Training for the Tactical Athlete

by Pete Loeschner

Strength & Conditioning for First Responders

Law enforcement officers, firefighters, and military personnel are tactical athletes and need to train like it. Here’s how.


The Tactical Athlete: Fit to Fight

Long before the term “tactical athlete” was commonplace, service men and women trained to succeed in their jobs. In today’s world, it’s even more important for those working in law enforcement, fire, and the military to be fit to fight. Take a look at a few stats:

LAW ENFORCEMENT

In 2021, the FBI released statistics concerning attacks on law enforcement. In short, 60,105 law enforcement officers were assaulted while performing their duties in 2020, over 4,000 more than the previous year.

No matter what the pencil-neck geek says about how the crime stats are getting “lower,” it’s getting more dangerous for law enforcement personnel to do their duties and make it home safely.

FIRE

A big part of the job deals with medical calls such as falls, cardiac arrests, and other emergencies. Not only are these calls for service frequent, but the population is becoming increasingly obese. Ever try to pick up a limp body? It’s a lot harder than you think. Lifting a 300-pound man feels like lifting a bar loaded with ten plates.

If you’re working as a firefighter, not only do you have to worry about fighting fires to save lives, you have to be strong. If you’re not training to pick up people, you’ll get sidelined with an injury.

MILITARY

Needs no explanation. Our military forces must be the fittest out of all three categories to succeed in their missions.

Here’s what each needs to consider.

What Are YOUR Specific Needs?

Now, I’m not suggesting anyone get away from tried and true general strength training. It’s hard to replace back squats, weighted pull-ups, push-ups, and other pressing variations in any program. However, the following will help you tailor a program to your specific needs in addition to general strength work.

So, begin by analyzing your profession’s specific needs and your assignment. For instance, someone working as a SWAT operator will have different stressors and training needs than a Wildland Firefighter or a Survival Technician in the Coast Guard.

Once those training needs are established, think about the exercises that will provide transference to the activity by using this abbreviated assessment.

Does your occupation expose you to any of the following stressors?

1. HAND-TO-HAND COMBAT (LAW ENFORCEMENT ASSIGNMENTS, MILITARY)

You need:

  • Core strength and stability
  • Back strength (prioritize it)
  • Shoulder stabilization fortification: dynamic push-ups onto box with catch and upper back work
  • Dynamic and rotational core work
  • Explosive upper-body strength work
  • Grip strength: Zottman curls, hammer curls, overhand barbell holds for time
  • Complexes: barbell, dumbbell, and bodyweight

2. HEAVY CARRYING (MEDICAL CALLS, OFFICER/CITIZEN RESCUE, FIRE MISSIONS)

You need:

  • Strongman exercises: farmer’s walk, yoke, wheelbarrow
  • Deadlift variations
  • Grip strength: Zottman curls, hammer curls, overhand barbell holds for time
  • Heavy sled drag to simulate officer/citizen rescue and increase knee health

3. RUNNING, INCLUDING OBSTACLE NEGOTIATION (FENCE, WALL, STAIRS, ETC.)

You need:

  • Box jumps
  • Depth drops and jumps
  • Weighted pull-ups
  • Calves/Achilles tendon strengthening and soft tissue work
  • Core strength and stability
  • Sprints from various positions
  • Ankle, knee, and hip flexibility and mobility

4. EXTENDED PERIODS OF TIME SITTING

You need:

  • Emphasis on exercises to challenge and maintain hip/low-back mobility, stability, strength, and flexibility: single-leg deadlift, front-leg elevated reverse lunges, and Romanian deadlifts.

5. EXTENDED PERIODS OF STRAINING, LIFTING, AND RUNNING

You need:

  • Aerobic work
  • Kettlebell training in an endurance fashion
  • Barbell, dumbbell, and bodyweight complexes
  • Prowler/sled push

6. SPECIAL EXERCISES

You need:

  • Specific conditioning related to the job functions (sledgehammer, ram, halligan). Rotational exercises are key for injury prevention here.

Progression

Once your training targets are established, determine a progression.

Training has to get harder over time. Whether increasing weight (overload), decreasing the rest period, or increasing repetitions, develop a method to progress week-to-week in each exercise.

Sample Plan: Putting It All Together

Here’s a sample week from a program designed for a tactical athlete. He was able to lose 27 pounds and gain strength utilizing this template paired with a moderate carbohydrate, high-protein diet.

Some of the exercises were selected for these purposes:

  • Dynamic stability of core/trunk
  • Improve knee tendon health
  • Preparation for lifts/carries associated with firefighting
  • Shoulder and upper-back specific fortification
  • Grip strength
  • Total body conditioning

MONDAY

Exercise Sets/Reps Rest
A. Push-Up Onto Boxes/Plates 4 x 3 45 sec
B. Bench Press, Rest-Pause Method 2 x 1-2 reps shy of failure 20 sec, 3 min between sets
C. Weighted Chin-Up 5 x 2,2,2,2,max As needed
D. Weighted Dip 3 x Work up to 5-rep max 3 min
E. Dumbbell Floor Flye, Paused 3 x 12 60 sec
F. Incline Biceps Curl 4 x 8 60 sec

G. Bodyweight Circuit Finisher

  • Do 2-3 rounds
  • Take no rest between exercises or rounds.
  • Keep elapsed time.
Exercise Reps
G1. Push-up w/ 5 sec eccentric 6
G2. Push-up Plank Shoulder Taps 20
G3. Four-Count Burpee 5

TUESDAY

Exercise Set/Reps Rest
A. Split Squat Iso-Hold 3 x 30 sec. 45 sec.
B. Backward Med Ball Throw 10 x 1 As needed
C. Split Squat (313 tempo) 3 x 5 90 sec.
D. Belt Squat (use dip belt, stand on two benches) 3 x 10 1 min.
E. Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift 3 x 8 1 min.
F. Facepull 5 x 15 1 min.
G. Wall Sit 3 x 1 min. hold 1 min.

THURSDAY

Exercise Set/Reps Rest
A. Power Drop Med Ball (from bench) 10 x 1 As needed
B. Push-Ups Onto Boxes/Plates 4 x 3 45 sec.
C. Overhead Press 10-15 x 1 As needed
D. Dead Bench Press (4 inches off chest) 6 x 1 30 sec.
E. Inverted Row with Iso-Holds 3 x 6-5-4-3-2-1 sec. holds at top 90 sec.

F. Shoulder Circuit

  • Do 2 rounds.
  • Take no rest between exercises.
  • Take 1 min. between rounds.
Exercise Reps
F1. Plate Raise 8
F2. Lateral Raise 8
F3. Bent Lateral 8
Exercise Set/Reps Rest
G. Triceps Weight-Plate Ladder (press + extension) 3 x 12-12,10-10,…2-2 90 sec.
H. Sledge Chops (or banded wood chops) 4 x 20 or 10/side 30 sec.

FRIDAY

Exercise Set/Reps Rest
A. Single-Leg Deadlift 3 x 6 1 min.
B. Deadlift (5/3/1 loading) 3 x 5,5,5+ 3 min.
C. Farmers Walk (trap bar) 8 x 15 yd. 30 sec.
D. Reverse Lunge (front leg elevated) 3 x 6 90 sec.
E. Peterson Step-Up 3 x 10 1 min.
F. Hanging Knee Tuck 4 x as long as possible 1 min.
G. Kettlebell Conditioning (swings and variations) 3-6 x 20-40 30 sec.

Get Fit, Fight, And Thrive

Be fit to fight, thrive in your profession, and train like a champion!

For us, survival is not the goal; winning is. The citizens in the community need you, and your family needs you. And never forget there’s always someone out there who wants to harm you.

As George Orwell said, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”

Be ready.

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