Phase One of Tactical Fitness: Candidate/Recruit Preparation

Marines exercise during a High Intensity Tactical Training session led by Force Fitness instructor, Sgt. Jared Skelley. Photo by Sgt. Brittney Vella.

When you first start the journey to enter the military, you have many areas you need to consider during your preparation time. When asking yourself are you “ready to serve”, the tactical fitness requirements depend on your current conditioning, athletic history, and the branch of service/job you seek. However, the medical (waivers), financial (debt), educational (records), and many other administrative paperwork areas can be an issue that you will discover on your first trip to the recruiter’s office; all of which can prolong your preparation time to entering the military. 

Take advantage of this extra time as to truly prepare for your future military service you need to first get TO the training by passing the fitness test (or acing any Spec Ops test), then preparing your body for the rigors of your future profession to get through the training.

Consider the following Venn Diagram of the Tactical Athlete Candidate. When you join the military, police, fire (tactical professions), you need to consider yourself a tactical athlete or work to get there. Think of the tactical athlete needing to be GOOD at all the elements of fitness, not just great at one or two like most sports playing athletes. As you can see, there are many elements of tactical fitness that are explained below in the following areas:

Diagram courtesy of Stew Smith

Strength and Power – Strength is an important element of tactical fitness, some will argue strength and power are most important. The foundation of strength/power will enhance all other elements. However, as the diagram shows, they all are intertwined and rely on each other pretty solidly. Having a solid foundation in strength (compound movements, functional) and power (explosive and steady) can offer significant benefits when adding cardio conditioning to create a higher work capacity.

Strength combined with speed, agility, stability movements can also help create a level of durability from dynamic forces put on the body during selection programs and training. Without some form of strength background or extra focus on strength (if endurance athlete), you may miss out on a higher level of durability needed to make it through challenging special ops level training programs. (boats, logs, rucking, load bearing).

But durability and work capacity are completely relative. If you have not done much diverse training with strength, cardio conditioning (run, ruck, swim, non-impact), speed, your athletic history may be enough to get you through basic training with no issues – depending upon that history. But for higher level candidates seeking more competitive programs where only the best scores/applications are accepted, diversifying the training to fit all the elements throughout the year of training in a periodization cycle is recommended. (some ideas)

Useful Tips:  The Endurance athlete needs to lift and add more joint stability if the athletic history is only running, swimming, and no strength training. The opposite goes for the power athlete with no endurance experience.  These are common weaknesses of what athletes bring to the table when starting down the path of tactical fitness.

Cardio Conditioning and Muscle Stamina – Long range endurance, mid-range endurance, speed and agility for passing running, rucking, swimming tests is an important element of fitness many people do not fully cover in their training.

Most will either run too many long slow miles or too many short runs (sprints) and not fully develop the all-around cardio conditioning needed to be the durable tactical athlete. Rucking for several hours, swimming for a few hours, running at a moderate pace for 3-5 miles, and running fast for 1.5, 2, 3 and 4 miles timed runs are ALL requirements and occur frequently depending upon the unit you are preparing for in your future.

If you couple these exercises with endurance/cardio conditioning is muscle stamina that turns strength exercises like the pullup into “endurance” exercise. When building up to large sets of 10-20 repetitions in a workout several times this will help the candidate to master the fitness testing requirements and other higher repetition training during selection.

Muscle stamina is needed for many movements – all calisthenics, overhead presses, lunges, squats, hill climbing, jumping, core exercises, grip/load bearing, swimming with fins and other high repetition events. The component of a stronger foundation combined with endurance will yield a level of work capacity for the candidate. This will help the candidate endure long work days in the training of near constant movement, harsh conditions, no naps, and minimal rest periods other than meal time.

Useful Tips: The power/strength athlete needs to run, bike, swim (other non-impact cardio) more / lift less (if needing to lose weight). Turn yourself into a triathlete for a cycle of several months if you think long distance is anything over 100m.

Stability / Skills and Coordination – Practicing movements, drills, techniques to build stable habits of good movement takes time.  Whether it is mastering swimming, running obstacle courses, jumping/landing, speed/agility, or building more stability with balance, flexibility, and mobility in the joints and overall movements of the body itself, the ability to move the body (and objects) in multiple planes is critical to handling some future challenging events. As you develop these skills, tactical training will evolve them to be used for work. Hand-eye coordination/body awareness for combatives, weapons/shooting skills, and other movements (to include load bearing) done in different environments (sand, snow, water, rock, altitude, etc.) will be some of the ways stability, skills, coordination will evolve throughout training. Adding a mobility and balance period to the end of your workouts will prove useful, but also on “easy” days focus on techniques of skills like swimming and treading. On regular days, you have to ensure solid technique/skills with running, rucking, lifting, climbing, crawling, jumping/landing in order to improve the durability and efficiency of movement. 

Useful Tips:  We all need better skills, techniques, stability/balance and will spend a lifetime mastering it. Having some athletic history is helpful, but not necessarily required. If you can quickly learn how to move efficiently, hone your techniques in lifting, swimming, running, etc., embrace the steep learning curve of combatives, shooting, and other load bearing/balance movements because you practiced them not until you got them right but until you could not get them wrong – you can do these tactical professions with some preparation time.    

Where to Start:  Beyond techniques and other skills, stability starts in the core and moves to the joints. If you are looking at where to start with stability, start with the core (axial spine) and work your way through the joints of the arms/legs (shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, knees, and ankles). I personally like the plank progression that starts with plank pose (front and side), balance in plank (lift arm/leg), movement in plank (bear crawl – all directions), stair crawls, and advance to carries and one-legged balance lifting.

The Candidate Tactical Athlete – This system of thinking is more geared for the candidate/recruit seeking answers to questions on how to train vs the active operator. If you find weaknesses personally with the above elements (we all do at some point), find answers on how to implement “weakness” training into your program.  Failing to pay attention to weaknesses in preparation will be quickly exposed within the first week of tactical training/selection. Take a few days a week and actively focus on your weakness – it will prove beneficial in the long term. Having an entire 12-16 week cycle devoted to your weakness could also be an area you should consider if you have never tried strength training, endurance (run/swim/ruck) training, speed work, and other techniques, skills or stability training.

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