COVID-19 : The no gym workout and Afghanistan

March 27, 2020 7:20 pm Published by

As everyone is aware, society operates much differently today than it did just 2-3 weeks ago. My fitness coaches and I have maintained contact with many clients as we navigate through what they are telling us is a global crisis, waiting for some resolution to this problem. The consensus I am getting from at least a few clients is that they are losing the ability to focus, they are stressed out, they are worried and they are anxious about just about everything. Controlling one’s thoughts and focusing the mind is a huge challenge. That’s why many people give up too quickly and continue to be unhappy. This situation reminds me of when I was in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division many years ago. The reality is that being stationed overseas in a remote location feels like a lockdown because it is a lockdown. It feels like a super-charged quarantine, and with that can bring a drop in morale, motivation and mood.

We arrived in Afghanistan the first week in January of 2003. It was a shock to my routine, body, culture, time zone and everything that was familiar to me coupled with daily thoughts of uncertainty. Before long, I realized that without focus, the entire deck of cards would fall. It was important for me to stay attentive so I could remain combat effective, and the best version of myself.

After a brief stays in Kandahar, Khost and Bagram we were sent to at a remote firebase – Firebase Shkin.  I remember my team leader, Specialist Smith coming over to me saying “Dude, have your fucken shit squared away and be ready, we’re going to Shkin.” A top commander in theater at the time, labeled it as the “Most Evil Place” in Afghanistan – located in the Paktika province. We were right on the border in the middle of a major infiltration route for the Taliban entering from Pakistan. Our living quarters were made out of mud. We had no running water, minimal electricity, no chow hall besides a small room, and certainly no creature comforts. It was stressful knowing that our base was always under mortar attacks and that we would engage in endless missions thousands of miles away from our families with little, if any sleep, zero freedoms and no where to go.  About 50-60 soldiers were stationed at Firebase Shkin which was about the same size as half a football field. There were no stores to go to, no movies to see, no sporting events to attend, no weddings, parties or vacations. ARMY MODE was on 24/7. It took some adjustments to adapt to the “new” lifestyle at Shkin, but we had to act quickly to regain our focus.

I was blessed to be assigned to 3rd platoon Bravo Company 3/504 where I was surrounded by the bravest, most loyal, well-intended soldiers the army had to offer in what I would consider a controversial system. I could, and would love to write an entire blog about each and every member of my platoon (nicknamed the Slayers) that I served with in Afghanistan. Myself and two other soldiers, namely, Specialist Eddie Camacho from the Bronx, New York and Private Jerod Dennis, from Antlers, Oklahoma decided we would come up with an exercise routine to keep us grounded, sane, and focused.  Camacho was a stellar soldier, platoon favorite, made everyone laugh, referred to himself as “The Cho” and carried with him the New York “Smugness.”  Dennis was one of the youngest guys in the platoon.  Another great soldier and great kid that had a lot of passion for joining the Army and always spoke very highly of his family, his mom and his grandmother.  When we arrived, there was no gym with fancy equipment, no treadmills, bikes, pools etc.. unlike some of the bigger bases that housed more soldiers such as Kandahar and Bagram.  It would have been easy to simply pass on fitness training and exercise, however, the three of us decided to take action, be creative, and build a gym with what we had, in addition to engaging in some equipment-free exercise.

We used rocks, metal pails, rope, ammo cans, pipes, and sandbags. We used a pail filled with rocks and attached it to a rope for a pulley system. We used metal pipes for pullup bars, knee tucks, chest dips etc… We also tried using pipes with rock-filled pails on each end for bench exercises.  Not all of our ideas worked but we made something out of what we had. I joked with Camacho and Dennis and told them I felt like we were Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble while working out with our improvised exercise equipment. It was quite the set-up. To no-one’s surprise, Camacho was getting cocky about his visual strength gains, and Dennis was excited about his progress too.

Working out motivated us, gave us a heightened sense of well-being, helped us stay focused and gave us a daily shot of much-needed endorphins which helped us carry out missions sent down to our platoon from higher up leadership. The gym was our savior. Being locked down at a firebase would be easier if we had our Flintstones gym as our outlet. Other morale boosters commonly seen around Firebase Shkin came by way of cigarettes, chewing tobacco, adult magazines, video games, poker games and packaged snacks mailed from home.

On April 25, 2003, Dennis, along with Airman First Class Ray Losano were killed during a firefight with the Taliban, while five other soldiers were wounded.  I couldn’t be more proud of Dennis, Losano and everyone out there on the hill that day. We fought hard, we fought well.  With heavy hearts, we missed our boys, but the very next day Camacho and I continued our workout routine that we had done the previous day with Dennis, and our platoon as a whole remained relentless with our missions that followed.  The purpose of our exercise workouts remained the same, even when morale was much lower after losing our brothers. We knew we needed it more than ever after April 25th.

So fast forward 17 years later.  The feedback I am getting from some people with their thoughts and emotions parallel what Dennis, Camacho and I experienced in Afghanistan. The purpose of this article is not to share war stories or tell you my personal political views on the war, but to tell you that although we are in a stressful time with a lot of uncertainty, REGULAR EXERCISE WILL HELP.  In fact, Dennis’ mother Jane later wrote me an email saying : “I’ll never forget one of the very last conversations I had with Jerod he said to me, “Mom, I can’t wait for you to see how buff I’m getting!” He was so proud!” Exercise isn’t just for gaining strength, burning calories, or looking sexy (think of those as added bonuses). There is much more to exercise – and in particular, it gives you a great sense of physical, mental, and emotional well-being. I understand things are crazy now but don’t stop exercising, as it is a guarantee that you will feel better versus just sitting around hoping things change. I had a few clients text me to tell me how much better they have felt after taking a few days off:

No Equipment? No Problem

I don’t expect anyone to gather and create rudimentary fitness equipment such as the Flintstone tools that Camacho, Dennis, and I created in 2003. No equipment is deemed necessary to maintain your fitness. While many clients have equipment and we can design programs around what is available to them, we can also create programs for clients that DO NOT HAVE EQUIPMENT and are struggling with finding ways to exercise. To simplify, Essential Movements include four of the most simple and effective exercises that one can engage in: pushups, pull-ups, squats, and planks. These four exercises can be performed virtually anywhere with no equipment, no trainer required, with little risk of injury. I have outlined a sample program that anyone can follow in-home. If you aren’t doing anything or haven’t in the last few days, you’d benefit greatly from engaging in the workout routine below.


1. PUSHUPS (Regular = 5 to 50+ reps) (Modified = 5-15 reps)
a. Regular Pushups – WATCH DEMO CLICK HERE

b. Modified Pushups –  WATCH DEMO CLICK HERE

2. PULL-UPS (20 reps slow) Pull-up variation shown in the video

3. SQUATS (10-25 reps)/Weights not required

4. PLANK (30-120 seconds)

DEPENDING ON YOUR INDIVIDUAL FITNESS LEVEL, YOU SHOULD AIM TO DO THE ABOVE ROUTINE ANYWHERE FROM 1 TO 8 TIMES. In addition to these in-home exercises, I suggest running or walking to fill in the other days of the week. For example, your weekly schedule may look something like this:

As I learned in the Army, be prepared for anything. If this situation gets better, great, be ready to get back to normalcy and readjust. If this situation gets worse, be ready to adapt to whatever is next. The worst thing you can do is to become fearful, and shut down your thoughts, feelings, emotions, motivation and interests. Nothing good comes out of that.

Dan Tatro-M.S.-CSCS

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