A Champion Army Powerlifter Opens Up About What It Takes To Be ‘Army Strong’

Health & Fitness

Army 1st Lt. Max Pippa is, by definition, Army strong.


At the peak of his powerlifting career, he could bench press eight times the average infantry rifleman’s load (405 pounds x 2), front squat an underweight male grizzly bear (495 pounds), and deadlift the equivalent of the B61 nuclear bomb (700 lbs) that was once the backbone of the U.S. stockpile. He weighed 285 at the time, with guns on par with legendary bodybuilder and Arnold Schwarzenegger mentor Reg Park — and in December, he came second in the Under 90 kilograms class at the 2017 Official Strongman Games in Raleigh, North Carolina, where his feats of strength included deadlifting a Jeep Wrangler and hauling a 650-pound metal frame around the arena.

Pippa, now 27 (and 225 pounds) and currently assigned to the 1st Battalion (Airborne), 501st Infantry Regiment at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska, says being “strong” doesn’t actually make you Army strong, the type of strong you need to hump gear miles before kicking down doors. And although Pippa’s been powerlifting since he was 15, he only discovered the real definition of ‘Army strong’ when he joined the ROTC program at the University of Missouri.

Task & Purpose caught up with Pippa to chat about his workouts and the meaning of strength in the modern Army. Answers have been edited for brevity.

Army 1st Lt. Max Pippa at the Official Strongman Games in Raleigh, North Carolina in December 2017Max Pippa/Official Strongman Games

Task & Purpose: You mentioned that your powerlifting regime and Army PT were somewhat incompatible.

Pippa: When I joined the ROTC, I realized that I needed to take a break from powerlifting for PT simply because I was horrible at endurance. I had such an anaerobic bias towards short-duration, high-intensity workouts that the first time I did my two-mile I couldn’t do anything for about 10 minutes afterward. I was dead.

I knew I was going to have to lose some weight and come down from 230. And that meant, at least for a time, putting something I loved on the backburner.

You were coming from a powerlifting build and slimming down. What did you do to maintain that core strength?

It was very simple and basic movements: squatting, overhead pressing, deadlifting. These are all things that anyone who is a human being who wants to be able to do human being things better or more efficiently should do. Carrying anything, putting anything over your head, triple extension movements, jumping — all of that translates into real life.

Curling Hellfire missiles?

There are no secret training tricks, really. Everything is functional movements. I recommend focusing most of your energy on core movements. If you only have an hour a day to train, spend 50 minutes of that hour on something that matters: trap deadlift, squats, a compound movement. You’ll get more bang for your buck out of that … hell, you’ll get more out of five hard sets of squats than 10 to 12 sets on different leg machines.

How do you find the time to maintain while on active duty?

Here’s a trick for the average dude who wants to get more out of the gym: Spend 15-20 minutes the night before actually prepping your food the next day.

Food is honestly the biggest challenge with being active duty, and not because you’re getting not enough time to get a meal. You only need 2 cups of rice and 8 oz meat and vegetable, and that takes maybe 10 minutes to eat. Food prep and sleep are the two biggest things that people in the military botch the most. Even if you're stuck in the barracks with no kitchen, microwaveable packs of Uncle Ben’s rice and tuna with almonds are better than going 5 or 6 hours without eating.

U.S. Army 1st Lt. Max Pippa, an infantry officer with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion (Airborne), 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, U.S. Army Alaska, performs a dead lift at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Feb. 20, 2018.U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Curt Beach

Look, it’s about managing expectations. A lot of soldiers see their idols and the meals they post on Instagram and the shit they do in a magazine and they get disheartened about what they can and can’t do — they believe it’s not worth the struggle. Christ, there are fucking guys in prison eating nothing but Ramen and walking around built like a mountain.

For a service member to say they don't have time, well, they’re lying to themselves. It’s not sexy to eat tuna with a sriracha sauce every day, but if you have to do it, you have to do it.

Wait. How strong are you … really?

The most I’ve lifted on 2-inch axles [barbells] is 330 [pounds] from the ground to overhead.

Could you… could you punch a man’s heart so hard it explodes in his chest?

Like the “Kali-ma” dude? I wish.

Do you think civilians have an image of the uber-bulky, Arnold-Schwarzenegger-in Predator view of combat troops, still?

The Arnold … man, that's nobody I'd want on my fireteam or the platoon. Dude, if he goes down it would take that entire fireteam to carry that guy.

Each person brings something different to the table with their own physical talents —guys in my platoons or companies who are 160-pound dudes growing up on a farm and can ruck as hard as any of the big boys, and I've seen big guys who are huge pussies who crawl out after an hour or two. There is no body type that is the best — there is no super soldier.

Look at the top-tier units in the U.S. military: Most of those guys who are the biggest badasses… they look like normal dudes. There’s no way a dude who’s 250-260 with insane abs is going to be able to go the distance day and night with only an hour of sleep. He’s going to be too much of a debt.

Army 1st Lt. Max Pippa at the Official Strongman Games in Raleigh, North Carolina in December 2017Max Pippa/Official Strongman Games

I have a dumb question.

Finally.

If you could fight any historical figure, living or dead, who would it be?

In their prime? Or, like, FDR on his deathbed?

In their prime.

Kurt Russell as Jack Burton in “Big Trouble In Little China.”

He’s … not a historical figure.

He’s as historical a figure as there has ever been. Rewatch the first three minutes of that movie and you’ll rethink that statement.

Do you have one last piece of fitness advice?

Look at everything you’re doing and think about how you’re going to apply it to your end product, whether you’re an athlete or you’re thinking about your fireteam. Have a reason for what you’re doing. Do you really need to squat 500 pounds to be an effective soldier?

If you don’t have a reason for doing something, then it’s just fluff. And if you’re doing it just to be in the gym, then what the fuck is that doing for you?

WATCH NEXT:

Nothing says joint force battle management like a ride-sharing app. (Task & Purpose photo illustration)

The Air Force's top general says one of the designers of the ride-sharing app Uber is helping the branch build a new data-sharing network that the Air Force hopes will help service branches work together to detect and destroy targets.

The network, which the Air Force is calling the advanced battle management system (ABMS), would function a bit like the artificial intelligence construct Cortana from Halo, who identifies enemy ships and the nearest assets to destroy them at machine speed, so all the fleshy humans need to do is give a nod of approval before resuming their pipe-smoking.

Read More
The newly painted F-15 Eagle flagship, dubbed the Heritage Jet, was painted to honor 1st Lt. David Kingsley, the namesake for Kingsley Field, and his ultimate sacrifice. (U.S. Air National Guard/Senior Master Sgt. Jennifer Shirar)

An F-15C Eagle is sporting a badass World War II-era paint job in honor of a fallen bomber pilot who gave everything to ensure his men survived a deadly battle.

Read More
The wreckage of a U.S. Air Force E-11A Battlefield Airborne Communications Node aircraft is seen after a crash in Deh Yak district of Ghazni province, Afghanistan on January 27, 2020 (Reuters photo)

A U.S. E-11A Battlefield Airborne Communications Node aircraft crashed on Monday on Afghanistan, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein has confirmed.

Read More
In this June 7, 2009 file photo Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) points to a player behind him after making a basket in the closing seconds against the Orlando Magic in Game 2 of the NBA basketball finals in Los Angeles. Bryant, the 18-time NBA All-Star who won five championships and became one of the greatest basketball players of his generation during a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, died in a helicopter crash Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. He was 41. (Associated Press/Mark J. Terrill)

Beloved basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven other people were killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California on Sunday. Two days earlier, Army Spc. Antonio I. Moore was killed during a vehicle rollover accident while conducting route clearing operations in Syria.

Which one more deserves your grief and mourning? According to Maj. Gen. John R. Evans, commander of the U.S. Army Cadet Command, you only have enough energy for one.

Read More
Jessica Purcell of St. Petersburg, a captain in the Army Reserve, was pregnant with son Jameson when she was told at a MacDill Air Force Base clinic not to worry about lumps under her arm. She now is diagnosed stage 4 cancer. Jameson is 10 months old. (Tampa Bay Times/Scott Keeler via Tribune News Service)

Jessica Purcell, a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve, was pregnant with her first child when she noticed a swollen lymph node in her left underarm.

Health-care providers at a MacDill Air Force Base clinic told her it was likely an infection or something related to pregnancy hormones. The following year they determined the issue had resolved itself.

It hadn't. A doctor off base found a large mass in her underarm and gave her a shocking diagnosis: stage 2 breast cancer.

Purcell was pregnant again. Her daughter had just turned 1. She was 35. And she had no right to sue for malpractice.

A 1950 Supreme Court ruling known as the Feres doctrine prohibits military members like Purcell from filing a lawsuit against the federal government for any injuries suffered while on active duty. That includes injury in combat, but also rape and medical malpractice, such as missing a cancer diagnosis.

Thanks in part to Tampa lawyer Natalie Khawam, a provision in this year's national defense budget allows those in active duty to file medical malpractice claims against the government for the first time since the Feres case.

With the Department of Defense overseeing the new claims process, the question now is how fairly and timely complaints will be judged. And whether, in the long run, this new move will help growing efforts to overturn the ruling and allow active duty members to sue like everyone else.

Read More