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Program Design and Sample Training Approaches

This is an excerpt from NSCA's Essentials of Tactical Strength and Conditioning by NSCA -National Strength & Conditioning Association.

The principle of specificity requires training to mirror the demands of the occupational specialty. To best prepare for the physiological demands of load carriage, military personnel should train using complex, multijoint movements, with an emphasis on upper body and lower body strength and power development, in addition to posterior chain development. Given the heavy emphasis on load carriage and the high incidence of associated lower back injuries, developing a strong core and posterior chain is pivotal to improving performance of military tasks and preventing injury. Additionally, upper body strength and muscle mass are contributing factors in load carriage performance. Studies have shown that strength training can greatly improve performance on military physical tasks, and specifically load carriage, even when load carriage is not incorporated in the training plan.

Although military tactical athletes have good overall fitness levels compared with the general population, they may be lacking an adequate strength and power foundation, and they may have limited experience training compound, multijoint movements (e.g., squat, bench press, deadlift) and power exercises (e.g., power clean). For this reason, the TSAC Facilitator will likely have to allocate time for teaching and reinforcing correct technique when implementing resistance training programs. If military personnel are conducting off-duty PT on their own or are involved with commercial programs, the TSAC Facilitator may have to reteach movement patterns or incorporate exercises to correct movement deficiencies. Based on anecdotal experiences, it is thought by military and research professionals that weak gluteal and hamstring muscles are common in military athletes due to the heavy emphasis on running combined with tightness in the hip flexors and quadriceps dominance. These issues must be addressed because strong gluteal musculature and hip extension capability (power) are critical to strength and power development. Furthermore, well-balanced musculature around all sides of a joint not only improves athletic performance but also has been observed to reduce injury risk, particularly overuse injury or injury related to load carriage.

Military physical readiness doctrine outlines the principles of "train to standard" and "train to fight". Mastery of various physical tasks enables a warfighter and thus the unit to perform the mission effectively. Accordingly, training should be tough, realistic, physically challenging, and safe. The PT program should focus on the tasks associated with combat - lifting and loading weapons, reacting to and evading contact, evacuating casualties, moving under fire, navigating across uneven terrain from one point to another, performing individual and team movements, and performing combatives (see table 19.6). The TSAC Facilitator can refer to these physical tasks to gain a general understanding of common warfighter tasks and the physical capabilities needed to perform them. This will be helpful in developing training programs to meet the warfighter’s needs.

Key Program Variables

Previous literature has described the acute program variables that can be manipulated in a strength and conditioning program to attain various athletic goals. In short, exercise choice, exercise order, amount of load, type of load (e.g., accommodating resistance, regular weight), intensity (e.g., sets and reps, volume), and rest periods all influence the adaptations to resistance training. These variables can be manipulated to result in the desired outcomes. For example, optimal strength development requires heavy loading in the 1RM to 3RM range, and within a given strength-based workout, one must use longer rest periods of 2 minutes or more to maximize force production. Some experts even advocate 3 minutes or more. A hypertrophy-based protocol allows for loading in the 6RM to 12RM range combined with moderate rest periods of 30 to 90 seconds. On the opposite end of the spectrum, when conducting metabolic training, shorter rest periods are appropriate. However, loading must be adjusted because the force needed to lift heavy loads cannot be maintained with short rests.

Care must be taken with metabolically demanding workouts because of their taxing nature and the catabolic hormonal environment that results. Cumulative exposure to catabolic hormones can create a hormonal environment that is counterproductive to optimal strength and power development. Two to three metabolic workouts per week are generally enough to maintain metabolic adaptions to exercise. Incorporating more than that can yield counterproductive results, particularly when combined with frequent endurance exercise and other demanding military training.

Manipulation of acute program variables (e.g., exercise choice, loads, rest periods) ensures that military personnel develop the necessary strength and power foundation while allowing for optimal recovery. With military athletes in particular, the demands of the profession and the need to be mission ready year-round necessitate optimal recovery from exercise stress. Varying exercises and loading over the course of the training program ensures optimal development and maximizes recovery, thereby reducing the risk of nonfunctional overreaching, a common occurrence with intense training. Another factor that influences the choice and order of exercise is an assessment of the athlete’s strengths and weaknesses. Weak body parts can be trained early in the workout to emphasize weak or lagging muscle groups, and manipulation of the acute program variables can ensure that appropriate emphasis is placed on lagging areas.

Program Scenarios

No one-size-fits-all strength and conditioning program exists that will be appropriate for all service members. As mentioned, optimal programming must address the physical requirements of the military personnel’s occupational specialty and the unit’s mission, and it must factor in constraints such as competing military training requirements that must be prioritized in a given training cycle; military personnel’s availability, readiness, and motivation to train; and special considerations for the individual’s goals, strengths, and weaknesses. Personal factors, such as home life or disrupted sleep schedules, will also affect training outcomes. To implement a program that is not only effective but is one that military personnel can adhere to, the TSAC Facilitator should maintain flexibility in the program design, such as using the flexible nonlinear approach or short training blocks of three to four weeks with adequate recovery and deloading periods. Chapter 10 provides more information on periodization and sample programs that can be used as a starting point for developing a training program for a military population, and other publications also provide examples.

A sample training program for a Ranger unit is provided in table 19.7. This program incorporates a resistance training schedule using a flexible nonlinear program. The TSAC Facilitator can then change the programs related to circuit training, strength, power, endurance, or combat-related training. The key is to make the program work with the operational demands and time constraints of the MOS and the unit in order to train the elements needed for combat readiness, including anaerobic endurance, cardiorespiratory function, and strength and power for demanding tasks, as discussed in detail elsewhere. The program shows what might be done on base and then during predeployment, deployment, and postdeployment. Using knowledge of program design from this book and others will allow the TSAC Facilitator to develop programs in response to individual and unit demands during these three periods of military service.




Learn more about NSCA’s Essentials of Tactical Strength and Conditioning.