Sgt. Maj. Ruby Murray's classes are noisy and sweaty, and people laugh, says an officer who takes part. (Courtesy Sgt. Maj. Ruby Murray)
Sgt. Maj. Murray’s favorite exercises
Sgt. Maj. Ruby Murray details her favorite exercises to open and close her hour-long workouts:
■ Mountain Climbers: “We are acting like we’re in the starting blocks. Everyone is a winner, and everyone comes in first place. We climb as fast as we possibly can. I will not stop until I see the last person, the fastest person in the class, go slow like they ran out of gas.”
■ The Shake: “You release all the tension in your body. You shake and you don’t care if anybody’s watching you. It’s like you’re in the shower or home alone and you shake out everything bringing you down, everything that’s causing you stress. We shake for a good two minutes.”
■ The Plank: “They all dread the plank. Individuals in my class are not used to holding their bodies up for longer than a minute. Now they’re doing one minute and a half. I have them focus on their happy place, they refuse to drop to the floor and they find something happy. They’ll rest a minute and do a second one for a minute forty-five, spreading their legs.
“A lot of people do it with their legs together and feel the effects in their stomach, but if you spread your legs, you’ll feel it in your lower legs — so if you have cellulite or anything that isn’t toned up, you’ll feel the full effects.”
■ The Tom Brady Boot Camp Shuffle: “We’ll run as if it’s our last run. Sometimes we will run in place, or when we’re in the gym, they will run up towards me. They may squat for 20 squats and then shuffle back. Everything they’re doing, they’re doing on their tiptoes.”
■ Wall Squats: “They’re holding their bodies against the wall as if they’re sitting in a chair. They’re doing it for about a minute. They’re using their arms as if they’re driving. I make them use their arms to get the full body. We’ll start with one minute because I have a lot of older folks in the class and I try not to hurt them.”
■ Butterflies: “We close out the last few minutes of my hour-long workout by giving honor to all the warriors that did not make it. We form a butterfly and wave our arms for a 30-second count. I count down and tell them to release their butterfly for all of the warriors who didn’t make it. That is important in every class I teach.”
Sgt. Maj. Ruby Murray, the fitness guru of Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, is no snarling drill sergeant. Upbeat, positive and entirely nonjudgmental, she pushes soldiers physically while getting them to what she calls their “happy place.”
“I love people unconditionally,” said Murray, 42. “When you come to my class, even if you’re injured, you go at your pace and how you feel good about yourself.”
“Happy place” is Murray’s key buzzword and motto, drawn from her own experience breaking personal barriers to drop weight, as she runs “4 a.m. Crew,” a CrossFit-style exercise class.
The 24-year veteran is showing the Army that physical training works better when it isn’t a punishing slog. For any soldiers who struggle with fitness, she wants the program “to reach all the warriors out there who could not do it,” she told Army Times.
Helping soldiers turn things around is her passion.
“My number one priority is helping a unit or individuals who are borderline flunking their PT test, getting them to their happy place,” she said, “and teaching them how to keep it off.”
When she’s not getting folks fit, she is the senior enlisted adviser to the commander of 1st Theater Sustainment Command, which is busy pulling troops and equipment out of Afghanistan as part of the drawdown. Under her, there are more than 7,000 soldiers.
The workouts are full of unpredictability, and no one day is like another. Water bottles stand in for weights. High intensity “suicide” sprints are a regular feature, and Murray will shout “rocket attack!” a prompt to run the cones at double time or drop down burpee style for a ground workout.
“There’s times when they have to bring a mop inside the gym because there are so many puddles [of sweat]; I’m not lying!” Murray said, laughing. “We haven’t even hit the summer months.”
But above all, she makes sure to inject her class with positivity and gratitude.
“I try to incorporate a happy place in my class where you’re so joy filled you don’t know what else to do,” she said. “If this is your last hour, it’s going to be the best hour of your life.”
One of Murray’s regulars, Army psychiatrist Lt. Col. Matthew Goodwin, said he was full of self-loathing for struggling with his weight and dodged the physical fitness test. Then one day he drifted into Murray’s class.
“It was such a positive experience,” Goodwin said in a written testimonial. “The sweat was pouring onto the floor until I was slipping and sliding. Everybody was shouting and encouraging each other. People were laughing and smiling at the same time they were crying out in physical anguish.”
Goodwin said that after absorbing the pain of service members in his job, the class is his therapy. He also lost four pounds in two weeks.
“Sgt. Maj. Murray is better than any anti-depressant I could ever prescribe,” he said.
Murray describes herself as “42 with a 22-aged body.” At 5 feet, 4 inches, she is “150 pounds solid; I don’t have no fat,” she said.
“It’s all about being a lean, mean fighting machine,” she said. “When you’re in uniform, your appearance means everything. Your appearance speaks volumes about who you are.”
But in 1998, Murray almost lost her job as a platoon sergeant because, post-pregnancy, she was 90 pounds overweight. Her company commander at Fort Bragg, N.C., warned her she would be discharged if she didn’t get in shape.
She said she got “negative vibes,” from coworkers and family over the weight gain, and she felt awful about herself. “I never had legs that rubbed before,” she said.
With the second chance from her commander, she hired a personal trainer, focused on keeping her job for the sake of her infant daughter. “I had determination, and most important motivation,” Murray said.
After getting in shape and passing her physical training test, she had a burning desire to give back. She became the instructor for Fort Bragg’s post-pregnancy physical fitness program, a job she held for several years, interrupted by an Iraq deployment.
“We were having girls going back to their unit in their best shape ever,” she said. “I was basically teaching them how to love themselves unconditionally.”
In Murray’s physical and mental approach to fitness, she helps others to replicate her weight-loss journey. She asks her classes to focus at all times on a positive, motivating part of their life, like she did with her daughter.
“Find a way to find your happy place,” she said. “When others feel you should frown, you should smile. If you learn to step out on faith, the rest will follow you. You’ve got to believe in yourself for someone else to believe in you.”
Since she first taught at Fort Bragg, she has obtained a raft of fitness certifications, and she went on to teach an exercise class at the Army Sergeant Majors Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas. Last year, after returning to Fort Bragg, she volunteered to teach another class for soldiers, civilians and spouses.
Deployed to Kuwait, she started the class on Labor Day 2013 with two people, and her 4 a.m. Crew has since grown to 50 to 75 on an average day.
“They come every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday,” she said, “and they get up at 3 o’clock in the morning, mind you.”