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Spec Ops: Who's Toughest?

by Stew Smith

A future Special Ops Soldier asks:

"I am not sure which branch of service I would like to join, but I do know I want to do something in the Special Ops. Which one is the toughest and best trained?"

This is the question I normally do not answer as the only people, in my opinion, who can answer which training programs are the best or toughest are those who have done them all. We all have opinions on which are the hardest and they are usually the ones we selected so any answer you get is going to be biased.

Now, I know a few guys who have done SEALs, Rangers, and Army Special Forces and some who have done USMC RECON, SEALs, and Army SF. These guys all say the same thing; they are all a bit different and equally as challenging as the other. Each Special Ops unit (Army SF, Air Force PJ, Navy SEALs, USMC RECON) focus on different missions, though they can jointly work together. Besides, we are all on the same team in the end. There have been many times in conflict that each of these units saved each others skins by assisting to wipe out an overwhelming opposing force. 

So my answer to that question is "Do them all if you want to know which is the toughest or best trained - otherwise pick one that best suits your strengths and interests."  

Physically, the training programs are all tough and build mental toughness through testing the limits of the students through a variety of methods.  This is where you need to look and find out which one you want to do that suits your likes / desires:

Muscle Exhaustion

Each of these training programs will max you out physically in every exercise you attempt from pull-ups, pushups, situps, etc...Personally, this is the key to mental toughness as you can become tougher by working out harder to get the body an increased ability to build its pain tolerances without getting yourself injured. That is why many former athletes do well if they understand what it means to "play with pain."

Lack of Sleep / Mental Exhaustion

Each of the training programs also have long days and longer nights which amount to little or no sleep for long periods of time.  This alone, physically and mentally, is demanding and does not allow your body to heal and rest properly after extreme physical exertion. So you are going strictly on "iron will" to make it through the day, especially after months of this training, when over-training syndrome starts to attack the body.

Miles of Running, Swimming, or Rucking Daily

Depending on the training you select, you will be doing miles of something - which is challenging for many hours of your days and nights. The only way to prepare for these types of training is to do them for hours prior to attending the courses.  In the Army world, you will spend most of your days and night walking with back packs.  In the Navy, you will do that too, BUT the training will require miles of swimming to succeed as well.  THE USMC RECON side is a good mix of the two - lots of swimming and rucking.  Of course, regular running is required for miles and miles for all units.

Miserable Water and Air Temperatures

No matter which school you select, you will be subject to cold, wet, damp, dirty environments as well as hot, humid, dry locations including high altitudes and jungles. Physiologically, these training locales wreak havoc on your body and decrease performance, but most of all it builds the "iron will" to never quit no matter what Mother Nature throws at you. 

Minimal Food Eaten Daily

Some training programs (Army Rangers) add another area to challenge the will to keep moving - one meal a day or less.  There will be days in training and especially "real life" where you do not have time to eat, but you still have to keep moving and shooting. This challenges the body to conserve energy during long days and nights and teaches the soldier to eat well (for energy) when given the opportunity. 

So as you can see, each branch offers a Special Operations unit full of special people who work hard, train hard, and are some of the toughest fighters on the planet.  Regardless which unit you select to be a part of, you cannot go wrong as you will be joining an elite group of fighters who proudly fight for the Red, White and Blue.  In the end, we all are on the same team!

More related articles at the Spec Ops Column on the Sitemap

                                                                Surviving BUD/S

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. If you are interested in starting a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle - check out the Fitness eBook store and the Stew Smith article archive at To contact Stew with your comments and questions, e-mail him at

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Published Books / DVDs
Complete Guide to Navy SEAL Fitness (Book / DVD)

The Complete List of Stew Smith's eBooks:

Fitness for All Levels of Fitness

The 90 Day Beginner Guide to Fitness
The Advanced Maintenance and Recovery Program

Reclaim Your Life - The Erin O'Neill Program

Veteran's Fitness - Baby Boomer and a Flat Stomach

The Busy Executive Workout Routine
The Advanced Weights / PT Workout (Fall / Winter Weight Gain Cycle)
The Perfect Pushup Workout

The TRX Workout
- Circuit Training 101 ebook

NEW Obstacle Course Race Ebook

The Special Forces Physical Fitness Workouts
 Combat Conditioning Workout

Navy SEAL Workout Phase 1  Beginner Weeks 1-9
Navy SEAL Workout Phase 2 - 3 - Intermediate Weeks 1-12
Navy SEAL Workout Phase 4  Grinder PT -  Four weeks before Hell Week

Navy SWCC Workout

The Army Special Forces / Ranger Workout 

The Army Air Assault School Workout

The Army Airborne Workout

The OCS, ROTC, Service Academy, & Bootcamp Workouts

New - Army PRT and CRT
Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard OCS Workout

The USMC IST and PFT Workout
USMC OCS / TBS Workout
The Service Academy Workout (West Point, Navy, Air Force Academy)
The Navy, Air Force, Marine Corp Bootcamp Workout

The Army OCS and PFT Workout
The PFT Bible - Military / Police Standard PFT


The Law Enforcement Physical Fitness Test Workouts

The FBI Academy / PFT Prep Workout

The DEA Prep Workout

The FLETC Prep Workout - Ace the PEB

The State / Local Police Academy Workout

The Fire Fighter Workout

Seal Multi Men's Multi-Vitamin Multi-Mineral

Surviving BUD/S

TRX Train Like the Pros


Some Titles Above available in Print Softcover Format