Away from the battlefield, Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith’s physical training ensures he’s always fit, strong and ready for combat. His advice — and the workout he put together for Men’s Fitness — will get you in medal-winning shape too.
By Simon Butler-White.
In January 2011, Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith, 33, a member of Australia’s elite Special Air Service Regiment (SASR), was awarded the Victoria Cross for Australia, the nation’s highest military honour, for an act of extraordinary bravery under fire in Afghanistan on June 11, 2010.
When Ben and his unit were choppered into the village of Tizak in Kandahar province by the US 101st Airborne Division — four Black Hawks for the men and two Apache gunships for support — the mission was to capture or kill a senior Taliban commander. What they didn’t know was that their target had come to meet 10 other senior commanders and that the commanders were protected by more than 100 battle-hardened and well-armed militia.
Ben’s troop soon found themselves in a perilous position: heavily outnumbered and coming under withering fire from three elevated, fortified machine-gun emplacements. To save comrades pinned down by the lethal assault, Ben, who with his troop had worked his way to a position just 40 metres from the machine guns, first exposed his own position to lift the weight of fire, then stormed the emplacements, killing those at the trigger. His selfless action in single-handedly silencing the guns allowed the patrol to break into the enemy position, take the initiative and launch further assaults against the Taliban, eventually clearing the village of insurgents. He modestly describes the exhausting eight-hour engagement as “a long day”.
For his courage that day, Ben was awarded the Victoria Cross, accepting the honour from the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, at a special ceremony in Perth.
It was not the first time a medal for bravery had been pinned to his chest. In 2006, he received the Medal for Gallantry as a Lance-Corporal while on his first tour of duty in Afghanistan. In a television interview in February, he said he believed freedom and family were worth fighting for — and that he would gladly lay down his life for them. “I know that what we’re doing is stemming the flow of terrorism into this country,” he said.
Ben grew up in Perth in a family with a military heritage. His father is Major General Len William Roberts-Smith, a former Justice of the Supreme Court of Western Australia and recently retired as the head of the Corruption and Crime Commission of WA. Major General Roberts-Smith has served as a lawyer in the ADF for more than 40 years, including as the organisation’s Judge Advocate General. (Ben’s younger brother, Sam, 27, chose a career as a performer and is an acclaimed baritone contracted to Opera Australia in Sydney.)
Ben joined the Army at 17, and the elite SASR in 2003 after passing the Regiment’s arduous 20-day selection course known as the Cadre. In his nine years with the Regiment, he has served overseas many times: twice in East Timor, once in Fiji and Iraq, and five times in Afghanistan.
Ben is currently on a “domestic cycle” of duty — a time for retraining, learning new skills and an opportunity to spend more time with wife Emma and 18-month-old twins Eve and Elizabeth. In the past year, he’s ably shouldered the different set of duties and responsibilities that being awarded the VC has brought: the handshaking, the wreath-laying, the meeting of monarchs, the TV interviews. He also hopes, via his increasing profile, to help recruit men to the SASR, the unit of which he’s so proud. Truth be told, Ben just wants to get back to his day job of being a soldier, back with the boys, and looks forward to his next tour of duty to Afghanistan, his sixth.
Though physically imposing — a giant 2.02m tall, tattooed and in superb physical shape — Ben is rather the reluctant hero: unfailingly polite, modest and self-effacing. He’s a nice bloke. In this interview, Ben describes how his workouts are “built for battle” — tailored and highly effective combinations of bodyweight exercises, weights and running that simulate the demands of the combat conditions in which he might find himself. If you’d like to train like a VC recipient does, try the “Warrior Workout” Ben put together for us. Click here for the Ben Roberts-Smith Warrior Workout.
Did you have an interest in fitness and sport at school?
I pretty much played every sport until I found my niche in rugby and basketball — I guess that had a lot to do with my natural build. My sporting hero growing up was, US basketballer, Larry Bird from the Boston Celtics. He had a work ethic second to none. He was always the first to arrive at training and the last to leave. He led by example and never expected anyone to do what he wouldn’t — all the traits I try to emulate today.
How similar is the team ethic in an elite army corps to that of a sports team?
To a degree, they’re similar — both groups have an ethos and are highly motivated to succeed. However, from our unit’s point of view, we live and breathe our ethos and are proud of it. Every individual selected to be in our unit is willing to make whatever sacrifice required to ensure the success of the mission and the safety of our nation and its people.
I have a pretty deep family history with the military, which goes all the way back to the Boer War [in South Africa, 1899-1902]. Four of my ancestors landed at Gallipoli in 1915. My father was still serving when I was a growing up, so I wanted to continue that tradition. Also, as a kid, I used to love reading war stories about men who had won the VC, and had always looked up to them.
The 20-day SASR Cadre [selection course] is extremely hard, with a high attrition rate — nine out of 10 men fail. What are your recollections of doing it in 2003?
It’s very demanding, physically and mentally, but with the right preparation is certainly achievable. Although I found Selection hard, training for it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I trained over Christmas in 2002, utilising a three-month training program of two sessions a day, except Sundays, that included a lot of pack marching, weighted webbing runs and circuits.
While my family were enjoying a festive Christmas lunch, I was out the back of Holsworthy Barracks [in Sydney] pushing out a 10-hour pack march carrying the standard 35kg through sandstone gorges in 40°C heat. After nine hours, I was so low on water, I walked to the nearby highway and rang my wife to bring me some, as we lived only about 20 minutes away. She arrived to find me pretty shattered. She said I should just get in the car, but the whole point was to complete every activity in its entirety, because then you don’t have any excuses on the day, so I just took the water and walked the last hour.
I did a lot of training days like that back to back for three months, always completing everything on the program. In the end, it prepared me more mentally than physically. Everyone who is selected has a story like this and it’s because we all share the same mindset: no excuses.
For a lot of guys, being fit equals going to the gym three times a week or being able to run 5km. What is it for you?
For us, it’s functional fitness. You train for battle, so you become built for battle. We don’t train for aesthetics — to have a beach body or disco muscles. Our training is completely based on making sure you’re always good to go for any operation and that you won’t be the one who lets down the team. We’re designed to do our job specifically. Our body armour alone weighs more than 20kg, then you’ve got your pack as well — the heaviest operational pack I’ve carried was 82kg up a 2500-metre mountain. It took 10 hours. You can’t breathe properly at that altitude — I didn’t forget that one.
I try to train twice a day, six days a week, but at a minimum, every morning. I get up before the children wake up, at about 5am. We live near our base, which has a great set-up, but I do keep a few weights in the garage to keep me going.
Most guys train twice a day. We focus heavily on cardiovascular and strength-endurance — and, to a lesser degree, power. For us, that’s because power isn’t very job-specific. The Regiment has invested heavily in research that enables us to get the most out of individuals from an operational perspective. There’s a big emphasis on bodyweight exercises and full-range-of-motion or dynamic techniques. I do a lot of burpees, dips and heaves (pull-ups). When I do use barbells, I don’t tend to go too heavy — nothing over 60kg. I put the exercises together in a circuit.
How important is cardio?
Everything I do, even the strength stuff, has a cardio base. I view my training the way I view a military operation: you’ve got to get in, so I do about 20 minutes of cardio; there’s the actual fight, which is when I do the strength-endurance component; then you’ve got to get out, so I do something else to get my heart rate up.
If you could do just one gym exercise, what would it be?
Since being awarded the VC, it’s probably been a crazy and unexpected year. What have you gained or learned from the past 12 months?
The most amazing thing I’ve taken away is the public’s overwhelming support of our troops. Although a lot of people come up and thank me, I know they’re really thanking the whole ADF for their service, which is fantastic and humbling. When an old Digger with tears welling in his eyes shakes my hand and says thank you, it’s an indescribable feeling, because I know he understands.
The Queen looked a little daunted when you met her at Buckingham Palace last November, as you towered over her. How was that?
Excellent. Her Majesty was easy to talk to and welcoming. She had a good understanding of what was happening in Afghanistan and was gracious enough to invite my wife in once she found out Emma was also in the palace. I left there on a real high.
Two words: back yourself. Don’t be daunted by the task. Give it a go. It’s a pretty good career and there area lot of different avenues you can take — it’s not just the role of soldier. However, it’s important to join for the right reason. Don’t do it for somebody else; do it because you want to, because you want to serve.
The best way to face fear is…?
To recognise it and understand it clinically. Generally, fear manifests itself as adrenaline, so if you can recognise it, you can control it. In my opinion, being able to control fear is what determines bravery.
What have you enjoyed most about your new public profile?
Being able to bring awareness to certain issues. I’ve recently become the ambassador to The White Cloud Foundation (whitecloud foundation.org), which implements programs that provide individuals, families and carers living with depression with extra resources, support and opportunities. The foundation has a dedicated and talented board and really hopes to let people know that depression can be talked about and treated.
“If I wasn’t a soldier, I would liked to have been a…”
Professional sportsman. I’m lacking only one thing — talent.
One thing you discovered after you became a dad?
That with twin girls I still have a lot to learn!
If we stole your iPod, what would we be listening to?
I have pretty varied tastes in music, anything from U2 to P.O.D. to the Hilltop Hoods. Mostly, I enjoy training to the Ministry of Sound.
Anzac Day: heads or tails?
About the Victoria Cross
The Victoria Cross for Australia (the bronze cross pictured left) is our country’s highest military honour and is awarded “to persons in the presence of the enemy, perform acts of the most conspicuous gallantry, or daring, or pre-eminent acts of valour or self-sacrifice or display extreme devotion to duty”.
Just two soldiers have received the medal since it was instituted in 1991. The first was SAS Corporal Mark Donaldson (then Trooper), 33, who in 2008 in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan, exposed himself to enemy fire to protect wounded troops and under heavy fire rescued a severely wounded interpreter.
He was also named Young Australian of the Year for 2010.
The VC for Australia replaced the original VC, instituted in the 1850s during the reign of Queen Victoria. The last Australian recipient of the original VC was Warrant Officer Class II Keith Payne, for gallantry on May 24, 1969, during the Vietnam War.
How to join the Special Forces
Keen to serve your country? Here’s how to apply.
Most applicants for the Australian Army’s Special Forces — the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) and the Commandos — are already full-time or Reserve members of the Australian Navy, Army or Air Force.
If you aren’t a member of the ADF, you can still apply through the Special Forces Direct Entry Scheme. To find out more, contact Defence Force Recruiting on 13 19 01.
Defence members can apply for Special Forces Selection through their unit command or headquarters. As well as an application form, there’s an aptitude test, a psychological interview and a basic medical assessment to determine that you’re 100 percent fit, and fit for parachuting.
Not all candidates progress past this stage. However, successful candidates will be asked to sit a Special Forces Screen Test, which is made up of 10 physical tests:
1. Push-ups to a cadence.
2. Seven-stage sit-ups.
3. Heaves/chin-ups to a cadence.
4. Vertical leap.
5. Sit and reach (to measure flexibility).
6. An agility assessment.
7. A 20-metre progressive shuttle-run beep test.
8. Yo-yo intermittent test (an interval-oriented shuttle run).
9. Pack march with 40kg.
10. Tread water for 2 minutes and swim 400m in combat fatigues.
Rest periods are provided between exercises, ranging from minutes to an hour. There are no pass/fail benchmarks for these tests. Candidates are expected to give their best effort for every test, at the end of which their efforts are considered in total and against their peers.
For safety, however, candidates must meet several key assessment milestones — for example, the grading system for the push-ups, sit-ups, 5km pack march and shuttle run.
Again, not all candidates progress past this stage. However, those who are successful will be invited on to the SAS Selection Course or the Commando Selection Course, depending on which they applied for.
The key differences between the units are explained during a Special Forces information tour, held for Defence members in the months leading up to “Selection”. The tour also provides tailored SAS and Commando training programs to help candidates prepare.
Candidates who make it through to either Selection must, within the first 48 hours of the course, complete a 3.2km run in patrol order carrying a 7kg load (also known as a webbing run) in less than 16 minutes and a 20km pack march carrying a 28kg load in less than three hours and 15 minutes. If you fail either test you’re allowed one re-test.
These tests are only the basis to start the Selection courses, which also involve a range of non-physical tests, including psychological testing, to determine candidates’ suitability.
If joining the Army Reserve sounds more your speed, call 13 19 01 or visit defencejobs.gov.au/armyreserve