Why Building Cardio Endurance Matters Even for Those Who Lift

Army Reserve Spc. Austin Boussou, a wheeled-vehicle mechanic and native of Ivory Coast, walks uphill as he nears the finish of an eight-mile ruck march as part of a joint command Best Warrior competition at Camp Williams, Utah. (U.S. Army Reserve/Sgt. 1st Class Brent C. Powell)

Coming from an athletic history of strength and power has its own "strengths and weaknesses.'' These are apparent when preparing for military training, scoring well on fitness tests and having the endurance and muscle stamina needed for physically exhausting days of training.

I can attest that coming from a powerlifting and football background, where anything more than 100 yards was considered long-distance running, my endurance had to improve.

When running at a steady pace for long distances, swimming for more than the length of a pool and even rucking, most strength athletes' conditioning is just not adequate. Specifically training for these events is a must if you have future plans in the military.

The good news is that now strength, power, speed and agility are also tested (and needed) in both military fitness testing and training. Here is a handy acronym to help you remember what your weaknesses typically are when you come from a strength and powerlifting background:









Strength and power athletes preparing to serve in the military must have a high level of endurance conditioning in order to pass fitness tests and be ready for longer runs, rucks and swims. Regular conditioning exercises and technique training in running, high-repetition calisthenics and swimming can help athletes build and maintain the necessary endurance and stamina.

The strength athlete must get out of the weight room and focus primarily on "Cals and Cardio." Depending on their future training pipeline, that may mean two-minute fitness tests of pull-ups, push-ups and sit-ups, along with swimming and running. It will likely involve rucking and other forms of load-bearing activity as well.

Often a six- to nine-month cycle of calisthenics, a progressive running plan, swimming lessons and practice is the bulk of the focus for this type of athlete. Ignore the cardio conditioning at your own risk. You will wish you had muscle stamina, endurance and work capacity within your first week of training if you do not focus aggressively on your weaknesses.

Aerobic Training

You have mastered both anaerobic and alactic energy systems with your prior athletics. Both are still important for any athlete wanting to prepare for the military fitness tests, but the elephant in the room is often neglected: aerobic training.

Aerobic training, involving activities such as running, swimming and rucking, increases the heart rate and makes the lungs work harder at a sustainable pace. These are not sprints or heavy-lifting activities. You still need all of the above, but a cycle that focuses primarily on improving your aerobic base is your No. 1 focus, given your athletic history.


Resistance exercises are important for any athlete wanting to get ready for military fitness tests. Strength through resistance training is the foundation of durability. You need to withstand long periods of physical activity without becoming fatigued or injured. This is where durability, stamina and work capacity meet to create a better tactical athlete.

A form of resistance training can be limited to calisthenics, sandbags and backpacks for the power athlete; however, lifting weights to improve strength will be needed for other types of athlete. Getting stronger through resistance exercises like push-ups, pull-ups and crunches can help any athlete be more successful on military tests.

Resistance exercises with sandbags and backpacks will help build strength, endurance and durability.


For the power athlete, adding distance in running must be a progressive process; otherwise, typical overuse injuries (shin splints, tendinitis, bone pain or stress fractures) can cost months of training.

Mastering a timed run distance at a competitive pace is the first challenge. Doing a trio of styles of cardio like running, biking and swimming for longer distances will help athletes prepare for more aerobic conditioning, with one-half to two-thirds of the cardio being a safer, nonimpact option.

Doing these exercises with proper form and gradually increasing distance and pace will help an athlete become more successful on military tests.


Interval training is a great way for military service candidates to get in shape for physical tests. Not only should goal-paced running for timed runs be a part of the focus in training, but high-speed, sprint intervals can also be done to increase the intensity of the training.

This means incorporating short bursts of intense activity, such as Tabata intervals (20 seconds sprinting, with 10 seconds easy) on nonimpact cardio machines, into their training. But, now with spring testing part of many military programs, adding in a fast run day once or twice a week is helpful to build or maintain speed.

Optimize the Tactical Athlete

The elements of fitness required to be an effective tactical athlete who is an asset in any physically demanding situation are the following:

  • Strength
  • Power
  • Speed
  • Agility
  • Muscle stamina
  • Endurance
  • Mobility
  • Flexibility
  • Grip

If you excelled in the first four elements as a strength and power athlete (football and powerlifting), you can maintain these while you build the obvious weaknesses. A calisthenics and cardio plan will challenge you, but you may find that even though you do not lift like you once did during this weakness-focused cycle, you will maintain strength and still be stronger than most.

Through a tailored training program, you can optimize your performance on military fitness tests and longer runs, rucks or swims and still be strong. By focusing on optimization, you can balance out your strengths-to-weaknesses ratio to the next level and be better prepared to serve in the military.

Remember: Being good at everything is the key to tactical fitness training.

The opposite transition to tactical training will be the focus of the endurance athlete who has mastered aerobic conditioning. Strength, power, speed and agility are going to be a likely weakness for this type of athlete.

Swimmers need to get used to gravity (and running), and runners need more upper-body strength and muscle stamina for fitness tests (and likely swimming). Both will need to get in the weight room and work on their strength for various load-bearing activities that could be in their tactical training future.

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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