Phase One of Tactical Fitness: Candidate/Recruit Preparation

Marines participate in high intensity tactical training.
Marines with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 163 “Evil Eyes” participate in high intensity tactical training aboard Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., May 7, 2012. (Lance Cpl. Michelle Piehl/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

When you first start the journey to enter the military, you have many areas you need to consider during your preparation time. When asking yourself whether you are ready to serve, the tactical fitness requirements depend on your current conditioning, athletic history and the branch of service/job you seek.

However, the medical (waivers), financial (debt), educational (records) and many other administrative paperwork areas can be an issue that you will discover on your first trip to the recruiter’s office. All can prolong your preparation time to entering the military. 

Take advantage of this extra time.

Consider the following Venn Diagram of the Tactical Athlete Candidate. When you join the military, police or fire (tactical professions), you need to consider yourself a tactical athlete or work to get there. Think of the tactical athlete needing to be good at all the elements of fitness, not just great at one or two, like most sports-playing athletes. As you can see, many elements of tactical fitness are explained below in the following areas:

Diagram courtesy of Stew Smith

Strength and power: Strength is an important element of tactical fitness; some will argue strength and power are most important. The foundation of strength/power will enhance all other elements. However, as the diagram shows, they are intertwined and rely on each other pretty solidly. Having a solid foundation in strength (compound movements, functional) and power (explosive and steady) can offer significant benefits when adding cardio conditioning to create a higher work capacity.

Combined with speed, agility and stability movements, strength also can help create a level of durability from dynamic forces put on the body during selection programs and training. Without some form of strength background or extra focus on strength (if an endurance athlete), you may miss out on a higher level of durability needed to make it through challenging special ops-level training programs. (boats, logs, rucking and load bearing).

But durability and work capacity are completely relative. If you have not done much diverse training with strength, cardio conditioning (run, ruck, swim, non-impact) and speed, your athletic history may be enough to get you through basic training with no issues -- depending upon that history. But for higher-level candidates seeking more competitive programs where only the best scores/applications are accepted, diversifying the training to fit all the elements throughout the year of training in a periodization cycle is recommended. (some ideas)

Useful tips: The endurance athlete needs to lift and add more joint stability if their athletic history is only running, swimming and no strength training. The opposite goes for the power athlete with no endurance experience. These are common weaknesses when athletes start down the path of tactical fitness.

Cardio conditioning and muscle stamina: Long-range endurance, mid-range endurance, speed and agility for passing running, rucking and swimming tests are important elements of fitness many people do not fully cover in their training.

Most either will run too many long, slow miles or too many short runs (sprints) and not fully develop the all-around cardio conditioning needed to be the durable tactical athlete. Rucking for several hours, swimming for a few hours, running at a moderate pace for 3-5 miles, and running fast for 1.5, two-, three- and four-mile timed runs are all requirements and occur frequently, depending upon the unit for which you are preparing.

Muscle stamina can turn strength exercises like the pull-up into an “endurance” exercise. When building up to large sets of 10-20 repetitions in a workout several times, this will help the candidate to master the fitness-testing requirements and other higher-repetition training during selection.

Muscle stamina is needed for many movements -- all calisthenics, overhead presses, lunges, squats, hill climbing, jumping, core exercises, grip/load bearing, swimming with fins and other high-repetition events. The component of a stronger foundation, combined with endurance, will yield a level of work capacity for the candidate. This will help the candidate endure long work days in the training of near constant movement, harsh conditions, no naps and minimal rest periods (other than meal time).

Useful tips: The power/strength athlete needs to run, bike, swim (other non-impact cardio) more and lift less (if needing to lose weight). Turn yourself into a triathlete for a cycle of several months if you think long distance is anything more than 100 meters.

Stability/skills and coordination: Practicing movements, drills and techniques to build stable habits of good movement takes time. The ability to move the body (and objects) in multiple planes is critical to handling some future challenging events.

As you develop these skills, tactical training will evolve them to be used for work. Hand-eye coordination/body awareness for combatives, weapons/shooting skills and other movements (to include load bearing) done in different environments (sand, snow, water, rock, altitude, etc.) will be some of the ways stability, skills and coordination will evolve throughout training.

Adding a mobility and balance period to the end of your workouts will prove useful, but focus on techniques for skills, like swimming and treading, on "easy" days. On regular days, you have to ensure solid technique/skills with running, rucking, lifting, climbing, crawling and jumping/landing in order to improve the durability and efficiency of movement. 

Useful tips:  We all need better skills, techniques and stability/balance and will spend a lifetime mastering it. Having some athletic history is helpful but not necessarily required. If you quickly can learn how to move efficiently; hone your techniques in lifting, swimming, running, etc.; embrace the steep learning curve of combatives; become better at shooting and other load-bearing/balance movements, you can do these tactical professions with some preparation time.    

Where to start:  Beyond techniques and other skills, stability starts in the core and moves to the joints. If you are looking at where to start with stability, start with the core (axial spine) and work your way through the joints of the arms/legs (shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, knees and ankles). I like the plank progression that starts with plank pose (front and side), balance in plank (lift arm/leg), movement in plank (bear crawl -- all directions) and stair crawls. Then advance to carries and one-legged balance lifting.

The candidate tactical athlete: This system of thinking is more geared for the candidate/recruit, seeking answers to questions on how to train vs. the active operator. If you find weaknesses personally with the above elements (we all do at some point), find answers on how to implement “weakness” training into your program.

Failing to pay attention to weaknesses in preparation will be exposed quickly within the first week of tactical training/selection. Take a few days a week and actively focus on your weakness; it will prove beneficial in the long term. Having an entire 12- to 16-week cycle devoted to your weakness could be an area you should consider if you never have tried strength training, endurance (run/swim/ruck) training, speed work and other techniques, skills or stability training.

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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