Navy SEAL and Tactical Fitness Expert's 3 Phases of Tactical Fitness

Marine Corps Sgt. Joshua Morris executes a Romanian deadlift during a High Intensity Tactical Training Level 1 instructor course at the gym on Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by George Melendez).

When training for the military, your first phase is typically trying to figure out the fitness standards and requirements of the branch of service you are selecting. The Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard official sites are a great place to begin.  The next phase is to determine how dedicated you are.  Do you strive to just pass the fitness test with the minimum standards or do you achieve the maximum standards? Regardless of how much effort you put into your preparation, you will learn that your journey to serve will evolve through three distinct phases of tactical fitness.

Phase 1 of Tactical Fitness - Recruit

All future military members start our journey preparing for Phase 1 (Getting To the Training). The recruit phase is really focused making sure you can pass the fitness test.  Depending on the branch of service, the recruit will be required to take a fitness test.  If you combined all the exercises used they typically are pushups (1-2 minutes), situps / crunches (1-2 minutes), pullups, 1 run (1.5, 2, 3 miles) to get TO the training.  However, quickly into your basic training, depending upon the program you are involved with, you may have to master more advanced fitness tests and requirements.  So passing the basics early at an advanced level will help you be able to diversify your training so you can also practice Combat Readiness Tests (Army), Combat Fitness Test (USMC), Occupational Physical Assessment Test (Army), Infantry (Army / USMC) as well as Special Operations programs (SEAL, SWCC, AIRR, PJ, CCT, TACP, RECON, Ranger, Special Forces) who allow for quick enlistment option entry.

This is where most recruits tend to make their mistakes:  Either not training enough to master entry level fitness tests, or training too long to achieve advanced fitness standards and neglecting longer runs, rucks, swims with fins, heavy lifts, load bearing, and higher repetition calisthenics of tougher programs.  To do it right, take your time, be patient but work out to master the fitness test with advanced scores. If you are going into some of the jobs that requires higher fitness standards, “Don’t train until you get it right – Train until you cannot get it wrong.”  This may require more than a few months. Go see the recruiter when you are READY – not when you simply turn of age. Your lack of preparation will make the journey into active duty much more challenging and could end your dreams with failure or injury.

Phase 2 of Tactical Fitness – Candidate / Student

Once you are a student, now attending basic training or the selection course, you will quickly find that your level of preparation will directly coincide with how well you perform on a daily basis. Preparing for phase two of tactical fitness also requires time, and you have to start preparing for the challenges of your branch of service / selection course well in advance.  For some, this process takes several months or years to transition from high school or college athlete to a well rounded tactical athlete. Working on your weakness is mainly what this phase of preparation is all about. When you can take a weakness like long distance running and make it more enjoyable and more of a strength, you are in the right zone.  But also preparing specifically for your future training is what this phase of training should also contain.  For instance, Army Airborne / Ranger / Infantry students will be tested in rucking and load bearing activities.  Get used to those and prepare a strong body to endure them.  Many of the Navy programs will require longer distance swimming. Practice swimming, treading, diving, with fins.  Mixing in these longer distanced runs, rucks, swims, and heavier lifts than the PT tests requires has to be part of your training or you are destined to not last long.

Phase 3 of Tactical Fitness – Operator / Active Duty

The third phase of tactical fitness is all about maintenance, longevity, mobility / flexibility, stress mitigation, for being able to handle the rigors and the stress of the job for a career.  If you stay in for a career, you will be considered “older” for a longer period of time than you are younger in these professions. Learning how to train for the long term is critical to both your physical and mental wellbeing.  Understanding your body as well as current stress levels will help determine how hard to train on a given day having previously not slept the night before (for instance).  Sometimes an easy stress reducing low impact cardio is sufficient versus a high intensity training session. Learning the Fitness Rules After 40 – even when in your 30’s will help you maintain longer and still be as strong as you were in your 20s. Consider a periodized approach to your training especially in phase 3 of tactical fitness to maintain all the elements of fitness throughout the years.

Where many in the active duty / operator phase make mistakes is they focus on taking semi-annual fitness tests too much.  Having a high fitness standard so the PT test is not a stressor to your survival in the military requires putting in time training not only the elements of the PT test, but also the other elements of tactical fitness that allow you to do your job effectively (strength, power, endurance, stamina, mobility, flexibility, speed, agility).  Getting out of the habit of training regularly and only focusing on 2-3 weeks of fitness prior to a PT test is a route many take, unfortunately only to be hurt after running and doing pushups and sit-ups twice a year.  Don’t get stuck doing “what you learned at boot camp” and start training for the physical challenges of the job and your personal maintenance and a functioning member of the military and beyond.

For more answers to your tactical fitness programming, check out the related articles and links:

Twenty Years of Tactical Fitness Periodization

Tactical Fitness for SWAT

Tactical Fitness Nutrition

Tactical Fitness Trilogy

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