How to Cross-Train Effectively for Special Operations Jobs

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Third Infantry Division soldiers participate in the 4-mile ruck-march during the U.S. Army Special Operations Challenge at Fort Stewart, Georgia, Nov. 20, 2019.
Third Infantry Division soldiers participate in the 4-mile ruck-march during the U.S. Army Special Operations Challenge at Fort Stewart, Georgia, Nov. 20, 2019, during the annual Marne Week celebration. (Joe Barker/U.S. Army photo)

Transitioning from one job in the military to another is not an impossible task. Successful attempts require a few things out of your control, but changing jobs in the military is still possible. This is a question from a young man who is about to join the Army with hopes of progressing into special operations forces in the future:

What are your thoughts on enlisting with plans to cross-train into SOF instead of training as a civilian and then enlisting into SOF? Would you recommend this for candidates who lack fitness? Ken

For Army transfers, this career progression can occur if that is what you want and you prepare properly for it before joining and during your enlistment. It is a more logical progression into Army Special Forces, as preparing you to become a soldier builds a solid foundation to take you to higher levels for each year of service.

Not all services are like this. Only the Army and Marine Corps can prepare members physically and tactically for a future in SOF through their initial enlistment in their chosen military occupational specialty (MOS). My advice is to keep grinding and prepare for running, rucking, calisthenics and weightlifting to help you with training and fitness tests, such as the Army Combat Fitness Test, along with preparing you for infantry jobs and advanced training like Airborne, Air Assault School and eventually Ranger and special forces.

I would not give this advice to the Navy or Air Force. The reasoning is that there is no career path that physically or tactically prepares you for jobs within Naval and Air Force Special Warfare. The recruiting and preparation are different in this group. Significant time before joining the military is needed involving physical training.

Your athletic history is a start, but typically, all athletes focus on getting really good at some of the elements of fitness, not all of them. For the spec-ops tactical athlete, you need to get good at all of the fitness elements, including strength, power, speed, agility, grip, muscle stamina, endurance (run, swim, ruck), flexibility and mobility. All must be an asset in these high-attrition rate programs where, quite frankly, most candidates fail to prepare adequately.

My advice for Air Force and Navy recruits (before they meet the recruiter) is to work on the acceptance fitness test that you must pass before Navy boot camp or Basic Military Training. These entry-level fitness tests are above and beyond the standard physical fitness assessments of the Navy and Air Force. You still have to prepare for those, but the Navy Special Warfare/Special Ops Physical Screening Test (PST) and the Air Force Special Warfare Initial Fitness Test (IFT) will include running, swimming, pull-ups, push-ups and sit-ups.

Not preparing specifically for these events will end your special ops dreams before they even start. However, you can still join the Navy or Air Force and change your initial job after a few years in the military, given that all the stars line up with manning and year-group personnel issues.

When you ace the fitness test before seeing the Air Force and Navy recruiter, you can then focus on the next phase of tactical fitness -- getting through the training. Understanding that the training is not over after you ace the PST/IFT is key to your success, as the following training after basic training will quickly get tougher with longer runs, longer swims with fins, pool skills, rucking and other load-bearing activities to master before you get into the military.

To answer your question, yes. You can cross-train for other jobs in the military, and the specific progression you are seeking will likely take a few years of training hard to be an above-average candidate.

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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