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Training for an “O-Course” Without Obstacles

Stew Smith, CSCS

Many pre-military and law enforcement recruits who are training for their future training programs often are hit with this problem of not having an obstacle course to train with before departing. Here is an email from a trainee seeking advice on how to pre-train for this issue:

I do not have access to an o-course, but would really like to be able to train on one, or at least train a workout that has some carryover to something like the bud/s o-course or the USMC confidence course. Any ideas? Thanks very much.

All obstacle courses have high and low obstacles and usually some distance to run in between them. Here is how I recommend training for such a test:

1 – Continue with upperbody strength / endurance workouts – You need the muscles that enable you to perform a pullup, pushup, and dip. Keep doing those in a regular program in your PT workouts. If you are not doing these exercises here is a sample plan:

Repeat 5-10 times
Run 100m fast
Pushups – 10-20 reps
Pullups or flexed arm hang – 15-20 seconds worth
Dips or bench dips – 10-20 reps

This type of quick circuit will ensure you are working the right muscles that will help you get over a wall, up a rope, and over a fence. Notice the short fast 100m sprint in this workout. This addition will help you cover ground quickly and make up valuable time if you are struggling with any obstacles.

2 – GRIP – climbing a rope or jumping over a wall will require significant upperbody strength but it will also require you to be able to grip a rope or wall edge as well. Once again, flexed arm hangs and pull-ups will help to a degree, but I like to add a piece of rope or rolled towel over a pullup bar and practice hanging on the two ends or even doing pull-ups with it. That is one of the best grip workouts ever. In fact, on the strong man competitions, often they have the world’s strongest men hang from a bar the longest as a part of the event.

3 – Balance – find a curb or long beam you are walk across / run across to practice balance on a log as many obstacle courses have a balance portion. A trick I always use is to look at the end of the balance beam and run to it. Do not look straight down as that can interfere with your ability to stay on the balance log.

Weights or Calisthenics – Many people ask me what they should use to prepare for military or law enforcement training programs. I always recommend to do a calisthenics based program complete with plenty of cardio activity like running, swimming, biking to increase your endurance and muscle stamina. However, I do like to supplement the workouts with some weights IF you must lift weights, but any of these programs will not have significant weight lifting in them. This is mainly a logistical issue as large recruit classes are difficult to run through “real” weight lifting programs in a gym. As a former powerlifter, I understand the urge to lift, but do yourself a favor and while you are pre-training just PT and run with some weights to balance your training.

Put it this way, no 400 lb bench press is going to get you over a wall or up a rope!

Feel free to email me if you have any questions at

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