How to Train to Join the Military, Police or Firefighter

A firefighter from the Albuquerque Fire Department’s Wildland Task Force is shown here. DLA Troop Support took over management of 296 wildland fire items from the General Services Administration (photo by Joseph C. Stone, Albuquerque Fire Department).

Training for general health and wellness is great but when it comes to tactical fitness – training for military, police, and firefighter professions – getting good at all the elements of fitness is not only the underlining goal but a requirement.

As defined in previous articles, Tactical Fitness requires you to take your fitness seriously because your fitness may one day be the difference between life and death for you, your buddy, or someone you are trying to help. Not only does your health and fitness need to be developed, but your ability to react as you have been trained and think clearly under stress is an absolute must.

Train like your buddy’s life depends on it. Your workout today must make you better tomorrow in your job. This means not only having a healthy heart, blood pressure, sugar levels, and weight, but your workout must help you with the all of the elements of fitness. When we break down the elements of fitness, the tactical athlete needs to develop programming to get good at all of the following:

  • Speed and Agility – Run and move fast, stop on a dime, change direction, hit the deck, get back up and move again.
  • Strength and Power – Lift heavy equipment, gear, and people too with great force when needed.
  • Flexibility and Mobility – Move easily over uneven terrain and in between obstacles.
  • Endurance and Muscle Stamina – Move yourself and gear up, over, under, and through space for long periods of time and repetitions.
  • Grip – Hold gear, climb rope / mountain, grab and carry equipment and people without tiring.
  • Skills – For instance, in some professions, swimming / diving is required, so swim to save a life, to cross a river, meet up with a ship or sub for extraction, and to be effective on 75% of this planet.

An athlete in sports only needs to specialize in a few of the above elements of fitness and be an A or A+ depending on the level of athletics (NCAA, Pro, Olympian). Once again, the tactical athlete needs to be a B or B+ but in everything. Another issue that the tactical athlete has is they will be older longer than they are younger than most athletes who are still competing. The big question is - How do you train everything and see results that will create optimal tactical fitness scores and abilities? Here is how:

Combining Elements of Fitness for Best Results

Over the past 20 years, I have developed a periodization program that works extremely well for tactical athletes as it focuses on all of the elements of fitness spread throughout the year. The workouts can be arranged so the main focus is 2-3 elements of fitness for improvement, while the secondary goal is to maintain performance in the other elements of fitness. For instance:

When working Strength and Power, you can also work Speed and Agility with it and see very good results in all of them on this type of programming. Think summer training prior to football season, working on speed, agility, strength and power was the main mission.

In the above Tactical Fitness periodization program, we tend to do this in the winter months, putting on muscle, gaining mass if needed, and working on pure strength, power, and speed (with agility).

Mixing in fast runs (400m or less) and shuttle runs, agility tests tops off the weight training cycle quite well. Adding Grip exercises such as pull-ups, deadlifts, farmer walks, rope climbs should also be part of the strength training program.

Depending on the goals of the tactical athlete, adding some Skill Work needs to occur especially if many miles of swimming with fins or short fast swim tests are required. However, during the strength phase, topping off leg day with some swimming with fins and cooling down in the pool focusing on techniques to swim, tread, and other pool skills is a must.

The same goes for load bearing activities like rucking, equipment carry, firefighter bunker gear, and body armor (weight vest), these should also be practiced during the strength phase as the main source of cardiovascular activity. Though some form of carrying, lifts (logs, sandbags, etc) will be done during the summer endurance/muscle stamina phase as well. Just as mixing in many of the calisthenics that will be seen on fitness tests (pushups, situps, pullups) can be used as warm-up exercises mixed with dynamic stretches so you do not completely lose the muscle stamina ability during the strength cycles.

Endurance and Muscle Stamina

What doesn’t fit well into the Strength cycle is Endurance / Muscle Stamina training goals, so we will give that it’s own cycle in order to see better results in endurance and high repetition calisthenics events in order to not interfere with the strength/growth curves too much.

To further explain, you can still build strength and endurance at the same time, but the progression into getting stronger and faster longer distance events will be slower when combined.

You will never completely blow off ANY element of fitness, it is just not the cycle’s focus during these periods of the year. When endurance and muscle stamina is the focus, you may find these workouts take longer, so we place them in the Spring and Summer when the days are longer.

The elements of fitness that should have equal representation year-round is mobility and flexibility. Warming up with calisthenics and dynamic stretches, using foam rollers, and cooling down with static stretching will help you relieve some of the muscle and joint pain associated with heavy lifts, speed work, as well as high reps and high miles *(running, rucking, swimming). So, mobility and flexibility should have equal time throughout the year. In fact, we even create a special day in the middle of the week devoted to mobility / flexibility and non-impact cardio options as a great way to relieve mid-week pain / soreness from heavy lifts or high miles. You may find this mid-week mobility day to also help later workouts in the week (day 5-6) and even be life changing as you age.

Why Periodization?

Whether you call it cross-training or periodization, this system works. So, WHY Periodization?

In order to see better increases in performance in ALL the elements of fitness, all the elements of fitness need to be incorporated throughout the year logically.

Faster gains have been associated with the above combinations in the past 20 years of my experience and testing. However, once you have built a solid base of endurance, muscle stamina, strength/power, you may find the need to strictly limit periodization elements may not be as necessary for more than therapeutic reasons – simply giving your joints a break from high miles / high reps and heavy lifts and speed/power challenges without giving them up entirely.

The aging tactical athlete body will appreciate the intensity and type of training cycles versus working everything hard year round.

More Related Articles

Periodization Articles (tactical athlete): 20 Years of Periodization Periodization Training Periodization – Do I Need It? Periodization Advice Multi-Sport Athlete Periodization Summer – Fall Transition

Science on Periodization Article from Peak Endurance Sport Strength / Endurance Gain in Elderly Study Ben Greenfield – Strength and Endurance Training

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Fitness Tactical Fitness