Ranger School is one of the most demanding courses the U.S. Army has to offer — it’s a rite of passage for Army Rangers as they progress in their careers, and it’s a proving ground for other soldiers from other units. The school is divided up into three phases: Darby, Mountains, and Florida, located in Fort Benning, Dahlonega, and Florida respectively.
Earning the coveted Ranger Tab involves an intimate understanding of small unit tactics and mission planning. At its very core, it’s a leadership school — every student is stripped of their rank and they take turns being graded in various leadership positions. However, when people think about Ranger School they typically think about its physical intensity.
Graduates will recall the dozens of pounds lost, the extreme sleep deprivation and following hallucinations, or the countless injuries they felt compelled to endure. Ranger School pushes you physically, there is no doubt about that. But how do you prepare for something that diminishes your body in such a unique way?
Fitness, fitness, and more fitness
There is something to be said about simple military fitness. The standards are right in front of you, and the more you can crush those, the more successful you will be. That is not to praise the military’s fitness programs in any way, it’s just to point out that there are standards (expectations) and the first step is to meet them. There are a lot of complex fitness programs out there that are great for their stated objectives — to lose weight, to gain muscle, to run an endurance race — but the objectives aren’t Ranger School, nor do they claim to be.
If nothing else, find the latest standards for entry, and crush them. That means pushups, sit-ups, pull-ups, and a solid run. It means being able to ruck march in the allotted time. It means finding the current Army Ranger PFT (as standards shift and change over the years) and passing it. That is always the first step.
If you can pass these standards, you can probably fudge your way through Ranger School. However, in order to excel in school you need to obliterate these standards, just as you need to obliterate every other piece you train for. Rarely, if ever, will you feel at 100% during the course, even on day one. The stars just don’t tend to align that way — if you can smoke the standards on the worst day you’ve had in the last two months, then you’ll probably feel pretty good all the way through Ranger School. Your goal should be to “max” the PT test (exceed the maximum score).
Forget about building muscles and sculpting a Greek God body prior to school — it won’t last anyway. When I went to school, I started at 175 lbs and finished at around 150 lbs. A friend of mine was a beefy football player at the beginning, and when he graduated he was little more than skin and bones — his mother saw him and immediately cried (though they quickly turned to happy tears, as he was ultimately just fine). At the end of the day, you have to be able to move long distances with heavy weight on your back, over and over and over again.
Ranger School’s obstacles
Once the Ranger School PT standards feel like a breeze and you feel like you can walk forever with 60-70 lbs strapped to your back, the next step is to practice those small unit tactics — to master the battle drills you’ll be rolling through in Ranger School a million times over. Not only will this help you pass graded exercises, but it will get your body ready for the beating it’s about to take. Flipping tractor tires or doing a hundred consecutive pull-ups will only help you, don’t get me wrong, but you need to be able to bound through enemy contact. You need to be able to lead a flanking element through the woods or to effectively flee from the kill zone of an artillery barrage quickly while retaining accountability for your men, weapons, and equipment. There is a type of fitness to battle drills that can only be practiced in training them.
Note: Training these drills won’t make you an expert in Ranger School tactics, you still need to keep an open ear and mind to what the instructors want to see. Practice beforehand and enter with a willingness to learn or tweak what you know.
Of course, the Darby Queen is the infamous obstacle course in Ranger School (not to mention the Malvesti Confidence Course). In order to destroy the Darby Queen, you have to have endurance (which we’ve already established), but you also need a ninja-like fitness gained by simply doing other obstacle courses. Military installations usually have plenty of these — do them a million times. Do them in PTs, do them in full kit, do them when you’re tired, and do them when you’re at your peak. If one particular obstacle is tripping you up, practice that particular one a thousand times until it’s the easiest one on the course. If you’re interested to know what’s on the Darby Queen, you can follow it here.
The standards for swimming in Ranger School aren’t particularly high, but they do exist. You have to be able to swim a short distance with gear on, and if you fail then you will be dropped. However, this isn’t BUD/S; you don’t have to be a fish.
Keep a straight mind
There is one advantage that more seasoned service members typically have as they enter Ranger School. If they have been through a deployment or two, have a selection course under their belt, or have another difficult school like SERE behind them, then they have personal experience in keeping their minds fresh while their body feels like it’s disintegrating. This is of utmost importance in Ranger School, when you’re trying to lead other tired soldiers through complex raids or movements — it’s necessary to keep a clear head with an understanding of what’s going on around you while you’re completely exhausted.
This isn’t a hard-fast rule, and you might be surprised at who excels and who suffers the most. Still, it’s almost always true that prior experience will do nothing but help.
But you don’t need the military to become acquainted with hardship. While I would hesitate to compare Ranger School to any endurance race out there, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that a veteran of endurance races would be quite prepared for the physical part of Ranger School.
There is a ton of preparation that anyone headed to Ranger School ought to consider — studying the mechanics of battle drills, to understanding Op Orders, to intimately knowing the weapon systems presented to you. Physical fitness is just one dynamic, but it is a crucial one.
This article was originally published in July 2020.