What a Long-Term Fitness Training Plan Looks Like Before Joining the Military

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U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Christian Dye, a tactical air control party (TACP) specialist, works out at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.
U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Christian Dye, a Detachment 1, 3rd Air Support Operations Squadron tactical air control party (TACP) specialist, works out at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Jan. 13, 2022. (Senior Airman Emily Farnsworth/U.S. Air Force photo)

During your "thinking about serving" process, you may find several options that appeal to you, and deciding on what branch of service and what job you want to do is just as challenging as your initial decision to serve. I, too, have been there and considered the Army, Navy and Marine Corps during my formative years.

If you are years away from serving, this time can be invaluable for your preparation and decision-making process. Here is an email from a young man who has a few years to decide on becoming an Air Force Tactical Air Control Party, or TACP, specialist or Army Ranger:

I've been reading to find the best way to cover all bases in a training program - improving running, rucking, calisthenics, and strength. I am considering preparing for AF TACP or Army Ranger -- still deciding over the next 2-3 years. Is there a way to have it all in one specific program I can do weekly, or would going for a periodization-style program be better? I still have a good amount of time before joining, but I wouldn't say I have a specific strength in any category. I want to prepare with strong aerobic and strength bases while building calisthenics for testing. Thanks, Chris

Chris, great question. I wish more people gave themselves this much time not only to consider how they want to serve but also fully prepare themselves for the challenges ahead. Your choices are difficult and require additional fitness levels to be a viable candidate. Use this time wisely and do workouts that will prepare you for both. Luckily for you, these two professions in the military are similar in training requirements (calisthenics testing, strength, running and rucking).

The short answer is no. It is not recommended to do the same workout week after week, trying to improve on these many elements of fitness. Given the types of fitness you need to build and the time you have to train, consider developing a foundation of strength but mix in warm-ups with calisthenics and cooldowns of various cardio options, such as running, rucking or biking and other non-impact exercises. Varying your options will help you progress your cardio base without much of the unnecessary impact that too much running or rucking can cause if not done progressively at first.

Try This Periodization for Tactical Fitness System

I call this Seasonal Tactical Fitness Periodization, which allows you to go through the year focusing on separate elements of fitness for improvement while maintaining others. Here is how I would break down your next year:

Cycle 1 -- Winter Lift: Work on your strength and power, speed and agility with heavier weight and fewer repetitions in basic lifts such as bench presses, squats, deadlifts, overhead presses and others you prefer. However, add calisthenics to warm up for the lifts immediately following. Then, add a bit of cardio at the back end of the workout to focus on shorter and faster goal-mile pace running and sprinting. A foundation of strength/durability will come in handy for your choices of service.

Cycle 2 -- Spring Transition: The spring cycle starts to add in more miles of running and rucking each week (about a 10%-15% increase) progressively, and you start to add in more calisthenics. The weights are still there but at about 50% less frequency of the winter lift cycle. We call this the 50-50 Transition, where about 50% of your resistance training is calisthenics and 50% is lighter weights and more repetitions.

Cycle 3 -- Summer Endurance Peak: The next 12-week cycle focuses solely on calisthenics and cardio, progressing with more miles and higher repetitions. Continue to progress each week with miles of running and rucking. We tend to ruck on leg days (1-2 times a week). Rucking should also progress with added weight, up to 50 pounds over the next few months. One way to maintain hard-earned lifting gains is to do a week of weightlifting (winter cycle) every fourth week of the summer endurance cycle. This will allow for a de-load from the high miles and reps and help you maintain your strength gains from the previous cycles. We call this the Block Periodization model of tactical fitness.

Cycle 4 -- Fall Transition into Lift Cycle: This is the other side of the bell curve of running and high-repetition calisthenics as the intensity and overall miles/reps start to reduce in reverse order. The goal is to do fewer repetitions but with added weight. Continuing to add in weighted calisthenics and shorter, faster runs will help you regain the speed and agility needed for the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) and Air Force Initial Fitness Test (IFT) and Operator Fitness Test (OFT).

This system allows you to get good at everything you must master to get to and through your challenging military training. Training to get accepted into these programs will require running and calisthenics tests. Training to get through these programs will require longer runs, rucking and weightlifting events. The goal for you over the next few years is to train to be a tactical athlete who is getting good at everything: strength, power, speed, agility, muscle stamina, endurance (run, ruck), grip, flexibility and mobility.

I have been using this training cycle for more than 25 years, and it works. This is a general approach that you need to build a solid base. Then you can tailor the training to your service selection with programs designed for either the Air Force or Army.

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 stew@stewsmith.com.

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