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Tactical Fitness - Explained (Compared to Athletics / Sports Specific Training)

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The term “tactical” does get used a little too often to maybe differentiate something that is normal as “military grade” or just “tacti-cool”. About ten years ago the term “tactical” was used and applied to a genre of fitness that I had been focused on for decades – military, law enforcement, and fire fighter / EMT fitness.  Comparing tactical fitness to normal athletics has been discussed. Comparing tactical fitness as another form of “sports specific” training is also a path many subscribe to. However, the similarities and differences are real and are easily confused.

I look at it this way. As someone who seeks methods for over 20 years (and counting) to coach people preparing for military, police, and fire fighter professions, that treating themselves as athletes is critical to being a capable sheep dog / public servant.  What does that mean? We need to treat ourselves as athletes.  Take care of ourselves as athletes. Eat, hydrate, recover like athletes. It does not mean you have to be a world class power lifter or a triathlete to have the skills necessary to perform in the tactical sector. But you have to have a combination of skills specific to your job that enable you to do your job when effort is required, when little effort is needed, and not injure yourself doing it. But in the end, we should all be training like our buddy’s / family member’s lives depended on it.  

Similarities Between Tactical Fitness and Athletic Training

This requires tactical fitness to become “sports / job specific” or even better, “multi-phasic movement specific” grounded in a foundation of movements that are basic to all athletics.  Movements that are multi-planar as well and based in strength such as squats, pushups, pullups, dips, overhead press, lunges, hip hinges, carry, crawl, run, swim, and load bearing. As with any sport, with these movements, you need to have a foundation of strength to build the other elements of fitness upon and specialize depending upon the sport / job in training.

The Differences

An easier way to break these movements up is to say, Push, Pull, Leg, Full-body, Core, Cardio. Then taking these movements and applying ALL the elements of fitness to them such as strength / power, speed / agility, endurance / muscle stamina, and flexibility / mobility.  This is essentially Tactical Fitness. Of course, there are many sub-categories to these elements such as hand-eye coordination, grip strength, core strength, and varying methods and speed and distances of cardio endurance.  But what differentiates tactical fitness from standard fitness / athletic training is that the tactical athlete HAS to be good at all of these elements of fitness.  A swimmer does not need agility. A powerlifter does not need to run. A runner does not need upper body strength. And if you look at the best in the world in these sports, it shows. However, once again, depending upon the job of the tactical professional, varying degrees of ability in ALL of the elements will apply.  

Tactical Fitness – Three Phases - To, Through, and After

Getting TO the Training - As with any athletic programming, you have to start somewhere.  In the tactical fitness world, phase one requires an athlete to get TO the Training. To do this, you need to master a specific set of skills that are in a fitness test. Some are tougher than others. In the athletic world, a younger athlete will do well focusing on the similar basics of squats, pushups, pullups, lunges, and running / swimming to get in shape for more sport-specific skills. These exercises and tests vary from military branch of service, to each police and fire department across the world.  Some similarities, but all typically have a different way to assess a candidate’s abilities. Training specifically for this test is critical especially if the job you are seeking is competitive. But it does not end there, once you are in the competitive range of fitness testing, you need to start preparing for phase two of tactical fitness – getting THROUGH the training.

Getting THROUGH the Training - Depending upon what is next for you as a qualified candidate is (boot camp, basic, police and fire academy, SWAT or special ops selection) the next focus and getting specific requires some research, creativity, and understanding of the movements required in daily activities. Preparing the body for heavier load bearing activities is typical as you will carry your gear in these jobs.  This can be 15-20 lbs and more than 100 lbs depending on the activity being trained.  That is why the foundation of strength is critical even for programs that boast high rep calisthenics training, longer running, rucking, and swimming. Simulating these movements can be done with logs, dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags, medicine balls, and even a buddy in a fireman carry activity.  Regardless, a true mix of being good at all the above elements are fitness will bode well for the student as weaknesses in any of the elements of fitness will quickly be determined into the first few days of your actual training / selection.

After the Training – Now as an Active Duty Member of Tactical Profession, it is your job to learn specific job skills.  Master the basics and discover where your weaknesses are. Practice not until you get things right, but until you cannot get them wrong.  You never stop training and you should never stop physically training for the same fitness elements above will be required (maybe less / maybe more) to some degree in your job. In fact, durability, work capacity, mindset, and stress mitigation become the focus IF you want to have longevity in your career.  Training smarter – not harder is the goal especially as we age in this profession still covering the movements listed above. After all, in a 20-30 year career, you will be older longer than you are younger.  Learning to evolve your training to fit the job, your lifestyle, your previous injuries, and prevent future injuries and chronic stress is the focus for you to be able to perform at the highest levels within your unit.

So, get good at the things you dislike to do – not great, just good. Focus on your weaknesses as you transition from athletics to the tactical professions so you can address these weaknesses before they are discovered Day 2 in your basic or special ops training.

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