Ask Stew: How to Become a Tactical Athlete


Preparing yourself to become a tactical athlete – especially in competitive special ops programs – requires you to get TO the program and THROUGH the selection in order to become a member of any special ops unit.

Here is a common question from a young man seeking to prepare for SEAL Training but has to first master the highly competitive physical screening test (PST) in order to get TO THE TRAINING.

Stew, I am trying to get my run and swim times down for the BUD/S PST.  Do you recommend lifting weights during this higher cardio (run / swim) cycle too so I can still prepare for boats, logs, and rucking? Jake

Jake – the short answer is “it depends." It sounds like you are solid on the upper body PT scores. If you prefer to lift upper body in addition to this higher repetition PT / Running cycle you can, but focus more on muscle stamina sets versus 1 rep max lifting workouts. However, typically the volume of the calisthenics alone is enough upper body for a day. Also, do not lift one day (upper body) then do upper body calisthenics the next day. Do them on the same day if you prefer, this will enable you to recover for the next 48 hours before hitting it again. See how we incorporate lifting into PT training programs. 

Now, lifting legs is a completely different animal during a running phase. I do not recommend doing anything other than Run and Leg PTs during this phase to help you build both muscle stamina and endurance for running. We do a challenging workout that blends a series of events into what we call the Spec Ops Leg Day. Related Spec Ops Leg Day post.

You should avoid heavy 1 rep max set type of workouts while trying to get faster in timed runs (1.5 – 4 mile distances).These require endurance and muscle stamina. Once you master the PST, then you can add in some weights for the legs to prepare for the load bearing exercises like log PT, boat carries, and rucking. However, even then, weight room workouts built for hypertrophy and pure strength are not really needed UNLESS you are a non-lifting endurance athlete who lacks a foundation of lifting, strength or power training programming in your athletic history.

In a Nutshell

It is difficult to build running endurance while lifting heavy. It is also difficult to lift heavy while building endurance. You will never be at your optimal when mixing these together. However, you can build muscle stamina along with running / swimming endurance and you can maintain your strength foundation during this phase as well without the heavy weights for a cycle or two. And when you lift heavy again, within a 4-6 week cycle, you will be back to your old max lifts if you see a need to achieve those again before or after selection.

Why You Need To Consider a Lifting Cycle and a Running / PT Cycle Separately

For the past 20 years, I have been teaching /​ performing personally a Fall / Winter weight lifting cycle that increases weight, reduces repetitions, and running distances to give the joints a recovery period from high reps and impact miles. Of course, building strength is also a goal. However, for BUD/​S candidates I recommend this is a great time to add in a progressive swimming with fins cycle for extra cardio work. Add rucking in as well if your branch of service training specifically tests that skill too. See related article about how to incorporate periodization though the year. Periodization is something you need to learn, especially if you are more than a year away from training in order to actually work ALL the elements of tactical fitness you need to endure the selection phase of your future.

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Fitness Tactical Fitness