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Most Common Training Mistakes Made By Former Athletes Preparing for Spec Ops

Stew smith

Don't Short-Sight Your Spec Ops Preparation or
You May Be Another Attrition Statistic

Photo by D McBurnett - or McTeams3842

It is no secret that attrition rates are historically high among the Special Ops units across the military and SWAT Teams. Becoming a tactical athlete is a requirement for any tactical profession, as the job tends to be physically demanding, and the members are placed in dangerous situations. Life-or-death situations are common in the tactical professions (military, police, firefighters, EMT), and your fitness level may be THE determining factor in someone (or you) living or dying. So, fitness and your ability to learn tactical skills while remaining calm in stressful situations are that important.  The attrition is high in these jobs because of this as the training has to be tough physically, mentally, and emotionally to best prepare you for when it is real. 

The Most Common Reasons Why Former Athletes Fail Spec Ops

Short-Sighted Mindset is Typical of Athletes - Typical athletes cannot prepare properly for Spec Ops selection with the same training mindset it takes to prepare for football season over the summer or just running faster/longer to prepare for track teams. If you think you can spend the summer preparing for Spec Ops training like you did with high school football, you are likely missing out on fully developing yourself to get both TO and THROUGH selection. Getting good at everything means leaving no weakness undeveloped. Most athletes have great strengths in some elements of fitness, but they typically have equal and opposite weaknesses.  For instance:

You may be strong - but have no endurance.

You may be able to run - but have no strength.

You may be a land athlete - but cannot tread or swim. 

You may be able to swim - but you break when you run or ruck. 

You may have endurance - but no speed/agility or grip. 

You must develop these opposites if you seek the spec ops journey.  See more details about what happens when you ignore weaknesses...

Ignoring Weaknesses - There is much to prepare for to become "good at everything" as a spec ops tactical athlete. Weaknesses Will Be Exposed Immediately! This is one thing all spec ops selections have in common.  

There is more to weakness than not being strong or a fast runner. Whether it is an element of fitness that was underprepared or your will to endure the daily grind of a high attrition rate selection program, having durability, the ability to work physically hard all day, then have the ability to recover to do it again tomorrow. And finally, not quitting because you are tired and in pain is the key to success.

Building a strong body and mind that has the work capacity and durability to keep going is what we are talking about when it comes to preparing to turn weaknesses into strengths.  To be a complete tactical athlete ready to get TO and THROUGH and become an active duty member of any tactical profession, you need to consider the following diagram as we start this journey with one or more weaknesses on this chart. 

No Boot Camp Does NOT Prepare You - Many actually think boot camp / basic training will prepare them for Spec Ops Training. I was asked this question THIS WEEK, so it is not old news I am reporting on here. In fact, boot camp or basic training will get the typical spec ops candidate out of shape. You may have to add extra workouts when you can and rebuild yourself after graduation. Luckily, there are prep programs within the military to help get you back in shape before training. It is best to prepare before boot camp, THEN use boot camp as a taper / deload and rebuild during Prep. (Navy, Air Force). The Army / USMC have different pipelines than the Navy / Air Force, who tend to draw most of their candidates from post-boot camp recruits.  

Ignoring the First Two Phases of Tactical Fitness - There are three phases of tactical fitness, and to get through spec ops selection, you need to master only two of them. Many people miss one or more phases and quickly become an attrition statistic. Here they are:

Phase 1 - Getting TO the Training - Qualifying for BUDS and other special ops programs requires crushing the fitness test (PST), but also passing MEPS (medical review), ASVAB, and other tests such as criminal records and finanicial checks (not in high debt). Most of the attrition actually happens here due to people not qualifying for other reasons than physical fitness. Many also fail to pass the PST with above-average scores, thus ending their spec ops dream before starting boot camp. My rules in this phase are the following:

- Be a Better Recruit - Do not talk to a recruiter until you are crushing the PST. 

Timeline - Your preparation may take time. Understand the recruiting timeline and have a performance starting point - not some arbitrary timeline.

Take the PST so many times you create a strategy for success and can pass the test even on a bad day. MORE PST HELP  

This is where most people stop and max out their preparation training and get accepted to attend spec ops selection, BUT they still need to prepare to get THROUGH the training. Check out Phase 2 of this journey IF you want to graduate. 

Phase 2 - Getting THROUGH the Training - To become a SEAL (or any operator), you must pass basic training, advanced training/prep school, and then the actual selection, in this case, BUD/S. (Basic Underwater Demolition / SEAL Training). Longer swims with fins, rucking, longer running, and load-bearing preparation training need to be added to your PST maintenance programming once you can crush the PST. 

For future reference:  Phase 3 of Tactical Fitness - Operator Maintenance. Longevity is the Mastery of Recovery.  


You do not HAVE to have been a former athlete to make it TO and THROUGH special ops training, but you must have done significant manual labor and developed an uncommon level of grittiness. Just the amount of running, rucking, swimming, load bearing, and high repetitions calisthenics require a solid foundation in endurance training (run, swim, ruck), lifting weights (strength/power), running fast (speed/agility), high volume calisthenics (muscle stamina), as well as grip, flexibility, and mobility,  See ideas for training below 

No Matter What Phase of Preparation You Are In - We Have an Answer For You

(In fact, there are more than 40 books, 1000+ articles, online coaching - and more) 

Who is Stew Smith CSCS? Coach, Trainer, Writer, PodcasterI'm the former Navy SEAL that tactical candidates go to for books, ebooks and online coaching to prepare themselves to get to and through intense tactical assessment and selection programs and qualify for service in their chosen tactical profession.  See More at

Where to Find More Information About Optimal Performance Training Programs

When you start training again, consider the seasonal tactical fitness model.  I call it A WAY to train and obviously not the only way to train. But it offers the opportunity to never neglect your weaknesses, helps with flexibility and mobility, but will also put you at a level of physical abilities where you are happy with your overall ability to do just about anything. We have a system where the seasons dictate our training. When it is nicer outside, we tend to run and do more calisthenics. When it is colder and not so nice, we lift more, run less, and still maintain our outdoor activities with shorter runs and rucks. Check it out: Seasonal Tactical Fitness Periodization System.  

These Seasonal Tactical Fitness BLOCK Periodization programs will walk you through 4 x 4 weeks cycles with 16 weeks of each season in two programs. (32 total weeks) 

Increase Strength & Crush the PST / PAST
3 Weeks Strength - 1 Week PT / Cardio Focus 
(16 weeks)

These programs will walk you through 4 cycles with 12 weeks of each season in two programs. 

The Specific Military / Special Ops Physical Fitness Workouts 

Navy SEAL Workout Phase 1
Navy SEAL Workout Phase 2 - 3
Navy SEAL Workout Phase 4  Grinder PT
Navy SWCC Workout

Army / Air Force Advanced Fitness / Special Ops 

Army PFT Workout (Prep For Rucking, OPAT, ACFT)
Army Special Forces / Ranger Workout
Army Air Assault School Workout
Army Airborne Workout
Air Force Special Warfare IFT / OFT / Selection Prep


Advanced Running Program - Special Ops Supplement Plan
USMC OCS / TBS Workout


The Combat Conditioning Workout
Air Force PJ / CCT Workout  Battlefield Airman Prep Course
The UBRR Upper Body Round Robin Workout / Spec Ops version


The Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer / Navy SAR Workout
The Service Academy Workout (West Point, Navy, Air Force Academy)
The Navy, Air Force, Marine Corp Boot Camp Workout


The Law Enforcement Physical Fitness Workouts

The FBI Academy Workout  |   FBI Workout Vol 2  
The DEA Workout
The FLETC Workout - Ace the PEB
The PFT Bible: Pushups, Sit-ups, 1.5 Mile Run
The Fire Fighter Workout - Ace the CPAT


Beginner / Intermediate / Advanced Fitness Guides 

The Beginner / Intermediate Guide to Fitness
Reclaim Your Life  Erin O'Neill Story (beginner / intermediate)

Veterans Fitness  Baby Boomer and a Flat Stomach 
Circuit Training 101  Beginner / Intermediate Guide to the Gym


The Busy Executive Workout Routine
The Obstacle Course Workout  Prep for Races or Mil, LE, FF
TRX / Military Style Workouts  Adding TRX to Military Prep Workouts


Tactical Fitness Over 40 Series

Tactical Fitness (40+) Phase 1, Phase 2, Phase 3, Phase 4


Online Coaching Options

Online PT CLUB - Weekly Workouts created personally for you.

New Member's Only Content / Services Program!

If you want access to years worth of workouts, many of the top eBOOKs, favorite workouts of the week, free fitness APP, closed Facebook Group, video / picture library of exercises, and more access to LIVE Q/A sessions check out the Stew Smith Fitness Members Section

The dashboard below has the links to all the information, archives, videos, and links to workouts, podcasts, live Q and A lessons. 

Consider this! - A Membership Program and Gain Access to Exclusive Content
(click for Fitness Club Dashboard - members only)

Best of all, if you have questions, email Stew Smith himself (  Join the tactical fitness group discussions, latest articles, videos, podcasts at the Stew Smith Tactical Fitness Training Closed Group on Facebook.


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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 store if you're looking to start a workout program to get you TO and THROUGH any tactical fitness training program OR create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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