Airborne for Old Guys

How older soldiers can complete airborne course
U.S Marines prepare to static-line jump out of a KC-130J Hercules during a parachute operation over Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Dec. 10, 2020. (Lance Cpl. Drake Nickels/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Here is a great information piece from an Army soldier who completed the U.S. Army Basic Airborne Course (BAC) at age 42. He always has been a great runner but needed to focus on the PT for the arms and legs to prepare for the landings and regular PT.

Phil Lowry is a JAG officer with the Utah National Guard. Here is his story of how to survive BAC during your late 30s and early 40s:

Airborne School poses particular challenges for soldiers over 35 (which is the normal age cutoff for airborne students). Those challenges come in two forms: (1) the PT test, and (2) the accumulating burdens of falling down a lot.

The PT test is very handily addressed in Stew's preparation book for the Airborne School. Pay particular attention to the timed drills, because as we age, our ability to make explosive movement decreases. Timed drills allow you to retain the muscle memory required to do 42 push-ups and 53 sit-ups efficiently in under two minutes (hopefully in less than 90 seconds).

Remember that the PT test is done in washed river gravel, about the size of almonds. That means that the push-ups will be done on a plank, a strange feeling. The plank may not be wide enough for those of you who prefer a wide stance. It wasn't wide enough for me (I like about 27 inches of space between the inside of my hands). Be sure to be able to pass the push-ups comfortably at about a 25-inch stance. I found the sit-ups to be easier in the gravel. Wiggle yourself into a depression before you begin so you are comfortable.

As for the falling down -- there is a reason that there are not many football players older than 40. You will fall in a variety of ways in airborne school. First, during ground week in the 34-foot tower, you will fall in a harness onto a zip line at least six times -- if you master your exit. One guy in my stick went out the 34-foot tower 22 times. That takes a toll on the pinch points around legs, crotch and chest. It also taxes your neck to fall while tucking your chin in an Army combat helmet.

You will fall a lot more when learning parachute landing falls. Young guys tend to "get" PLFs quickly. Older guys can master it quickly, also, especially natural athletes. But if you are not very coordinated or have to "unlearn" a technique (a martial arts forward roll, or a combat roll learned in combatives), you will fall off the lateral drift apparatus a lot. It does not really hurt at any given time, but it slowly bruises you all over.

It also can be very hard on your neck, because you have to keep your chin tucked during your landings. A lot of bells get rung. Also, while in the PLF pit, the only way you can travel is by bunny-hopping with your feet and knees together. Sounds easy -- until you do it for four hours.

During tower week, you will fall even more in the swing-line trainer. Because it is harder to master and is more realistic, the SLT tends to hurt more than the lateral drift apparatus. Mass exits in the 34-foot tower are comparatively easy, but come on the last day when you are beat. The two different harness training exercises are easier but give you that wonderful "pinching" feeling again.

Learn more about Army Airborne PFT.

And, of course, there is jump week, where you put it all together, along with five half- to one-mile hikes at double time across a very soft drop zone that is as hard to run in as a newly plowed field. The manner of carrying the parachute, especially when hucking a combat load, puts a lot of stress on your already sore neck.

How does an oldster get ready for this? Some practical exercises:

1. Increase your endurance sets for your upper body and try to use methods that engage large and small muscle groups in power and stabilizing moves. Dumbbells are better than barbells; calisthenics are really good.

2. Focus on pull-ups. You need them to pull on your risers. But make sure that not only your lats are strong, but also your hands and your forearms. Rock climbers do drills for this; you should, too. Old guys tend to pull muscles in these areas more easily (I did), and it takes us longer to heal if we do.

3. Focus on your neck. There are a variety of techniques and exercises that can help with neck strength and endurance. The PLF strains your neck (better your neck than your head). Even the youngest students complain about their necks at the end of ground week. It\'s worse when you're older. Also, get used to your Army combat helmet before you go to airborne. You will have it on whenever you train. It is a good idea to run or ruck with your ACH on as an endurance exercise. This will help your neck.

4. Run in boots. You will be doing so at airborne. Get used to it. High-tech boots (EXOSpeeds, etc.) are authorized at airborne.

5. Do more running than you need for the Army physical fitness test (APFT). You should do at least half as much running as recommended by the training guide.

6. Endurance is more important than mass or strength, in all areas. Muscles with high endurance are highly vascularized, and so they heal quickly and are less likely to be injured in the first place. Airborne training does not require explosive strength. It requires efficient repetitive taxing motion, with the ability to absorb repetitive mild trauma.

7. The PT at airborne is easy. Don't worry about it. Focus on the APFT and preparing for the actual training. That way, when you do PT, you won't worry about aggravating a training injury.

8. Be ready for having to perform even if hurt. Cope and compensate as you can. All of us oldsters had to suck it up, most of us more than once. I jumped three times on a badly bruised knee; a 43-year-old master sergeant jumped three times on a mildly sprained, but very painful, ankle.

The upside to being older at airborne is that you likely will deal better with the mental stress that your physical ailments and the training environment place upon you.

"Remember, there is a difference between being hurt and being injured. You are all hurt; you are about to jump out of a plane for the fifth time. None of you are injured. Injured means you are in the hospital," stated the first sergeant, Charlie Company, 1/507 PIR, BAC.

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. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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