Ask Stew: The Difference Between Pre-Basic and Pre-Selection Military Training

(U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Tristan Biese)

Preparing for military training, regardless of the hundreds of military occupational specialties (MOS), Air Force specialty codes (AFSC) or ratings -- also known as "jobs" available in the military -- requires being physically able to complete the training, meet the standards and not injure yourself in the process.

Depending on your athletic and physical work history and the job you seek, you may be capable of getting through the basics without much specific preparation. However, if you seek a more physically demanding profession in any branch of service, the amount of effort required may be significant.

This preparation time could be a year or more, depending on your goals and personal abilities when you begin the process. Here is an email from a military recruit seeking to join the Army with follow-on plans to join the Army Rangers or Special Forces:

"Hey Stew. Many active duty guys I talk to tell me to not show up at basic training then selection in peak shape so you can improve while at the course. What's your take on this? Sometimes I feel like you say the opposite? I am trying to prepare for a special ops job after boot camp. Thank you -- Mike"

Mike, great question. It appears I need to answer this question with a big "it depends."

It depends on your current physical condition, what branch of service you are joining and which job or fitness testing standard you are preparing for. This all goes back to preparing yourself to get to and through training.

Unfortunately, most recruits do well with the first phase of tactical fitness and pass the fitness standards to get to the training, but fail to focus enough time on phase two of tactical fitness to get through the training and graduate special ops selections.

There is also a difference between being in "peak shape," adequately prepared, and overtrained or burned out. My way of differentiating between those states also depends on the branch of service you seek to join. Here is the difference and may explain some of the confusion:

If you were going to the Navy and wanted to join SEALs, SWCC, diver/EOD or rescue swimmer, you need to show up in peak shape and borderline overtrained (without injury), because you will spend the next 10 weeks deconditioning compared to your starting fitness level.

Treat it like a taper and work hard squeezing in as much extra calisthenics as possible to try to stay in some type of shape. The good news is that there are now preparatory school workouts like an A school for you to do after boot camp to prepare for the challenging selection programs for which you signed up.

There is nothing in the Navy that will prepare you for these jobs,so it is up to you to be fully prepared, taper during the deconditioning of boot camp and rebuild immediately after boot camp through the prep programs.

If you are joining the Army or Marine Corps, the good news is that basic combat training (BCT) and the boot camp of each service will be more physically demanding. These schools are complete with longer runs, rucks, high-rep PT workouts, obstacle courses and more.

It may be easier for you if you prepared properly for the following special-ops selections, but it will at least help you maintain much of your ability. Plus, the following schools, such as infantry training, are an excellent tool to rebuild you prior to any future selection.

If you are going Air Force and Air Force Special Warfare immediately thereafter, they have done an excellent job at finding time in the AFSW recruit's schedule at basic military training (BMT) to work in events of future fitness tests and swimming skills.

It is still a bit of a deconditioning phase compared to what you were likely doing prior to BMT when you had the time to train more, but it is something to help you maintain most of your ability as well.

Prepared for Basic is Not Prepared for Selection

My advice for any recruit preparing for special-ops jobs after the basic military training of any service is to get into peak conditioning about 2-3 weeks prior to selection. Then take a few weeks to taper and be well-rested and recovered when you go to the more demanding training of special-ops selections.

You can then be "well-rested, well-tested" and likely see increases in performance throughout the training time, versus peaking too early, seeing decreases in performance or worse: experiencing overuse injuries that could have been avoided by some recovery time prior to starting.

The process of rebuilding to your former peak levels of fitness is easier the second time around versus trying to reach new levels of fitness while enduring long days of special operations training. The chances of you improving each week in special-ops selections will be greater if you have already reached that level of performance long before you joined the military.

Before basic training, however, go hard the week prior to joining (especially the Navy) as boot camp itself will be the taper. Do not be so overtrained that you are bordering on injury, but being in peak shape and prepared is absolutely a good idea, as it will be a bit of a taper for you, even if attending more physically demanding basic training programs.

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

Want to Learn More About Military Life?

Whether you're thinking of joining the military, looking for fitness and basic training tips, or keeping up with military life and benefits, has you covered. Subscribe to to have military news, updates and resources delivered directly to your inbox.

Story Continues