Spec Ops: Who's Toughest?

A Special Tactics airman pushes a weighted sled.
A Special Tactics airman assigned to the 26th Special Tactics Squadron pushes a weighted sled during the Staff Sgt. Dylan Elchin memorial workout at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., Nov. 23, 2020. (Airman 1st Class Drew Cyburt/U.S. Air Force photo)

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 Operations. Which one is the toughest and best trained?"

This is the question I normally do not answer, as the only people who can answer which training programs are the best or toughest as 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 prejudiced. 

I know a few guys who have done SEALs, Rangers and Army Special Forces and some who have done USMC RECON, SEALs and Army Special Forces. These guys 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) focuses on different missions, though they can work together jointly. Besides, we are all on the same team in the end. There have been many times in conflict that each of these units saved the 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, including: 

Muscle exhaustion

Each of these training programs will max you out physically in every exercise you attempt. This is the key to mental toughness. 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 training program also has long days and longer nights, which amount to little or no sleep for long periods of time. This 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 overtraining 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 that is challenging for hours. The only way to prepare for this type of training is to do them for hours before attending the courses.

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 once again builds the iron will never to quit, no matter what Mother Nature throws at you. 

Learn More About Special Operations Forces

Minimal food 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," when you do not have time to eat, but you still have to keep moving and shooting. This challenges the body to conserve energy through long days and nights and teaches the soldier to eat well 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.

Find Available Special Operations Opportunities

More articles:

Army Special Operations

Navy Special Operations

Air Force Special Operations

Marine Corps Special Operations

All Special Operations Articles

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 stew@stewsmith.com.

Want to Learn More About Military Life?

Whether you're thinking of joining the military, looking for fitness and basic training tips, or keeping up with military life and benefits, Military.com has you covered. Subscribe to Military.com to have military news, updates and resources delivered directly to your inbox.

Story Continues