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How Memorial Day Murph Became the World's Most Famous Workout
We’re diving into the surprising and important story behind how and why the Memorial Day Murph workout became a cultural force.
Why it matters: Knowing how the workout evolved will make you want to find and do your own Murph.
God bless America. Be a 2-Percenter.
Hundreds of thousands will follow the Memorial Day Murph workout tradition today. It honors Michael Murphy, a Navy SEAL killed in Afghanistan in 2005 and awarded the Medal of Honor.
The standard workout asks you to wear a 20-pound weighted vest and:
Run one mile —> Do 100 pullups —> Do 200 Pushups —> Do 300 Squats —> Run one mile
But you can and should find your own Murph by altering the workout to your ability level. People from ages 9 to 90 have found their own Murph workout.
“The idea is that you make it tough. It’s about the effort,” explained Dr. Josh Appel, who started the tradition of the Memorial Day Murph workout (more on that below). Just have a long, physical moment where you consider sacrifice.
A pessimist would call this tradition silly. Is doing some hard workout really teaching us anything about the ultimate sacrifice soldiers make for our freedom?
A few years ago, Men’s Health Magazine asked me to investigate the history of the workout. I was to figure out where the workout came from and why it became so popular for a feature in the May 2021 issue. What I found was fascinating and inspiring.
I spoke to soldiers, gold star families, generals, and everyday people who want to help others.
It showed me the power of traditions like this. They can move and change people and build awareness that improves the world.
I’m publishing three things today. First is a video of Dr. Joshua Appel speaking about his history with Michael P. Murphy and the Memorial Day Murph Tradition. Second, below the video, is the story that came from my investigation of the Murph tradition.
I hope you’ll consider doing your own Murph today. To help you do that, at the bottom of this post—third—I’ve published tips that will help anyone find their own Murph and do it better.
Here’s Dr. Appel’s talk:
Here’s the story I wrote:
Memorial Day Weekend, 2007. Joshua Appel, M.D., now chief of emergency medicine for the Southern Arizona Veterans Administration Health Care System, was a medical resident in Albany, New York, when he had an idea. The holiday had become a thing of beers and barbecues and bargains on mattresses and refrigerators. All of which are great, no doubt. But Dr. Appel wanted to do something to remind himself and a few willing others of the day’s purpose. A way to contemplate with mind and body those who’d laid down their lives for us.
Dr. Appel had recently begun training at CrossFit Albany. “And I heard about this hero workout of the day called Murph,” he says. Hero WODs are dedicated to the memory of a military member or first responder killed in the line of duty. “And I was like, ‘I wonder if that’s the same Murph.’”
It was one of CrossFit’s hardest workouts, a prolonged thresher that blended endurance and calisthenics with a whole lot of time in your head, beating back millions of years of human wiring telling you to slow down or tap out. Went like this: You’d run one mile; do 100 pullups, 200 pushups, and 300 squats; then run one more mile. All as fast as possible while wearing a weight vest or body armor.
Dr. Appel wasn’t a typical medical resident. He’d been in the military since 1994 as an Air Force pararescueman, which is a combat search-and-rescue specialist trained to retrieve wounded service members. He enrolled in med school in 2001. His rescue unit was activated and deployed to Turkey after 9/11, but his teammates told him he should stay in school, knowing how hard he’d worked to get in.
“I graduated from medical school on May 11, 2005,” he says. And that’s when things got hot. He was on a plane to Afghanistan two days later. “Then on June 28, we got the call that the Chinook [helicopter] had been shot down and a Navy SEAL team was missing.”
Operation Red Wings went as tragically as a mission can. Early on the morning of the 28th, the military dropped four SEALs—Lieutenant Michael Murphy and Petty Officers Danny Dietz, Matthew Axelson, and Marcus Luttrell—about 10,000 feet high in the Hindu Kush Mountains. The team was to provide reconnaissance for an impending action against guerrilla leader Ahmad Shah.
The plan twisted southward when some goatherders caught the team’s position. Within hours, the SEALs were taking fire on three sides by a force of more than 50 anticoalition militiamen. The SEALs, all wounded, were pinned against cliffs, which blocked the signal they needed to make a distress call. Understanding his team’s deathly predicament, Murphy, according to the Navy, “unhesitatingly and with complete disregard for his own life moved into the open, where he could gain a better position to transmit a call to get help for his men.... This deliberate and heroic act deprived him of cover and made him a target for the enemy. . . . He was shot in the back, causing him to drop the transmitter. Murphy picked it back up, completed the call and continued firing at the enemy who was closing in.”
Murphy, Dietz, and Axelson died on that mountainside. As did the 16 Special Forces service members whose helicopter was shot down while racing in to extract the four SEALs. Luttrell escaped. Locals discovered him and carried him to a nearby village, where they kept him for three days. Luttrell’s story is told in the book and movie Lone Survivor.
“I was the pararescue team leader that rescued Marcus Luttrell and recovered Michael Murphy and Danny Dietz,” Dr. Appel says.
He kept the body armor he wore when he recovered Murphy’s body. Two years later, after he’d started with CrossFit and realized that the Murph workout on the board was, in fact, the same Murph, he went to the owner of Albany CrossFit and was like, “Hey, we should get everyone together and do a hero workout on Memorial Day.” Dr. Appel suggested Murph. “We had 13, maybe 15 people. I thought it would be cool if everybody did Murph, so everyone has the same goal and is working towards the same thing.” He wore his body armor
“It was very unifying and brought all kinds of people together,” Dr. Appel says. “It wasn’t a race. It was just going out and suffering together for Memorial Day and thinking about the people that have sacrificed everything. Just imagine how the people storming the beaches of Normandy or hiking the jungles of Vietnam or liberating Iraq felt like. It sounds kind of corny, but it drives and motivates you.” Dr. Appel wondered, Could it be bigger? “I thought this should be a national thing,” he says.
Michael P. Murphy
“When Michael was two years old,” Dan Murphy, Michael’s father and a Vietnam vet, tells me, “he saw our neighbor’s pool. He ran up to it, didn’t even look, and just jumped in. So I run and toss my wallet and keys to jump in and save him. And Michael just swam to the other side and popped up with this big smile on his face.”
Then he recounts other stories about Michael. Like how, at eight years old, he hit a game-winning home run and arrived at home plate to declare to his celebrating team, “If you guys hadn’t gotten on base to give me a chance to bat, I would have never been able to bat and hit a home run. We won the game as a team.” Michael earned the nickname the Protector in junior high after he threw down on a group of bullies who were picking on a disabled student. In high school, he defended a homeless can collector who was being harassed.
At Penn State, Michael double majored in psychology and political science, played hockey, and did his civic duty to help ensure that the university held its place as one of the nation’s elite party schools. One spring break, Michael’s car broke down on the way to Panama City, Florida. He called his dad, who offered to come pick him and his friends up. But Michael and his boys had dumped the car and were already riding high on a southbound bus.
After college, Michael planned to join the FBI, so he applied to law school. He was also interested in enlisting, though his father—who understood the reality of war— disapproved. But the Navy would allow Michael to channel his protector spirit, to be brave and to make a living. So in 2000, after further discussion with his father, he enlisted. Earned the SEAL trident in July 2002 and did three tours. Went to Jordan, Qatar, and Djibouti. His fourth, in early 2005, took him to Afghanistan to support Operation Enduring Freedom.
Upon deciding to join the Navy, Dan Murphy tells me, Michael began running, doing calisthenics, and climbing a rope tied to a tree in the backyard of his childhood home on the South Shore of Long Island. Then he discovered CrossFit, his father says. “And he put together his own [CrossFit-style] workout that fit in with his job as a SEAL.” They run. They push. They pull. They lift. Michael did it while wearing body armor, the 16.4-pound military-issued vest, because that’s what he wore downrange. That’s how Body Armor, as Michael called the WOD that would become Murph, was born.
Body Armor required very little equipment and could be done almost anywhere. Troops stationed in Jordan, Qatar, Djibouti, or Afghanistan don’t have access to exercise gear. But they do have body armor. And perhaps a tree, crossbeam, or door frame to do pullups. The workout allows remotely stationed service members to work the movements and patterns they need to swiftly attack and evade, all in the requisite body armor. No, a fast time is not easy, but neither is war. SEALs would find that a good Murph time also served as an indicator that they’d reached the level of fitness required to fight.
The Workout Spreads
When news about Operation Red Wings began trickling out, Dan Murphy had to reckon with his son’s selfless nature.
The Navy “told us they believed that there was at least one survivor,” he says. “And I remember turning to Michael’s mom, Maureen, and saying, ‘We know the way Michael is. If there’s going to be one survivor, it’s not going to be Michael.’ ”
After Michael’s death, his Body Armor workout started to spread by word of mouth among the SEAL teams—at outposts in Afghanistan and Iraq and at bases and training centers in Coronado, Virginia Beach, Pearl Harbor, Monterey, and elsewhere.
That’s when Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit, got involved. “Darren Andersen contacted me to ask if I’d honor the death of his commanding officer with a WOD named after him,” Glassman tells Men’s Health. Andersen “was one of the hundreds of [SEAL] team guys who made the pilgrimage to Santa Cruz.”
Back then, CrossFit only had about 13 boxes, but Glassman would log on to CrossFit .com and post fitness principles and daily workouts. His training method had gained a following among Special Forces operators and other first responders, partly for its online accessibility, but mostly because it stressed function over form, at a time when bodybuilding was the norm in the military. SEALs stationed at the naval base in Monterey, California, would travel 40 minutes up Highway 1 to train in Santa Cruz, home of the original CrossFit box.
“We did Body Armor three to five times before it came out on the CrossFit website,” says Greg Amundson, one of the first CrossFit adopters and a former DEA agent. He was part of Glassman’s famed 6:00 a.m. class. “That class was where the fire-breathers were. We were the guinea pigs. It was common for us to do workouts that Glassman would come up with around the whiteboard, and only thereafter would they make their way onto CrossFit.com.”
The people doing Body Armor, as it was still known then, wore any weight-carrying apparatus they owned, Amundson says. “You might have people wearing a specific weight vest that weighed 20 pounds, whereas others would wear whatever kit they had. Maybe it was less than 20 pounds, but often it was more than 20 pounds. Someone who is a breacher is going to have more weight than someone who is an entry-team member, but it didn’t matter. It was unified. You wore your kit.”
Hero WODs had come before. But Body Armor felt different. “The nexus between the SEALs and the box in Santa Cruz was very pronounced,” says Amundson. “Many of the SEALs who came to train there had known Lieutenant Michael Murphy.”
The grind of the workout also led to more camaraderie and team cohesion and—because it called for partitioning the reps—strategy. “You didn’t know what your partner on your left or right was going to do,” Amundson says. “All you knew is that you started the run together and you had to end with the run. But in between that...man, it’s like who knows what’s going to happen. It was an adventure. There was something about Body Armor that had an inherent spirit to it.”
On August 17, 2005, Glassman posted the details of the workout to CrossFit.com as the WOD and included a note:
In memory of Navy Lieutenant Michael Murphy, 29, of Patchogue, N.Y., who was killed in Afghanistan June 28th, 2005. This workout was one of Mike’s favorites and he’d named it “Body Armor.” From here on it will be referred to as “Murph” in honor of the focused warrior and great American who wanted nothing more in life than to serve this great country and the beautiful people who make it what it is.... If you’ve got a 20-pound vest or body armor, wear it.
A Wild Idea
In October 2007, Michael Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor, the most prestigious American military decoration, given only to those who stand out for exceptional acts of selfless valor. Dr. Appel had made doing Murph every year a personal Memorial Day tradition. In 2010, he contacted Dan Murphy. “I hadn’t ever talked to Dan before, but I figured if I was going to do something nationally, in his son’s name, I should probably get his approval.” Dr. Appel wanted to start a fundraiser by building a website and asking CrossFit boxes if their members would be up for joining the challenge. There’d be a small fee, and all proceeds would benefit military charities and the LT Michael P. Murphy Memorial Scholarship Foundation, which Dan created in 2007 because “one of [Michael’s] favorite sayings was ‘Education will set you free,’” Dan says.
“So we talked,” says Dr. Appel, “and Dan’s like, ‘So let me get this straight. You’re going to ask people to pay money to go to their own gym and do a workout? Do you think people are really going to do that?’ And I said, ‘You don’t know the CrossFit community.’So I’d reach out to [affiliates] and say, ‘Hey, we’re doing this thing,’ and send some links and create a listserv . . . just sending stuff out word of mouth.”
In 2011, around 7,800 people signed up and donated. The next year, Dr. Appel called Mike Sauers, a former SEAL who’d founded Forged, a military-inspired apparel brand, and asked if he’d be willing to make T-shirts to incentivize people to participate and donate. “Forged ended up shipping all the T-shirts to us because we had all the mailing lists. It was well over 10,000. And this was my wife and I, stuffing shirts into envelopes,” Dr. Appel says. “And we’d just had twins, and my wife was like, ‘There’s no way we can do this next year.’”
Sauers was happy to run point. “We jumped on board and started setting everything up, organizing and facilitating the Memorial Day fundraiser,” he says. That included launching a new website and thinking about how to attract more participants to raise more funds.
“Murph was known as a really grueling workout in the SEAL teams and CrossFit community,” says Sauers. “We discovered that a lot of people were biting off more than they could chew. They would sign up, go to do it, and realize how hard it was.” Sauers didn’t want anyone to fail, so he began calling it the Murph Challenge. “If we put the word challenge in there, it’s an alert that this isn’t a ten- or 15-minute workout,” he says. “And we started bringing in workout programs and making sure there was a path for everyone to perform the Murph Challenge to the best of their ability.”
Dr. Appel puts it this way: “My saying is ‘What’s your Murph?’ You don’t have to be a Navy SEAL to do this workout. Sure, it helps. But you can scale it and anyone can do Murph. Can’t do pullups? Okay, do ring rows. Can’t run? Okay, row. Even if you’re in a wheelchair and 90 years old, we can create something for you.” That something just has to be long and hard—maybe the longest, hardest thing you do all year— and force you to reflect on those we’ve lost.
Completed at full tilt, however, Murph can ice even elite athletes. Dave Castro, a former Navy SEAL and CrossFit’s director of sport, used Murph as a welcome party for competitors at the 2015 CrossFit Games. “It was tough,” he says. The temperature at the games peaked in the 80s, turning the StubHub Center in Carson, California, into a furnace. The weight vest acts as insulation, making it even harder for your body to cool down. (Welcome to being a soldier in the Middle East.) The athletes “were all still really fast,” says Castro, and Björgvin Karl Guðmundsson won with a time of 38 minutes 36 seconds, but as the headline in The San Diego Union-Tribune announced that day, Murph makes games athletes look mortal. The world’s fittest gasping for air only added to the workout’s legacy.
Sauers, meanwhile, was working his connections to get the Murph Challenge to people outside the CrossFit community. “I had helped train Chris Pratt for his role in Zero Dark Thirty and we’d remained friends,” he says. “He’s done it since 2012.” John Krasinski did it along with the Rock in 2018. “What an honor it was to drop sweat in honor of Lt. Michael Murphy,” Dwayne Johnson said on Instagram. “I love that it was designed to help push us, help humble us, and dedicate a little bit of pain and sweat to the man who gave everything he had.” This kind of megawatt celebrity shout-out helped Murph go more mainstream.
The rise of Instagram—offering the ability to share the grind, which filled feeds each Memorial Day weekend—pushed the challenge to more and different people. The workout has received more than half a million pings via various hashtags—#murph, #murphchallenge, #murphwod—on the platform. And the pandemic made Murph stronger: On Memorial Day 2020, Spartan racer Hunter McIntyre set an unofficial record, completing Murph in 34 minutes 13 seconds, and Lee Davis of Rhapsody CrossFit in Charleston, South Carolina, finished 16 rounds of Murph in less than 24 hours. But that’s nothing on Graham Dessert, who did Murph every day for 365 days, finishing on February 20, 2021.
Ultimately, three things helped transform Murph into a bigger-than-life, iconic workout, says Castro. “The fact that it’s around a SEAL who sacrificed so much, who has such a heroic story; the fact that it’s such a monumental workout; and the Memorial Day community aspect of it.”
Here’s how you can find your own Murph.
1. Scale your Murph
Anyone can do Murph. All you have to do is modify the exercises to something that feels just harder than you’re comfortable with.
Appel’s father, who is 90, recently did a Murph workout. His dad rode one mile on a fan bike, then did wall pushups, then did a ring row squat variation and finished with another mile on the fan bike. Feel free to cut all the reps in half or even by 75 percent.
Here are some good substitutes:
Instead of pushups do
Instead of squats do
Instead of pullups do
Instead of running one mile
Walk a mile
Row 1,600 meters
Ride an exercise bike one mile.
2. Don’t flash and crash
Running (or walking or rowing, etc) the first mile too fast will exhaust you for the long slog of exercises ahead. Find a pace that’s just slightly faster than you can have a conversation at.
3. Play to your weakness
Most people run into problems on the pullups or pushups.
Stay far from failure on every rep.
If you can do, say, 5 pullups and 15 pushups, you’ll want to perform sets of, say, 1 or 2 pullups, and 3 to 5 pushups.
When you start to burn out, transition to easier variations like jumping pullups and pushups with your hands elevated, or chop up your weakest sets even further. For example, if you’re partitioning your reps and hitting snags on the pullups, you could do 1 pullup, 5 pushups, 1 pullup, and 9 squats.
4. Drop the hammer
On the final mile, lean into the suffering and go for broke. Run, walk, bike, etc, far faster than you’re comfortable with. You could end up chopping as many as two minutes from your time.
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