Ask Stew: How to Add Weights for Fitness Test Prep

U.S. Army medic paratroopers participate in an Army Combat Fitness Test on Caserma Del Din, Italy.
U.S. Army medic paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade participate in an Army Combat Fitness Test during a Best Medic Competition on Caserma Del Din, Italy, June 4-5, 2020. (U.S. Army/Spc. Ryan Lucas)

Developing a weightlifting cycle is the best way to get stronger and improve your performance as an endurance athlete. If you are preparing for military service, you also need to add lifting to reduce your weaknesses as liabilities before you go into any tactical fitness challenge. Start by assessing your current strengths and weaknesses, determine the type of cycle you need, plan ahead and track your progress.

Here is a common question from a seasoned endurance athlete who now needs some mass and strength to become a well-rounded tactical athlete.

Hey, Stew. I am preparing for Army Special Forces and can do well with the running and calisthenics after years of running cross-country and doing calisthenics, but I have never lifted weights. My standard fitness tests are way above average, but I am only 5'10" and 150 lbs. Do you think I need to gain weight and do more rucking and lifting? Thanks, Steve.

Steve. The answer is yes, and you need to do so immediately. Given your athletic history, you will do fine with the day-to-day miles and many of the typical military running tests, but load-bearing activities will either make or break your special ops selection dreams. You need to get stronger, put on some mass (but not too much) and add weight to your running a few days a week.

1. Do not skip leg day. Your legs are likely very durable and able to handle the impact pains that come with running, but you need to add strength training to increase your overall back strength and joint stability.

The new Army Combat Fitness Test also won't allow you to skip leg day, and the hex-bar deadlift, sled pulls, weighted shuttle runs and power throws will require you to develop some strength and power (strength with speed).

You will still have to do the two-mile timed run after these events. If you do not start lifting, the events in the test will slow your run time down as well. Adding weight to leg days, followed by running or rucking, is your new leg-day training and should be done two times a week. As you start to improve, you can add in a third leg day with added rucking distance as well.

2. If you are an endurance athlete who wants to get stronger but you're not sure how to incorporate weightlifting into your training program, here is a simple weightlifting cycle that you can use to help you become a stronger endurance athlete. Instead of spending too much time running 50-70 miles a week like you may have done in cross country training, you should cut that in half and focus more time on your current weaknesses.

In reality, the goal now is to become a better tactical athlete with no weaknesses in strength, power, speed, agility, endurance (run/ruck), muscle stamina, flexibility, mobility and grip. Do not only improve your current strengths and neglect your weaknesses, like many tend to do.

3. The first step is to decide on the type of weightlifting. Depending on your individual goals and preferences, you can choose from a variety of exercises, including bodyweight exercises, free weights and machines.

Once you've chosen the type of weightlifting that you want to focus on, you can begin to set up your program. At first, a mix of all of the above is a good place to begin. Then advance into heavier free weights, especially those that will be tested in your Army future. Your main goal is to improve your load-bearing ability by lifting weights, using the hex-bar deadlift and kettlebell squats and farmer walks. This is primarily for testing purposes but will also help you with the type of durability you need.

4. The next step is to determine the number of sets and reps that you should do for each exercise. Generally speaking, endurance athletes should aim for higher reps (15-20) and lower sets (3-4) at first to help you put on some mass (hypertrophy). Additionally, you should also focus on using slow, controlled movements, as this will allow your muscles to become stronger and better able to endure the demands of long-distance running or rucking.

Once you've established your sets and reps, you can start to vary the exercises that you choose. You can use a combination of compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, bench presses, overhead presses and weighted pull-ups.

Top off the lifts with some isolation exercises, such as walking lunges, biceps curls and triceps extensions. This will help you develop strength and power in the muscles that are most important for tactical athletes. If you do not have access to weights, you can do your calisthenics with a weight vest and sandbags to make that transition into strength-based training.

5. Split routines are also important. These are the days when you focus on your upper body, followed by a run, and the next day, you do legs and a ruck spread throughout the week. If you are new to lifting, starting off with more of a bodybuilding-type split to help with mass building.

Next, start to add weight, reduce repetitions to 5-8 reps per set and improve strength. If you do an upper-body/lower-body split, make sure you also add in a rest day on the third day. You can still mix in some cardio that day, but also add in mobility and flexibility work as well.

By following a typical weightlifting cycle, you can become a stronger endurance athlete. You will still need to warm up with calisthenics and cool down with running or rucking.

The key to weight gain is eating more. You have to have a caloric surplus of 500 calories a day just to gain a pound of weight each week. Be patient. With a little bit of dedication and hard work, you will see great improvements in your strength and maintain much of your endurance performance. Good luck!

-- 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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