Murph Workout story: The exercise’s origins detailed

Memorial Day is a day for Americans to honor members of the armed forces who died on active service. Most Americans mark the day with celebrations involving barbeques, booze, family, and discounts. Others, however, honor lost military personnel by engaging in a CrossFit workout developed by a late Navy SEAL named Lt. Michael Murphy. 

Thanks to social media, the Murph Challenge has gone international, with service members stationed abroad participating in it alongside thousands of Americans on Memorial day. 

Lt. Michael Murphy started the Murph workout to suit deployed soldiers

Michael Murphy was born fearless: he jumped into the neighbor’s pool at two years old and swam to the other side without assistance. “Michael just swam to the other side and popped up with this big smile on his face,” Dan Murphy, Michael’s dad, told Men’s Health

Murphy stood up for the weak and defenseless: he roughed up a group of bullies hounding a disabled student; he stood up for a homeless can collector who was being harassed. Michael’s heroics earned him the title: The Protector. 

Michael majored in political science and psychology, and after college, he applied to law school. Murphy was interested in enlisting, but his father, a Vietnam veteran wise to the realities of war, dissuaded him. 

The determined Michael eventually convinced his father and enlisted in 2000. He created the Murph workout after joining the navy, but at the time, Murphy called it Body Armor. 

Michael designed a regimen that suited the Navy SEAL’s operations. “He put together his own [CrossFit-style] workout that fit in with his job as a SEAL,” Dan said. The exercises were simple enough that soldiers in the field could do them. 

It allowed deployed service members to retrain movements and patterns that would help them in the heat of battle. 

Lt. Murphy succumbed to injuries sustained when trying to save his team from an ambush

After earning the SEAL Trident in 2002, Murphy did tours in Jordan, Qatar, and Djibouti. In 2005, his fourth deployment sent him to Afghanistan. 

In late June 2005, the military dropped Lt. Murphy and Petty Officers Danny Dietz, Matthew Axelson, and Marcus Luttrell on the Hindu Kush Mountains for Operation Red Wings, a recon operation for a planned action against rebel leader Ahmad Shah. 

The team came across goat herders who they detained and released. Unfortunately, the herders informed the Taliban of the SEAL Team’s position. Within hours, about 50 militiamen ambushed Murphy’s team, pinning them against the cliffs where calls for help failed to go through.

To save his team, Lt. Murphy moved into the open, where he could get a signal through to American forces – and where he had no cover against enemy fire. After getting shot in the back, Lt. Murphy dropped his transmitter but picked it up, completed the call, and continued firing at the enemy. 

The doomed operation went from bad to worse as the Taliban shot down the helicopter carrying the 16 soldiers sent to rescue Lt. Murphy and his team. Axelson, Dietz, and Murphy passed away, but miraculously, Luttrell survived. 

American forces rescued him three days later from a nearby village where locals had kept him. 

When Dan learned that only one soldier survived the ambush, he knew it wasn’t Michael. “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.’”

Lt. Michael Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor in October 2007 for his extraordinary acts of selfless courage. 

Dr. Joshua Appel, the pararescue team leader who recovered Michael’s body, stumbled onto the challenge by accident

Murphy’s Body Armor workout spread rapidly among SEAL teams following his death. Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit, heard of the exercise through Darren Andersen, who requested that Glassman name a workout after Murphy. 

CrossFit was already famous in military circles: SEALs stationed in Monterey, California, traveled to Santa Cruz to train at the home of the original CrossFit box. 

Like Murphy before them, people participating in Body Armor wore weights. Greg Amundson, a former DEA agent, said:

“You might have people wearing a specific weight vest that weighed 20 pounds, whereas others would wear whatever kit they had. 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.”

Something about Murphy’s workout differed from workouts created by former heroes. “There was something about Body Armor that had an inherent spirit to it,” Amundson said

In August 2005, Glassman posted the workout on, giving the name ‘Murph.’ Glassman wrote:

“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.”

Dr. Joshua Appel, the man who’d popularize the Murph Challenge, stumbled onto it by accident. He heard about the Murph at CrossFit Albany and was like, ‘I wonder if that’s the same Murph.’

Dr. Appel later learned that he was the pararescue team leader that rescued Lt. Murphy and his team – the same Lt. Murphy who created this grueling workout. “I was the pararescue team leader that rescued Marcus Luttrell and recovered Michael Murphy and Danny Dietz,” Dr. Appel said. 

After contacting Murphy’s family, Dr. Appel turned the Murph Challenge into a national movement

After discovering his connection to Murph, Dr. Appel suggested that a group of people do the exercise as part of Memorial Day. Dr. Appel said:

“It was very unifying and brought all kinds of people together. 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. It sounds kind of corny, but it drives and motivates you.”

Following a successful event, Dr. Appel wondered whether he could reach out to more people about the idea. In 2010, Dr. Appel contacted Dan with the proposal to make Murph a national Memorial Day tradition. 

People wanting to participate would pay a small fee, benefiting the LT Michael P. Murphy Memorial Scholarship Foundation and military charities. Dan was initially skeptical about the idea. Dr. Appel said: 

“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.’”

Nearly 8000 people signed up for the workout in 2011. Dr. Appel came up with the idea for t-shirts, and the following year, he shipped over 10,000 of them. Mike Sauers, a former SEAL and founder of the apparel brand Forged, helped streamline operations. 

“We jumped on board and started setting everything up, organizing and facilitating the Memorial Day fundraiser,” Mike said. 

The organizers created the Murph Challenge to attract more participants

The Murph was a grueling challenge, which many, some SEALS included, failed to complete. To attract more people, the organizers added the word challenge. It gave people the freedom to modify the Murph to suit their capabilities. 

“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,” Sauers said

“You don’t have to be a Navy SEAL to do this workout,” Dr. Appel added. “Sure, it helps. But you can scale it and anyone can do Murph. Can’t do pull-ups? 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.”

The idea is to participate in something that’ll force you to reflect on the lost service members. 

Sauers got celebrities involved, further popularizing the Murph Challenge. He’d trained Chriss Pratt for his role in Zero Dark Thirty, and the pair had remained friends. “He’s [Chris] done it since 2012,” Sauers said.

Chris introduced John Krasinski, and John invited Dwayne Johnson. After working out with John in 2020, Dwayne said via Instagram:

“What an honor it was to drop sweat in honor of Lt. Michael Murphy. 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.”

Spread the love