Ask Stew: Recommended Routine for a Strength Athlete Preparing for USMC

Lance Cpl. Evian T. Jackson Participates in a pull-up event during the 75th anniversary field meet competition at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. N.W. Huertas/Released).

Previous athletic experience can create a body with strengths that will transfer over nicely for anyone who's becoming a tactical athlete. However, that experience will typically create some equal and opposite weaknesses.

A strength athlete will most likely lack endurance and muscle stamina. An endurance athlete will likely lack upper and lower body strength and power. Specializing in a single sport has magnified these weaknesses in recent years, but there are ways to counteract those naturally occurring weaknesses as we make that transition from athletics into our training to become a tactical athlete.

Here is an email from a young man preparing for the Marine Corps who realizes the difference between athletic fitness and tactical fitness:

Stew, I was a football and baseball player in high school and, after the past 2 years in college, I have been more of a bodybuilder-type lifter (doing one body part per day). I realize I cannot prepare for the Marines this way. What is the best recommendation for split routines to maintain strength and mass, get better at PT tests and better at running. Over the last 6 months, I do more biking than running, accumulating maybe 90 minutes of bike and 6-7 miles per week. -- Jackson

Jackson, thanks for the wise question as well as your willingness to serve. I hope the accession process goes well for you.

There are many types of split routines you can do, but I would stop doing the body-part-per-day training. It is time to move out of that hypertrophy cycle and get into a variety of cycles that focus on endurance and muscle stamina (PT, run and ruck); grip; mobility/flexibility; and maintaining the strength and power that you have built over the years from both athletics and bodybuilding.

You may lose some of your 1RM max strength, but you will gain much more in high repetition muscle stamina and running and rucking endurance. If you do it right, you can maintain most of your body weight, but you may have to eat to gain weight or just to maintain weight, as you will be burning more calories than normal with these longer and higher-volume workouts.

Types of Splits that Work Well for Tactical Fitness

During PT/Cardio Cycles, I personally find that upper body and lower body split routines work well for most days, followed by a good 20- to 30-minute cardio session (or cardio mixed into the calisthenics workout).

For instance, upper body calisthenics exercises like pull-ups, push-ups, dips, rows, planks, crunches and knee-ups can be done every other day. You can mix in short and fast (100m-400m) running intervals in between circuits of the calisthenics listed above, or save those cardio intervals until after the calisthenics.

The leg days can be a mix of squats, lunges and jumps done as calisthenics or with a weight vest if you want to add some light weight. Running and leg PT is a great way to build up both the legs and the lungs and to progress with running mileage each week. You can add these leg days in between the upper body days.

I typically prefer a mobility day later in the week (Wednesday or Thursday) to help with some of the typical aches and pains of running progression and higher-repetition calisthenics. Mobility days count as a non-impact cardio day mixed with stretching, foam rolling and other massage techniques to work out any workout-related pains.

You can also do a full body day of calisthenics with interval cardio during or after the exercises of all of the above calisthenics. However, you will want to do a big cardio day (or mobility day) on the days in between the full body days.

During Strength/Power Cycles, you can mix in the Upper Body Push day, Upper Body Pull Day and Leg Day into the week. The recovery time from lifting is different than from the calisthenics cycles, but still similar. You need a 48-hour period in between high-volume calisthenics days before working the same muscle group, and you need the same or more when lifting heavier weights.

You may not need to do one of these cycles often -- maybe 12 weeks out of the year, given your running and calisthenics progress, but these cycles are a good way to break up the monotony of training and help you rebuild joints, run less and recover with more non-impact cardio activities. This is how we have run our Tactical Fitness Periodization Training Cycle for over 20 years.

If you are giving yourself more than a year to prepare, consider both cycles. However, if you are not, I would just focus on the PT/Cardio cycle and progressively build up to running and rucking with a 10-15% increase in time or distance each week. You need to improve your weaknesses of endurance and muscle stamina with higher volume calisthenics and progressive run and rucking planning.

See ideas and more options below:

See related articles for more ideas on training you can implement:

Transitioning into New Fitness Cycles

USMC Fitness Testing

Running Progression -- Build Up Your Running Over Time (PFT and Longer Distances/Rucking)

PT Progression -- Ace Military PT Tests with this Classic Military PT Week

Official USMC CFT / PFT Training Prep


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 starting a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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