Workout Plan: Balance Strength Growth and Maintenance

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Marine curls 50-pound dumbbell.
Lance Cpl. Christopher Talbot, with 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, curls a 50-pound dumbbell in Iraq. (Cpl. Ryan Tomlinson/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

How do you balance calisthenics, weights and cardiovascular conditioning? On your journey to becoming a tactical athlete who must get good at all the elements of fitness (strength and power; muscle stamina and cardio endurance; run, swim, ruck; speed and agility; and flexibility and mobility), you may find that you need to cycle through certain training phases that help you improve weaknesses while also maintaining your strengths.

That process is not easy, and each program will be different from the next, depending on athletic history, current strengths and weaknesses, goals and timeline. All of those matter when considering a training program. If you are not receiving personalized programming, you may have to alter your program to fit your abilities and goals.

Here is a sample workout that shows how we balance building strength while maintaining a steady level of muscle stamina and cardiovascular endurance.

First, assess: Take a test and actually see where you are when you start or after a challenging training cycle. For instance, we just spent the last four months focused on a running progression (distance and speed), swimming maintenance (cooldown, technique, PST distance 500 yards), and a high-repetition calisthenics and muscle stamina cycle.

We did all of that in a training cycle and saw great results. Now, as we transitioned out of this cycle and into a strength, power and speed cycle that includes shorter and faster runs and fewer repetitions but more weight, we took a test to see just how we needed to focus everyone during the next 12-week cycle.

Warmup: Do the training you're trying to maintain as your warmup. For most people moving into a strength cycle, we warm up with calisthenics and running to maintain a certain level of cardio and muscle endurance.

For example, we warm up with a push-up pyramid from 1-10 or 1-20 with 50- to 100-meter runs between each set. That's about a 10- to 15-minute warmup that yields 55 to 210 push-ups and 500 meters to 2,000 meters of running, depending on your abilities. You also can mix in pull-ups as a warm-up, too.

Workout focus: After warming up with pull-ups and push-ups with a short PT pyramid, we work the same muscle groups as the warmup, just differently and heavier.

Push/pull strength day

Repeat 4-5 times:

  • Bench press 5-10 (moderately heavy weight)*
  • Rows 5-10 per arm (heavy dumbbells or machine)

Repeat 3 times:

  • Biceps curl into military press, 10-15
  • Pull-ups 5-10 (add weight if you can do 15+ already)
  • Shrugs 20
  • Dips 10-20 (add weight if you easily can do 15-20 reps)

You also can do a similar style warm-up with a squat pyramid and runs, and mix in a series of 5x5 or 3x10 sets/reps cycle with heavier weights.

*If you want to go heavier to build strength, do less repetitions and more weight. If you need to build muscle, consider doing a lighter weight and higher-repetition range in the 10 to 15 zone (hypertrophy).

Cooldown: The cooldown can be a short run of 1.5 to two miles, and if you need to maintain and work on swimming skills, start off the swim workout with a 10-minute tread and a 500-meter timed event. On leg days, add in swimming with fins for 1,000 to 1,500 meters.

If you give yourself plenty of time (8-12 months), you can go through a few different cycles to maintain your strengths and improve weaknesses. Consider focusing on what you need to prepare for in your future, such as strength and durability for load-bearing activities (rucking, logs, boats, equipment carry). Swimming, treading and swimming with fins, running timed runs and steady paced distances as well.

There are many options for programming that can help you:

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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