How to Navigate the 3 Phases of Special Ops Recruit Preparation

Soldiers pull security during a training exercise at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.
Soldiers from 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) pull security during a joint air to ground integration training exercise at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. on Sept. 6, 2017. (Jorden Weir)

In a recent article discussing the Three Phases of Tactical Fitness, many recruits find themselves stuck in phase 1 of tactical fitness (Testing Phase) for far too long. To achieve exceptional PT scores, it may take a recruit 6-12 months or more, depending upon your athletic background and training history. Typically, if you join the military unprepared for this test, this period of time has the added pressure of spec-ops mentors and recruiters with the time crunch of the Delayed Entry Program (DEP).  

Two Scenarios the Recruit Can Choose

  1. Turned 18. Time to enlist: If your goal is to turn 18 and enlist, great. Thanks for considering military service for a future career; we need more Americans like you. However, are you "really ready" to go from high school kid to special ops recruit/candidate? If you have not taken the physical screening test (PST) yet (on your own) and are crushing the events, then you are not ready to start this process. If you continue on this journey, you likely either will not pass the PST before your ship date or just barely pass the competitive standards, get selected for special ops (SO rating in the Navy) and soon ship to boot camp. Great, right? Well, you prepared well enough to get to BUD/S, but have you prepared at all to get through BUD/S? Have you turned 1.5-mile runs into fast four-mile timed runs? Have you turned 500-yard swims without fins into two-mile swims with fins? Have you continued your PT but added strength workouts to prepare for log PT, boat carries, rucking and other load-bearing events? If you have not spent a significant amount of your time in this through cycle (Phase 2 Tactical Fitness), then you likely will make it into BUD/S successfully for about two weeks on average. Quitting and injury typically follow, statistically speaking.
  2. Crushed PST many times, ready to enlist: If you have taken the PST countless times, have worked on a strategy for optimal performance and are hitting the advanced competitive scores, it is time. Take the PST and crush it the first time. Now you have an above-average passing standard that you can maintain while you focus more on getting through BUD/S with faster/longer runs, longer swims, rucking and strength training for the load-bearing activities at BUD/S. You may even have time to practice some land navigation, knot-tying, water confidence or take a SCUBA course.  The goal of the time you have in the Delayed Entry Program (DEP) now is to turn your weaknesses into strengths. And when you start to enjoy your prior weaknesses, you are ready. You still will have to ace the PST regularly so make your warmups be calisthenics/testing focused and the added longer runs/swims/rucks and lifts to follow. 

To all recruits. Exercise patience. If a recruit would take 6-12 months before talking to a recruiter and joining the DEP, the recruit could be fully prepared to crush the PST on day one. Because if you do not get competitive PST scores to be put into the system, you will be in test-taking mode until you pass.

When you pass the first time, you can start preparing for Phase 2 of tactical fitness (getting through the training). Ensuring you can crush the PST, even on a bad day, is a requirement, because you will be taking the test at boot camp, Pre-BUD/S and BUD/S orientation. If you fail the PST at boot camp, Pre-BUDS or BUD/S orientation, you go home.

Tactical Fitness Phase 2 requires you to focus on the specifics of your future spec-ops selection. This is what you need to be spending most of your time before boot camp doing. Prepare for the load-bearing of boat carries and log PT and grinder PT with longer runs, rucks, longer swims with fins, and high-rep PT and weight training.

When you think about tactical fitness, you cannot confuse the three phases of the journey (to, through and active-duty operator).

Phase 1: Recruit -- Focus your training on testing to get into the training program you seek but also work on any weaknesses you may have. This may take 6-12 months at least. Make sure you place this phase in front of your recruiter visit.

Phase 2: Student -- Preparing to become a student in a challenging selection, boot camp or academy-type program requires specific training for those challenges. Focus on weaknesses because a week within your selection training will expose them.

Phase 3: Operator -- You will not even get here if you are not prepared adequately for Phases 1 and 2. Do not rush it. Get ready first, then charge forward fully prepared.

Related articles for recruits seeking spec ops:

Perfect Storm for Failure

Ready to Meet the Recruiter

Questions To Ask Yourself -- Are You Ready?

Know the Standards

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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