Can "Combat Conditioning" Improve Your Appearance?
by Scott Abbett
Was it "combat conditioning" that build his muscularity... or 'weight training?'
Occasionally in life, someone will blurt out something that verbalizes your exact thoughts at nearly the precise time you’re thinking them. I experienced this one afternoon when I was twenty years old and undergoing the most physically demanding military training ever devised (at least it was then; I can’t speak for it now). It was spring of 1984. I was in U.S. Navy, Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training as I stood shirtless in front of the bathroom mirror on the first floor of the beach-front barracks in Coronado, California. I felt slightly disappointed from a standpoint of pure vanity when a fellow trainee blurted out to his buddy:
“Damn… my body has hardly changed a bit since I’ve been in this training.”
Oh, wow; my sentiments about myself exactly. I looked around to see that a group of them had stormed into the other end of the room and this guy had pulled off his shirt to see whether the inhumanly arduous training had sculpted something better out of his physique. It hadn’t. He was visibly bummed.
Did we have a lot of “functional strength”? Oh… you bet. I was able to run up a steep hill of jagged terrain on San Clemente Island while holding a heavy pallet on my shoulders. A lot of what we did was impressive feats of endurance and strength. Yet I’m actually stronger now, sans some of the endurance. And believe me; my current gym-built strength is fully functional. The term “functional strength” is oftentimes meaningless, esoteric jargon. You’re either fully functional or something’s amiss. You’re either relatively strong or you’re not. There’s not a special kind of muscle strength that’s “functional”.
Can you “master your own bodyweight” from this type of training? Uh… well, this might be more jargon. When I started the training, I was probably capable of six pull-ups. When I was well into the training, I could do thirty. I’m not sure at what number I would have been considered a master of my own bodyweight. But if you’d compared me to the guy who could only do two, I guess I was a master of it all along. HOOYAH! (That’s a BUD/S saying)
Yet… how come my physique didn’t appear much better?
There are really three simple reasons:
1) Very high-rep exercise (bodyweight stuff) most effectively burns body fat with eating habit improvements.
2) Very high-rep exercise (“mastering” bodyweight) hardly adds any muscle size.
3) We’re obviously limited in scope of exercises we can perform with the bodyweight, combat conditioning stuff (unless we start military pressing our buddies, like the U.S. Marines do). This can cause whatever miniscule muscle gains we can acquire from it to be aesthetically unbalanced.
Let’s face the facts: It’s really only some visually noticeable muscle added to the body along with major drops in body fat that significantly augments one’s appearance. You can make an improvement with just one or the other (some additional muscle or some reduction of fat), but it’s both together that creates exciting, head-turning physique results.
‘Combat conditioning’ (i.e. training the body purely for a combat situation), using only one’s body weight for resistance, will build the mitochondria fibers of the muscles. These are the slow-twitch fibers that possess the least potential for growth. With only negligible increases in muscle size, it’s pretty difficult to improve the shape of one’s body very much.
Yet this type of training will also cause the body to deplete the energy stores of the muscles. This effectively creates a repletion process that includes the breaking down of triglycerides that can be drawn from fat stores within the body. What you’re doing, in effect, is taking energy from stored body fat and converting it to stored muscle fuel. That’s a good thing.
But this positive effect can easily be negated if one’s eating habits aren’t controlled. What happened to us within the combat conditioning context of BUD/S Training is that we became hungrier and simply ate more carbohydrates and dietary fat to compensate for the intense training.
So, although we were capable of incredible endurance feats (the utility of which off the combat field can be debated), we didn’t possess the “hard body” appearance that some of us were expecting from such rigors.
Would I ever go back to using ‘body weight exercises’ as my fitness regimen? Let’s face it; they’re convenient – right? A travelling person can do them right there in the hotel room after rolling their groggy butt out of bed.
Yeah, I’ll go back to them when some wacko blows up every gym in the world. You see, most people engage in natural bodybuilding in a time-wasting and ineffective manner. I’ve discovered a way to do it that keeps me getting exciting (and thus motivating) results while not having to live in the gym.
What’s more, regardless of the controversy surrounding “how many BMR calories are burned by a pound of muscle”, I’ve noticed my body fat is much easier to keep down since putting on appreciable amounts of natural muscle. A picture speaks a thousand words – and anyone can see the contrast at the very top of my web site.