For Those Looking to Join Spec Ops, Weighted Stair Steps Are a Useful Tool 

firefighter stairmaster
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army)

We learned this week's favorite workout more than a decade ago when a former Army soldier and current firefighter introduced our group to using a weight vest on the StairMaster. The added weight on a StairMaster workout was just brutal, but that was how he trained for the firefighting academy and the Firefighter Challenge competition.

The tactical fitness test known as the candidate physical ability test (CPAT) has been a staple in the firefighting profession for decades. The fire service was one of the first groups in the tactical professions to use job-related skills as part of a fitness test.

The CPAT does just that. Check out the list of activities in the test below:

Stair climb in full gear (pace yourself at 60 steps per minute for three minutes)

Hose drag. Run with a hose 100 feet and pull it an additional 50 feet

Equipment carry. Carry tools (30+ pounds) for 80 feet

Ladder raise and extension. Lift a 24-foot ladder to vertical position

Forcible entry. Use a 10-pound sledgehammer to break down the door.

Search in a dark tunnel with obstacles. Crawl on your hands and knees.

Rescue. Remove a 165-pound person for a 70-foot total distance.

Ceiling breach and pull. Use a pike pole to pull and push a ceiling down.

This is a tactical fitness test that challenges grip, load-bearing ability, strength and job-related skills.

Many tactical athletes in other jobs have taken the weighted stair stepper and applied it to events in their special-ops professions. You can simulate events like rucking hilly terrain, log or boat carries, fireman carries and other load-bearing events that are done for long periods of time and get a leg and lung burn that's similar to the real thing.

If you don't have access to a sandy beach or hills to run or ruck, here is a stair-stepper workout that will prepare the legs and lungs for rucking on sand or hilly terrain, log PT carries and boat-on-head runs. As an alternative to swimming with scuba fins for 1-2 miles, the stair stepper is a great way to top off a leg day.

Start off with a 20-pound weight vest and, over several months, build up to 40-50 pounds in a ruck or vest.

20 pounds steady stair pace

A good way to get started is to see how long you can walk on the stair stepper with 20 pounds in a vest or backpack. Go until you fail to keep up with the pace you set for yourself. Keep note of how many flights of stairs you completed in the time that you climbed without stopping.

See whether you can climb 500-750 stairs in 20-25 minutes. Gauge your initial ability with this one, then do the other workouts below. Try this one again in a month or so to check your stair-climbing endurance progress.

Stair-stepper pyramid

Start walking the treadmill at a steady pace on level 2 and increase the intensity by two levels every minute on the minute (EMOM). Continue up until you reach level 20 after 10 minutes and return to level 2 in reverse order. This 20-minute challenge is not so bad at first, but the middle 10 minutes are brutal. You end with an easy cooldown with the back side of the pyramid.

Skip steps

Another option is to set the resistance and intensity at level 10 and do single steps for three minutes, followed by double steps for one minute. Continue three single and one double for 20 minutes.

If you are looking for an alternative to running on the beach or climbing hills or if you live in a flat, beachless area, try the stair stepper with weight option. You will be surprised at the improvement in your ability to ruck with weight and the other load-bearing skills you will need for a wide variety of jobs in the military and special-ops world.

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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