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Long-Range Fitness

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A MARSOC Marine Schools Us on How to Stay Limber for Extended Periods

The young sergeant did his best to hide a look of surprise when he realized the battle-worn gunnery sergeant in front of him wasn't there to drop off some fresh-faced lance corporals for Marine Corps Scout Sniper School — no, I was there to check in … as a student.

In my mid 30s, I was a generation older than all of my classmates, had a good 10 years on all of my Sniper School instructors, and already had multiple combat deployments as a Recon Marine under my belt. Still, on the first day of class I pulled the rank insignia off of my uniform and made it clear I was there to be treated as any other student. Over the next 11 weeks, as our numbers shrank from 60 to 40 to about 20, my body was taxed, pushed, and challenged in ways that I had never experienced.

Stalking slowly and silently for hours — on all fours, crouched, bent over, then frozen in the prone as we waited for our shot — our necks, backs, and shoulders screamed, ached, and spasmed. If we came thinking we were in shape, we soon learned that we'd have to develop a completely different set of muscles and redefine mental and physical stamina if we were going to succeed.

It's Easy to be Hard, Hard to be Smart

Back then, I wasn't educated on how to prepare for, or recover from, the various types of abuse the job required — there was no “pre-stalking warm-up” routine or Stretching for Snipers handbook. The answer to most things was: suck it up and drive on.

My gym routine at the time favored power over precision, bulk over balance. We use the term precision to describe long-range shooting, to differentiate it from other types. Whether you're a Marine Corps sniper, a hunter taking down elk at 800 yards, or long-range competitor, we need to be more precise in how we prepare our bodies for the unique challenges of long-range shooting.

The Solution: Stamina, Strength, Stretch

Stamina: The term stamina (being able to do something over an extended period of time) is usually associated with cardiovascular fitness. It's true; cardiovascular fitness is important for all shooters — in my training courses I emphasize the importance of being able to manage breathing and perform the fundamentals of marksmanship with an elevated heart rate.

Most people, however, don't associate the concept with the type of muscular stamina required to hold a rifle up on target, or to stay in a prone or crouched position with head erect, eyes on glass. In addition to developing cardiovascular fitness, long-range shooters need to tailor their training to develop muscular endurance, particularly in their core (abs, chest, upper and lower back), as well as their shoulders and neck.

During my three-day scoped carbine course, students are often surprised to find the most mentally and physically challenging segment of training isn't the “run and gun” course of fire, where they are running from cover to cover, but the segment we spend lying in the prone. Why? Because most of them haven't spent much time in that position — it feels awkward, uncomfortable, even painful to lay on their stomach, arms forward on their weapon, while holding up that big noggin — while being still enough to decipher the holds on their reticle and keep eyes on target.

One of the ways shooters can gain muscular endurance is by “dry practicing” shooting positions at home or on the range. Spending a few minutes each day getting into the prone (or other shooting position) will go a long way toward getting your body accustomed to otherwise unfamiliar positions and building the muscle memory and endurance that'll help you to “settle into” your gun.

Strength: Another way to build muscular endurance is through strength training. It's true, bigger biceps won't put more power behind your bullet, so why does strength matter to a long-range shooter? Full-body strength training is beneficial to any shooter as it helps balance out uneven muscle development and protects joints from injury.

In addition to a typical strength-training regimen, however, long-range shooters need to include isometric exercises, where muscles contract in a static position, such as doing planks or yoga. Often, shooters equate being still to being tight. While tightening up muscles, like a child in a game of freeze tag, will keep you still for a short time, it'll also cause you to expend a huge amount of energy, leaving your muscles shaky, sore, and fatigued.

One of the benefits of isometric exercises, such as yoga, is learning to be still — holding a pose or position — while relaxing the other muscles in your body. Yoga not only improves strength and core stability, but flexibility, breathing, and mental focus — all attributes likely to benefit the long-range shooter.

Stretch: As with any sport, it's important to stretch both before and after shooting or training exercises. Prior to shooting, stretching helps to reduce tension and loosen joints, helping to maintain a relaxed position, whether standing, sitting, or in the prone. A regular stretching routine also increases the overall flexibility needed to get into various, more awkward, shooting positions.

Just like a baseball player swings a bat on one side, or a place kicker uses a particular foot to kick, shooters use muscles on one side of their body differently than the other. Constant use of muscles on one side tends to pull hips, the back, and other muscles out of alignment and become more prone to injury. After shooting, stretching helps counteract muscle imbalance and keeps injuries from taking you out of the fight.

Rather than constituting a full routine, the following exercises (in addition to “dry practice” rifle holds) are meant to supplement your regular cardio and strength training routine. While I also use other exercises, these pack the most benefit for shooters of all fitness levels. With these as a start, I highly encourage serious long-range shooters to incorporate yoga practice into their regular routine — check out the Foundation Training Fundamentals DVD (

1. Superman

This exercise really targets the muscle groups required for prolonged shooting positions (upper and lower back, neck, and shoulders, as well as glutes, hamstrings, and abs), especially those used when shooting in the prone.

> Lie face down on your stomach with your arms extended and legs straight back. Keep your neck in a neutral position, looking straight down.

> Contract your glutes to lift your arms and legs off the floor toward the ceiling. Stop when you feel a flex in your lower back. Resist the urge to hyperextend the neck — keep chin tucked!

> Hold for two to three seconds, then lower arms and legs back to starting position. Repeat for 12 to 15 reps, working up to three sets of 15 reps. Remember, if it hurts, stop.



2. Straight Arm Plank

The isometric straight-arm plank offers less stability than a forearm plank, which means more work for muscles in the arms, core, chest, and shoulders. With arms straight in front of the shoulders, this one strengthens muscles required for a stable rifle hold.

> Come to the top of a push-up position, elbows straight, back flat, neck relaxed. Place your hands directly below your shoulders and parallel to the ground. Hold in this “up” position for one minute or until fatigued.

3. Seated Spine Twist

This is one of the best all-around stretches you can do for your back and spine, and will also stretch muscles in your neck, chest, shoulders, glutes, and hips. Do this stretch both before and after shooting or training exercises.

Sit on the ground with your legs extended out in front of your body. Cross one leg over the other, placing your opposite arm across the outside of your opposite knee and your other hand on the ground behind your hip about a foot away. Use that arm to prop yourself up in proper alignment. Gently press the opposite elbow against the opposite knee to enhance your twist and stretch your side, hip, and upper back. Hold for two to three breaths, then repeat on opposite side.

4. Three-Way Neck Stretch

Long-range shooters are particularly susceptible to tightness and tension in their neck, though it's often a part of the body we overlook when it comes to strength and stretching routines. It's important to know how to safely stretch your neck — and do it regularly.

Lateral: Take the head over to the right side and lightly apply further pressure using the hand to increase the stretch. Repeat on left side.

Rotation: Gently stretch by looking over your right shoulder, holding for 10 seconds, then looking over the left for 10. Repeat each side once.

Posterior: Tuck the chin in and tilt the head down toward the chest. Use another hand to apply pressure on the head if necessary.

*Warning: Never tilt your head back — it puts a 10-pound pressure on the upper spine, which can cause injury.

Bottom Line

As I've gotten older, I've come to know that things don't always have to be a “gut check” — that it is “easy to be hard, hard to be smart.” By taking a smarter approach to long-range shooting, we can overcome some of the physical challenges inherent to the task. Are 400-pound dead lifts sexier than neck stretches and some awkward yoga poses? Sure. But the former isn't going to improve your long shot nearly as much as the latter.

About the Author

Master Sergeant Buck Doyle (retired) is the owner and founder of Follow Through Consulting, LLC, which provides tactical firearms instruction as well as consulting, advising, and speaking to military, law enforcement, and civilians. Buck served over 21 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, including 17 years and multiple combat tours with Special Operations units (1st Force Recon, 1st Recon Battalion, and 1st Raider Battalion). Buck is one of nine U.S. service members highlighted in Mark Greenblatt's book, Valor: Unsung Heroes of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, and is featured in the Outdoor Channel's television series, Fight to Survive. Buck and his wife, Kyla, live, work, hike, and raise their two daughters in the beautiful Cache Valley area of Utah.

Fit for Duty

Ironically, it was being on the receiving end of a bullet that changed my approach to fitness.

EXOS (formerly Athletes Performance) Return to Duty and Comeback Initiative programs provide specialized, intensive rehabilitation to wounded personnel from the special operations community. Designed to maximize recovery and performance, the experts at EXOS provide personalized performance training, physical therapy, and nutrition plans for warriors who are working to rejoin their units and get back in the fight.

I felt lucky to be alive after one bullet shattered my arm and another lodged in my leg during combat in Iraq in 2007. It left me with nerve damage, half of a tricep, skin grafts and scars from multiple surgeries, and an arm full of metal plates and rods put together with something the doc called “bone paste.”

After a year of rehab at the military hospital, I was fortunate to spend three weeks at the EXOS/Athletes Performance facility in Gulf Breeze, Florida, where I not only got back into “fighting form,” I gained an education that has changed my approach to fitness and performance ever since.

Every day, I worked with my trainers, physical therapists, and nutritionist, alongside players from the NBA, the NFL, and top NCAA programs. For the first time in a year, I felt like an athlete instead of a patient, and I learned to train and treat my body for performance.

It was here that I learned the benefits of yoga, stretching, and developed an intimate relationship with a foam roller. I learned that gains in flexibility, balance, and agility were just as important as, if not more than, gains from lifting bigger weights in the gym.

The tools I came away with carried me through another combat deployment and four years as a contractor supporting combat units in Afghanistan — and they keep me “running and gunning” with my students as a tactical trainer to this day.

A big thanks to EXOS/Athletes Performance, and to USSOCOM Care Coalition, which facilitated my participation in the program. For more information, or to support the ongoing efforts of the Return to Duty and Comeback Initiative programs, visit them online or on Facebook.

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