Stay Fit to Survive

Stay Fit to Survive

MANY OF US ARM OURSELVES WITH BUG-OUT BAGS, KNIVES, ’HAWKS, AND WATER PURIFIERS. We equip our cache of supplies with the latest gear to stave off death. We fill our minds with useful tips and tricks about fighting, weapons training and wilderness survival tasks. However, many don’t realize it is also very important to ensure our bodies are fit for survival, too. Could you run a mile over uneven terrain without stopping or could you climb a tree to escape a predator? Could you lift a boulder to save an injured friend, or whatever else it could take, if it meant saving a life? Do you have the stamina to stay up all night to keep watch over a camp in siege, or can you carry five days of food, water, and other gear on your back while hiking into the unknown trail to rescue?

No? Well, then you’ve got work to do.

Even if you workout regularly, not all exercises are created equal when it comes to survival, says Dustin Alliano, founder, owner, and personal trainer at Superior Fitness Center in Santa Barbara, California. One look at Alliano’s gym will tell you it’s not your average fitness center. Along with the standard treadmills and other machines, the gym hosts a number of items you don’t see in workout facilities as often, including rock climbing grips, cinder blocks, a sledgehammer, and a tractor tire. Although many gyms don’t have these items, if you’re looking to get your body in survival shape, you can find most of the equipment at various fitness sites, the personal trainer says.

To prepare your body for survival situations, Alliano recommends performing each of the following exercises three times a week. However, he says consult with a doctor before starting any physical fitness program.


For grip strengthening, hold yourself up off the ground by squeezing as hard as you can against a rope — not just holding on — for a 30- second set. Rest 15-20 seconds between each set and perform 10 sets per workout. (If you can’t keep yourself suspended in the air, start with your feet on the ground leaning back at a 45-degree angle.)

“Don’t get discouraged if you have to drop four or five times in the first 30 seconds. You have to start somewhere,” Alliano says. When you are able to hold the position for 30 seconds at a time, work up until you reach 90-second sets. Don’t move up to a higher time until you perfect the lower time without dropping.


Alliano says hand and grip strengthening is especially important when it comes to survival. “If you’re trying to climb over a ledge, if you’re trying to lift something up, if you’re trying to pull something, no matter how strong your back, chest or arms are, without the hand strength you’re going to give out in seconds,” Alliano says, citing that many strong people still can’t climb a rope for this reason.


The pipe grip, ball grip, and rock climbing grip exercises are the same as the rope: Hold yourself up, by squeezing your hands against the grip. Do the same number of sets and rest in between.


Another grip strengthening exercise Alliano recommends is the pinch grip. For the pinch grip, he holds — by squeezing against it — either a 15-pound or 30- pound cinderblock off the ground, keeping his fingers straight.


“It’s a little bit harder than a full grip,” he says. “A lot of the other grip exercises were working hand and finger strength, but here my hand is not really on the brick much, just my fingers.”

Begin with sets of 30 seconds, rest no more than 60 seconds in between, and do five sets, he says. “You work yourself up from 30 to 90, counting how many times you have to drop the brick, and then try to beat that time. So you don’t move from 30 seconds to 60, until you can do 30 without dropping.”


Along with providing great cardiovascular and pulmonary conditioning, jumping rope, the trainer says, improves ankle stability and mobility, strengthens core, shoulders, and grip as you hold onto the rope. Alliano recommends jumping with a weighted rope, like his two-pound one.

“The goal is to work up to 10 minutes of jumping rope, without a pause, but you may have to work up to that by doing sets of 25 to 50, with minimal rest in between,” he says.



Since the surface of our planet is mostly water, it would be wise to learn how to swim. It’s especially important for people who live near water, flood-prone areas or for those who enjoy boating, says Laura Hamel of U.S. Masters Swimming, a nonprofit that provides members several benefits including offering events as well as support to swimming clubs and workout groups nationwide.


If you’re in the water in survival mode — and you’re fortunate enough to have the option of swimming to safety — not being a competent swimmer will make your situation more difficult, raising your odds of panicking and drowning.

“Strong, confident swimmers have less to worry about when they’re in the water because they know what to do to get air, and they’re comfortable having their faces in the water or holding their breath, exhaling under water, as needed,” says Hamel, the communications and publications director for USMS,. “Strong, confident swimmers also know how to rest in the water to conserve energy. When they get tired, they can flip over and float on their backs comfortably for a while.”

She notes it’s important to practice in local waters, rather than only pools, because it’s different to swim in open water where you can’t see the bottom.

“The only way to become a strong, confident swimmer is to do it regularly,” says Hamel.

Many Master’s programs offer learn-to-swim lessons. To see if there is one in your area, visit


If you’re on a treadmill, “try running five to nine miles-per-hour, depending on your comfort level, in 15-second sprints, 25 of them with a 60-second stopping break in between.

“If you’re in an emergency situation chances are you’re not going to be running away for an hour,” Alliano says. “Don’t train for long distance running, but do sprints. If I need to run from a lion and climb up a tree or something, I’m probably going to have to do that in a minute or less otherwise that lion’s going to catch me.”

Sprints also condition the heart for adrenaline, the trainer says.


The plank is a full-body workout, but it particularly strengthens the core – which could help you climb, Alliano says. It can be practiced on any flat surface.


“You want to make sure your shoulders are above your elbows, not behind. You want to stretch through your elbows into the floor that supports you, engaging your lats. Then you want to make sure your feet are together, on the balls of your feet, palms facing down on the ground. Your back should be flat, not bent.”

Alliano recommends performing a five-minute plank, three times a week.

“Set small goals, try to do 30 seconds at a time. You always do five minutes but you begin to track how many times you went down in that five-minute period,” he says. “Once your form starts to go, don’t sit there and struggle trying to sacrifice your form to get to that five minutes because if you sacrifice your form you’ll never get the benefits.”

Count how many times you drop and try to drop fewer times during the next workout, and fewer the next time, and so on.


“Do 10 to 25 flips per set, and do five sets. Rest in between sets anywhere between 30 and 90 seconds, depending on your current level of conditioning.”

Practicing moving a tractor tire can enable you to build strength to lift a large object, such as a boulder, without hurting yourself.


“When you go to squat you don’t bend over at the waist,” Alliano says. “You drop the hips down and back, keeping the weight on your heels, and then squat down. When you’re about to lift, you put your hands around the tire, tighten your stomach muscles so you don’t use your back only, and at the same time press through the legs and lift up, squeezing against the tire with your hands.”

Alliano uses at 200-pound tire and says that for this exercise you want a tire that weighs no less than 100 pounds given that, because you are flipping the tire, you are probably only lifting about 65 percent of it.


ASG-1510-Fitness-11Hitting a sledgehammer against a tractor tire is a good way to practice using a tool, such as a large stick, to break through something. This exercise incorporates a biceps curl, shoulder press, core rotation, a medicine ball slam, an ab crunch and a body weight squat all in one, Alliano says.


“I do about 25 each arm until I get to 100, then I’ll rest for 90 seconds and do it again, five more times (sets).”


“If you want to get your body in shape in a relatively short amount of time, improve your conditioning and basic strength and you have no equipment at your disposal, burpees are one of my favorite workouts.”

(The trainer says there are many variations to the burpee, but the following is how he does it.) To perform a burpee, start in an upright position, and then squat down to the ground, with your hands on the ground like you’re going into a pushup position. Next, jump your feet back together, keeping your stomach tight to avoid injuring your back, so you’re in an arm extended plank position. Then do a push-up, keeping the elbows to the side of the body. Next, jump your feet outside of your hands; contract your abs while lifting your torso back to upright position (which is key for not fatiguing and overusing your back muscles), and then extend your arms up into the sky. Repeat process 10 to 25 repetitions at a time.

“Try to start doing 10 at a time with as much rest needed in between, up until 100. Always do 100 three days a week.”


ASG-1510-Fitness-14After former Navy rescue swimmer, Brian Dickinson found himself alone and snowblind at the top of Mount Everest in May 2011, Dickinson had to rely on his training and physical fitness to get back to safety.

At the time, Dickinson was 36 years old; it was about 12 years after he was honorably discharged from the military.

He hadn’t planned to climb alone; his Sherpa became ill at around 1,000 feet from the summit and turned back. Dickinson took stock of his situation and thought he could safely make it to the top alone, which, which he did, but soon after he started descent, snowblindness struck. Dickinson had been physically prepared to climb the mountain, but not to have blurry vision and burning eyes, without anyone to help him, while doing it.

“It was really just one step in front of the other, just never giving up,” Dickinson says of how he kept pushing forward for the seven-hour trip from the summit to the high camp, which typically would take about three hours. “In survival situations, really the most important thing is your mental focus, because if you lose the will to survive nothing is going to save you. I was doing everything in my power; I was going to continue moving no matter how tired and how frustrated I was.”

Dickinson, who details his survival story in his 2014 book Blind Descent (Tyndale), suggests people train for survival situations by seeking scenarios that would normally cause panic.

“In my training in the military, we had people basically trying to drown us daily; we were pushed to the limit,” he says, noting people should step outside of their comfort zones.

“I’m not saying go way beyond that, but push a little to see what you’re capable of … In some scenarios, it’s going to be forced on you and if you do panic, potentially the worst can happen,” he says.“Know your limitations and push beyond that.”

And don’t forget: Focus is key. “There’s only so much in front of you that you can control. All that other clutter, letting that in, is going to influence you negatively


Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the September 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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