The famous Shaolin Temple is known to put its initiates through training that most people cannot comprehend. The methods employed have been well-documented by many researchers, and they include striking piles of leaves repeatedly with the hands to deaden nerves, hitting oneself on the head to harden the skull, running up the stairs of Mount Shaosang, then 'crawling' back down; and that is only for the physical conditioning that the Temple requires to learn Shaolin Kung Fu. It only gets worse.
As shown in the Brazilian movie Tropa de Elite / The Elite Squad, the grueling course for entry into the elite Dirty Harry-style unit of the Rio de Janeiro police, BOPE. Designed to fail over 95% of applicants. Includes being fed nothing but dog food, massive violence, endurance tests, being continually shouted at, verbally and physically lambasted by the course instructors.
The (In)famous senshusai aikido course. Takes 1 year, half of the pupils are Japanese SWAT-guys, the other half are MMA freaks. Main attraction is walking on your knees even while the blood is running down your trousers. There is a book called Angry White Pyjamas about a geeky guy who took the course.
Ken Shamrock's gym, the Lion's Den, was legendary for it's insane training regimen. Being beaten and choked into unconsciousness was a daily norm and, that was if you got in. To get in you had to to make it through an eight hour tryout that made the most 'badass' fighters cry home to their mommas. The Lion's Den made you into a monster, but the training destroyed your body and consequently the fighters had much shorter fighting careers than the average mixed martial artist. Most of the fighters still have injures that never healed properly because of their extreme training.
Transcendentalist writer Margaret Fuller was put through the intellectual equivalent of a Training From Hell by her overambitious father. She knew six languages, two ancient, four modern, and was one of the leading minds of her generation; unfortunately, having had to study hard and go without essential rest from the age of six left her with life-long nervous conditions which almost killed her.
The economist/philosopher John Stuart Mill went through much the same thing in childhood. He started learning ancient Greek at the age of three, and at the age of ten wrote a sequel to the Iliad. Unsurprisingly, he had a nervous breakdown by the age of twenty (though unlike Fuller, he recovered.)
The Royal Marines Young Officer training course is the longest infantry training course in the world at 15 months. It is also widely considered to be amongst the most grueling, being designed to take its trainees from civilian to fully qualified officer capable of commanding a troop of elite commandos. It is is estimated that for every fifty people who begin the application process, one will finish training.
The most notorious failed Royal Marines officer candidate was Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, who wimped out, much to the disgust of his father Prince Philip (a WW2 naval combat veteran).
The fitness tests that open training camp for National Hockey League teams are typically very tough, as they're designed to determine just how hard each player is able to push himself.
New York Rangers coach John Tortorella's fitness test is considered the hardest in the league. Players have been known to call it "Camp Torturella".
The Royal Navy's Submarine Command School is also known as "Perisher" for its 30% dropout rate. If you fail, the submarine immediately surfaces and a helicopter takes you back to shore and you are never allowed to serve on another submarine, ever.
Air Force Pararescue is two straight years of Training From Hell, going through every course on diver training, parachuting, recovery training and survival training. The school has a drop-out rate of approximately 90%, this is out of a class as large as 100 Airmen. Their Motto "That Others May Live" is exemplified in that, of the 22 Air Force Cross' that have been awarded since the inception of the Air Force, 12 of them have gone to PJs. Note that this team actually rescues other special forces units occasionally and often acts as medics for those teams.
1st SFOD-D, SAS, JTF2, DEVGRU, KSK and many more legendary strike teams not only endure a selection process that eliminates around 20% of the applicants, they go through training that often has only 5-10% pass. And then, they constantly train every single day for that one mission where they will be needed. No rest for the best.
The British SAS selection process culminates in a week long exercise where the surviving applicants are given a basic set of survival equipment and a movement restricting greatcoat and then told to evade capture from trained special forces teamsnote This could be anything from foreign forces who are accompanying the British Army on training exercise, to Royal Marines or a platoon from the Parachute Regiment who have been promised extra leave and rations for every trainee they catch.. And even if you get through this you're finally subjected to a 36 hour enhanced interrogation. (48 hours by some accounts. Even 72 hours has been alleged). It's said that only 15% of applicants ever go the whole way and join the SAS.
The SAS and, by extension, the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta are a different application of this trope from the norm. From what is known about the Selection course, the entire thing is not only difficult, but also one prolonged mind game. The instructors will not say anything aside from what the candidates need to know, will not smile or frown, or give any indication of how well each individual is doing. They could go through the whole course not knowing whether they passed or failed until the end. On the other hand, they do go out of their way to give the failures constructive criticism at the end and will even write them a glowing recommendation saying that they are a credit to their original unit.
Russian Spetsnaz deserve mention here, known for such things as swimming through blood to toughen soldiers and brutal close combat regimen. The passing rate is said to cap out at 5% percent. And yes, some recruits die during the training. This is considered to be normal. Spetznaz only wants the best; if you died in training, then you would have just weakened the team and died in combat anyway.
The final test isjustlovely. It starts with a 10km (6mi) march which must be completed in under two hours. Hopefuls must run uphill and downhill through various obstacles like mud, water, sand, dirt, and whatever else happens to be in the way. You are given MASKA titanium helmet, AK-74M, and a heavy bullet proof vest with inserted plates. This comes out to easily more than 60 pounds (27Kg) before ammo and ruck. During the march, you will be shot at, explosives will be detonated very close to you. And there will be a simulated chemically infected area, where you have to use gas masks while running or carrying your buddy for 2-3km (~1.5mi). You will also perform a series of tough physical exercises, such as duck walking up hills, doing endless pushups, and you never know when they will stop, nor when they will start.
It then continues without any breaks, where you are taken into an obstacle course after the march. The obstacle course is set amid an urban environment, with trenches and underground tunnels which would be a tight squeeze, even without your more than 60 pounds of gear. After you finish your obstacle course, you must fire a blank round that is provided with your magazine in the beginning of the test. IT MUST FIRE, because this will determine whether or not you can be trusted to properly manage a weapon. If it doesn't work, then you flunk.
Without any breaks again, you will be tested on your capability to accurately fire various weapons. You do this while you are already tired and exhausted. They are the AK-74M, PKM, SVD, RPG-7, AGS-17, and more. You have to do this while fully outfitted and moving from a variety of distances and ranges.
Next, You have 2 minutes to jump into your climbing gear and take on a 5 story building. You must all alone carry out a perfect storm of the building using the skills you learned in training. The assault begins at the top and goes down. On the fourth floor you will meet various targets which you must positively ID and shoot bad guys with live rounds. There are also civilians stationed throughout. Missing a single bad guy or hitting a single innocent means instant failure. You will not have ever run this house or this setup before. After shooting the tangos, you must now prepare your simulated grenade while going down around the 3rd floor. When you get to the second floor, you must knock out a window frame with your foot, and throw in a simulated grenade. You have 45 seconds to get from the 5th floor to the ground while performing all those tasks. Trainees now next perform various tough acrobatic exercises. Again, this is done in full gear without any sort of respite.
The final event is a 12 minute brutal fight without any breaks against 4 changing fighters. All of them are already certified veteran Spetsnaz men who have won their Red Berets in combat. In order to pass, you have to stay in the fight without being knocked out, and also by fighting the whole time. You must be active, and not just defend yourself. You are allowed to have medical attention only for 60 seconds. Everything is permitted in this fight except for killing blows.
Assuming that you pass all of this, then you have to be lucky enough to be selected. And even then, you only become a Spetsnaz soldier. You do not get the red beret until you have proven yourself in combat.
And do you know where this is all done? Right in the middle of an active war zone! Not only do you have to survive and complete the demands of the test, but there is always the chance that you could very well have to deal with the enemy trying to kill you for real during it.
It is said that at the beginning of his training a Spetsnaz recruit is given a small animal, such as a chicken or a puppy, that he has to care for when he is not on duty. He is encouraged to give the animal a name and bond with it. Then at some point during the training (usually the end) he is ordered to kill it with his bare hands. If he does it, he passes. If not, he washes out on the spot. The idea is that Spetsnaz soldiers may be asked to cross a Moral Event Horizon in service of country, and they need to be sure a recruit will not let his emotions get in the way of his duty before they can accept him.
It should be said that a lot of the above is apocryphal and not verifiable, and similar tales regarding the training regimes of other nations exist (such as the SAS, Navy Seals, etc). The "given a small animal which you have to kill" and "swimming through blood" are particularly widespread urban legends.
Russians have a long experience with this trope. Peter the Great, for example, created himself some "Entertaining Regiments" when he was a boy, and ordered them to train and drill with live ammunition. The survivors eventually formed the Russian Imperial Guard.
Bruce Lee. Not only could he allegedly do one-finger pushups, he spent hours punching a stool to toughen up his fists.
Dick Wei, an actor/martial artist who played a string of memorable villains in 1980s Hong Kong action cinema, also trained many Action Girl stars during the heydey of Hong Kong's "girls with guns" movies (Michelle Yeoh, Moon Lee and Cynthia Khan among them). A former Army man and founder of his own martial arts studio, Wei was a legendary believer in hitting and kicking people for real when training, staging and filming fight sequences so that they would be realistic. And he made no exemption for female opponents; in keeping with this philosophy, he is reported to have accidentally broken Cynthia Rothrock's jaw. Supposedly, apart from this he was an extremely nice guy, and in fact he had no problem "losing" on-screen fights to many of the people he had trained.
US Army Special Forces Selection isn't a walk in the park. SFAS, the first part, is the qualification exam for the actual Qualification Course, and attrits a minimum of 40%, and like Ranger School, you have a good chance of not being selected anyway. Some of that is deliberate, as the instructors will sometimes fail you to see if you will come back and try again. Then comes the fabled Q course, which can basically be considered Basic Training for the Special Forces, with a similar attrition rate. Only after that, do you actually go through the actual training for your job, which knocks out even more candidates.
Paratrooper units feature these by necessity. Not only is parachute training an inherently stressful and risky activity in itself, but the role of paratroopers in a major conflict is to be dropped far ahead of friendly forces to conduct reconnaissance and hit-and-run attacks, usually going for extended periods without resupply or backup.
Fort Irwin National Training Center is home to the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, widely recognized as the best mechanized formation in the US Army, which is used almost exclusively for training other groups. Visiting "Blue" forces can expect to be outnumbered and outgunned, all the while fighting on the OpFor's home terrain.
SERE School is a notorious training regimen for all special operations infantry and combat pilots in the US military. It stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, and you get to do all of those. The survival portion is being dumped in generally inhospitable terrain with maybe a knife, and you have a set amount of time (which you are not aware of) to endure the elements. You are then tracked by your instructors, with the stated purpose of evading capture. Of course, without exception, you will be captured; you have to be, so that you can endure the next part, where you have to resist the torture inflicted on you by your captors. This is true torture, in that it would be illegal to do it to prisoners of war, but the only thing you know for sure is that they can't kill you: everything else is fair game. Then, finally, you are expected to escape when the opportunity presents itself. You do not want to fail the course, as if you do, you get to do it again.
It should be noted that "everything else is fair game" is obviously an exaggeration. They generally try to avoid inflicting any lasting or permanent injury. There's no point in, say, breaking vertebrae, chopping off fingers, or doing anything to the eyeballs because then you'd be ruining a promising recruit. He's no good to you as a soldier if he's permanently crippled. The goal, though, is to make the recruit believe that "everything else is fair game". Because if he ever is captured by the enemy, it probably will be. So he has to know how to handle that.
Crossfit, arguably. Many crossfitters are intimately familiar with "Pukey the Clown".
English Longbowmen had to be taught from birth constantly, moving up bows with higher and draw weights, up until 120 pounds. Keep in mind most people can't pull back a bow with 40 pound draw weight, and skeletons of the bowmen universally have bone issues in their draw arms.
Legends say that English Longbowmen could draw 200 pounds. These legends appear to have very large grains of truth, as there are people who can use Bows that have draw weights of 180 pounds. There is also a saying about them: To train a longbowman, start with his grandfather.
Though it is an important fact that a trained modern bowman can use longbows of 80lb very easily. Longbows are not (and were never) bows that were typically drawn to the shoulder like a recurve bow. They were artillery weapons fired en masse on a battlefield and as such were fired upwards at an angle with minimal drawback. The main difference between then and now is the poundage of the bows used, which required training from a young age to develop the sheer pull strength to hold a medieval longbow at full draw for more than a second.
During Vietnam, Marine recruits in the east side of the country were sent to Parris Island. Gustav Hasford makes note of how hard it was in The Short-Timers and the film based on the book, Full Metal Jacket. One year before those take place, an assistant drill Sergeant managed to kill six people during a mud runnote It should be noted, this remains a controversial example, as outside examination posits that proper supervision by training staff would have prevented these unnecessary deaths.
Training of World War II Japanese soldiers usually included very strong discipline, lots of beatings, lack of food, and the like. It has been stated this is one of the reasons behind their brutality toward their enemies or non-Japanese civilians.
A controversial example, from the world of sports: Chinese sports academies. They scour the country for children with athletic talent, then sweep them up into the academy system (typically well before their tenth birthday). At the academies, they do Nothing. But. Train. For years. They get some basic schooling, but every possible moment is devoted to the sport they were selected for. They don't get out until they see that sport's version of success — if they make it that far. Many — if not most — burn out or prove to be unfit for the Big Time.
The SEALs. Two words. Hell Week: 132 hours of continuous physical activity. No, that is not an exaggeration. During Week 4 of SEAL training, applicants get only 3 to 4 hours of sleep. No, not 3 to 4 hours a day. 3 to 4 hours of sleep in that 132 hour period. In addition, they are beaten by their instructors and undergo surf torture (a full body workout after being forced to lie in 65 degree water). (Still, these are the guys who managed to take out Osama Bin Laden. You can't argue with success.)
The army of ancient Rome. The trainers regularly beat up the trainees (with an infamous one being known as 'Give me another' because he'd continuously shout his assistant to give him another baton to beat up the recruits after breaking the previous one), the exercises were done in full armour with non-lethal weapons that still hurt a lot and weighed more than the combat ones, and they were forced to learn some engineering because they would build aqueducts, roads, forts and miles-long walls, and they were made march with wooden poles because they'd have to build, fortify and dismantle their camp on a daily basis on campaign. And that was when they were lucky: sometimes they'd get trainers so harsh they killed more people than the actual battles, and pissed-off commanders would select a tenth of the soldiers and have the rest beat them up to death to teach discipline (that's where the terms decimation comes from, by the way: it's the name of this punishment), with Marcus Licinius Crassus killing four thousands of his own men this way right after taking command of an army recently trashed by Spartacus. Given their string of victories, the Roman trainers knew exactly what they were doing (for example, the army Crassus killed a tenth of to teach discipline would later annihilate Spartacus' army under Crassus' own leadership).
A very downplayed, but possibly one with higher impact, is one of high schools in Red China. To quote Cram School: "[...]there are no cram schools in the usual sense in Mainland China. As high school funding in China is directly proportional to college admission rates and the prestige of the colleges the students get into, high schools have the incentive to be the cram school too." Well, officially every school day has 8 periods of 55 minutes each, plus an hour of lunch break, but for most schools there's one period before, and several hours after school there are compulsory Study Halls, and school ends at nine. God forbid if that is a Boarding School; many of the practice will be considered as child abuse in the West: sleep allowed for less than eight hours, homegoing only allowed twice a month, etc. Since Everyone Has Standards, and even in China people wonder what are they themselves training: amoral Combat Pragmatists, or people who know absolutely nothing except studying? For an example, let us talk about Hengshui High School, Hengshui, Hebei, who was became memetic in this regard:
I wake up at 5:30 every morning and am required to be out of the dorm by 5:45. I grab my books and go to gather at the track. After joggingnote Hengshui High's memetic squadron run ends, all classes are required to run up the stairs to their morning study sessions. At 6:38, the more than 80 students in my class all vacate the classroom in a matter of seconds (of course there are a seven or eight who donít go to eat), just so they can get breakfast, since we have to be back in class before 7 to begin [study hall]. If we leave the classroom later than this, with being stuck in the crowded hall for 5 minutes, standing in line for 5 minutes, and 7 minutes to get there and back, we have at most 3 minutes for breakfast. Iíve been living at Hengshui for three months, and now I understand what human purgatory is.
The well-known composer Philip Glass studied under an old-school musical composition instructor, Nadia Boulanger, in Paris, for the musical version of this. He tells stories about the tortuous musical assignments she would give that would take weeks to complete (remember, no word processors in 1965 so you have to draw notes on empty sheets of flagstaff paper) unless you figured out the trick to them in a blinding flash of insight.
For a non-military example, learning how to be a professional traditional animator is this. There is a reason a Disney regular said it's easier to become a professional league basketball player than it is to be an animator worthy of working at any studio like Disney. To begin with, it requires absolute top-tier knowledge of drawing articulation in all forms of art (merely drawing in the Disney style or their characters proficiently or just drawing in a cartoon style will not cut the mustard—when legendary animator Richard Williams first attempted to get a job at Disney, with his drawings of Disney characters being at Roger Rabbit level, he was promptly brushed off by a story artist and told to really learn how to draw—which resulted in him being told by another art instructor to go to the library and study Albrecht Durer for two years straight, which prompted him to abandon his animation desire for years and take up painting. And Richard himself has claimed it takes as long to train a pro animator as it does to train a diamond cutter—at least ten years of learning just about every form of art, both in drawing, painting, acting, theater, music, even the basics and advanced techniques of traditional animation, and much more (and by proxy, all of this practically mandates that a traditional animator be completely culturally literate). And to give an idea of how much dedication it takes to get there, one Disney artist, Mike Gabriel, spent the better part of a decade of getting solid art training, drawing four to six hours a day every day studying Michelangelo, Leonardo, Burne Hogarth, and thousands of Muybridge photos and then lots of life drawing, being turned down many times before Disney finally gave him the nod. And that's not even counting learning the technical know how of working in computer animation, which is basically mandatory knowledge for anyone wanting to work in a modern studio.
The sport of gymnastics is infamous for this. Perhaps the most heartbreaking story is that of 1970s-era Soviet gymnast Elena Mukhina, who came out of nowhere at the relatively advanced age of seventeen to completely dominate the 1978 World Championships. Mukhina pioneered skills so far ahead of her time that, two decades later, her balance beam dismount from that Championships would be used by Chinese gymnast Liu Xuan to win Olympic gold — and this in a sport where five years can render a routine obsolete on the world stage. In 1979, the Soviets were still reeling from Romanian phenom Nadia Comaneci's dominance in Montreal, and with the 1980 Olympic Games scheduled for Moscow, it was paramount to them that they regain their supremacy in the world of gymnastics. As a result, Mukhina, who had suffered a broken leg, was pressured back into training long before she had healed, put on a brutal diet, and pushed to her breaking point. With the Soviets desperate to win at any cost and Mukhina hailed as their best hope for victory, she was forced to include increasingly dangerous skills in her routines — including the Thomas salto, a complicated floor skill that ends in a 3/4 forward flip into a forward roll. It was almost never performed by women, who simply don't have the power to attain the height needed to complete the skill safely; even the smallest over- or under-rotation could mean catastrophic injury or death.note This skill would later be banned for women altogether. Mukhina pleaded with her coaches to remove the skill from her routine, saying that she would surely break her neck attempting it, but they would not be swayed, declaring that she needed the astronomical difficulty to challenge for all-around gold. Just two weeks before the Games, however, Mukhina's prediction came true. Weak and exhausted, she under-rotated the salto. Her spine snapped, and she was rendered instantly quadruplegic less than a month after her twentieth birthday. She later said that her first thought as she lay on the floor was, "Thank God, I won't have to go to the Olympics."note In the end, it was Mukhina's best friend and training partner, Elena Davydova, who would win all-around gold in Moscow. They would remain close until Mukhina's death in 2006.
The Italian Bersaglieri assault infantry. Most of their training is similar to that of standard infantry, except they're trained for higher-than-average aim (bersagliere used to be Italian for "sharpshooter" before the soldiers laid exclusive claim on the term) and, by regulation, they have to run all the time to build up running speed and stamina, and, in case of the musical bands of the various regiments, while playing trumpets and other brass instruments (and they're actually punished if they don't run). This was because they were originally supposed to countercharge at enemy cavalry, force it to retreat and give chase until they broke and run (they actually pulled it off in one occasion. Not being stupid, they charged them on the flank), and while there's no horse cavalry to charge at anymore the training is still useful to storm and trample enemy positions.