8 “Base Fitness” Programming Fundamentals

By Rob Shaul


First – let me define “Base Fitness” under MTI’s programming approach.

For Tactical Athletes

“Base Fitness” is a foundational level of Relative Strength, Work Capacity, Chassis Integrity, Endurance (if applicable), and Tactical Agility required for tactical mission performance. 

“Base Fitness” attributes differ by type of Tactical Athlete. For example, the mission-direct fitness demands of a Law Enforcement Patrol Officer do not include the running and rucking endurance demanded by the mission sets for military SOF. Likewise, the upper body muscle mass which acts as a deterrent for a Patrol Officer would be an unnecessary weight for a Green Beret.

The majority of a Tactical Athlete’s fitness training should be based on developing, improving and maintaining his or her “Base Fitness.” Training Base Fitness should be considered day-to-day training for tactical athletes without pending fitness assessments, deployments, schools/selections or specific missions.


For Mountain Athletes

“Base Fitness” is a foundational level of Relative Strength, Work Capacity, Chassis Integrity, Endurance (running, uphill hiking under load), and Climbing Fitness required for mountain sports.

How much “Base Fitness” a mountain athlete should complete over the course of a year depends upon how versatile the athlete is in terms of the mountain sports he or she participates in. Most mountain athletes we’ve worked with over the years – recreational or professional – are “multi-sport” mountain athletes who generally do a different mountain sport every season. Rock Climbing in the early Spring and early Fall, ice climbing in the late fall, skiing or backcountry skiing in the winter, mountaineering or alpine climbing in the late Spring and Early summer, mountain biking and hiking in the late Summer and Early Fall.

These “multi-sport” mountain athletes may spend one third to one half of their fitness training completing “Base Fitness”, and the rest completing sport-specific, pre-season train ups directly before the season. Examples include completing a dryland ski training cycle directly before the ski season and a rock climbing cycle directly before a Spring rock climbing trip to the desert in the southwest U.S.


While the specifics of “Base Fitness” programming differ between mountain and tactical athletes, and even between the different types of tactical athletes, the Base Fitness Programming Fundamentals for all mountain and tactical athletes are the same. Learn more about “Base Fitness” in the following video.




1. Train in the “gym” to perform outside

Don’t treat fitness as “sport.” Don’t get caught up in loads lifted or workout completion times. Gym training should improve your athlete’s mission performance, durability, and survivability. Fitness training must have a positive, “Mission-Direct” impact. If it doesn’t, change it.

Tactical athletes are not “fitness athletes” – and gym numbers and/or performance in isolation of transfer to mission performance, mean nothing. Don’t get caught up in workout completion times, strength numbers, or appearance. Train inside to perform outside.


2. Start programming with the fitness demands of the work or mission

Identify the Fitness Demands of the work/mission and design programming which addresses, develops and improves those demands in your athletes. The needs, wants, weaknesses, strengths, and opinions of the individual athlete are not a concern. You’re only concern is improving mission performance. All fitness training is focused on improving mission performance.

It’s important to be ruthless in identifying the key fitness attributes of mountain or tactical athlete mission performance and being deaf to the most recent fitness trends in exercises or methodology. While different exercises and progressions can be used to improve mission-direct fitness attributes, don’t let the tail wag the dog. Improving the mission-direct fitness attributes comes first – the exercises/methodology to improve them, second.


3. Periodize, Program, and Progress

Know where you are taking your athletes, always. Know the purpose of each training session, every set, every rep and every exercise. Don’t design “workouts” – design “training sessions.” Semantics is important.

“Random” programming is lazy and not professionally appropriate for professional mountain and tactical or high-level recreational mountain athletes. Training sessions within mesocycles (3-8 weeks), and mesocycles within the larger macrocycle (12 months) should be planned, periodized and progressed.  

The difference between “training” and “working out” is planning. Soldiers, Marines, LE Officers, Firefighters, mountain guides, ski instructors, river guides etc. are all professional athletes. Professional athletes “train” – every training session has a focused intent and is part of a larger cycle fitness goal.


4. Keep it simple

Sophisticated design is immature. Stick to the fundamentals. Toss out programming that bounces all over the place or that you don’t understand. Toss out exercises which are too complicated or don’t make your athletes work and breath hard. Discard exercise equipment which is complicated, difficult to use or not readily available. Respect your athletes’ time and deploy proven exercises and training modes inefficient, mission-direct training cycles and training sessions.

It takes experience, confidence, and hard work to get to “simple.” Fitness programming is judged on its effectiveness, not fancy exercises, equipment, or trendiness. No single exercise is a “sacred cow” – identify the training attribute you want to improve and find the most simple, effective, easy to teach exercise to train it. Beware the latest piece of exercise equipment and the latest fitness trends. If something new shows merit – test it first. Program design is like all other design, it’s always improved by cutting stuff away (simplifying).


5.  Train Sport/Work Specifically in the Gym

Work hard to develop mission-specific programming in the “artificial environment” of the gym. This takes creativity, courage, assessment, and analysis. All fitness training must transfer … continually work to make this more simple and efficient.

This can include creating new exercises and progression methodologies to train tactically-specific fitness attributes and focussing on deploying exercises and modes which have the best mission-direct transfer. An instructive tactical example is rucking for military athletes. Can you improve rucking performance by lifting wei

ghts and running? Yes – but soon, the programming reaches a point of diminishing returns and only improves lifting strength and running. The best way to improve rucking performance is to ruck. The transfer is direct. If you are training military athletes, rucking should be a key component of your program design.

On the mountain side some coaches use Bosu-Ball balance training for skiers. We don’t. Why? We believe at some early point in the Bosu-Ball balance training the athlete quits developing balance for skiing and just gets better at doing squats on a Bosu-Ball – i.e. the training doesn’t transfer to the mountain. 


6. All Training is cumulative

Don’t worry about moving from gym-based fitness to sport specific work and therefore “losing” all the progress made in the gym. All training is cumulative – it will come back fast.

Often, mission-direct programming can work against base-fitness training attributes. For example, most military fitness assessments involve bodyweight strength exercises (strength endurance) and unloaded running (unloaded running endurance). Training sport-specifically to improve fitness assessment performance (lots of bodyweight exercises and running) will negatively affect mission-direct relative strength and rucking performance. For this reason, we recommend military athletes spend the 3-6 weeks prior to a scheduled fitness assessment to train sport-specifically for that assessment. Some athletes express concern about how doingso will negatively impact they gym-based strength and rucking ability. We respond that all training is cumulative, and after the fitness assessment, the athlete’s gym-based strength will return quickly. 


7. Don’t let physical training get in the way of technical practice

Physical training can be “easy” compared to technical practice, but often technical proficiency has a much greater role on mission accomplishment then fitness.

Mission-direct fitness is just one element of tactical mission performance. Fitness improvement will not improve technical deficiency in other areas such as small unit tactics, marksmanship, tactical communication on the tactical side, and climbing or skiing technique on the mountain side. Often, non-fitness technical practice can be harder than fitness training, but it cannot be avoided. All that matters is mission performance. A super fit tactical athlete who fails the mission because of marksmanship or poor communication still fails the mission. Likewise, a super fit climber who has poor foot placement won’t be able to onsite the climb. In the team and individual competitive sport world, rarely is the best athlete in the game the strongest or most fit in the weight room. Keep your eye on outside performance. 


8. Continuous Improvement

Question everything and don’t be afraid to change. Little improvements add up. Don’t be “wiz banged” by exotic programming or exercises or become so wedded to you’re own methodology you become blind to deficiencies. Don’t be afraid to try something new. Constantly test and experiment. All that matters is outside performance. This is liberating.

The “liberating” effect of continuous improvement cannot be overemphasized. Not only does this liberate the coach from conventional wisdom and the latest fitness trend, it can also “liberate” him or her from their own programming dogma. In our experience, this has taken the form of continuous research and assessment of our own programming. Every “mini study” yields not the “perfect” solution, but rather a small step towards a better solution than we have now. These small steps add up.



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