I’ve got a confession. I’ve got a bit of a man-crush on The Memorial Day Murph Challenge. I’m known to be a bit of a glutton for punishment. However, I think the bigger reason for looking forward to this challenge each year is that I get to connect to a greater community of individuals honoring and supporting fallen heroes, all while testing my own general fitness levels through one of the most notoriously tough Crossfit WOD’s around.
As I talk with friends around the country about goals, the topic of training plans always comes up. Over a couple years, I’ve been able to develop a Murph training plan that seems to work well for myself and the others who have tried it:
The key with Murph Challenge training is to recognize that the Murph Challenge is an endurance event disguised as a strength event. This is the mistake most people make – believing that it’s all about improving strength on weighted calisthenics. While this certainly plays a part, I believe that getting ready for the Murph is really more about developing our ability to pace ourselves and keep going while extremely tired.
What is the Murph Challenge?
Before we discuss what the Murph Challenge is, we need to discuss the Murph workout itself. What is it, and where did it come from?
Murph is a Crossfit Hero WOD that was originally posted by Crossfit on August 15, 2005. Crossfit Hero WODs are workouts designed to honor fallen heroes in the military and first responder communities around the world. In this case, it was the favorite workout of Lt. Michael Murphy, a Navy SEAL who was killed in Afghanistan on June 28, 2005.
Lt. Murphy nicknamed his workout “Body Armor”, because he was known to complete the workout while wearing his body armor. This, of course, is the source of the 20 lb vest requirement in the Rx version of the Murph Hero WOD. Despite the fact that Hero WODs in general are notorious for being tests of mental and physical fortitude, the Murph workout is notorious for being one of the toughest.
This workout is completed every year on Memorial Day by military, first responder, and Crossfitters around the world. Lucky for us, anyone can do it! We’ve just got to be ready!
How to do the Murph workout
The Murph workout, according to Thursday, 050818 on Crossfit.com, is done as follows:
- Run a mile
- 100 pull-ups
- 200 push-ups
- 300 squats
- Run a mile
While wearing a 20lb weight vest.
Note: if you’re looking for a vest to purchase for your training, check out some thoughts on my personal favorite weight vest here.
Though there are multiple ways to do this workout, the calisthenics are generally done in as many sets as it takes. This means that you could do 10 pull-ups, jump off the bar, do 25 pushups, get up and do 30 weighted vest squats, walk back to the pull-up bar, etc. More commonly, participants are known to develop a strategy prior to the session. The two most common methods I’ve seen are:
Method 1: 20 rounds of 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups, and 15 air squats.
Method 2: 25 rounds of 4 pull-ups, 8 push-ups, and 12 air squats.
If you’re a total stud, you could go for 10 rounds of 10 pull-ups, 20 push-ups, and 30 air squats.
There are also other creative ways that individuals have split up the workout (see our guide on Murph partitioning options here), and some people even do Murph without pull-ups, if they haven’t yet built up the requisite upper body strength. However, it’s important to develop a strategy (more on this during Phase 2 of the training plan below). But first, we need to talk about what Murph is, and what it is not.
The Murph Challenge is an Endurance Event!
The Murph workout includes a whopping 600 reps of calisthenics sandwiched between two one-mile runs in a weighted vest. What this means is that Murph is really an endurance workout disguised as a strength workout.
Here’s where people seem to make the biggest mistake:
People see the 100 pull-up requirement and train for Murph as if they are training for strength. They do weighted pull-ups, curls, bench press, weighted pushups, etc. While this is not a bad way to train, in my experience, it’s not a great way to train for endurance.
In endurance training, we train to improve our ability to keep going. That is to say, Murph got a lot easier for me once I realized that Murph has a lot more in common with a triathlon than with a powerlifting meet. As proof, take a look at Murph world-record holder Hunter McIntyre’s video on how to train for Murph.
Note that McIntyre mentions endurance as the base of his pyramid and recommends developing an aerobic base capable of sustaining 30-60 minutes of hard work with no breaks.
Take the pull-ups for example. Will your pull-ups go up as a result of the training? Almost certainly. But it’s not the goal. The goal is to train to complete 20-25 sets of pull-ups in rapid succession with little rest, while out of breath. The same goes for the push-ups and squats.
This way of thinking is the core of this program:
Murph Training Program
The following plan is a two-part plan: the first part is simply a method of improving strength endurance on calisthenic exercises, while the second is a more specific training plan for the event itself. If you struggle with pull-ups or pushups, I would recommend spending more time in the first phase (perhaps 8 weeks), leaving 4-5 weeks for the second phase. If you’re already comfortable doing lots of pull-ups / push-ups, take only a few weeks to re-adapt to doing lots of calisthenics.
Note that during this entire training plan, I still recommend running 20-40 minutes, three times per week.
Phase 1 – Build Strength-Endurance
If you’re not accustomed to doing multiple sets of pull-ups, push-ups, and squats, then you’re going to have a tough time with this challenge. Though it’s perfectly acceptable to utilize a stand-alone program, such as the Armstrong pull-up program, for this phase, below I’ll outline the method I prefer:
This is the method I use for myself when I’m starting to work up to Murph training:
Test your max pull-ups, max pushups, and max squats in 2:00 (with the vest, if you plan to use one). Divide the number by three. These three numbers will be your “work set” numbers.
For the next two weeks, complete four “work sets” of each exercise with 60-90 seconds rest between them, 3-4 days per week. Split them up however you want:
- Pushups in the morning, pull-ups after work, squats in the evening.
- Pushups / Pull-ups on M/W/F, squats + running on T/Th/S.
- One exercise before a normal training session, one after, and another during the day.
- Or, complete the three exercises as a circuit for four rounds (Note: this option leads to a nice, compact micro-workout that takes around 10-12 minutes to complete).
Every 2 weeks, re-test your maxes and start over. The purpose of this phase is to allow our bodies to adapt to the calisthenics so we’ll stop getting sore, while also driving up the number of reps we can do in a single set. I’ve given this plan to a number of people and it’s not uncommon to report 30-40% increases in the number of reps an individual can do over 6-8 weeks.
Optionally, as time allows, you may also throw in sessions of Cindy or Half Chelsea here and there to build strength-endurance. Don’t overdo it at this point, however, we’re just trying to improve our calisthenic strength-endurance.
Phase 2 – Putting it all together
Around 4-5 weeks out from Memorial Day, I will switch to a more circuit-style approach to training. Just like if we were peaking for an endurance event or a strength event, we know that 3-4 weeks out from an event, we’re not going to build much more fitness in that time. So what we really need to do is turn the fitness we’ve built into preparedness for the actual Murph Challenge:
Start doing quarter-Murphs, 2-3 days per week. Continue to run 20 minutes once or twice per week, as time allows, but focus more on practicing for the actual Murph event. Use the plan you’ve developed (for instance, if you’re planning to do 20 sets of “Cindy”, then a quarter Murph would be a .25 mile run, followed by 5 rounds of Cindy, followed by a .25 mile run). If that goes well, step it up to a third or half of Murph in the next session. Let the progress be easy and trust the process.
Focus on pacing during this phase. If you’re completely gassed after a half Murph one day, then you may need to evaluate your plan or go slower. This is the kind of thing we can only figure out by trying it.
Just like a good 10K racer knows how fast he can go so that he can sustain the pace for the entire run, you’ve got to know how fast you can go in Murph so you don’t completely gas out halfway through. If you do, you can expect the rest of the workout to be a miserable slog.
The week before the event
In the last week before the event, I tend to discontinue almost all training, or maybe complete a “quarter Murph” on Wednesday if I feel the desire to train. During this week, make sure to rest, walk, laugh, recover, and enjoy yourself.
If you’ve got any nagging aches or pains from the training, allow them to heal up. You’re not going to build extra fitness in the last week before the event, but it is possible to wreck yourself in the last week if you decide to go nuts. So … relax.
For a more complete primer on tips for the actual day of the event, see our full article on strategy and tips for Murph.
Also, don’t be shy if you need to modify the Murph Challenge in some way to suit your fitness level – that is totally okay and won’t change the sense of accomplishment you’ll feel.
Come Memorial Day, make sure to take some Instagram-worthy pictures and video, and don’t forget to have a good time!