Here’s How to Find Your Military and Special Ops Fitness Weaknesses

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Marines and sailors participate in a 5K run.
U.S. Marines and U.S. Navy sailors with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) and USS Bataan (LHD 5) participate in a 5K run for a Navy and Marine Corps Relief Society autism awareness fundraiser aboard the Bataan. (Austin Hazard/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

If you’re getting ready for the future challenges of military training and testing, it’s smart to be honest with yourself and assess weaknesses you may have to face while becoming a tactical athlete. Creating a training program that will help you not only maintain certain strengths but also build and eliminate weaknesses of any of the elements of fitness.

If you are unsure what the difference is between your previous athletics and tactical athletics and tactical fitness, remember this simple phrase: A tactical athlete must be good at all elements of fitness, depending upon the rigors of the job within the military, special ops, police and fire departments. An athlete in sports must be great at a few of the elements of fitness, depending upon the sports or activity.

So what elements do you need to consider while training for your future as a tactical athlete? Here are the elements of fitness: strength; power and speed; agility; cardiovascular endurance (run, swim and ruck); muscle stamina; grip; and mobility and flexibility.

How to Assess Your Fitness Weaknesses

Take your future military fitness test. That test is the basics of getting into the training pipeline you prefer. Often, scoring better on this “entrance exam” can be a determining factor to success. And some of these programs are highly competitive, so scoring high on a fitness test may be the norm versus meeting the minimum standards.

Be honest with yourself. After you take your first fitness test (on your own), the results will not lie to you. Typically, you will see that you need to perform better in calisthenics or running. Are you a weak runner? Get on a running plan and work on your goal pace now. Do you need help with calisthenics? Start doing calisthenics every other day now. Worth noting: Your first test never should be with a recruiter. You should practice this test many times to improve weaknesses as well as create a test-taking strategy that works for you.

The PT test is not enough. The PT test only tests you on muscle stamina with calisthenics and cardio endurance of running (push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups and a 1.5- to three-mile run). There are new tactical athlete tests now used by the Marine Corps (combat fitness test), the Army (combat fitness test) as well as the Rangers, SEALs, Army Special Forces, Air Force Special Warfare and other units designed to incorporate all elements of fitness listed above. Take your pick and see where you stand with the grading standards.

Goals. If you need to know goals that are sufficient to labeling yourself as prepared or not, consider the following opinions for each of the elements of fitness or view the PFT scoring tables. The number one goal is not to shoot for the minimum standards. Strive to be better. If you want to become a tactical athlete in the military, you need to train like your buddy’s life depends on it.

Elements of Fitness Recommended Ranges of Performance

Strength. Exercises such as weighted squats, deadlifts and bench press will help you improve strength. You will be required to lift your body weight or more on the bench press for max repetitions. You also will be required to lift 1.5-2 times your body weight on deadlift tests. Achieving this standard is a good mark to strive for during your training. Other strength elements are body carries and drags. Carrying your buddy of like weight 50-100 meters is an important standard to meet.

Power. Power is a component of strength and speed. You can do the weights listed above as well as others and even calisthenics with an explosive up phase of the repetition, but the elements in most of these tests are shuttle runs, medicine ball throws, standing long jump and others.

Speed and agility. These elements often will get tested together with shuttle runs, obstacle courses, pro agility test, the Illinois agility test and 40- to 400-meter sprints. No need to break records on these; just being capable of moving your body fast and changing directions quickly is the key to this element.

Muscle stamina. High-repetition calisthenics in fitness tests are standard practice, but some will require weighted pull-ups, bench presses of body weight for maximum repetitions, step-ups, ammo can presses and other events that can burn you out quickly. Building up to handling 1-2 minutes of any activity takes time and practice and a standard to achieve.

Cardio endurance (run, ruck, swim). Depending on your branch of service, you may do all of these options or only one or two. But these events are typically longer in duration and distances from less than 10 minutes (timed runs) to three-plus-hour rucks and ocean swims. These require a logical progression to build up mileage, weight for load bearing, as well as technique and conditioning training for fast and long swims. Running your timed runs at a six- to seven-minute mile pace is above average. Rucking at 10-12 miles per hour with 50+ pounds is also above average. Swimming a yard per second with or without fins is an above-average score to shoot for.

Flexibility and mobility. Both are required to perform well in any of the above events and help you avoid unnecessary pain and injury. Adding stretching and mobility work to your training day as well as taking a full day to focus on flexibility, mobility and non-impact cardio options is a great way to heal from long work days and grueling workouts. Some branches will have toe touch tests as part of their testing protocol. Passing a functional movement screener is a good start to determine weaknesses in these areas.

Grip. Operator grip is a requirement in all jobs in the tactical professions. The exercises tested above will have a grip component (deadlift, rope climbs, pull-ups, hanging knee-ups, body drags). Some tactical fitness tests will test grip using a hand dynamometer. Practice building a grip; you will need it.

Sample physical fitness or combat fitness test scores to compare:

By dissecting all fitness elements, you will see that many will work well together and can be enhanced together through smart programming. There are some elements of fitness that do not work well together when trying to improve in both. For instance, if you are trying to get stronger, you also can work on power, speed and agility and see solid results in these elements. Think about a football player who is in preseason training for an example in the sports world.

Also, on the flip side, it is very difficult to increase leg strength and power and improve longer distance running paced for timed runs. When mixing them together you may see moderate improvement in only one (strength or endurance) or the other, or no improvement in both. This is why it is smart to consider a tactical fitness periodization program and give yourself some time to work these elements of fitness that are your current weaknesses while maintaining the strengths as well.

The good news is once you build yourself up to a certain level, maintaining all fitness elements can be accomplished.

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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