By Rob Shaul, Founder
(1) CW: Multi-Modal Training Cannot be Done Concurrently, Well
MTI: Yes it can, using Fluid Periodization
Importantly, unlike team sport, or competing individual athletes, many tactical athletes can’t program their training calendar around pre-determined off-season, pre-season and in-season periods. Because of the unpredictable nature of tactical mission-sets, many tactical athletes have to be fit across a wide spectrum of fitness attributes at all times.
The programming challenge presented by Tactical Athlete programming is how to concurrently train multiple fitness attributes in the same cycle and steadily improve or maintain fitness across all the attributes.
Conventional wisdom in the strength and conditioning world is this cannot be done, well. Conventional strength and conditioning programming sees only the two extremes of programming, “linear” or “random”.
At one end is linear periodization, where we could train just one fitness attribute at a time including detailed progression. For example, typical football-based strength and conditioning starts with a Hypertrophy Cycle, followed by a Strength Cycle, followed by a Power Cycle. During these cycles, the set/rep and loading/volume schemes are manipulated specifically to increase that cycle’s focus. So moderate loading, high volume for Hypertrophy, low volume, high weight for Strength, and lightweight, low volume and high speed for Power.
Similar approaches are seen in endurance programming – where a “base” cycle of long, slow work is followed by a “build” cycle combining moderate distances and slow paces with short distances and faster paces, which is then followed by a “speed” cycle of short, fast work.
It’s true that linear progression concentration is the best way to improve fitness in that one attribute, but while training was focused on it, the other fitness attributes would decline. So, while the football players are training Strength, they are losing some of the mass they built during the Hypertrophy cycle.
At the other end of this balance is random programming, where all the fitness attributes are trained, but without a systematic approach or any type of progression. Random programming leads to all the fitness attributes being trained, but without any system or progression, gains within each are suspect, and overall improvement in Base Fitness is limited.
This has been one of the key criticisms of CrossFit by academics …. that because of random programming and without attribute focus, CrossFitters never get really good at anything – strength, work capacity or endurance.
MTI developed and practices “Fluid Periodization” – which sits in the middle of these two extremes. Through MTI’s Fluid Periodization methodology, all the fitness attributes which make up Base Fitness are trained, but the approach is methodological and includes deliberate progressions both within each cycle and overall throughout the macrocycle.
See the diagram below:
Years ago I developed Fluid Periodization to tackle the tactical athletes’ Base Fitness programming challenge and while the details of its application have evolved, the principle is still the same.
Using Fluid Periodization we are able to concurrently train the multiple tactical athlete Base Fitness training attributes. The detailed application of Fluid Periodization is the subject of a 4-5 hour lecture at our Advanced Programming Course – and too much for an in-depth analysis, here. In general, Fluid Periodization concurrently trains multiple fitness attributes during the same Base fitness cycle, with either a balanced emphasis across all the attributes or a cyclic emphasis on one or two attributes.
Fluid Periodization has two goals: (1) build and maintain the athletes “base” fitness across multiple fitness attributes, and; (2) lay the fitness foundation for more intense event or sport-specific training which builds upon this “base”.
(2) CW: Movement and Mobility Comes First
MTI: Fitness Comes First
Conventional Strength and Conditioning Wisdom practiced daily in the sports performance world, and more and more in the tactical fitness world, is that proper movement and unrestricted mobility must be achieved before intense strength or any other fitness training because of risk to the athlete.
So … no back squats if your squat form isn’t perfect; no push presses if your overhead shoulder mobility isn’t perfect, etc., no heavy rucking unless you have perfect mobility, etc. …
I’ve described this approach before as The Tyranny of the FMS, and how especially in the military strength and conditioning arena, the emphasis on movement and mobility not only has had limited to no effect durability but because it comes at the cost of fitness training, can actually be dangerous.
There’s a disconnect amongst the Conventional Wisdom practitioners who seem to confuse the realities of tactical occupations with middle school football and volleyball players. Coaches and PTs can hold back kids from the field of play if their movement isn’t perfect. But tactical athletes are thrown into the fray mobility or not.
I can’t tell you how many times a tactical strength coach and/or a military physical therapist has criticized MTI programming, or asked for programming advice by wondering how we could have athletes out rucking if they had trouble completing a simple bodyweight squat with proper form.
My answer is that I’ve yet to find a single, repeated study which showed a definitive link between proper movement/mobility and durability, but I’ve seen several, and anecdotally have seen in my own work, that mission-direct fitness leads to mission-direct durability.
So … for that young military athlete who can’t do a proper bodyweight squat – the best thing we can do to prepare him for heavy rucking in training or deployment is to get him rucking heavy. We can do this smart – keep the distance the same and progress the load, or keep the load the same and progress the distance – but the best way to prepare him for the fitness demands of rucking is to have him ruck. Simple as that.
Would it be best to have both perfect movement/mobility and great mission-direct fitness? Absolutely. The problem is, developing perfect movement/mobility is very individualized, and MTI’s experience with the current methodologies has been disappointing. We’ve conducted multiple mini-studies on patterning, stretching, combining the two, and results have been spotty at best.
The bigger idea here is a strength and conditioning coach can spend a lot of time on movement/mobility, for little actual improvement. And, in the big picture, that time would have been better spent from a mission-direct performance and durability standpoint, training mission-direct fitness.
We still deploy mobility/flexibility drills and exercises, and foam roll in MTI training sessions. We see some utility in them, especially when deployed as “working rest” for athletes between rounds of a strength circuit, or as a simple “cool down” at the end of the session.
But we believe strongly that the best way to make an athlete durable for his mission is to build his mission-direct fitness. Further, strength coaches and tactical leaders who don’t do this are sending their athletes or subordinates into harm’s way, recklessly unprepared.
(3) CW: Diet is Most Important. Supplements can Help.
MTI: Diet is important but not nearly as much as Fitness. Supplements are largely a waste of money.
I developed MTI’s Nutritional Guidelines over a decade ago, and nothing I’ve seen or read on nutrition or supplements since has caused me to change them.
I’ve also seen fit athletes with shitty diets crush unfit athletes with squeaky clean diets.
I’ve come to believe the focus on diet and supplements is largely driven by the human tendency to look for shortcuts. It’s much easier to spend for organic food, cut out ice cream, drink protein shakes and take BCAAs than it is to suck it up and train hard in the gym or in the field once a day.
This is the reason the nutrition and supplement industries are so huge, and fad-driven. When the organic food item of the month – beets, for example, doesn’t result in magically improved fitness, it’s quickly onto the next nutrition/food fad.
Will a clean diet help fitness performance and gains? Absolutely! But it doesn’t replace the work.
Often new athletes will ask me for a training program recommendation, and then after I send it, ask further for a personalized nutrition plan. When I refer them to our Nutritional Guidelines, they seem disappointed. I can understand why – it’s in the interest of the nutrition industry marketers to make this stuff as complicated as possible, as a way of making their knowledge or products seem more valuable or needed.
But the fact is eating clean isn’t complicated, it’s just hard. I know … I love sweet grains … toast & jelly, chocolate croissants, granola … I could eat this stuff every meal, every day, and have demonstrated discipline not to.
But, eating clean, and taking every fad supplement available isn’t as hard as dedicating yourself to a programmed and periodized, long-term fitness training regimen.
(4) CW: Gentle “Prehab” Warm Ups are essential to prepare the Athlete for Training and Avoid Training Injury.
MTI: Gentle “Prehab” Warm Ups, in fact, don’t do a good job at preparing athletes for training, and can create a “training scar” which can lead to injury during the real thing.
Years ago I visited Fort Bragg and met with a Green Beret stationed there. He shared his THOR training plan with me and took me over to visit the THOR3 facility and visit with the coaches. His warm up for every session came right out of the “prehab” theories popular with the sports performance world – including time on the bike gently spinning, lots of mobility and stretching work, etc. Looking at the warm up, it alone would take 30 minutes to complete.
MTI warm ups are more intense and direct. Often, before a strength session, we’ll program the session’s exercises in the warm up … so if the athletes is doing back squats, power cleans and a bench press in the training session, the warm up will have him doing light back squats, push ups, and box jumps to prepare.
I’m not a very smart strength coach, but it seems to me the best way to prepare an athlete for intense training exercises in a training session is to have him complete the same or similar exercises at a lighter intensity in the warm up. It’s not rocket science.
As well, sometimes on both our Mountain and Tactical sides, I’ll have athletes go right into the session, without a warm up. Why? Because that’s the way it works in the real thing. The pro freeskiers we work with don’t get 15 minutes to warm their legs up after the helicopter drops them on the top of the knife’s edge to ski down for a ski film. They have to step in and perform.
Likewise, SWAT/SRT team members can spend hours sitting in an SUV or armored vehicle then be called to action at moment’s notice. No time for a gentle warm up. It’s go time.
(5) CW: Program for the Athlete
MTI: Program for the Event
Several times a week I’ll receive an email from an athlete wanting an individualized program to prepare for a regular PFT, mountain sport season, or common military selection or course.
Less often, but also common, I’ll receive a question from an older athlete asking how to modify one of our training plans for age.
I disappoint these athletes when I reply that MTI doesn’t do any individualized programming. But rather, our fitness programming is designed around the fitness demands of the specific event, not the incoming fitness or other issues with the individual athlete preparing for the event.
Conventional Wisdom in the fitness industry is to start with the individual athlete, often with some gentle initial testing, then program based on the results.
At MTI, we generally don’t care much about the individual athlete – not because we’re cold-hearted strength coaches, but rather because the event or mission doesn’t care. There is no “special” summit of the Grand Teton for 65-year-old climbers. It’s 8,000 feet and about 5 miles from the parking lot to the summit regardless of the athlete. The mountain doesn’t care, and our Peak Bagger Training Plan prepares athletes specifically for this type of event.
When asked how to modify our Peak Bagger Training Plan for elderly athletes, my answer is simple – spread it out and take more time completing the sessions – as you’ll recover much slower …. but still do the prescribed work. The work in the plan was determined by the climb, and as the mountain, is uncompromising.
Likewise, there’s no special Ranger School for 120-pound female candidates. The Fitness Demands of Ranger School and other military/LE selections and courses are the same for everyone. And there are no “slow fires” or “slow bullets” for “legacy” first responders well into their 50s or 60s. The dangerous fitness demands of LE and fire/rescue work are unrelenting. Same demands for everyone.
Personal trainers, especially, are in the game of designing individualized training plans and are perhaps responsible for developing the sense amongst individuals that they are indeed special, and therefore need a special plan.
(6) CW: Mass Effort Strength is Most Important
MTI: Relative Strength is Most Important
Mass Effort Strength = The most an athlete can lift for a particular exercise or exercises.
Relative Strength = Strength per Bodyweight.
Conventional Strength and Conditioning prioritizes mass effort strength, and its strength progressions, linear periodization, and overall time given over to strength training reflects this.
MTI’s strength programming is focused on relative strength. Simply put, a tactical and/or mountain athlete can be too strong – to the detriment of other fitness attributes.
One way this can happen is excess muscle mass. While not always true, for many athletes, increasing strength levels comes with some level of increasing muscle mass, which for most tactical and mountain athletes, simply means they have more unnecessary weight to move around. Our goal is to get athletes strong but without significant weight gain.
This isn’t true for all the athletes we work with. Our base fitness programming for LE Patrol/Detectives and Correctional Officers actually includes upper body hypertrophy training. Big biceps and chest can act as a deterrent for these athletes. As well, in the past, we’ve deployed upper body hypertrophy work for our pro freeskiers to help make more durable for hard crashes on steep slopes. Many pro freeskiers, especially women, suffer shoulder injuries from crashing.
Second, the time it takes to get an athlete super strong takes away from time which needs to be spent training other fitness attributes, which means those attributes are undertrained. I see this often with tactical athletes returning from deployment where all there was to do was lift weights and play violent video games. They’ll write, “I weigh 180 pounds, and can deadlift 600#, bench press 400#, and Snatch 225# but my cardio sucks. I need a plan which will maintain or increase my strength, and get me down to a 30-minute 5-mile run time. What do you have for me?”
My answer … unless you are a genetic freak, “nothing.” First, to train work capacity and endurance, the athlete will have to cut back greatly on strength training simply due to time available. And, even if he did have time to train all day, work capacity and endurance training negatively impact strength gains.
More importantly, tactical and mountain athletes simply don’t need to be super strong, but they do need work capacity and mode-specific endurance. These other fitness attributes can be as important as strength for mission performance and survivability.
It took me a while to realize this. When I first started programming, conventional wisdom influenced me more than it does now, and too much of the focus was on strength programming – to the detriment of these other attributes. I realized my mistake and the programming evolved and along the way the MTI strength standards for tactical and mountain athletes have decreased. Today, it’s fair to say that in the pure strength world, our strength standards are not impressive ….
MTI MOUNTAIN ATHLETE STRENGTH STANDARDS
LIFT MEN WOMEN
Front Squat 1.25x BW 1.0x BW
Hinge Lift 1.75x BW 1.25xBW
Bench Press 1.25xBW .8xBW
Push Press 1.0x BW .6xBW
Hang Squat Clean 1.1x BW .9xBW
Pull Ups 15 5
MTI TACTICAL ATHLETE STRENGTH STANDARDS
LIFT MEN WOMEN
Front Squat 1.5x BW 1.0x BW
Dead Lift 2.0x BW 1.5x BW
Bench Press 1.5x BW 1.0x BW
Push Press 1.1x BW .7x BW
Hang Squat Clean 1.25x BW 1.0x BW
Squat Clean+ Push Press 1.1x BW .7xBW
Pull Ups 16 8
…. But professional tactical athletes and mountain professionals are not strength athletes. The fitness demands of their occupations and mission sets are multi-modal and over the years I’ve found these strength standards high enough for mission-specific performance and durability, but still manageable for most athletes who must concurrently train a wide array of other fitness demands.
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