The Guardian Angels, a group of highly-trained elite airmen, use CrossFit to train, so they are ready when summoned for combat rescues.
They are called Guardian Angels. That’s because these highly-trained elite airmen — who are summoned for combat rescues, as well as civilian and humanitarian relief — descend into dangerous scenarios to save lives. Think “Lone Survivor,” the book written by Marcus Luttrell about his tale of survival in Afghanistan. The Guardian Angels pulled Luttrell to safety.
The pararescue jumpers, or PJs, of the 920th Rescue Wing based at Patrick Air Force Base in east Central Florida, are obligated to two hours a day of physical training. It's hard to imagine such a regimented group would be anything other than cohesive in every aspect.
But, CrossFit has unified them even more.
“Up until the CrossFit type of stuff came out, it was always just the endurance guys did their own thing and the powerlifters did their type of thing. But now, we’ve gone to these gyms, we’ve seen the benefit of incorporating team and competitions, we’ve brought it up a notch and made it fun again,” Tech. Sgt. Bill Posch says. “(The daily physical training) is a forced thing, it’s not fun when you’re required to train. Now, we’ve come together on this.”
Posch says they can have between 20 and 40 people for their training sessions. They don’t follow strict CrossFit programming, but incorporate it into their routine in ways only relevant to Special Forces.
“It’s much more of block training, monster mashes, it ends up being these long, huge workouts, half days, but incorporates a lot of our skills training,” Posch says. “The basic idea is we’ll do some kind of CrossFit mixed in with running, mixed with medical training.”
As a team, a workout may start with 100 pull-ups followed by a run and a rope scenario, then squats followed by ground-to-overhead, and finish with what Posch calls “med ex,” where they practice fine motor skills used in their rescue missions.
Major John Fish, commander of 308 RQS, says since CrossFit has been introduced into their training, it’s become more structured and they now have doctors and physical therapists involved, too.
“It’s a better way to get in shape, to be successful in our job,” Fish says. “It’s a good way to induce stress into your environment and be able to operate while you’re stressed and tired.”
As a warm-up, the group might do burpees and the clap would simulate a gunshot.
“We do tons of stations that incorporate our basic skills, using CrossFit workouts in between,” Posch says.
In 2010, Posch started looking online for training ideas. Staying away from technical lifts, he says they realized it was practical to, for instance, do five rounds of Cindy so they’re hands are smoked, and then have to go give someone an IV or do intubation.
Posch says there’s a huge difference between an athlete specializing in training for a competition and what his group needs to be prepared for.
“I weighed 140 pounds going through the pipeline, I was exactly the athlete I needed to be back then,” he explains. “Then on the (PJs) teams, it’s more running, sprinting to there, grabbing some heavy stuff — what does that sound like? Every CrossFit workout out there.”
Even the simple pull-up generates a dichotomy of viewpoints within the military, something that has to be performed from a dead hang in PT tests.
“Military are probably the biggest group to argue that (kipping) pull-ups look stupid, because if you kip even slightly, it doesn’t count,” Posch says, explaining how he and his group came to see the practicality of functional movements over years of always doing it one way.
“Kipping pull-ups and muscle-ups actually teach you to get your body up and over an obstacle,” Posch says.
One day, Posch’s group was training on the water wearing a full kit consisting of an extra 40 or 50 pounds with body armor and helmet — gear not intended to get wet. But the waves dumped them and they had to get back in the boat.
His buddy could only pull himself up so far on his own using strength and movement utilized in a strict pull-up.
“I tapped him on the head and said, ‘Hey, do a muscle-up,’ and it clicked,” Posch says. “Any other time, prior to knowing how to do a muscle-up, it would have been him having to do a pull-up as high as he could and others helping him. It directly relates to operational fitness. For us, it’s just being able to do gnarly workouts and incorporate our own skills. A muscle-up helps getting up a rope ladder, (getting) into the boat and (getting) into a helicopter.”
The PJs recently welcomed the University of Florida men’s swim team for a grueling half-day of training and team building. Participating, were two alums who came home from London with gold medals after the 2012 Olympics. Ryan Lochte, an 11-time Olympic medalist, and Conor Dwyer, joined the current team of Gators for a CrossFit-style workout that involved burpees, box jumps, kettlebells, shuttle runs, a wall-ball toss run, pull-ups and dips. Their day went on to involve push-ups, beach running, underwater swimming and deck drills like scissor kicking, zodiac carries and paddling.
Lochte says he’s been incorporating strength training similar to Strongman about once a week for two hours to supplement his swimming, but the workout the PJs threw at them was different.
“It’s definitely helped me out and got me a lot stronger,” Lochte says.