How to Train for Tactical Strength

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An Army major executes a deadlift.
Maj. Bart Brimhall, the deputy product manager for Missile Field Development, executes a deadlift at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. (Courtesy photo)

When we think about all the elements of fitness, it is not difficult to realize that strength training is a critical component to all candidates, students and active members in any tactical profession. But how is tactical strength different from other strength-training programs for athletics?

Special ops, military, police, firefighters and first responder and emergency service personnel are the tactical professionals I deal with daily. The common denominator of these professionals who do their job at the highest level is strength.

Tactical strength allows the athlete to prevent a potential injury, increase power, speed and agility. But strength is also the initial phase of building muscle stamina. For instance, to get your first pull-up requires strength. The strength exercise to get your 20th pull-up requires a muscle stamina/endurance exercise, with strength as a starting point.

Taking your strength foundation and evolving it into muscle stamina and work capacity is the main difference between typical one-rep maximum (1RM) strength used in athletic training and tactical strength.

A tactical strength program should be geared to increasing work capacity, durability and protect against injury, not creating world-record lifts. You can have an advanced level of strength and still be good at running, swimming, rucking, or whatever cardiovascular endurance event your job requires.

Tactical strength is the element of fitness that allows the tactical athlete to grab, carry, push, pull or lift heavy pieces of equipment or people when needed. There are more elements of fitness required for the tactical athlete, such as endurance, muscle stamina, speed, agility, mobility, flexibility and power.

However, unlike an athlete specializing in a particular sport, the tactical athlete has to be good at all of the above elements of fitness. For the regular athlete, depending on your sport and the level of competition, you have to be great only in one or two elements of fitness.

Tactical strength is very similar to athletic strength. As with athletics, there are several types of strength required of the tactical athlete. A foundation in strength training means you have strong muscles, bones and connective tissues of the core and extremities, as well as grip strength.

Being strong and having a foundation of strength is critical to all of your other abilities. This does not mean you have to bench-press or deadlift a truck, but being strong will assist in your ability to make power when you need it most. The most basic way to measure strength is to record the amount of weight lifted in one repetition.

However, this program will focus more on the 3-5 repetition range for strength. While 1RM weight lifts are fun, the goal of this program is not to build competitive powerlifters, but strong tactical athletes.

Cardiovascular endurance can compete with maximum strength in many athletics, but the tactical athlete must remember that this is not a specific sport. There is never a need only to specialize in a single element of fitness like strength, endurance or speed/agility.

You have to diversify to get good at all the elements of fitness (as discussed in a previous article on fitness weaknesses), which may mean you do not beat your previous 1RM of a 400-pound bench press or a 600-pound deadlift that you did in college.

This isn't college or a sport. It is your job, and it could be your life or a teammate's life if you lack any of the fitness elements. Neglecting too many of the elements by specializing in just one or two can be detrimental to your abilities to do your job at a high level.

How to Build Strength

Building strength is similar for the athlete and those in tactical professions; the progresses are typically linear with relatively lower repetition sets and longer rest periods. Adding mass (muscle) is one of the benefits, but there are many ways to progress each week with added strength. Take any lift (bench press, deadlifts, power clean, squats, weighted pull-ups, etc.) and try some classic and favorite go-to strength building plans, such as the following:

Drop sets: To do drop sets, change it up between sets by either decreasing reps while increasing weight, or decreasing weight with increasing reps. For strength, I like to do a 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 or a 10, 8, 6, 4, 2, with increasing weight for each of the five reps shown. You also can build up close to your one-rep max and then, quickly and with little rest, drop the weight in regular 10- to 25-pound intervals after maximum effort at each weight. Do this until only the bar remains. However, this is more of a strength/muscle stamina lifting drill that is great for building work capacity.

Other drop sets/double drop sets: Doing each weight twice before increasing the weight/decreasing the reps is another way to push max strength to new limits. The 4, 4, 3, 3, 2, 2, 1, 1 is such a set/rep scheme that works great as you push nearer to your 1RM effort.

5x5: You cannot go wrong with this classic strength set/rep routine. Choose a weight that is about 75% to 80% of your 1RM effort lift. Do five repetitions of that lift. Rest a few minutes and repeat for five sets.

Two-Pops: Another favorite is multiple sets of two repetitions. Increase the weight for each set, starting with a light warmup set. Start to add weight, but only doing two reps per set. Increase weight each set and keep doing two reps until you no longer can achieve two reps. That one rep that you last recorded can be a 1RM for you if you take your time and rest for a few minutes between lifting in the two-rep sets.

Typically, these strength cycles can last 4-8 weeks and can go up to 12 weeks. Some like to do lifts only for a particular body part once a week. I prefer doing upper-body lifts 2-3 times a week and full-body/leg movements 2-3 times a week. This type of frequency goes well with building work capacity needed for the tactical profession.

Do not forget that even though you are back in musclehead mode, you cannot forget other elements. Yes, that means cardio as well. For our group, we arrange our strength training during a no-run/non-impact cardio cycle, and it works nicely for proper gains in all lifts. However, we keep our cardio up with swimming, rucking and other non-impact machines like rowers, bikes and elliptical machines, mainly using speed intervals for the workouts.

In tactical fitness, you have to focus not only on a few components of fitness, but also have a diverse program so you can remain good at all elements that may be important to your profession. Components like endurance, muscle stamina, flexibility/mobility and even agility should not be neglected when the focus is purely on strength and power.

What are some of your go-to strength-building routines (set/rep schemes)?

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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