How to Train to Join the Military, Police or Firefighter

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A firefighter from the Albuquerque (N.M.) Fire Department’s Wildland Task Force trains.
A firefighter from the Albuquerque (N.M.) Fire Department’s Wildland Task Force is shown. (Joseph C. Stone/Albuquerque Fire Department)

Training for general health and wellness is great, but when it comes to tactical fitness -- training for military, police and firefighter professions -- getting good at all the elements of fitness is not only the underlining goal. It's a requirement.

As defined in previous articles, tactical fitness requires you to take your fitness seriously, because one day, it may be the difference between life and death for you, your buddy or someone you are trying to help. Your ability to react as you have been trained and think clearly under stress is an absolute must.

Train like your buddy’s life depends on it. Your workout today must make you better tomorrow in your job. This not only means having a healthy heart, blood pressure, sugar levels and weight, but your workout also must help you with all of the elements of fitness. When we break them down, the tactical athlete needs to develop programming to get good at:

  • Speed and agility: Run and move fast, stop on a dime, change direction, hit the deck, get back up and move again.
  • Strength and power: Lift heavy equipment, gear and people, too, with great force when needed.
  • Flexibility and mobility: Move easily over uneven terrain and between obstacles.
  • Endurance and muscle stamina: Move yourself and gear up, over, under and through space for long periods of time and repetitions.
  • Grip: Hold gear, climb rope/mountain, grab and carry equipment and people without tiring.
  • Skills: In some professions, swimming and diving are required, so swim to save a life, to cross a river, meet up with a ship or sub for extraction, and to be effective on 75% of this planet.

How do you train everything and see results that will create optimal tactical fitness scores and abilities? Here is how:

Combining elements of fitness for best results

Over the past 20 years, I have developed a periodization program that works extremely well for tactical athletes; it focuses on all of the elements of fitness spread throughout the year. The workouts can be arranged so the main focus is 2-3 elements of fitness for improvement, while the secondary goal is to maintain performance in the other elements of fitness. For instance:

When working strength and power, you also can work speed and agility with it and see very good results in all of them on this type of programming. Think summer training before football season; working on speed, agility, strength and power was the main mission.

In the above tactical fitness periodization program, we tend to do this in the winter, putting on muscle, gaining mass if needed, and working on pure strength, power and speed (with agility).

Mixing in fast runs (400 meters or less) and shuttle runs, agility tests top off the weight training cycle quite well. Adding grip exercises such as pull-ups, deadlifts, farmer walks and rope climbs should be part of the strength training program.

Depending on the goals of the tactical athlete, adding some skill work needs to occur, especially if many miles of swimming with fins or short fast swim tests are required. However, during the strength phase, topping off leg day with some swimming with fins and cooling down in the pool focusing on techniques to swim, tread and other pool skills is a must.

The same goes for load-bearing activities, like rucking, equipment carry, firefighter bunker gear and body armor (weight vest), these also should be practiced during the strength phase as the main source of cardiovascular activity.

Endurance and muscle stamina

What doesn’t fit well into the strength cycle is endurance and muscle stamina training goals. We will give that its own cycle in order to see better results in endurance and high-repetition calisthenics events in order not to interfere with the strength/growth curves too much.

You can still build strength and endurance at the same time, but the progression into getting stronger and running faster, longer-distance events will be slower when combined.

You never will blow off any element of fitness completely. It is just not the cycle’s focus during these periods of the year. When endurance and muscle stamina is the focus, you may find these workouts take longer, so we place them in the spring and summer when the days are longer.

The elements of fitness that should have equal representation year-round are mobility and flexibility. Warming up with calisthenics and dynamic stretches, using foam rollers and cooling down with static stretching will help you relieve some of the muscle and joint pain associated with heavy lifts, speed work, high reps and high miles *(running, rucking, swimming). So mobility and flexibility should have equal time throughout the year.

We even created a special day in the middle of the week devoted to mobility/flexibility and non-impact cardio options as a great way to relieve midweek pain and soreness from heavy lifts or high miles. You may find this midweek mobility day to help later workouts in the week (day 5-6) and even be life-changing as you age.

Why periodization?

Whether you call it cross-training or periodization, this system works. So why periodization?

In order to see better increases in performance in all elements of fitness, they need to be incorporated logically throughout the year.

Once you have built a solid base of endurance, muscle stamina, strength and power, you may find that limiting periodization elements strictly may not be as necessary for more than therapeutic reasons.

The aging tactical athlete body will appreciate the intensity and type of training cycles, versus working everything hard year-round.

More related articles

Periodization articles (tactical athlete):

20 Years of Periodization

Periodization Training Periodization – Do I Need It?

Periodization Advice Multi-Sport Athlete Periodization

Summer – Fall Transition

Science of periodization:

Article from Peak Endurance Sport Strength/Endurance Gain in Elderly Study

Ben Greenfield – Strength and Endurance Training

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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