Law enforcement, military, and rescue personnel are often referred to as tactical athletes. A tactical athlete needs to be physically fit and ready for battle. This requires them to not only possess great amounts of strength, but also stamina.
Training for a tactical profession—or for that comparable level of fitness—is much different than training just for maximal strength in the gym. Being a tactical or combat athlete requires a combination of muscular strength, bodyweight strength, and endurance. You won't achieve this just from traditional strength training.
To optimize tactical training, you must implement special ops fitness techniques. This means expanding out from the standard bench press, squat, and deadlift exercises. Functional strength and cardiovascular conditioning need to be addressed. Let's take a closer look at the physical training needed to improve tactical strength.
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As a fitness professional, you're likely well-versed in absolute and relative strength. Absolute strength is the maximum amount of force exerted no matter your body size. Relative strength is the maximum amount of weight one can move relative to their own bodyweight. But what about limit strength?
Limit strength refers to the amount of force an athlete can exert voluntarily in one single effort. For example, a firefighter lifting a fallen object off someone or setting a person down after carrying them away from the damage. The three types of limit strength include:
Eccentric - the amount of weight an athlete can lower without losing control
Static - the amount of weight an athlete can hold stationary without losing control
Concentric - the amount of weight an athlete can lift one time with an all-out muscle contraction
When an athlete works to improve tactical strength, they help prevent injury and increase overall power, speed, and endurance. The physical fitness of a tactical athlete is not like any other. It involves many different types of training all in one workout program—calisthenics, resistance training, strength training, and conditioning are just a few. Limit strength, typically developed through core lifts, like the deadlift, front squat, goblet squat, pull-ups, chin-ups, etc., is a key part of that training.
It's important to know that tactical professionals won't get better by just lifting heavy for a one-rep max (1RM). The amount of work they can complete over a period of time is most important. If an athlete can perform one push-up or pull-up that requires strength. But being able to do 20, 30, 40, and 50 reps requires strength and muscular endurance.
So, if a tactical athlete needs to sustain strength over a period of time, how is limit strength even beneficial to them?
A tactical athlete must focus on limit strength. It is easier for athletes who are involved in just one sport because they have the ability to focus on certain elements of fitness. Whereas a tactical athlete needs to be proficient in all the elements of fitness:
Athletes who play one particular sport know the specific movement patterns they need to train most. They can eliminate ones from their workout program that aren't beneficial to their performance or position.
A tactical athlete though needs to have strong bones, muscles, tendons, and joints. They need to all work together efficiently to produce many movement patterns. This includes pulling, pushing, jumping, running, dragging, and even grabbing objects.
Tactical athletes need to set goals beyond just beating their 1RM. Building strength for a tactical athlete follows the same principles of traditional strength training. Low rep ranges, heavy weight, and longer rest periods are crucial to building a base of strength.
This helps an athlete with muscle growth and body composition changes. In the end, it creates an athlete who is physically fit and prepared for the demands of tactical training. A tactical athlete quickly progresses into other training elements. These are speed, agility, and endurance. When this time comes, the athlete is ready for the diverse training elements and stress adaptations.
Each strength workout must target the upper body, lower body, and core. Prescribe 5 sets of 5 reps for each exercise, with 80-90% of the athletes 1RM. Focus on compound movements so the athlete can load the body and become proficient in all movement patterns.
This includes the squat, hinge, horizontal pull, vertical pull, horizontal press, and vertical press. Don't forget the core, which should involve rotational exercises. Compound exercises are important because they help athletes get bigger, faster, and stronger.
Grip strength is a key aspect to limit strength and performance for tactical athletes. Exercises like pull-ups or chin-ups require a tremendous amount of grip strength as well as core strength—both of which are critical to a tactical athlete. If you are working with police or military personnel, pull-ups are always a major focus on fitness tests.
Many of the situations that first responders encounter require grip strength:
Carrying awkward objects
Carrying other humans
Picking up heavy objects
Grip strength stems into other aspects of tactical training that an athlete undergoes. Here are some of the best exercises that improve overall grip strength and, when done correctly, core strength.
For this exercise instruct athletes to hold two heavy weights in each hand. These can be dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, or any weighted object. Cue them to keep the core engaged and begin walking a set distance. Make sure they travel in a straight line and brace their core the entire distance. This helps with postural control.
Check out this ISSA blog to learn more about loaded carry exercises.
This is similar to the farmer's carry, except it is performed with two weighted plates. Instruct your athlete to grab two plates, one in each hand, and hold them with their fingers. You can implement a walk to make this more challenging. Cue them to keep pinching their fingers on the plate to hold it up.
Pull-ups alone are one of the most challenging exercises. To recruit more muscle fibers in the forearms for grip strength you can implement using a towel. Wrap the towel over the pullup bar and have your athlete grab both ends. They will pull their body up from the hang position, just like a regular pullup. This is more difficult because there is no stable bar to grip on to.
These require just a pull-up bar and the client's bodyweight. Begin by hanging from the pull-up bar for as long as possible. Encourage your athlete to maintain their grip without dropping down for a set period of time. Feet must never touch the ground until the set is completed. Improving forearm strength can help your client improve their dead hang.
Helping tactical athletes get prepared for their fitness exams requires a high level of fitness training. Become an ISSA Certified Tactical Conditioning Specialist and learn how to design workout programs with special considerations for tactical professions. This is not your typical uniform program but rather an elite training style. Help your clients become the best of the best.
ISSA's Strength and Conditioning course bridges the gap between science and application by giving students the "how" of helping athletes achieve any sport-related goal. With this course, not only will you learn the exercise science behind strength and conditioning, but exactly how to create the perfect training program for any athlete. Further, it offers one of the only accredited exams in the strength and conditioning space, making you a hot commodity to any employer.