>> For exclusive video of M&F’s visit to the Reagan, click here.

>> For more photos of M&F’s visit to the Reagan, click here.

Amid calm seas and bright blue skies in the Gulf of Oman, just off the coast of Pakistan, the nuclear-powered, Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan cruises along at 30 knots. To the stern, the Reagan’s four screws churn a wide, white-watered wake as the rest of Carrier Strike Group 7 follows on the distant horizon. The most advanced instrument of war in the U.S. Navy is, for the moment, a picture of placidity this idyllic September morning.

But the tranquility of it all is shattered with the first deep roar of an F/A-18E Super Hornet warming to life for the day’s first cycle of flight operations, a powerful reminder of both the region’s volatility and the gravity of the Reagan’s mission. Soon the glassy waters of the gulf belie the wartime mayhem just 60 feet above.

The deck becomes a blur of organized chaos as $40 million fighter jets accelerate to 165 miles per hour in 2.5 seconds over 300 feet with the aid of steam catapults. By now, the Reagan has turned into the wind to help these warplanes gain loft as they take off, each bound for Afghanistan. And by day’s end, more than 60 sorties, or missions, will have been flown by the most modern and lethal maritime air wing in the U.S. Navy.

The Reagan, whose motto is “Peace Through Strength,” is effectively a mobile war zone when under way, and muscle & fitness lensman Ian Spanier and I are right in the middle of it. Watching the calculated calamity unfold, it becomes apparent why the crew of nearly 4,300 considers a commitment to physical excellence as central to its mission. In this fast-paced, high-stakes environment far from the comforts of terra firma, there exists no margin for error and even less room for excuses.

The Reagan is a floating marvel of military might and, as we learn firsthand, its strength is eclipsed only by its crew’s commitment to the same.


This is what Armageddon will look like, I think as I peer at the dimmed, sand-obscured sun above Manama, Bahrain, as U.S. Navy 5th Fleet Public Affairs Officer Lt. Stephanie Murdock drives us to the airfield. Ian and I had already booked a full day of travel — I arrived from Los Angeles, Ian from New York, both of us via London — so my enthusiasm for today’s two-segment, 3 1/2-hour ride out to the Reagan for a story on how the crew keeps fit at sea has long since diminished.

The C-2A Greyhound is the Navy’s only carrier on-board delivery (COD) aircraft. It’s designed to transport high-priority cargo and passengers to and from aircraft carriers, and we’re on the next one out. After placing what I’m certain is the world’s least comfortable helmet over my head, Ian and I walk across the runway, single file, with about 10 other passengers. We head up the COD’s cargo ramp into the cramped, stuffy fuselage and grab a seat, all of which are — distressingly — facing backward.

There’s a reason the Greyhound isn’t part of the Virgin Atlantic fleet: It may just be the least luxurious mode of flight since Jean-Marie Le Bris’s horse-pulled glider made headlines in the 1850s. The four-point harness buries you in your seat and there are only two small windows, neither of which is in my row. After a brief lecture, including instructions on how to ditch safely, the mouth of the cargo hold slowly closes. As we grab some lift from the runway in Manama, the cabin still retaining some of the 108-degree F heat from the tarmac, I drift off to sleep.


I’m awake now. We’re in a hard left turn and descending rapidly. Peeking between seats out the nearest window, all I can see is blue — a lot of it. Just when I think we’re about to go into the drink, I catch a glimpse of gray steel. The Greyhound powers up to full throttle just before being caught by one of the USS Ronald Reagan’s three arresting wires and we’re pulled to a stop in just a few hundred feet.

>> For exclusive video of M&F’s visit to the Reagan, click here.

>> For more photos of M&F’s visit to the Reagan, click here.

When we step onto the flight deck we’re in the shadow of the island, the ship’s main nerve center that reaches 20 stories above waterline. We’re escorted below deck, past rows of 500-pound bombs, all of them headed to Afghanistan. As I look down to the water’s surface through a metal-grated staircase, I realize just how fast the Reagan is cutting through the water. This majestic $4.5 billion ship, which stretches 1,092 feet from bow to stern, has a top speed of 30-plus knots.

It’s not long before our escorts, Lt. Ron Flanders and Lt. j.g. Tim Hawkins, are getting us acquainted with the Reagan’s fitness-minded crew and the numerous amenities on board for those looking to get or stay fit while at sea. The average sailor spends anywhere from a few weeks to several months on the Reagan without setting foot on land. The cramped quarters and narrow corridors are enough to make you positively batty, particularly when you might work 12-16 hours per day. Exercise helps take the edge off, but the crew of the Reagan is more resolute than most.

“We’re trying to redefine the fitness culture of the ship,” says Britt Callison, a civilian contractor and certified personal trainer with a master’s degree in kinesiology. As the ship’s “fit boss,” he’s tasked with making sure crewmembers have everything they need to maintain health and wellness and, in some cases, the resources to extend their strength and conditioning efforts to new heights while on the job.

To this end, Callison — in concert with the ship’s Morale Welfare and Recreation division — has helped to institute and/or maintain the Reagan’s various fitness programs. The list includes clubs for boxing, CrossFit and several other group exercise classes.

“Space is at a premium, obviously,” he points out, ducking through another hatch as we walk and talk. “This is a warship. It wasn’t designed for treadmills and benches.”

Still, the sheer size of the Reagan has allowed for the construction of five on-board gyms with ongoing upgrades in equipment. The mezzanine gym — the most heavily trafficked fitness center on the Reagan and one of the largest in the entire U.S. fleet — measures 1,240 square feet and is outfitted with all the trappings of your local franchise gym (only fewer of them). A forward gym, mainly used for cardio, is about 360 square feet and an iron-heavy, M&F-friendly gym to the aft (rear) of the ship combined cover nearly 900 square feet. A smaller cardio room and the Admiral’s private gym account for the other two. The hangar bay, with its open layout and fresh air, is another attractive destination for those looking to muscle up using little more than pull-up bars and kettlebells.


Ian and I follow Lt. j.g. Hawkins through the buffet line in the officer’s mess for lunch. I scan each tray carefully: Salisbury steak, buttery mashed potatoes, sweet turkey gravy, some tasty-looking pasta concoction. Just beyond the line are a dessert bar, soft-drink fountain and even a soft-serve machine. This is the officer’s mess, but the selections aren’t much different for enlisted sailors. How does anyone — let alone the body-conscious type — manage to escape a deployment without putting on 20-30 pounds?

“It gets so busy that we really just try to make sure everyone gets the requisite three squares a day,” says Callison, suggesting that being underfed is more of a concern for crewmembers. Chief Petty Officer Marcus Taylor, 38, a former powerlifter and amateur bodybuilder who works for the ship’s chaplain, possesses a lean, 210-pound physique and is proof positive that good eating exists aboard the Reagan. “It’s pretty easy, actually,” he says.

“I just go high-protein and low-carb and eat lots of vegetables. I also stay away from junk food.”

Within the officer’s mess, there is a corner devoted to leaner nutrition. Skinless chicken breasts, hard-boiled eggs, fat-free yogurt, whole-grain cereals, skim milk and a decent salad bar — everything you need, really. The enlisted have similar options and might also get their hands on protein powders, which are occasionally sold on-board depending on recent port stops. Other sailors have their favorite supps sent from home.

Petty Officer Tom Feasel, 34, helps the crew through the Fitness Enhancement Program, which is designed to help them achieve and maintain naval fitness standards. He admits that it’s hard for him to keep up with a sound nutrition plan — he’s used to eating 6-8 meals per day at home — but says he still manages to stay lean and strong through the ship’s existing menu.


Each crewmember on the Reagan takes his/her fitness level seriously, but some jobs are just more physical and require greater diligence with exercise and nutrition. Pilots endure a tremendous amount of force in the cockpit — up to 4-5 Gs on most sorties — and physical conditioning has everything to do with how well they tolerate it. “The more conditioning you have, the better you’re able to withstand G-forces,” says 18-year Navy vet Cmdr. Darryl Walker, 45. “You can end up suffering G-loc [G-loss of consciousness].”

But Walker, who pilots the radar-jamming EA-6B Prowler, doesn’t need any extra incentive to keep in shape. He prides himself on staying fit and because of it, he’s able to keep up with men half his age in the sky and in the hangar bay. Walker keeps his bodyweight around 175 and is a big fan of pull-ups, once completing 263 of the dead-hang variety in 30 minutes. He thinks he can still beat that mark.

To help fend off lulls in motivation, the fit boss fosters a competitive environment by staging friendly contests. Just a few weeks before we arrived, 17 sailors completed as many bench-press reps as possible over three rounds using their bodyweight plus 10%. Petty Officer Eric Olmstead, at a bodyweight of 166, hoisted 180 pounds with perfect form for 79 reps.

“Well, my job is very physical,” says Olmstead, 21, who works in aircraft launch and recovery and holds four powerlifting records in his home state of Michigan. “I have to help move around heavy equipment wires, which weigh about 500 pounds. But I have a daily routine in here. When I don’t lift, I feel groggy.”

Chief Petty Officer Taylor, who began powerlifting at age 12 before segueing into bodybuilding, speaks fondly of proper exercise. He no longer busies himself with detail work, instead choosing to build his 3-4-days-per-week program around benches, deads and squats. “I don’t lift for size, necessarily. Not anymore. Now I lift for strength and power.”

The explosive ordnance disposal unit is full of guys you hope never have to work during deployment. But disarming mines and IEDs (improvised explosive devices) is the job, and Lt. Zach Scheetz, 26, who heads the team, expects his sailors to be in top form. “In our job, being busy isn’t always a good thing,” he says, taking a break between sets of kettlebell swings. “But we train together about six days per week, doing a lot of stuff that keeps us athletic. Personally, I’ve gotten away from more traditional training; I do a lot of CrossFit-type stuff, bodyweight exercises and kettlebell work.”

Senior Chief Petty Officer Tracy Johnson, 35, whose muscularity seems to contradict his reported weight of 173 pounds, also works aircraft launch and recovery. Between sets of 80-pound curls, he admits that the stress of participating in “controlled crashes” all day long requires an outlet. He finds it in the weight room, as does nuclear engineer Lt. Justin Braune. “There’s so much stress in my job,” says Braune, who used to wrestle competitively. “By the end of my shift, I’m wiped out, so finding motivation is the hardest part.”

No one needs to convince the ship’s ordnancemen to be regulars in the gym. Storing, moving, loading and unloading 500-pound guided bombs and other aerial munitions is done by hand, and it requires both strength and precision. Fixing a 500-pound bomb to the wing of a Hornet takes the combined efforts of four sailors doing what resembles a Zercher squat in perfect synchronization. Safeties are in place, of course, but none of them are interested in chancing a slip.


Though the crew favors the “peace” part of the ship’s motto, today it’s the Reagan’s strength that’s on showcase. As we prepare to depart on our COD ride back to the mainland, Ian and I watch one final cycle of flight ops from the tower. Even from behind the thick pane of shatterproof glass, each launch of an F/A-18 is a visceral experience as 10,000 pounds of dry thrust rattle your organs and confound your senses. The power of the scene is evocative and humbling.

To put it in perspective, the USS Ronald Reagan holds 61 military aircraft on its 4.5-acre flight deck, 44 of them capable of placing a bunker-buster on a postage stamp from 30,000 feet. It features NATO Sea Sparrow missiles, Rolling Airframe Missiles, various radar-guided guns and state-of-the-art torpedo countermeasures. The Reagan can run for 20 years without refueling. It’s the longest and most advanced of all the Nimitz-class supercarriers, the world’s most feared naval vessels, and its range is virtually unlimited. With its unrivaled destructive potential, the Reagan doesn’t hide from anyone or shrink from any challenge. The ship and its dedicated crew represent the very definition of modern military muscle.

Peace Through Strength. We have the former because they exercise the latter. M&F

>> For exclusive video of M&F’s visit to the Reagan, click here.

>> For more photos of M&F’s visit to the Reagan, click here.

Check out the full story in the February issue of M&F, on newsstands now!