Ask Stew: How to Become a Tactical Athlete

Marine performs weighted jumping jacks with ropes.
U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Andrea Shorter, a finance disperser from Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, performs weighted jumping jacks during the High Intensity Tactical Training Tactical Athlete Championship on Camp Pendleton, Calif., Aug 28, 2017. (Lance Cpl. Brienne Collins Miller/Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton)

Preparing yourself to become a tactical athlete, especially in competitive special-ops programs, requires you to get to the program and through the selection 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 he first must master the highly competitive physical screening test (PST) 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, it sounds like you are solid on the upper-body PT scores. You can lift upper body in addition to this higher repetition PT/running cycle if you prefer, but focus more on muscle stamina sets versus one-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.  

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 one-rep max set type of workouts while trying to get faster in timed runs (1.5 to four miles). These require endurance and muscle stamina. Once you master the PST, 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 needed unless you are a non-lifting endurance athlete who lacks a foundation of lifting, strength or power-training programming.

It is difficult to build running endurance while lifting heavy. It is also difficult to lift heavy while building endurance. You never will 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 four- to six-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 fal/winter weightlifting cycle that increases weight and 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.

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 throughout the year.

You should learn about periodization, especially if you are more than a year away from training in order to work all the elements of tactical fitness to endure the selection phase in your future.

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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