10 Tactical Athlete Programming Fundamentals

Above: Marines completing the MTI Soldier Athlete Fitness Test (SAFT).


By Rob Shaul, Founder

1. Train in the “gym” to perform outside it.

Don’t treat fitness as a “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. Your only concern is improving mission performance. All fitness training is focused on improving mission performance. Nothing else.

It’s important to be ruthless in identifying the key fitness attributes of tactical athlete mission performance and being deaf to the most recent fitness trends. 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. The needs, wants, weaknesses, strengths, and opinions of the individual athlete are not a concern.

Program to the event or mission, not the individual athlete. You best serve the athlete by training to the mission-direct fitness demands. Your programming should not alter to keep them entertained, improve their appearance, prepare them for a recreational event, or improve their non-mission performance for a specific fitness goal. Eventually, all athletes want “special” treatment, to try something different or new, or have you coach someone else’s programming. Don’t reward their inattention to what is important. Stick to your programming.


4. Periodize, Program, and Progress.

Know where you are taking your athletes, always. Know the purpose for 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 tactical athletes. Training sessions within meso-cycles, and meso-cycles within the larger macro-cycle should be planned, periodized and progressed.

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


5. 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 that 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. Eliminate exercises which you are not sure to improve mission performance.

Respect your athletes’ time and deploy proven exercises and training modes in efficient, 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, trendiness or number of exercises deployed. 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 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.


6.  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 weights 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.


7. 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, event-specific 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 event-specifically to improve fitness assessment performance (lots of bodyweight exercises and running) will negatively affect relative strength and rucking performance, however, we recommend military athletes spend the 3-6 weeks prior to a scheduled fitness assessment to train sport-specifically for that assessment. Some express concern about how doing so will negatively impact their gym-based strength. Don’t worry about it. All training is cumulative, and after the fitness assessment, your gym-based strength will return quickly.


8. Frequently Design and Deploy Assessments

Few Strength and Conditioning Coaches design and deploy their own fitness assessments. Instead, they rely on what’s been done before. This is a mistake and a lost opportunity for improvement. Designing an assessment for mission set drives programming improvement in many ways. First – it forces the coach to decide what is important, and then design a way to test it. Second, it provides a measuring stick for your own programming. Third, designing assessments is a designing skill on its own, and with experience and practice, assessments can become a significant driver of not only overall programming, but also meso-cycle focus.

9. 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, etc. 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.


10. 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 your own programming you become blind to deficiencies. Beware becoming righteous about an exercise, program or approach. Each time I’ve become righteous about a programming element I’ve been proven wrong.

Don’t be afraid to try something new. 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.



Comment below or send your questions/feedback to rob@mtntactical.com

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