Tactical Fitness: How Much Is Too Much?

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Army sergeant nears finish line of run.
U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Joaquin Spikes, assigned to the U.S. Army Security Assistance Command, approaches the finish line during the Army physical fitness test portion of the 2017 Army Materiel Command's Best Warrior Competition July 16, 2017, at Camp Atterbury, Indiana. (Sgt. 1st Class Teddy Wade/U.S. Army photo)

Here is a great question about pre-military training for special ops-world fitness levels. This young man is preparing for what will be very tough physically and mentally -- SEAL training. The days are physically grinding, and all candidates get to a point where they have to dig deep mentally to keep pushing themselves physically.

So, the question: How do I prepare for this type of training so I can do well without hurting myself in the process?

It is very smart to think about training in these terms, because there is a fine line between being mentally tough and being stupid. Here are some rules I recommend when preparing for a training cycle that can include running 30-40 miles a week and doing several hundred push-ups each day. In general, these routines include long days of moving; you’ll often be doing something all day and some nights while wet and cold.

The key is to have a strong fitness foundation of running and swimming. Building your cardiovascular system and joints to handle 30 or more miles of running and 2-3 miles of ocean swims with fins on a weekly basis requires a progressive plan of swimming with fins and running. You should build up to 30-35 miles a week over the course of 4-6 months even if you already are reaching 10-15 miles each week. 

The second point is to build up muscle stamina for the countless push-ups and other calisthenics. But, like with running, you can overdo it with too much calisthenics for too many days each week. I follow the Five Times Rule. Take your current max reps in any exercise and multiply it by five. This number is the average number of reps you should do every other day. 

For instance:

If you can do 20 pull-ups, 80 push-ups and 80 sit-ups, a good and challenging calisthenics workout would be 100 pull-ups, 400 push-ups and 400 sit-ups. That may sound like a lot of reps to you -- well, it is.  And when you hit this kind of volume in a workout, you need to recover. It is all relative, however.  If you can do only 10 pull-ups, 40 push-ups and 40 sit-ups, it is too much to do 50 pull-ups, 200 push-ups and 200 sit-ups day after day after day.

Note: Any time you do that many sit-ups, you should follow it with as many seconds in the plank pose working the lower back. So 400 sit-ups requires 400 seconds in plank total in a workout; six or seven one-minute sets will do the trick.

Still Too Much -- If you are well above your 5x max repetition total during a workout too often, you will pay, usually with some form of tendinitis of the elbow, shoulder-to-chest connections or biceps connections (worked in push-ups, pull-ups and dips).  So take it easy on the thousand-rep workouts and 250-pull-ups workouts. I am not saying you cannot push yourself every now and then and test those numbers, but be smart and recover, rest and go back to normal numbers and split routines of moderate reps in your workouts for a month or so before doing too much again. Your joints will thank you for it.

P.S.:  Just because you have to do daily pushups at BUD/S does not mean you should do it before BUD/S.

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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