The Endurance and Strength Training Performance Challenge

(U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Daniella Peña-Pavao)

Even the best athletes in the endurance and strength worlds tend to excel in one area and perform poorly in the other. The tactical athlete must have a solid foundation in both, but does not need to be great at either.

Just being good in both strength and endurance is the goal of the tactical athlete in the military, police and firefighting professions.

A recent study found that after a cycle of endurance training, athletes who immediately did a resistance training cycle saw an increased rate of muscle growth. Many who lift for both strength and mass gains avoid cardio, as if it could harm their performance and/or aesthetics. The only caveat I can see in this study is that it was conducted using untrained teens, who typically see quick increases in gains when exposed to any new stimulus.

However, many tactical athletes I coach have been training for decades with the Seasonal Tactical Fitness Periodization approach. Each season, the emphasis of this system’s fitness elements changes. Every year, a back-to-back cycle of calisthenics and cardio focuses on endurance and muscle stamina, followed by a strength cycle.

The calisthenics and cardio cycles are set up so tactical athletes can perform well on military fitness tests. These tests typically involve a form of calisthenics (pullups, pushups, sit-ups/plank) and a form of endurance (running or swimming). This endurance/muscle stamina cycle would parallel the pre-resistance training requirements in the study.

After the endurance cycle, the lifting cycle begins, but it is not the typical strength cycle that a competitive strength athlete would experience in sports like football or powerlifting. In this lift cycle for tactical athletes, we warm up with a dose of calisthenics for certain muscle groups, then lift heavy weights, then cool down with cardio.

This routine doesn’t exactly match the resistance training cycle in the study, but the results of trained and untrained athletes are similar. They both see gains in strength as well as overall weight gain/hypertrophy.

Tactical vs. sports athletes

The goal of a sports athlete is to develop into a world-class performer.

By contrast, the goal of a tactical athlete is to become durable, be capable of load bearing, and be able to work long hours in unforgiving environments.

When you have to develop cardiovascular endurance, strength and durability, cycling through the year has made the most sense during the development stages of the tactical athlete.

Once a fully operational and tactically fit operator reaches his or her operational requirements, maintaining the elements of fitness for the daily tasks at hand can be done concurrently.

The tactical athlete journey typically has three phases of training. These phases must evolve to fully develop a candidate to prepare to get accepted into programs, pass basic or advanced training standards, and maintain tactical skills and conditioning to perform the job as an active duty operator.

Another reason a seasonal approach to periodization and athletic programming works well for the military, police and firefighter professions is that there are no real off-seasons. You cannot just leave your helmet in the locker room like you can at the end of football season, so you have to create your own “off-seasons.” We do this by focusing on different elements of fitness to improve each season while working to maintain the previously focused elements of fitness.

It’s important to understand the difference between your prior athletic training and what is needed in tactical professions. Working to improve weaknesses may not be as fun as maintaining or improving strengths, but in tactical professions, it could mean the difference between success and failure.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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