Fitness Programming Rules and Considerations

Marine swims at the Combat Center Training Tank.
Cpl. Kyle Fierro, radio technician, 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, practices the breaststroke at the Combat Center Training Tank, July 27, 2015. (Levi Schultz/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Candidates seeking to transfer into military special ops or another tactical profession typically leave their former athletic training programs (or start training for the first time ever) to prepare to get to and through boot camp, basic training, academy selection or spec ops selection.

Many start taking bits and pieces of practices that they know work as they aim to build strength, power, speed, agility, endurance and muscle stamina. They also learn new techniques as they train to become a better runner or swimmer.

Whether you are making your own general programs or following a proven plan that works specifically for your tactical fitness journey, there are rules you need to consider.

1. How often to train?

How many days per week do you train, and what type of split routine will you follow? You can do upper-body/lower-body splits or full-body/cardio splits, but you need to focus on recovery and not do the same thing every day.

Never schedule daily upper-body calisthenics. You can do upper body one day and lower body the next. That is a logical split routine that will get you into the gym training 5-6 days per week.

You can end the workout with a cardio session to maintain running, rucking or swimming skills.

2. How long should workouts be? How much time per day?

There is no 30-minute gym routine that will prepare you for a day of military or (especially) spec ops training. You need to mix several events into your workout.

There should be some warmup with calisthenics and short jogs. Add weights to work load-bearing skills and strength, then finish with some cardio activity.

The goal is to divide your workout time, so you focus more on your weaknesses than your strengths. If you are bad at swimming and you have an hour to train, try warming up and lifting for 20 minutes or running for 20 minutes, then swimming for 40 minutes.

Focusing this time balance on your weakness is the smart thing, as a weakness will be exposed on the first day of your military training or selection. A good goal is to build up your ability to train for 90-120 minutes and aim to add a few two-a-day workouts as you advance.

3. How many swimming days per week and for how long per day?

If you need help with swimming, take lessons. It is critical that you first learn the strokes before you can get in shape for the time and distances you need to swim for your physical screening test and future selections.

If you need to swim with fins, add those to your leg days and to the final section of the workout. You need to get into the pool to learn how to swim and to get into swimming shape.

When starting out, you need to learn, practice and condition yourself for the water nearly every day. I recommend five days a week, minimum.

If preparing for spec ops-level swim training, you need a minimum of 1,500-2,000 meters of swimming a day (with or without fins). As you progress, swimming every other day is fine but work on any weakness in the water (treading, underwater swims, buddy breathing with snorkel, etc.) and stay in swimming shape.

4. Running and rucking days per week

Steady progression is integral when it comes to running and load-bearing rucking with a backpack, weight vest or sandbag. A standard running progression of 10%-15% mileage or time increase per week is recommended.

If you're starting out, you may want to run only every other day, with non-impact cardio on the days in between (biking, rowing, swimming, elliptical). I would not even consider rucking with weight until you can handle running 10-15 miles per week, then progress with weight and distance each week as well.

Maybe you should start out with 15%-20% of your body weight in a backpack as you learn how to ruck. See my rucking progression article. Start off rucking only once a week and then progress to 2-3 times a week, maximum. As you increase distances of rucking to 10+ miles in a session, reduce the days per week one or two.

5. Recovery days/post-workout recovery

Recovery days can be classified as days that you take off completely from training or as a mobility day where stretching, foam rolling and non-impact activity can help you work out any aches or pains from previous training.

I recommend that you do a mobility day in the middle of the week (Day 3 or 4), and a complete day off one day during the week. I prefer Sunday as a day off, but I still do some activity, like walking, yard work or stretching, as needed.

6. Add variety

Plan to include different activities that will engage the energy systems, but also allow you to move your joints fully. From running steady at goal pace to sprinting and doing high-repetition calisthenics to heavy weight lifting, you need to do these exercises to prepare adequately for all the elements of fitness in the tactical professions: strength, power, speed, agility, muscle stamina, cardio endurance (run, swim, ruck), flexibility, mobility and grip.

There are many similarities with athletic training as you aim to build a stronger and faster body, but with tactical fitness, you have to diversify and periodize your training. This periodization process will work the elements of fitness effectively throughout the year in different cycles.

This tactical fitness periodization program has been used for more than 20 years, and it works. Consider using something similar but make sure your weaknesses are addressed as needed.

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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