Many things are important to the development of solid firearms skills: safety, knowledge of the fundamentals, firearm confidence, professional training and dedicated practice to name a few. These focuses don’t occur in a vacuum; they work together and help us be a better shooter. It’s a never ending process of self-assessment that is challenging, fun and even frustrating at times. A skill set and an art that carries with it a high moral obligation and personal responsibility. As an instructor and a student myself, I see a wide variety of people from very different backgrounds both in training settings and on ranges as they practice and one thing that always stands out to me is the overweight shooter.
I’m not talking about a few vanity pounds and I’m not asking anyone to run out and start Crossfit; I’m talking about common sense body health that will make anyone a more effective and able shooter; especially those with an eye towards realistic self-defense. Fitness is a monumentally important aspect of firearms and self-defense, yet it often gets overlooked or ignored because for some it’s too personal a conversation to have. Well, I think it’s time we had it.
Before I hurt any feelings, or in case I already have, this is not an attack on any one person or group, it’s a factual look at a present problem. Being honest with yourself is part of shooting. We can’t lie our way to a better level of performance any more than we can get thin simply by wishing for it and doing nothing to change what made us overweight to begin with. Self-honesty is a hallmark of improvement and denial is often the first performance wall we must overcome before we can improve in anything. I have heard all manner of excuses for why being medically overweight is acceptable for those who shoot. From “I got a lot of heart” to “I’m not trying to be a SEAL/DELTA/OMGWTFSPETZNAZ,” the excuses are many and some are downright creative. They are still excuses.
People take comments on their weight personally, and they should. If I tell a student that they need to slow down and work on trigger control to tighten up their shot group I get a nod and agreement and sometimes even an apology. If I tell a student that they should really try to lose a few pounds and work on their upper body strength to work the rifle more efficiently, I get blank stares or sometimes an excuse or two. As much as we want the gun to be a part of us, it isn’t. It is a mechanical device that must be operated. We can blame it for all manner of failures in performance (even if this isn’t being honest) but our body weight is almost always out fault. We can’t blame the spoon or the Cheetos and have anyone but an extreme left liberal take it seriously.
From a medical standpoint, there are very few conditions that can actually keep a person from losing weight (Hypothyroidism/thyroid disorders, Cushing’s syndrome and insulin resistance to name the most common and these can be regulated with medication) outside of a diagnosed medical condition, its life choices and excuses that keep someone from being in ideal shape.
Pre-existing injuries are also sometimes to blame for weight gain, but someone would have to tell that to a large number of disabled veterans (and non-veterans) who continue to push their bodies to perform despite being in a wheelchair or missing limbs. As the saying goes, your excuse is invalid. It should also be mentioned that skinny does not equal in shape. No matter how small your body fat percentage, it doesn’t make up for a lack of muscle development and can very easily be more hindrance than help in a use of force.
I hear quite a bit that fitness isn’t as important to the citizen shooter because they don’t have the same obligations as service members or police officers (I will also include EMTs and firefighters). This is absolutely true…until it isn’t. If you train and practice with protecting your life or the life of a loved one in mind, you at some level expect to use those skills if you have to. Fitness just became as important because it greatly enhances those skills and in a violent encounter provides for a much higher level of physical performance. The other side of the coin is to ask, what do you gain by not being in shape? The honest answer to that is nothing except for the time you save in not working out that is instead used on other life activities. I get it, time is valuable. It is the single most valuable thing we have; we can’t get it back once it’s gone and don’t like giving it away to something we don’t want to do. But it’s time very well spent and in a given day, does not require more than an hour.
Allow me to make my case.
Just speaking firearms, manipulation requires a number of different muscle groups to work efficiently. Many of these do not require a great deal of strength. The draw, slide manipulation, trigger control, reloading, clearing malfunctions or even simple movement off-line from a threat are not physically exhausting. Even with the added weight of a rifle, physical demands remain somewhat low until you factor in support hand grip and even then only with extended time spent supporting an aimed weapon. When you add in cardiovascular demands; the sudden need for explosive speed, physical condition becomes more important.
Now add in the need for fast and precise weapon control, physical movement and an activation of your Sympathetic Nervous System in a real-life use of force and suddenly physical conditioning is one of the most important things you can do (or wish you did). It has been shown that peak physical performance in a physical fight is in the neighborhood of thirty seconds, after which it begins to degrade rapidly along with cognitive reasoning (30 seconds is not a “bright line” determination, and should not be treated as such – it’s a gross average based on practical research in martial arts and LE training, though it does not factor in the emotional elements such as fear and anger).
Physical conditioning, literally how efficient your muscular and cardiovascular endurance is, decides how high your peak physical performance is; the worse your physical shape, the lower your peak performance (age is also a factor). Granted, heart and resolve play a huge part in this; they are part of mental conditioning and preparation; which means that they cannot be used as excuses to not being in shape. If someone tells me that heart will get them through it, I have to wonder why heart isn’t pushing them to be in the best shape they can be in. How long can you expect to operate at peak physical performance in a non-physical use of force, not a hands-on fight but a gun fight? We can use heart rate as a speedometer, knowing that motor skills can be affected at certain heart rates, though this doesn’t factor in the psychophysiological element either so it’s actually a near-impossible question to answer with a “bright line” time. Mainly this is because no gun fight has ever occurred under scientific controls, and neither has an actual physical fight for life. Fear, anger, physical condition, pre-conflict fatigue (literally being tired before the fight), environmental conditions and a high number of other variables can and do affect the answer to that question, which is why physical fitness becomes so important the more you look at the implications. If you are literally fighting for your life, the work you put in before that moment is more important than any excuse you came up with to avoid it.
Heart rate is an objective speedometer of physical conditioning, but it isn’t always telling of maximum fight potential. My resting heart rate is 53-59 BPM; running a 7 minute mile pace it’s between 145 and 170 depending on what mile I’m on. In Simunitions scenarios I have seen my heart rate stay as low as 115 and go as high as 190 (a heart rate I’ve never experienced on a live fire training range).
In the case of running, the distance run usually determines where my heart rate is; when going through a force on force scenario its more complicated; sensory input (how well I can see, hear) length of scenario, type of scenario (simple self-defense shooting, warrant service, hostage situation, multiple attackers etc.) and the environment combine to add stress that doesn’t exist elsewhere. It’s very close to the real thing which is why I believe in its power as a training tool. I also know that I have seen the heart rate of those not in good physical condition spike above 200 BPM. This doesn’t mean they categorically reached the end of their ability to perform, but combined with their sluggish physical actions, poor weapon control and loss of quick decision making ability I would say that they were very adversely affected. Physical conditioning greatly helps cope with stress, improves high stress performance and increases your time-to-fatigue. Combine that with heart and you won’t just survive a gun fight, you will win it.
At the fundamental level, muscle development aids in weapon control; recoil management and stability. The more developed those muscle groups that support the weapon are, the less tension that needs to be exerted on the weapon to correct fatigue movements (barrel dips and shakes as muscles begin to fatigue and lactic acid build up begins). Dexterity and motor skill precision is also increased which is of obvious benefit. Cardiovascular endurance maximizes blood flow which greatly benefits the senses we use to control the firearm (mainly our eyes) and how explosive and prolonged our movements can be. It also improves the high stress functionality of the aforementioned. All things considered, the case for a sedentary life or simply practicing the gun and not strengthening the body is not just weak, it’s effectively dead.
But exercise is hard. Of course it is. It’s hard because it’s worth it and if it was easy, everyone would do it. It’s even harder if you are already overweight and out of shape. I know this pretty well; I’ve been both twice in my life. I was a fat kid most of my childhood, tipping the scales at nearly 300 pounds. A strong desire to join the military (along with exercise) got me down to a healthy weight just in time for basic training. After leaving active duty I ballooned up to 265 Lbs. It took me being honest with myself to make the change again and I’ve been dedicated to fitness ever since. That doesn’t mean I don’t struggle, because everyone does at some point. It means I stick with it because the alternative can get me killed. That’s not hyperbole so much as it is a very real possibility and since I don’t have a crystal ball to tell me how any future violent encounter is going to go, I want to be as prepared as possible.
Diet means portion control and eating less crap and more not-crap. We all know what’s bad for us, eat less/drink less of it. Exercise is as simple as setting goals and working to reach them, then setting new ones. There is so much information out there already on diet and fitness that I won’t go into specific techniques, just have realistic expectations and work to meet them. Doing anything is better than doing nothing, so do as much of anything as you can, as often as you can.
I know I’m not the only instructor to take fitness seriously and speak about it in courses; Steve Aryan of Grey Fox Industries, Matt Powell of Pramek, Paul Van Dunk of Pace Performance, Mike Seeklander of Shooting Performance and JJ Racaza are just a few of many peers who understand and address fitness as part of a rounded training and practice regimen. Nearly every instructor to ever transition from the military to the private side is pro-fitness in their training methods, and many from the law enforcement and citizen backgrounds are as well. If an instructor isn’t fitness oriented, I always question why and sometimes the answer is the same as it is for some students. If fitness isn’t part of an active course, if it isn’t addressed as a keystone to skill development, a huge ingredient is missing and it’s detrimental to the big picture. Fitness is part of firearms.
It’s time to take fitness seriously as students and instructors, to look forward to the gym or your Workout of the Day as much as you do some range time. Its time to train with instructors and friends who take fitness seriously. It’s well past time to get excited about fitness gains as much as you do about better par times or tighter groups. It’s time to treat fitness as you do firearms skill; a never ending movement towards mastery and perfection.