Programming for the Tactical Athlete

For the past few years I have watched the ever-growing trend within the fitness industry and the strength & conditioning community of program design for the tactical athlete (I’m using the term athlete loosely, to describe the tactical population). Programming everything from core/stability to the latest and greatest program for speed, power, strength & endurance…all in 4 weeks. Although 99% of these programs are well meaning and the authors I’m sure have the best intentions, most of these fall well short of the intended mark and leave the participant wanting at the end or worse still, injured.

There seems to be an idea out there that this type of athlete needs something completely different and most of the time more volume, intensity and less rest. What you or your tactical athlete needs is a periodised program that addresses weakness, injury prone areas and maintains or improves strengths. The tactical athlete needs to be very careful with his/her volume and intensity and most of all rest and sleep. There are a small percentage of these people that will require to peak for a particular event (selection course, specialty course) and even then it should look more like a taper or maintenance phase. The job alone is completely different from that of the normal athlete; the loads carried daily, the sleep (or lack there of), nutrition and range of tasks that need to be covered during a shift/deployment make this person different from sporting or civilian populations.

Moreover, one of the most important factors that is constantly overlooked is longevity. We don’t have to “play” hard for a few seasons while we make our money and cash in, this job/lifestyle is one we plan to be involved in for years to come. So how do we make sure that we are here for the long term? That the corporate knowledge we gain over the years is maintained in a body capable of doing the job – constantly improving, not degrading rapidly over the next ten years.

The following are some basic principles that you should address during your programming. (Of course the best thing you can do is approach a professional with the relevant qualifications, who programs for a living and can design a program specifically for your needs.)

  • Needs analysis: Determine the characteristics of your job/role (Strength, power, hypertrophy, muscular endurance priorities, injury analysis, anaerobic and aerobic conditioning)
  • Training status: Current condition, training background, level of skill to perform training properly
  • Evaluation: Shown below
  • Exercise selection: Multi-joint and assistance exercises
  • Training frequency: Number of training sessions completed in a given period
  • Training Load/type: Training %, recovery time, training variation
  • Exercise Sequence: Order in which exercises are performed during a session

Below are some evaluation methods for the major areas that all tactical athletes must focus on. These are non-gender bias and should be done in the order they are written. They should be broken up in to two or three day blocks. You should also record your weight and age (for the aerobic testing).

  • Vertical Jump (3 jumps at one minute rest intervals, taking the average of all three)
  • Squat 1RM (lower limb strength)
  • Bench 1RM (upper body strength)
  • Power Clean/Clean Hi-Pull 1RM (power)
  • 300m run (Anaerobic)
  • 1600m run/2.4km/Beep test (Aerobic)

From the results you gather, you have a base to start from. These are just examples and there are many variants to the information above.

We all know that form is crucially important when performing any complex movement, so ensure you don’t let ego get in the way of safety. If you are unsure, seek guidance from a professional… youtube and Google aren’t always professionals.

The next part is relatively easy… you know your job, you know the demands of it, from the testing you know where you should improve, maintain and potentially where you’ve been spending a bit too much time. Four week blocks of training have been successful and worked well when programming for the tactical population. A steady 3-week increase in load and intensity followed by a week unload or taper. Below is an example of a 4-week block. Remember that this block of training is part of a 6-12 month plan and for each individual the goals and exercise selection will be different due to training age, injury, job requirements and equipment availability.

For the below example the individual is into his fourth block of training having already completed a six week prep phase, four weeks strength phase, four week strength endurance phase and now commencing another four week strength phase.

STR – Strength training ESD – Energy System Development    % – Percentage of load

During your strength training, sets should not be conducted to failure and weights should be adjusted accordingly. When you train to failure it creates excess fatigue and has a inhibitory effect on the concurrent training involved with the rest of your program.

Your set and rep range will depend on what phase of training you’re in and what you are targeting in that specific block. The same goes for your ESD; it can be anaerobic or aerobic in nature, depending on your specific job task or program target for that block.

I am sure there are some questions out there about extreme conditioning programming (ECP) – this being constant high intensity, random programming and things of that nature. There is room for high intensity training, programmed properly with reason and validity to achieve the overall aim. Be careful you don’t place it in there because you think you need to fill up space or that you feel that you should be doing some form of training every day. You need to consider certain factors: are you carrying an external load all day?   Have you slept 8 hours? Is your nutrition on track? Are you sore from previous training? Be smart and fix all these before you are tempted to add more in to your training block.