Dear Mark: Balancing Strength with Military Conditioning; Sitting in a Squat Position

For today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering two questions from readers. First comes from William, an officer in the Navy who likes lifting heavy but also needs to score well on the physical fitness assessment, which involves a 1.5 mile run, pushups, and pullups. His taste for basic 5×5 strength work has left his running performance lacking. What can he do to improve the run without eating into his strength numbers? After that, I explore whether sitting on a footstool or medicine mall in the squat position is better than just sitting in normal chair.

Let’s go:

Dear Mark,

I really enjoy your blog; you’ve exposed me to a lot of research and information that convinced me to switch to a primal eating style about 4 years ago. Thank you!

I’m a US Naval Officer, which means that I need to maintain a high level of physical fitness. I’m in good shape thanks to my diet and some experience weight lifting, but I’m not really satisfied with my exercise routine. I’ve been doing the Strong Lifts 5×5 system, which has made me stronger in all lifts (Squat, Bench Press, Deadlift, Overhead Press, Rows, Pull-ups and Dips), but I feel like the intensity of this lifting routine has decreased my ability to do the type of cardio I need to get an outstanding cardio score on my PFA (run time around 9:30 for 1.5 miles. I can still score in the 9s for 1.5 miles, but it’s not nearly as easy as it used to be…I think my worry is that I have a focused lifting routine that is fairly effective, but I’m not effectively training cardio.

So, I was hoping you might have a suggestion for a workout routine that includes more push-ups and pull-ups to improve my strength scores, as well as cardio to maximize my run times. Part of my concern is ensuring that I maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of my workouts so that I can maintain my strength (especially around a busy work schedule). I’m not looking to negate what I’ve gained by running too much, and I definitely want to avoid the perils of chronic cardio.

Thank you for your time and support!

All the best,


Great question, William.

I’d definitely recommend dropping the StrongLifts program. As you mention, it’s just such a nasty combination of intensity and volume. It’s great at making you strong, but it’s hard to improve other aspects of your fitness while you’re on it. There’s just not much left over at the end of the week.

If you’re interested in sticking with the basic heavy lifts, I’m a big fan of the 70’s Big Strength and Conditioning program (PDF). It’s got a few similarities to StrongLifts, namely the focus on the big lifts — squats, deadlifts, power cleans, overhead presses, pullups, dips, bench presses. But instead of 5 sets of 5 reps of each, 70’s Big prescribes 3 sets of 5 reps for squats and presses, 5 sets of 3 reps for the power clean, 1 set of 5 reps for deadlifts (since they’re so demanding if you go all out), and 3 sets of as many reps as possible for pullups and dips.

The format is different, too.

Mondays, you squat, press, and do pullups (or chinups, if you prefer).

Tuesdays are power cleans and dips, followed by a conditioning workout. Conditioning workouts in this program last between 6 and 10 minutes, consisting of brief but intense efforts. Think hills sprints, sled drags, any of the conditioning workouts posted on this blog. They could also be mile or 1.5 mile runs to prepare you.

Wednesdays are off days. Use these to work on skills (like practicing for a sport) and just have fun (play games, mess around on the slackline, gather pals for some Ultimate Frisbee, go for a hike, that kind of thing).

Thursdays are squats, bench press, and dips.

Fridays are deadlifts and pullups followed by conditioning.

Saturday and Sunday, just do something. Throw another conditioning workout, maybe work on your 1.5 mile time, play some more, hike again, garden — whatever. But don’t go too hard.

This plan is nice because it’s spread throughout the week, so no single day is awful. You’re not deadlifting and squatting and pressing on the same day. You’re not squatting three times a week. You don’t really dread your workouts, so you’re more likely to actually do them.

Another option is to focus on the stuff you need to improve and fit the “non-essential” lifts where and when you can. If you have access to pullup bars (or anything overhead that you can grab and use as a pullup bar) throughout the day, try the “grease the groove” method. That involves doing pullups as often as possible, using short sets and never going to failure, or even approaching it. You could do 50-75-100 pullups throughout the day in sets of 1-3 over the course of 12 hours, just kind of getting a few reps in when you can. They never feel “hard” and you’re not stressing your body much but you’re still accruing the work and getting stronger and more comfortable with the movements. This works for pullups, too; just use slightly higher rep counts but stay away from failure.

Twice a week, go for a run. Improve that 1.5 mile time.

Do something short and intense once a week. Maybe hill sprints or intervals on a bike. Tabata kettlebell swings.

Lift twice a week. Squats and bench press/dips (weighted if need be) one day, deadlifts and overhead press the next. You’ll always be doing pullups and pushups, remember, so there’s probably no need to focus on those. Don’t worry about the reduced volume. You’ll maintain your strength and even get stronger if you work hard enough.

Oh, and thanks for your service (and patronage).

Hi Mark,

I had a quick question for you. We’ve all heard about the dangers of sitting. Obviously learning to love the squat as a resting position is best, and I try to spend 10 minutes a day in a full squat. What I was wondering, however, is if it’s more beneficial to sit in a full squat position than to sit in our typical 90 degree chair or couch position? I often find myself using a medicine ball or a footstool to sit in a squat stance when I’m watching TV or doing work on my laptop. Is this actually any less harmful than just sitting in a chair, or am I simply deluding myself? Your thoughts are greatly appreciated. Thanks for all you do!



I suspect it’s not much better, but let’s go through the various issues with sitting and see if your full squat method counteracts them. That will give us a better idea than just relying on a hunch.

In a normal chair, your back rests against the back rest; your trunk musculature (the “core”) does absolutely no work. If the “full squat chair” you’re using is a stool or medicine ball without a back rest, your trunk is doing some work. Better.

In a normal chair, the rest of your body weight is supported by the seat; your glutes and all the other supporting musculature are completely inactive. When squatting with your butt on a stool, your weight is still supported by the stool, not your muscles. Just as bad.

Energy expenditure drops when you sit in a chair, mostly because your body is at complete and utter rest. If you’re sitting in a much lower chair, you’re still not doing much, except for the modicum of work your trunk muscles perform to keep you upright. A little better (but not really).

Sitting depresses the activity of muscle lipoprotein lipase, an enzyme necessary for proper regulation of fat metabolism, triglyceride formation, and entry of fatty acids into adipose tissue (PDF). This is caused by muscle inactivity, so your full-supported deep squat stool sit won’t be any better. Just as bad.

Sitting in a normal chair is basically like sitting in a parallel squat position, with a shortened and progressively tighter hip. Sitting in a shorter chair that makes you sit in a deep squat position probably isn’t much better. And since it places your hip in deep — yet passive — flexion, you might end up with even tighter hip flexors than you would sitting in a normal chair. Just as bad and possibly worse.

I don’t know, to be honest, and you can certainly try, but I don’t think it will be much better. The backlessness of the ball or footstool is helpful, though. Just try to find something that lets your knees lie below your hips, like a backless bar stool or the Locus Seat from Focal Upright (which I use and love).

Good luck and tell me how it goes.

Thanks for reading, everyone. If anyone else out there has additional input for today’s questions, by all means toss it in down below!

Have a great week.

TAGS:  dear mark

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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14 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Balancing Strength with Military Conditioning; Sitting in a Squat Position”

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  1. I keep trying to use a squat as I vary my position throughout the day but after a minute or so I have to pee, even if I’ve just gone. Any thoughts?

    Female, 44, still fat, nulliparous & perimenopausal.

      1. Kegels won’t help this & could be harmful. Look at the WholeWoman website for insight on proper posture. Also, NPR just did a piece on 6/8/15 on posture & spines: ours are missing the J curve.

        Good luck!

    1. Karen,

      You might find your answer with Katy Bowman, biomechanist and author of the recent Move Your DNA and several other books based on body alignment. Move Your DNA includes a chapter about the pelvis and squatting. Katy’s website is katysays (dot) com.


  2. sitting without lumbar support is horrible and sitting for an extended time on a swiss ball is very damaging. Try it. You cannot maintain proper lumbar curvature for more than a few mins without proper lumbar SUPPORT. You will start hunching over in no time. Get a chair that provides proper support OR BETTER yET GET A STANDING DESK.

    Greasing the groove as Mark described is a ok way. However, it has done nothing to improve my personal bests in pushups. What has? Using a weighted vest!!!

    Per pullups: best thing by far has been car pulls. Attach a heavy rope to a car and pull the car towards you while sitting. Nothing, in my opinion, is better for improving pullups.

  3. Regarding the military conditioning, you may want to check out — they have plans specifically for what you are looking for.

  4. MDA is always surprisingly topical. Working on my laptop in a full squat was something I was wondering about after reading the NPR article on posture from yesterday’s links.

    1. Not if they aren’t working the same muscle groups or the second day is light compared to the previous.

  5. Air Force officer here. I also have to run the 1.5 mi, 1 min timed pushups and situps every year. I have a typical workout program that involves one gym session a week of heavy lifting. And a second weekly workout of some sort of HIT, usually involving sprints. Then once every couple weeks I will run a 2-3 mile run, at a very fast pace, or as fast as I can push myself. In regard to the PT test, one month out, I start to run the 1.5 mile. Usually I can run a 9:50 to 10:00 right off the bat. Then I go to work from there, running the 1.5 at least twice a week, pushing myself everytime. I usually cut off 5-10 seconds every time. When the PT test roles around I’m comfortable running a 9:20 or less. Then I can usually count on an extra 5-10 seconds off that when I “compete” in my mind with the other runners. Too easy, and I don’t have to change the way I want to work out by running throughout the year. They key is to push yourself every time you run that mile and a half in the last month. Also, you can do the same with pushups and situps until you get to where you want to be. I make sure I can get 70 of each in a minute. But because I strength train throughout the year, I never have to spend much time with those. Ultimately, there is no need to come up with some specialized plan for the military pt test, assuming you already workout. Essentially just DO the test about a month out and cut off time and add reps.

  6. With regards to your response to Wiliam, years ago I went to school at the University of Oregon. We had a track coach named bill Bowerman [olympic and Nike fame] who was a big proponent of off days. His contention was that your body best retains conditioning as it recovers and if you hinder your recovery from heavy workouts by not allowing yourself to have them then you compromise the benefits you want out of those workouts. Your schedule of activities with Wednesdays off and slow weekends was great!

  7. I found that training for a one legged squat (pistol) helped improve my squatting overall and aided my mobility 🙂

  8. A former Navy officer here. The Navy PRT involves pushups, situps (or curlups), and a 1.5 mile run. Pullups don’t need to be part of the training, but they sure wouldn’t hurt. Mark’s suggestions seem right on. I like to do a “long” run (1.5-2.0 miles) so I can gauge my time, then on another day do sprint intervals to improve my pace and speed. The worst part are those situps/curlups…they hurt my back in volume. But do pair them in with the pushup workout you do, whether it’s steady sets, pyramids, set(s) to failure, or a combination thereof.

    Of course, I was NEVER as fast as a 9:30 1.5 mile, so you may not want to listen to me.

  9. Thank you to everyone for the helpful comments and Mark for responding to my question! All your help is greatly appreciated.