. In practicality, for me, it boils down to one question. How much time do you have to work out regularly and not miss work outs? My observations show that the more time you can dedicate without missing workouts and not pressing the intensity envelope too far, the better shape you will be in.

For the young Navy Seal or Navy diver who works out as part of their job, that can be two or three or more hours per day using a wide variety of techniques and activities. For the average person trying to earn a living, about an hour a day with 15 minutes either side for dressing and showering is about all that is practical.

In the Navy

The first time I went to sea in the Navy, I had virtually no time to sleep let alone work out. I simply did 50 push-ups every time before I went to bed. It was not the most complete work out, but I actually gained a little strength during that time frame.


Now let’s talk just a little theory. For strength training, there is good evidence that without performance enhancing drugs, you are pretty maxed out in about an hour. This is theorized to actually be related to levels of certain hormones going out of balance after about an hour. In practicality I have observed that calisthenics and weights seem to operate the same in this regard. A large part of the writing I have read says the same.

For cardiovascular fitness, there are two schools of thought. There is the higher intensity/lower duration school, which advocates high intensity work as low as 10 minutes or interval work of perhaps 30 minutes. There is the opposite school, which advocates very long, low intensity workouts. The longer the better.

For shaping body composition (losing weight), long duration workouts have the most theoretical evidence for working. To put it simply, your body does not start burning fat until it uses up some of the glycogen (sugar, sort of) in your system. Most theory says this does not occur until you have been exercising for perhaps 45 minutes. In practicality, I have not seen this work 100% in the gym, track, or road doing cardio. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it does not.

Taking Weight Off

That brings me to a thought I brought up earlier. In my observation, daily manual labor of moderate intensity will take weight off of a person faster than anything that will happen in the gym, unless you are a high level athlete or Navy Seal or something comparable. If you are digging ditch, tying rebar, or framing houses for eight hours daily, you will burn fat, and it is likely that your weight will approach optimal for your frame, with more likelihood than anything you will do in the gym.

Ideal Duration For Cardiovascular Work

Back to the original question, what is the ideal duration for cardiovascular work? In my opinion, it’s simply the longer the better, because there is also evidence that higher intensity, low duration work does not improve actual aerobic efficiency as much as it improves anaerobic tolerance. To put in simple terms, your fitness is “deeper” with longer duration cardiovascular work and, properly managed, you can reach higher levels of fitness long term with this deep base.

That said, in my experience, most don’t have the time of the Navy Seal to work out, or even others in the Navy. If the average person can squeeze in an hour a day for total actual workout time with 15 minutes on either side to dress and shower they are doing good.


Frequency is another hotly debated subject. First, I will say that the Biblical direction is to work six days a week and rest the seventh. Regardless of all the arguments on this subject in multiple directions, almost everything I have ever read on this subject recommends at least one day a week of full or nearly full rest. That’s a good place to start.

Strength Training Frequency

Regarding strength training, most trainers would argue that each body part should be worked at least once per week and no more than three times per week. In my opinion, once is not enough, because it does not take into account the possibility of missed workouts. For that reason I advise two or three times per week for each body part. If a person works a body part three times per week, I would recommend that at least one workout be relatively light in comparison to the other.

There is an author I highly respect who recommends a very short weightlifting session up to five days per week. It is pretty practical, because he chooses two exercises that between the two of them work pretty much your whole body. Then he advocates only two work sets that he “waves” up and down in intensity, resulting in an overall short moderate intensity workout. There are many ways to skin a cat.

Cardiovascular Work

Most would recommend cardiovascular work five or six times per week. However, I would apply a limitation base on research and observation.

If a person chooses to run for cardiovascular work, I would advise no consecutive days running. I read this in some Army research I studied years ago while I was in the Navy. The researcher I read found a dramatic increase in injuries with daily running with only moderate increases in performance as compared to running three days per week. They recommended marching (walking) on off days. (That said, some Army personnel I have spoken to seem to be running daily contrary to this research.) I experimented with this in my Navy program and found it to be true. When I ran my people three days per week and substituted elliptical or some other non-impact cardio training in between, my injury rate dropped to almost zero and their running performance did not seem to suffer. When I reverted to daily running, I saw injuries within weeks. YMMV.

Random Thoughts and Review

Sports and Fitness Not the Same

Overall, I have some random thoughts to expound upon. First, as stated before, sports and fitness are not the same. Although they can be related, they do not have to be. Just because you are not an athlete does not mean you cannot and should not be fit, perhaps fitter than some athletes.

Fitness, particularly in the past, was used as a form of hazing to “make a man out of you”. I am not necessarily totally against that in limited application for short portions of a person’s life. But it does not work for long-term fitness. A 110% effort does not yield long-term results. It yields stagnation, injury, and frustration.

You do not get stronger when you are exercising. You get stronger between exercise periods. You can only benefit from what you can recover from.

At Least Stretch

If you work physically hard for a living and I can’t convince you to exercise at all, at least stretch. If you don’t work physically hard for a living, you better exercise anyway. Otherwise, eventually you will be working hard just to climb stairs.

Don’t necessarily try to lose weight. Sometimes it is a fool’s errand. Try to gain muscle and lose fat. I can almost guarantee you will get better results. Sometimes, after you increase muscle mass, you then lose weight.


Diet is a very debatable subject. A favorite writer of mine recommends you consider what was eaten and what was not eaten 100 to 200 years ago. The stuff invented or drastically increased in availability in the 20th Century (wide spread processed sugar, trans fats, et cetera) has not been proven over time and perhaps should be avoided.

A good friend of mine recommends getting your food from the perimeter of the grocery store. Typically, that is where the non-processed food is.

I have seen people lose up to 30 pounds without trying, by eliminating alcohol from their diet. These were people who did not look obese to start with.

Treat Strength As a Skill

Treat strength as a skill, and think in terms of “practicing” them like any other skill rather than just exercising.

If you are frequently too sore to function after a workout, you have either been inconsistent in your workouts or you are pushing too hard. You should be able to perform normal tasks and/or respond to emergencies even after a workout. Exercise is to make you more functional, not less.

See Also:

SurvivalBlog Writing Contest

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  1. No offense here, but that was all rather windy. Staying in shape was easy until I hit my mid to late 50’s, I did it just buy living and doing my daily routine of work. Now in my 60’s various parts have quit working and metabolism has disappeared altogether. Arthritis, tendonitis, bad guts and I can’t see or hear good anymore. Running ain’t ever going to happen again. At this point, if I could get everything to quit hurting and work properly I’d be happy.

  2. Bravo- I think this is one of the best articles in the writing contest. It was very informative and easy to understand. As a 60 year old woman, it gives me the feeling that I can achieve a fitness level that is right for me, and doesn’t make me feel I have to compete in the training schedules of younger people. Many fitness sites say the exercise then the number of reps etc without considering who might be on the other side of the exercise. Again thank you for this information.

  3. Good article on general fitness.
    As I approach my geezerhood, I can look back at all the activities that benefited me: martial arts, gymnastics, weights at the gym, bike riding and just long walks. The most fun I ever had in my search for fitness, was in a high intensity DANCE aerobics class. That in spite of the fact I can’t tell an upbeat from a downbeat and rarely notice the beat keeps shifting. At none of them was I a world class athlete, but that wasn’t the purpose. The purpose was that I stayed out of the doctor’s office and hospital, could work long hours and bounce back to work more long hours, have fun with the family and as I got older, surprise more than a few younger people. Fitness is an individual goal and is only part of the trip, not a destination. Just remember to keep on keeping on.

  4. My 2nd response to this series of articles. Good job buddy. Ive taught exercise physiology at the college level and to many clients as well. You summed up everything very well. Basically if everyone would just be consistent in their activity level and diet. And use moderation in their exercise and diet they would be fine. Im also a nurse and I tell my clients and patients you can eat anything you want it just has to be small. That’s the biggest problem for most people I meet in recent years Its simple. They move their bod much less than we used to and they eat too much Calories in Calories out That formula hasn’t changed since the cave man

  5. The author raises a good point regarding running. Varying your cardio routine (elliptical, biking, walking,around etc.) also uses different muscles, rather than doing the same thing over and over. Running is actually one of the worst activities you can perform, due to the impact it places on joints. I’d also recommend getting a good set of footwear for whatever training regimen you select. Just not Nikes 🙂

  6. “I have seen people lose up to 30 pounds without trying, by eliminating alcohol from their diet.”

    I lost 30 lbs without trying just by increasing my protein intake. (everything after that, unfortunately, has required maximum sustained effort to make any progress at all.)

  7. Great article! I’m 49 and it took my lifetime to figure out everything you summarized here in these 4 articles. I wish I had read this when I was 18. Fortunately my son is now 19 and he’s just beginning to ask me for workout advice after he saw me “ripped” in an old photo. I’ll forward him these links to save him years of mistakes. As far as cross training, my dad ran almost daily his entire life. Now that he’s 71, his hip and knee both need replacement and he can barely walk. He finally admitted he thinks he made a mistake in running so much. My elderly neighbor agrees; he too can barely walk after years of long daily runs. And so did my grandfather before he died…he had to go to the doctor because he couldn’t stand up one day after sitting in his chair. The doc told grandad that his butt just had skin and bone and no muscle. That’s why he couldn’t stand up!

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