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Tactical Fitness: Being Good at Everything Requires a System of Intense Focus, Balance and Whack-a-Mole



If you want to succeed in the tactical professions, you must understand the natural weaknesses that you will bring to your journey. Your focus must be to overcome these weaknesses so they are not exposed in your initial testing, basic training, selection or throughout your career.

Finding the right balance between focusing on your weaknesses and maintaining your strengths often will feel like a game of Whack-a-Mole. This is the inherent struggle of the tactical athlete who wants to be good at all elements of fitness required for the job: strength, power, speed, agility, endurance, muscle stamina, flexibility, mobility and grip.

The difference between the sports athlete and the tactical athlete is that sports requires an athlete to be great at a few elements of fitness to be competitive, and the tactical athlete needs to be good not only at those same elements of fitness, but also be good at all the others. The decathlete might be one of the few sporting athletes who understands the struggle of balancing the entire list of fitness elements.

Tactical athletes must prepare to be tested in a variety of events throughout their career.

Muscle Stamina and Endurance

Most tactical PT tests start the journey off with the basics of upper-body strength and endurance (muscle stamina), then add cardio endurance with push-ups, sit-ups, planks, pull-ups and running. Depending on the job, swimming also may be added to that initial test in the Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force or USMC Special Ops. When the days are long and the work is repetitive, having well-developed muscle stamina and endurance will help you with your overall work capacity.

Strength, Power and Grip

Until recently, there were not many tests that measured the strength side of the elements of fitness (Army CFT, USMC CFT, other tactical fitness tests). It was the job itself that built strength and durability with load-bearing activities, such as rucking, equipment carries and personnel carry.

Before the creation of tactical fitness, the fire service had one of the only true job-related fitness tests (The Firefighter Candidate Physical Ability Test — CPAT) that measured these skills. Strength will be the foundation of your overall durability and how you handle the loads of the job.

Speed, Agility, Flexibility and Mobility

Depending on your chosen profession, you may see a few tests that incorporate speed, agility, flexibility and mobility with short, fast runs; agility tests; and even stretching tests, such as the toe touch.

However, you are most likely to see these elements tested in obstacle courses, on-the-job quick movements, jumps, stops, starts, changes of direction, climbs, rolls and crawls. These movements require some or all the elements of speed, agility, flexibility and mobility.

Longevity in your career will require added focus on flexibility, mobility and how you handle speed and agility training as you age.

Here Lies the Challenge

We all come into a spec ops transition with a weakness in one or more areas. Working on weaknesses we do not enjoy (and are typically not good at) is not fun. However, meeting the standard to get both to and through the training and job hiring process is a requirement if you want to succeed and be an asset to your team and mission.

Focus on the weakness while maintaining the current strengths will require a system of periodization and sometimes may feel like playing Whack-a-Mole.

A method that works well is a system called Seasonal Tactical Fitness Periodization, an approach that’s based on developing an annual fitness budget.

Finding the Right Balance

This journey takes time and a fitness budget or system of training. Random training or the same workout day after day and week after week will not get the job done.

One of the better options for fitness budgeting is the use of “block periodization.” As you begin the process, you may see initial improvements in your weakness but a corresponding decrease in one of your strength abilities.

Many who come from a strength and power background need to focus on endurance and muscle stamina to meet the testing standards and succeed at the job itself. Seeing your hard-earned gains drop in the weight room is a tough pill to swallow, but this temporarily will be part of the process until you build up your weakness (running, swimming or PT) to an acceptable level.

Then you can go back into a lifting cycle again. After a few weeks of training, you will be back to your old scores and lifts again. Thus the analogy of playing Whack-a-Mole.

If you are on the opposite spectrum of the strength and endurance line, the sample block periodization model approach offers a 12- to 16-week timeline of four-week (3:1 ratio) blocks of training.

3 Weeks of Strength Training Focus. This means increase weight, reduce repetitions, reduce longer-distance runs and replace them with shorter and faster-paced runs for a three-week cycle. Your focus will be on strength, power, speed and agility.

1 week of Calisthenics and Cardio Focus. The one-week “deload” week gives time off from strength training and focuses on your initial strengths again. This makes for a nice change. Though it is not a typical deload week, it is a change of energy systems and focus that allows for you to maintain (and even improve) timed run pace and higher rep calisthenics. Repeat this cycle 3-4 times, depending on your needs and abilities and goals.

This block periodization model will make all the difference, so consider seasonal tactical fitness periodization by adding in a week of “recovery or change of focus” and see whether it works for you as a break from the monotony. This approach also gives you an important maintenance week in the middle of a challenging cycle designed to focus on your weaknesses.

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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