How to Make a Plan to Improve Weaknesses and Maintain Strengths

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Sgt. George Ruiz, left, of the 49th Personnel Support Company, 115th Regional Support Group, California Army National Guard, battles Spc. Devon Witt to the finish line of the 2-mile run of the Army Physical Fitness Test. (Eddie Siguenza/Army National Guard)
Sgt. George Ruiz, left, of the 49th Personnel Support Company, 115th Regional Support Group, California Army National Guard, battles Spc. Devon Witt to the finish line of the 2-mile run of the Army Physical Fitness Test. (Eddie Siguenza/Army National Guard)

An honest assessment of your fitness strengths and weaknesses is just as important to optimal performance as training itself, nutrition, hydration, sleep and recovery.

Your training programs need to balance a focused approach to improving weaknesses while still maintaining strengths and include a regular assessment of both. The last thing you ever want to have is an undiagnosed weakness when entering boot camp, basic training or spec ops selection. Those programs are designed to expose them quickly.

How Regularly Should You Make an Assessment?

Every few months, you should take a PT test, check your one-rep max lifts and do timed distance tests for running, rucking or swimming. Testing speed and agility throughout the year will help you determine whether you are on the right track.

After those tests, you must decide whether you trust the process enough to be patient with the current system, or do you make a change and focus on a different element of fitness for a few weeks? My recommendation is to add small assessments of strength, power, speed, agility, muscle stamina and endurance into each week just to see how you are performing.

Here are some specific examples of easy assessments that can be mixed into regular programming:

Warmup Run and Light Stretch, Followed by a Timed Run

When you are fresh and warmed up, give yourself a run test at a future fitness test distance (or at least part of that distance). See whether you can maintain a set pace to reach your goal. If you are just trying to maintain a certain time, these assessments are good, especially when you are focused on a different cycle, such as strength training.

A timed one-mile run is a good way to see whether you are maintaining your running pace. If you hit your goal pace easily, that’s great. If you miss your pace or hit it with way too much effort, you may want to mix in some running for 400-800 meters at goal-pace intervals after the session you had planned for the day.

Warm Up with Calisthenics Before Lifting

If you are doing the bench press or other upper-body lifts in a workout, warm up with a short run and push-up pyramid before you lift to check your push-up abilities during a lift cycle.

Try this on a football field or track:

Run 100 meters, 1 push-up, run 100 meters, 2 push-ups, run 100 meters, 3 push-ups, run 100 meters, 4 push-ups … keep going up to 10. If that is easy, you are maintaining your muscle stamina during a strength cycle. If it’s not easy, you may want to add in some one-minute push-up sets after the lift session that day.

Checking Your Speed and Agility

You can add these exercises into your workouts but make sure you do them later in the session, as it is smart to be warmed up before you sprint. You should build up your pace for a few sets before you go into full 100% sprint mode. Many injuries occur when testing full speed before being warmed up properly.

Pull-ups

If you must perform a test with pull-ups, you should keep pull-ups in your programming year-round as these are the “heavy weightlifting” of calisthenics. Pull-ups are great with high-repetition calisthenics and weightlifting cycles. Warm up with a few easy sets of pull-ups, then test out your max-rep effort as a regular part of any training cycle. Many spec ops level programs have a pull-up test with and without a weight vest of 20-25 pounds.

Swimming and Treading

If you are swimming regularly in preparation for a race or future selection, each day can be a warmup for your future test. Many PT tests require a 500-meter swim, so your warmup always should be a 500-meter swim. This is mainly so you can say to yourself when you take the test for real that, “500 meters is just my warmup.”

Not only is this a good conditioning base builder, but it’s a confidence builder as well. When you check your time when done and gauge the effort level required, you will know whether you are on pace to hit your goals.

Follow the 500-meter swim with at least another 1,000- to 1,500-meter workout. Once you have the 500-meter swim down to an “easy day” pace, start your warmup with a 10-minute tread and build up to not using your hands for any of the 10 minutes. You will learn that a 10-minute tread is tough and requires nearly the same amount of energy for a 500-meter warmup.

Effort Level

The final assessment is gauging how hard you are working to hit your goal time, reps or weight. If you are having to gut-check it each time, you are not quite there yet. Building your abilities to meet or exceed the standards with moderate effort (not maximum burnout effort) is the goal you should aim to reach. This takes time, so be patient.

When to Make a Change

Nine times out of 10, I would recommend sticking with the process, but each individual situation is different. If you are seeing decreases in performance or find yourself stuck on a plateau, staying on course is still an option, but you also may want to just deload for a week before you make a drastic change to your training.

Every 12 weeks, we make a systemic change in training and focus on different elements of fitness in the Seasonal Tactical Fitness Periodization system. However, we have cut a cycle short by a few weeks or extended it by a few weeks, depending on whether we were making steady progress.

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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