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In 2014, I attended an Appleseed shoot in Santa Barbara, California. I forgot the specific circumstances, but I was complaining about something or other with my shot cadence on the second day.

The instructor looked at me and asked, “Can you run a mile without stopping?”

I was flabbergasted at such a question.

Of course I could run a mile without stopping. I ran three to four miles every Friday with my unit on top of the rest of my workouts. After giving him my answer, he suggested I take two shots with each cycle of my breathing.

That moment stuck with me for a long time. Not because the advice was profound, but because it seemed like such an odd question. The truth later dawned on me.

As a member of the military, even the minimal fitness standard I was held accountable to was more than the average person this instructor dealt with.

I see that as a problem.

Physical fitness and shooting go hand in hand. There are too many people in our community who only focus on the shooting and gear components while completely ignoring their own health.

Several trainers have made a note to point this out, but the only people nodding along are those who didn’t need to hear it in the first place.

Well, this is my soapbox.

Introduction

Enhance your tactical skills through developing your tactical fitness
Photo by Victor Freitas

Let me be up front. I am not a certified fitness expert. I’m not here to prescribe workout plan for you. Nothing I say here should be considered medical advice, and you should check with an actual medical, exercise, or nutritional expert if you want those kinds of answers.

That said, I am a nerd for data and self-experimentation. I’ve worked through piles of books, nutrition plans, and research done by the actual professionals to see what works for me. I’ve also interviewed many trainers and exercise physiologists in my journey.

This article is a summary of what I’ve learned and my suggestions for improving your own fitness.

Defining Tactical Fitness

What do I mean when I refer to “Tactical Fitness,” anyway? What distinguishes it from any other fitness routine like bodybuilding, powerlifting, Crossfit, or other endurance sports?

First off, tactical fitness is not the silly stuff you see on YouTube. It’s not flipping tires while wearing a plate carrier and then shadow boxing to heavy metal. That’s just dumb.

Stew Smith, former Navy SEAL and long time fitness writer had this to say:

Tactical Fitness is not about workouts, it’s about work. It is not about working out to get good at working out, it is about creating programs that carry over into real life movements like lifts, carries, crawls, runs, rucks, swims, and mobility. Even analytical and creative thinking. It uses non-traditional equipment to lift and carry loads that are not equally balanced.  

I like that definition.

I used Stew’s programs while in AFROTC and preparing for the officer version of basic training. Is there anything else? What kinds of considerations do you need to make while pursuing this category of physical preparedness?

Tactical Means General

Jeff Nichols, a former SEAL and current owner of Performance First US, put it succinctly when he said that, compared to sport specific training, tactical fitness has no clearly defined movement roles.

What does that mean? A tactical athlete has to be good at everything without putting too much emphasis on any one area. It’s a jack-of-all-trades mindset. Take this list from Stew Smith for instance:

  • Speed and Endurance – You need to be able to run, ruck, and sprint depending on the situation. You will continue doing this for hours to days if needed.
  • Strength and Power – You need to be able to carry gear, drag or carry your buddy, pick yourself up over obstacles, or move things out of the way
  • Flexibility and Mobility – You need to move over uneven terrain, without injury, drop into awkward or tight positions, and quickly get back out again to sprint to the next position
  • Muscular Stamina – You’re going to have to exert muscular force again and again and again. Bad things don’t stop happening just because you’re tired. 

It is very common for an advanced Tactical Athlete to be strong enough to do 20 pull-ups and deadlift two times his bodyweight of 200 or more pounds and still be able to run a six-minute mile pace for several miles.  Those are excellent numbers, but a cross-country runner will beat you by a minute in a mile run, but likely fail at strength events.  The strong man will almost double your lift weights, but take a bus when the mile run is tested.  

Professional Athletes Are Too Specific

Think of a professional athlete in any sport. The reality is that they are probably a master in only one or two of these areas. Football players demonstrate immense amounts of power and force during repeated intervals. But the average player is only in motion for 11 minutes total during a four-hour game.

Basketball and soccer players move more than that at 3 miles and 7 miles respectively per game, but they don’t generate the power and force needed for football.

You get the idea.

A tactical fitness program means that you will not reach extremely high levels of fitness in any one area, but that you are very capable in all of them. It’s not just about strength, speed, endurance, or stamina– it’s everything.

US Army Calvary troopers exhibiting tactical fitness with a log carry
US Army Calvary troops earning their spurs with the “Spur Ride.” The spur ride included an Army physical fitness test, a five-mile run, an obstacle course, individual weapons qualifications, night land navigation, and other warrior tasks.
DoD photo by Sgt. Christopher Johnston, U.S. Army

Complicating Factors

There are several more characteristics to a tactical athlete that you need to consider. These things further separate them from other athletic pursuits found in the gym.

First, tactical athletes do not have seasons. There is no offseason where you can let yourself go a bit. Law Enforcement officers, for example, are on the job all the time. Any incident in the law enforcement world can rapidly escalate to life-threatening in a matter of seconds. If that’s your job, then you are always on your game.

Military members are similar. The life-threatening part may be for six months to a year at a time, depending on your job, but the rest of the year you are training or preparing for that deployment. Once you’re there, you are “game on” for six months to a year without stop. 

The Burden of Constant Fitness

The need to maintain a high level of fitness all the time requires a lot of discipline and focus. It also means getting away from a purely goal-oriented mindset where you are training towards something.

Instead, you are training because that’s who you are.

Another factor pointed out by Jeff is that the average tactical athlete is much older than the average professional athlete. Military members, law enforcement, and other first responders have careers spanning decades. They are much less tolerant of injury or downtime.

Not being able to work means not getting paid. Staying fit and strong without injury as you get older gets more difficult.

I’ve been relatively lucky in this area. I’ve only had a smattering of broken bones and sprained ankles in my life. But I’ve got friends who’ve torn their back muscles, shattered spinal bones, had knee surgery, and a variety of other problems. These all add up over time, and it makes it that much harder to maintain a fit lifestyle.

You need to train with these truths in mind:

  • You’re not training towards a season or game, this is life
  • You need to train in a way that’s sustainable for the duration of your life

So what does a Tactical Fitness Program Look Like?

I asked the experts about their vision of tactical fitness programs. Rob Shaul of the Mountain Tactical Institute gave me one of the best answers, emphasis mine.

From a fitness programming perspective, a tactical athlete’s fitness must cover a much more broad array of fitness demands…Their fitness demands are much more “multi-modal”. Green athletes, for example, need high relative strength (strength per bodyweight), high sprint-based work capacity, tactical agility, endurance (running/rucking) and chassis integrity (core). Most tactical athletes cannot predict the tactical situations they face, and thus their programming must be broader and embrace more fitness attributes than more narrow sport or competition athletes who can predict what they will face in competition, and program accordingly.

Grouping By Tactical Needs

Rob mentions “Green Athletes” in the statement. I asked about that, and he broke down all of his tactical programs for me based on color coding.

  • GREEN – Military Infantry, Land-Based SOF (Green Beret, Ranger, Delta), Wildland Firefighter, and LE units with rural mission sets – BORTAC, FBI HRT, many rural state SWAT/SRT
  • BLUE – Military and LE units/teams who’s mission sets include water – Border Patrol BORSTAR, MARSOC, SEAL, DEVGRU, USAF CCT/PJ/CRO
  • RED – Fire/Rescue
  • GRAY – Urban-based, full-time LE SWAT and SRT
  • BLACK – LE Patrol / Detective

What I found very interesting while talking to Rob was that he still emphasized some sport-specific training based on needs.

Each of these tactical athlete categories has a unique set of mission-direct fitness demands. Some of these demands overlap between categories, and some don’t. For example, Green athletes (Military Infantry) have a far greater endurance demand (running, rucking) than Black (LE Patrol/Detective). Blue Athletes share all of the fitness demands with Green, but also need swimming on the endurance side.

It’s Not About Big Muscles

USAF Joint Terminal Attack Controllers back squatting, a key movement for not just tactical fitness, but all fitness. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Scott Thompson
USAF Joint Terminal Attack Controllers back squatting, a key movement for not just tactical fitness, but all fitness. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Scott Thompson

On their podcast, Mike and Kurt at Fieldcraft-Survival had a discussion about their experiences at Ranger School. I remember them talking about “Ranger Body.”

They weren’t talking about it as an ideal, though.

“Ranger Body” was the generic look that everyone had when they finished. The guys who showed up with huge muscles lost them as time went on. The guys who showed up weak…well, they didn’t make it.

Jeff Nichols and Stew Smith had a similar discussion about BUD/S. A 270 lb bodybuilder who wanted to be a SEAL asked them what weight he needed to get down to in order to succeed. They told him to get below 220. Even at that lower weight, he would still be one of the biggest guys there.

Mass Is Not Always the Answer

More muscle mass is not always beneficial. Muscle mass means more metabolism byproducts to deal with. Mike and Kurt talked about the smell that the huge bodybuilders emitted as their bodies cannibalized muscle protein for energy. More muscle mass means you have a larger caloric demand, and in austere environments like that simply don’t support it.

In reality, it’s almost impossible to maintain a very large physique if you don’t have access to the number of calories you need to eat every day to maintain it.

Strength is important, but there are diminishing returns.

The Long Game

Jeff Nichols points out that always training for the worst case means not really training, it’s just exhausting the system.

The simple truth is that you can’t do that to yourself all of the time, especially when you still have a job to do. If you can’t rescue your buddy because you had a killer leg day, then you have failed. If you destroyed your energy reserves so much that you can’t effectively train anymore, then you are wrong.

Kettlebells, a common tool when building tactical fitness
Photo by Justyn Warner

You can’t keep adding stress without end. Your body will only adapt to stimulation stress so quickly and for so long before it gets injured or worse.

I ran into this one myself while following Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength program. I made significant progress on my raw lifting power, but I eventually hit plateaus and could feel myself bumping up against the threshold for injury.

Patience, You Must Have Patience

Fitness is not a linear progression. Jeff talks about it like the stock market. It has ups and down, sometimes big downs, but the long-term progression is up.

That is, provided you planned for the long game and invested wisely.

Setting Standards

Before I talk about what a Tactical Program looks like, let’s talk about standards. What should a trained tactical athlete be able to achieve?

Most people think that a good place to start is a military fitness test. I totally understand why, but I also don’t think that’s a good path. From experience, the military fitness tests are not designed to test your capabilities. They are designed to weed out people who will become health problems.

If the Air Force’s fitness test was the measure of tactical fitness, then everyone would look like skinny cross country runners without any upper body strength. That’s not ideal, and everyone in combat arms knows it. That’s why the Army devised yet another combat fitness test.

Tactical Fitness Testing

The deadlift, another key movement in the tactical fitness regime
Photo by Victor Freitas

Rob Shaul mentions that a tactical athlete has a high relative strength. That means that they are strong relative to their current weight. Here are Rob’s basic strength benchmarks:

LiftMenWomen
Front Squat1.5 x Bodyweight1.0 x Bodyweight
Deadlift2.0 x Bodyweight1.5 x Bodyweight
Bench Press1.5 x Bodyweight1.0 x Bodyweight
Push Press1.1 x Bodyweight.7 x Bodyweight
Hang Squat Clean1.25 x Bodyweight1.0 x Bodyweight
Squat Clean + Press1.1 x Bodyweight.7 x Bodyweight
Pull Ups168

So, I’m about 205 lbs. I’m nowhere near any of these numbers. My last deadlift session ended with a 305 lbs lift, and I was happy with that– but it’s only 1.49 times my bodyweight.

If you compare Rob’s numbers to Strengthlevel.com, a commonly used metric in the powerlifting community, his strength standards would put you in the “intermediate” category.

What does that tell you? Tactical athletes need to be strong, but not elite.

Becoming elite means sacrificing in too many other areas.

Test Yourself

Rob has another tactical strength test you can fit into a workout. It’s comprised of four exercises, write down the result of each:

  • 1 Rep Max (RM) Front Squat
  • Max reps for strict pull ups (up to 20, they don’t count after that)
  • 1 RM Power Clean
  • 1 RM Bench Press

Add the total weight of the front squat, power clean, and bench press. Save that number.

Multiply your body weight times .07 ( for 7%) and multiply that result with the number of pull-ups. Save that number.

Add those two numbers together and then divide by your bodyweight. The final number is your score.

As of this writing, mine is 2.5. What’s yours? Comment below.

Rob’s minimum relative strength score for a tactical athlete is 4 for men and 3 for women. The standard for excellent is 5 for men and 4 for women.

I’ve got a lot more work to do.

Non-Strength Standards

I already mentioned that tactical fitness is about more than strength. You also need to work on conditioning, flexibility, and endurance. What do those standards look like? Rob Shaul has some great conditioning tests as well, but I’ll focus on something different for myself.

Let’s start with some cardio. I personally use a rowing machine for most of my cardio conditioning. It’s convenient for me since I wake up at 5 AM each day to exercise before getting ready for work and really don’t want to run in the dark.

Also, I hate treadmills.

Another option is getting under a ruck and putting on some miles. Rucking is a fantastic training tool for endurance and strength, but one seldom used outside of the military.

Rowing Standards

  • 5k Row in less than 18 minutes
  • 2k row in less than 7 minutes
  • 500m row in less than 1:30

I’m actually not too far off from those now. But they aren’t the whole story.

Rucking Standard

  • 12 miles in 3 hours with a 35 lb pack – The classic Army standard

I feel like I’m closer to these than I am the strength standards. I attribute that to a lot more time spent doing cardio in the Air Force than strength work.

Things Not Covered

These standards say nothing of agility, flexibility, grip strength or other elements. That’s OK, it’s a start. A proper training program will still cover those elements while working on the strength and endurance component.

Tactical Fitness Programming

Let’s talk about what a year-round program looks like for the tactical athlete.

If you’re looking to maintain a solid level of fitness across all the required areas, then you need to break that up into sections. You simply can’t work on all of it at the same time. Your body cannot adapt that quickly in all those different directions.

The professionals break up their training into periods throughout the year.

Periodization for Tactical Fitness

Jeff Nichols talks about alternating between strength and speed, with conditioning work thrown in throughout. He has his athletes work on strength and power for six to eight weeks to grow new muscle. Then, he spends another six to eight weeks making those muscles faster.

Rinse and repeat.

Stew Smith published his year-round periodization.

  • January – March: Near 100 percent weights, more non-impact cardio workouts. Ruck / Swim with fins.
  • April – June: Calisthenics and cardio workouts. Run / Swim Progression
  • July – September: Calisthenics and cardio workouts (advanced). Run Max / Swim Progression
  • October – December: Calisthenics, weights, and decrease running / non-impact cardio workouts. Ruck / Swim with fins.

If you look over Rob Shaul’s programs, you see a similar trend of alternating every three to eight weeks between strength focus and speed focus. Conditioning is always present, so it’s a matter of sport-specific focus.

“But Matt,” you ask, “won’t you lose your gains in strength is you stop working on it?”

The answer is you might lose some of that maximal power or speed output that you build up during any period but won’t slip back to where you started. As this cycle repeats year over year, you make gains in all the relevant areas. This pattern doesn’t work for someone looking to become elite in a single area, but it works for the tactical practitioner.

Tactical Fitness for Beginners

A rack of dumbbells, key to tactical fitness

I asked the trainers about the biggest mistake most people make when it comes to their programs.

The answer: Not picking a program and sticking to it.

Beginners are especially bad about this because they have no context. Any untrained individual will see some very quick results no matter what training program they use. This is not because they are getting stronger or quicker in a matter of weeks. Instead, this is a neurological adaptation.

As a newbie starts exercising, the brain and nervous system look for ways to be more efficient. The body learns to recruit muscle fibers more efficiently, which helps the newbie lift more weight. That rate of progress is not sustainable in the long term.

The very rapid gains in strength found by those who begin a program like Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength come from this phenomenon.

Embrace the Plateau

As a beginner hits the plateau, where the gains come from from the slow process of muscle growth and adaptation, they get frustrated. Beginners then quit the program and look for the next new thing to work on. Maybe that new thing brings some quick gains, but they will eventually run into the same problem.

There is always a plateau.

The key for beginners is to pick a program and start working. Stay on the program until it ends, and then start over or pick a new one. Always stick to a program.

Jeff Nichols expressed that a lot of newbies don’t exercise with intention. They randomly pick movements and exercises and call it a workout. If you pick random workouts over time, you have random results. That’s not going to work, either.

Trust the professionals here, and pick a qualified program to follow.

Tactical Fitness for Athletes Over 40

So what if you’re not a beginner, but you’re getting older?

Kelly Starrett says that the human body is built to last over 100 years of proper operation. The fact that most of us start to fall apart long before that is because of our own poor lifestyle habits and movement patterns.

Jeff Nichols emphasized that an athlete can train to a certain point with bad movement patterns, but eventually those poor patterns are going to hold them back.

The overall fitness pattern for those of you over the 40 mark doesn’t look all that different than it did in your 20’s or 30’s. Fitness is fitness. But you are also slower to recover from injury and hard workouts. That means you need to focus on correct movement patterns and recovery.

I highly recommend Kelly Starrett’s book on movement patterns, as it tremendously helped me get over some lingering ankle and back injuries.

Monitor What You Eat

Aside from movement itself, those of you over 40 have probably realized that you can’t out exercise a bad diet. I can’t tell you the number of times I was in a military gym and overheard the young bucks in their early 20’s talk about “Working out so we can go out tonight.”

I’m 34 as of this writing, and I already know I can’t do things like that. I notice a significant impact of diet and sleep on my workouts.

It’s not just about being tactical.

Look, here’s the bottom line. Tactical Fitness is a buzzword, just like General Physical Preparedness was a several years ago.

This whole idea is about adopting a year-round fitness program that continually improves all areas of your physical capabilities. Moreover, it’s about doing it without a particular goal in mind. This isn’t really about being “tactical,” it’s about being a healthy human.

I simply cannot stand the idea of being like some of my relatives who ignored their bodies for decades, and now they struggle with seemingly simple physical tasks. Someday, I want to be the old guy who can still run around the playground with the grandkids (hopefully). I want to be the epitome of the “badass old man” that you don’t want to mess with.

But that doesn’t start as you get older. That starts with a proper strength and conditioning program right now, or last year, or ten years ago.

But What About Events

So where to physical challenge events like GoRuck, Spartan Races, Marathons, Tough Mudders, Twilight Run N Guns, and others fit into all of this?

Participants in a GoRuck challenge, exhibiting tactical fitness
Participants in a GoRuck challenge. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class J. Zuriel Lee

These events are ways to test yourself among a fairly narrow set of skills. GoRuck, for instance, is about sustaining moderate intensity over extended time. Tough Mudders and Spartan Races are endurance races with some extra strength thrown in.

Treat these things as they are: sporting events.

Simulations are Not the Real Deal

When I asked the trainers about these things, they really didn’t have a particularly strong opinion. They see them as artificial constructs rather than real challenges. Rob Shaul put it to me bluntly:

I would recommend civilians skip these artificial events, and rather plan and complete real outdoor adventures on their own. I.e., instead of signing up for a GoRuck event, teach yourself to bowhunt or plan a week-long high country backpacking/fishing trip in the Bridger Wilderness. Instead of a Spartan race, plan, train for and complete a Rim to Rim hike of the Grand Canyon.  

– Rob Shaul

Does that mean I’m never going to do another GoRuck or other event? Not at all. I still get a lot out of the social interaction and team building components.

All of that said, if you want to do one of these things, then your training will change a little bit. If you think of your year-round programming as your baseline, then one of these events becomes a focal point. You will shift your programming to prepare for one of these events directly. That might mean spending more time under a ruck or doing more climbing work, or other elements that help you prepare.

This is a different subject altogether.

Wrapping Things Up

Active duty USAF Airman building tactical fitness through weight lifting
U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Gustavo Castillo

Fitness doesn’t get any easier to achieve the longer you put it off. The temptation a lot of people fall into is to try and do too much all at once. That’s just a recipe for injury and disappointment.

You need to have patience and discipline. Pick a program, start it, and just keep showing up.

Shooting is obviously a major component of my focus. But being physically fit enough to do the things I write about and go on the adventures I love to do is about living. There is literally no downside to being more physically capable.

If you take away nothing else from this article, remember this:

Over to You

For now, I’m holding myself to the goals I laid out above. I’ve got some time before I get there. What are your fitness goals? Let me know in the comments.

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Matt

Matt

Matt is the primary author and owner of The Everyday Marksman. He's former military officer turned professional tech sector trainer. He's a lifelong learner, passionate outdoorsman, and steadfast supporter of firearms culture.

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John Buol
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Outstanding article!

Mark
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Mark

Great article and very inspiring. This was for me…I’m that guy. I can run and gun, pretty good, for about 100 yds. At training, that’s all I need. Inside the shoot house (it’s big), with kit I’m done for after clearing a 20k sq. ft. house. It’s fatigue and anticipation. Shortness of breath due to stress, combined with the weight of gear and heat.

Time to get busy.

Debbie
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Thanks for the great article. I’m over 50 and life got in the way of my workouts a couple years ago. I need to get back to it. Your article is an encouragement to do something, even if it’s to go hiking/back-packing.

Keenan
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Keenan
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Very good. Great references that tie it all together. Do you operate a private gym?

Ed T
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Ed T

Thanks for your service and I want you to reflect on that. I served in the Army and am a police officer and Swat team member and Team leader. I hear “thanks for your service a lot” and I always feel a little guilty about it. It’s not a service, it’s a calling, so there is no struggle in it, and I don’t feel like the ‘thanks” is warranted. Tactical fitness is or should also be a calling in the same way. It is a smart and necessary basic foundation to enduring a career of action, but it should also just be a routine part of the day, the week, the month and the year. Should is the operative word, and your insight, experience and research makes this a lot more possible, so thank you for your prior and continued service.

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