Specifics and Opposite: Building the Complete Tactical Athlete

Airmen run laps during the Arctic Defender Challenge.
U.S. Air Force Airmen assigned to the 354th Security Forces Squadron run laps during the Arctic Defender Challenge on Feb. 26, 2019, at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. (Airman Aaron Guerrisky/U.S. Air Force photo)

When designing a tactical fitness program, it doesn't matter whether you are preparing for the entrance exam (PT test) or the actual training or selection course. Your program design depends on many factors -- most importantly, your weaknesses. However, you cannot focus solely on your weaknesses. Addressing your weakness in one or more of the following elements will drive an effective training regimen:

Strength/power: Endurance athletes are typically weaker in the upper body, core and posterior chain (legs, hips, lower back). Being durable requires a foundation of strength that you can build by adding more weight-training workouts to your routine. You will need strength and power when you and your team are under boats, logs, rucks or other heavy equipment for long periods. See Tactical Strength.

Cardiovascular endurance (run, swim, ruck): Durability also is built by progressing with fast cardio through running, rucking and in the pool, depending upon your future training program (SEALs, RECON, EOD, PJ, etc.). Powerlifting football players and bigger athletes typically have a weakness in the longer-distance cardio demands of joining various tactical professions.

Muscle stamina: Adding higher repetitions, mixed with longer cardio events, will build your muscle stamina. Mixing these elements together in workouts is an option to train hard and transition from a strength/power athlete or endurance athlete into more of the hybrid athlete. Try run and PT (upper- and lower-body PT) as well as swimming mixed with PT options to get your additional repetitions and miles accumulated in for the day’s workout plan.

Specific skills and coordination: Swimming, treading, lifesaving, drownproofing and land navigation cannot be overlooked. Spending time each day focused purely on the technique for future tests is not a bad idea, especially if any are a weakness. General comfort in the water is critical. 

Mobility/flexibility: Stretch and work your joints through a normal range of motion daily. After a workout or before bed for 10-15 minutes is a great time to get this ability improved significantly. Even taking a mobility day midweek is a way to help with recovery and overall energy levels for harder workouts later in the week.

Speed/agility: Depending upon what unit you are training for, you may have agility tests, obstacle courses that are run at high speed, and shorter, faster runs (shuttle runs, 300- to 400-meter sprints). Make sure you do not neglect this training, especially if you spent most of your athletic career in a pool. 

We all have a weakness, depending upon the athletic and sports injury history we have endured prior to deciding to serve. Now arranging a plan to fit your needs should be considered.

Specifics and opposite

The meaning of "specifics and opposite" is really creating a balance in muscle groups, planar movements, energy systems and types of workouts. Building a completely well-rounded and balanced body before any challenging military program is the goal. Consider the following:

Upper body/lower body: Too many people skip leg day. You may find that you have a great amount of leg endurance for running, but lack the strength to squat or lift with the legs or upper body. Many power athletes may be too strong in the legs to run several miles fast and may want to lift less heavy weight and run more to correct that imbalance.

When creating a workout, you can do either full-body workouts every other day or split routines of upper body one day and lower body the next for 2-3 times a week each.

Front side/back side/core: You may have a weakness in your upper body for push-ups and sit-ups, but you cannot neglect the back side of your core. When doing push-ups, make sure you also work the upper back and rear shoulders by doing reverse push-ups, arm haulers and reverse flyes. When doing sit-ups or crunches for the PT test, make sure you balance out the lower back muscles by doing plank poses, swimmers and stretching out the hip flexors.

Strength/muscle endurance: Strength to do one heavy repetition is great, but balancing that out with higher repetitions will be needed in the tactical professions. You still can be strong with muscle endurance and it is good to do both, but with too much strength, you may find your endurance suffers, and with too much endurance, you may find your strength suffers. There is a need for both.

Running/non-impact options: When progressing with running, make sure you take a day off or two and do an non-impact option (bike, swim, elliptical, row) to still get cardio but limit the impact on your joints. This applies to bigger athletes new to running or those needing to lose weight as well.

Load-bearing/body-weight movements: For many tactical athletes, passing body-weight fitness tests is a requirement, and group PT during selection requires you to get good at it. But do not let it cause you to neglect other weighted movements, such as rucking, equipment carries, body carries or man-down drills with stretchers. These require you to work your grip muscles as well as your core and legs to handle running and walking with weight.

Long-distance cardio/sprinting/agility: Running, rucking and swimming long distance will be essential to training for most spec ops-level schools. However, adding in sprinting and agility will help you with other events like shuttle runs, obstacle courses and sprints. A healthy balance of both is needed. Do not get so good at one that it affects the other.

Rest days and gut checks: The balance of pushing hard and taking a rest day is a tough one. Listen to your body when you are exhausted or in pain from previous workouts. However, workouts that are long and hard and make you dig deep to finish are good.

Compromise with yourself. After a tough gut check, give yourself a recovery day and shake it off in the pool with a technique day, mobility and stretching.

Advice on overtraining

Tactical fitness is more than being a former athlete great at any one skill. Regarding of the skill you are exceptional at performing, you also have to be above average at all the other athletic elements of fitness. Typical athletes only have to master one or two of the elements of fitness to be great at their sport. The tactical athlete does not have to be world class in anything, just good at all of them.

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 stew@stewsmith.com.

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