Ask Stew: Building Strength and Maintaining PST/Cardio Scores

Completing pull-ups during Navy physical screening test
Twenty-five future sailors try to complete as many pull-ups as possible in two minutes as the Navy Talent Acquisition Group (NTAG) Southwest Naval Special Warfare/Naval Special Operations team proctors a physical screening test (PST) at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, California, Nov. 9, 2020. (Public Affairs Specialist Todd J. Hack/U.S. Navy photo)

When preparing to get to and through military training at any level, you first have to pass a fitness test to enter the military, such as the Navy's physical screening test, or PST. For advancement, you have to pass initial or advanced-level training (boot camp, basic or spec ops selection).

Both phases of tactical fitness require specific training to address the strengths and weaknesses of an individual candidate and to prepare for testing requirements and the future challenges of training.

Here is a block periodization system our group is trying out over a 12-week period. We've also got another option provided by a Fitness reader.

4-2 block strength -- This PST periodization cycle is a four-week, strength-based program with minimum cardio and two weeks of PST-specific training such as the Classic PST week of training. This is done for a total of 12-18 weeks, depending on the individual.

The minimum cardio during four-week strength training includes 1.5-mile timed runs, 500-meter swims, and four-mile timed runs spread through the week for a total of 10-12 miles of running and 1-2 miles of swimming each week.

Stew, I just looked at your 4-2 strength/PST cycle. I agree many people need time off after 4-6 weeks of lifting, and this idea of periodization strength with cardio and PST-driven work looks solid to me. The cycle as it is set up now allows you to get 2 full rotations through a 12-week phase (6 weeks twice).

One other possible route is turning this into a 4-week cycle to be done 3 times over the 12-week phase. Since this is a strength-training phase, if you do 3 weeks of strength and 1 week of PST focus for 3 cycles, you now get 9 weeks of strength training in a 12-week cycle vs. 8 weeks. You also get half of the PST cycles, so it would depend on the strengths and weaknesses of the individual. What do you think of a 3-1 option as opposed to the 4-2 option? Thanks -- Dan.

Dan, you make a great point, and I love the idea, especially since we are in a strength cycle and we're using the PST focus week partially as recovery from strength. Of course, we're also supporting our folks who need to maintain competitive PST scores as they prepare to join the Navy.

Here is an update of our first six-week cycle of 4-2 block periodization:

We did the 4-2 block and are starting over again this week. We may do the 3-1 block this round; it will depend on how people are feeling as we approach week 3 again.

We noticed we needed more recovery during the four weeks vs. the two weeks. There's a difference between a Day 3 Mobility Day that you felt like you needed versus one that you don't need but do anyway. Hunger was greater during the four weeks, as was the urge for a midday nap. Strength training requires more recovery time than moderate cardio and calisthenics, so that wasn't surprising.

During the two-week PST, things went very well. We didn't experience any soreness, and we added more forms of cardio (run, ruck, bike, elliptical, swimming). We didn't do any long distances but kept everything fast-paced.

Strength scores went up in the four weeks of lifting, and PST scores (pull-ups and push-ups) also went up during the two weeks when compared to the week before we started. The 1.5-mile and 4-mile run times were also fast for our group members who are getting ready to ship to Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL and other spec ops units.

Swims have remained the same, but they're still fast at a yard per second or faster with fins and without fins. During the full 4-2 cycle, we are focused on technique as much as conditioning. Those who better mastered the technique over the six weeks were faster because of that -- not so much the additional conditioning.

Here is another reason why I like the 3-1 block periodization model: Since we're in a 12-week phase that's focused on strength development, I want my athletes to improve their strength as much as they can with proper recovery.

Strength will help across the board on the PST. Many people probably fall short because their strategy focuses on the technique for specific movements (combat side stroke, running economy, push-up tempo, etc.) but doesn't build strength.

Doing three weeks of strength focus, followed by one week of moderate calisthenics, cardio conditioning and skill drills are typically less fatiguing and therefore will not harm and may even benefit recovery. When it comes time to hammer the PST training during week 4, the athletes will be more comfortable and can take full advantage of that week.

See which one you like best for your specific needed:

4-2 Block Periodization ( Strength + PST) x 2 3-1 Block Periodization (Strength + PST) x 3
Weeks 1-4: Strength with moderate cardio/weighted calisthenics/skill work and drills for PST

Week 5-6: Deload strength/increase cardio and more PST focus

PST Test on week 0, week 6 and week 12

Weeks 1-3: Strength with moderate cardio/weighted calisthenics/skill work and drills for PST

Week 4: Deload strength/increase cardio and more PST focus

PST Test on week 0 and week 13

If you need to focus on more PST weeks but also build a better foundation of strength, go with the 4-2 block periodization model. If you need to focus more on strength and less on the PST numbers, go with the 3-1 block periodization model.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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