Navy SEAL Veteran and Tactical Fitness Guru's 3 Phases of Tactical Fitness

Marines perform burpees.
Marines from Alpha Co., Marine Barracks Washington, D.C., conduct burpees during the high intensity tactical training. (Chi Nguyen/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

About 10 years ago, the terms "tactical fitness" and "tactical athlete" were born in the fitness training world. These terms now apply to all members of the military, special ops, police and firefighting communities.

The first time I heard the term was at a National Strength and Conditioning Association symposium that focused on military, police and firefighter training. That year, the Tactical Strength and Conditioning Program (TSAC) was born, and the annual tactical training conferences have grown.

Now everyone seems to know about or have heard of tactical fitness.  If you are seeking to learn more about the tactical fitness business or how to implement validated programming into your tactical unit, consider further education and training with the NSCA TSAC.

One of the biggest issues before the creation of tactical fitness was that the tactical population did not treat themselves as athletes when doing their jobs. It is still a work in progress, but more military, police and firefighters are implementing tactical fitness programming to build a stronger and healthier workforce.

The evolution is slow but moving in the right direction. That means training smarter, eating smarter and recovering smarter. Considering ourselves "tactical athletes" has been one of the biggest changes in the mentality of the tactical professional since the introduction of tactical fitness.

However, the term "tactical fitness" is broad. There are a few distinct phases of the tactical athlete that get blurred when attempting to start a tactical fitness program. Too many people fail to acknowledge and differentiate the separate phases of tactical fitness.

Let me break it down for you. Consider these three phases when you think of tactical fitness:

1. To training: For the candidate or recruit, this is the most important phase of training you can address specifically. Quite simply, there are fitness tests to pass or master depending upon the competitive situation of the job to which you are applying.

Focusing your training on the PT test is critical to success on your first step into joining the tactical professions. This does not have to be a long cycle, but depending upon your current fitness level and upcoming fitness testing date, it could take a significant amount of time to get to passing or competitive levels.

2. Through training: For the newly selected candidate or recruit, the following selection course may appear as a boot camp, police or fire academy, or special-ops selection. The common denominator during this phase of tactical fitness is to train specifically to the challenges of your selection program.

This may require longer runs than your PT test, additional swimming, higher repetitions of calisthenics, load-bearing exercises (rucking, equipment carries, log PT). All will require longer workouts full of weight training, running, swimming, rucking and other events, depending upon the specific graded and non-graded events and length of your training.

3. Active-duty training: This is the meat and potatoes of tactical fitness. Active-duty tactical fitness training programs must be developed carefully to build the proper maintenance of your abilities to do your job, contain all elements of fitness and actively pursue recovery and stress mitigation. 

"All the elements of fitness" require not neglecting any of the following:  strength/power, muscle stamina and cardio endurance, speed and agility, flexibility and mobility. Learning how to deal with stress and train appropriately to have a therapeutic effect on the mind and body is the real genius of tactical fitness development. 

One thing the tactical fitness professional must address is that the active-duty operator will be older longer than they will be young in this profession.  The changes going from your 20s into your 30s, 40s, 50s and even the 60s are considerations that must be addressed in tactical fitness programming as well.

Regardless of the phase of fitness for which you are preparing, there is one thing that holds true for the aspiring and veteran tactical athlete -- making weaknesses less of a weakness. Because the job requires a variety of situations to maneuver, being good at all the elements of fitness is required.

You cannot be a typical athlete and be great at one or two elements of fitness, only to neglect others. The tactical athlete must spend time on elements of fitness that may not come natural to them, and they need to get decent at them to make them less of a weakness. There is a saying among tactical fitness professionals: "Tactical athletes need to be a B in everything, not an A or A+ in one thing."

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

Twenty Years of Tactical Fitness Periodization

To and Through the Training

Tactical Fitness for SWAT

Tactical Fitness Nutrition

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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