How to Train to Be a Tactical Athlete

Marines prepare for high intensity tactical training class.
Maj. Michelle Peters and Maj. Joshua Montero work on an agility exercise while warming up at a high intensity tactical training (HITT) class on Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, March 14, 2016. (Photo courtesy of Marine Corps Base Quantico)

When you are training to become a member of the tactical population (military, police, firefighter, etc.), the difference in training and maintaining your skills is much different than the average athlete.

The average athlete needs to be great at a few of the elements of fitness to be competitive, but the tactical one needs to be good at all the elements of fitness. For instance, a powerlifting football player must be strong, powerful and be able to run fast for short periods of time and change direction quickly. Strength, power, speed and agility are critical to the success of that athlete. 

A tactical athlete needs to be good at strength, power, speed, agility, cardio endurance, muscle stamina, flexibility and mobility. This question is from a firefighter who has started a periodization tactical fitness program:

Stew, I have started your Tactical Fitness/Tactical Strength, mixed with some of my old triathlon workouts, and created a year plan that is what I think is great for me and my job as a firefighter.  What kind of goals do you think I should consider each quarter as I go through the seasonal tactical athlete periodization program you write about? Thanks -- It is working, by the way. It is nice to have a different focus every so often. Jimmy

That is great, Jimmy. I always have thought athletes and tactical athletes need periodization. Changing your core focus each quarter so you actually can incorporate all the elements of fitness into a multiple-cycle periodization program that stretches throughout the year has been a game changer for many still in the business. 

I would suggest setting goals each quarter with as many of the elements of fitness as you can. That is why I created the Dirty Dozen Tactical Fitness Test. This 12-point test allows for everything to be tested. We use the tactical strength test featuring the following events:

  • 25-pound pull-up
  • Max 1-2 rep bench press
  • Deadlift (1.5-2 times body weight)
  • Squat (1.5-2 times your body weight)
  • Strongman pull-up hang (grip)
  • 300-yard shuttle run (6 x 50 yard shuttle)
  • 5-10-5 pro agility test
  • 50-pound ruck (rucking four miles)
  • Kettlebell swing (five-minute test)
  • 500-meter swim with fins (any stroke)

Any or all of these events are solid challenges and goal ideas on the strength side. You also can add in rucking (weight vest walks up/down 50-100 flights of stairs) or four miles on trails.

As a firefighter (depending on your location), those events could be helpful for your job. Since you like triathlons, I would suggest still getting involved in them -- maybe on the Olympic sprint level vs. the Ironman distances. The shorter distances tend to require less time to prepare for.

You may find that the new strength elements of training are fun and a good break from high-mileage running, swimming and biking workouts. Setting new standards for yourself in the strength, power and speed categories not only will be a challenge (and make you stronger), but also give your joints a rest from long cardio workouts.

As a tactical athlete, you can continue progressing in a wide variety of training programs. The key is to find something that you enjoy doing -- whether it's powerlifting, obstacle course racing, triathlons, yoga or something else -- and is challenging and exciting. These challenges often force us to work on our weaknesses, and the training helps us to create a better, more well-rounded athlete, capable of handling emergency situations and long, hard work days.

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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