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Tactical Athlete Training Methods for First Responders

By Daniel J. Borowick, M.S., C.S.C.S.
2020 Sports and Health Sciences Master’s Degree Graduate

and Daniel G. Graetzer, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Health Sciences

According to Strength and Conditioning Journal, the term tactical athlete is now a buzzword within the first responder community and tactical athlete training programs are emerging. To function effectively, tactical athletes need to possess extremely high levels of physical and mental fitness, comparable to (and sometimes even exceeding) fitness levels of elite sports athletes.

A tactical athlete can be anyone who must maintain a high level of physical and mental fitness to perform a job’s responsibilities. That person can be a servicemember according to, a law enforcement officer or a firefighter.

In these professions, life-versus-death scenarios happen suddenly, often with little to no warning. That makes for an extremely challenging but also extremely satisfying career that most people would never trade for anything else.

What Is Involved in a Tactical Athlete Training Program?

A tactical athlete requires an extremely high level of conditioning in different areas, such as:

  • Strength
  • Power
  • Aerobic and anaerobic capacity
  • Flexibility
  • Stability
  • Mobility

To convert first responders into tactical athletes, an ongoing, highly detailed strength and conditioning exercise program is required. All first responder movements are highly functional with regard to maintaining optimal efficiency and safety for themselves, their coworkers, and the communities they heroically serve.

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Tactical athletes such as first responders require high strength and physical conditioning.

Tactical athletes need to move their bodies in all three anatomical planes of motion confidently and precisely. Resiliency and recovery are key to safely maximizing tactical athletes’ work safety, health, and lifespan.

To pass required biannual and annual physical fitness assessments, tactical athletes such as first responders need a continuous, specifically designed fitness regimen without an “off-season” as sports athletes would typically enjoy. First responders need to maintain an “in season” level of physical conditioning 365 days per year.

Also, tactical athletes’ schedules can involve 8-, 10- or 12-hour days, which may also include shift work that rotates every three to four weeks. According to a UChicago Medicine article, an abnormal sleep schedule disrupts the normal body chemistry of hormone production, making it harder for tactical athletes to perform at an optimal level.

Men’s Health notes that traditional strength training is based on the overload principle. In other words, the body’s muscular and cardiovascular systems must be regularly stressed to an extent that is greater than normal to achieve a higher level of strength or fitness. Without increasing stress regularly, the muscles will become accustomed to a workload and will not noticeably increase in strength.

Hypertrophy (muscle enlargement) resulting from repetitive overload training occurs due to increased storage of the intramuscular proteins actin and myosin. Atrophy (muscle size reduction) results from depletion of actin and myosin reserves develops when strength conditioning is reduced or terminated.

Tactical Athlete Training Starts with Analyzing a Job’s Physical Demands

Ideally, tactical athlete training should first involve a physiological analysis of a first responder’s job descriptions to determine the specific energy system(s) involved, the muscle groups that will be required, those muscles’ type of contraction and the necessary range of motion. Most power-endurance activities require energy from both anaerobic (without oxygen) and aerobic (with oxygen) metabolism, meaning that both fast- and slow-twitch muscle fibers are recruited during essentially all physical efforts.

Some physical movements also require both concentric and eccentric muscle contractions. Concentric contractions involve the normal shortening of a muscle during contraction. Eccentric contractions control and absorb shock while a muscle is lengthening under tension (similar to skiing downhill).

Slow-speed eccentric contraction can be simulated during workouts by conducting slow “negative” sets in combination with a concentric workout. For example, during leg extensions, weight could be lowered very slowly after a full knee extension to provide an eccentric workout to the quadricep muscles of the legs.

Fast-speed eccentric contractions (which create considerably more stress to muscle cells and cause more muscle soreness after a workout) occur during the stretch-shortening cycle immediately prior to the concentric contraction that propels the body forward. Often, both tactical athletes and sports athletes use plyometrics (such as bounding and hopping movements) to supplement their training.

Other challenges experienced by tactical athletes include the necessity of skipping meals or not having enough time to make optimal, nutritious food choices while on duty. For example, first responders such as firefighters and law enforcement officers may intend to consume a healthy meal during a break at work, but may experience 911 service calls that immediately take precedence over having a meal. As a result, they may miss a meal entirely or grab unhealthy fast foods to quickly satisfy their hunger later.

Similarly, Special Agents performing undercover surveillance might think they will have an eight-hour workday but then find themselves on duty for the next 24 hours or longer (sometimes while sitting in a service vehicle). Similarly, firefighters may need to endure prolonged hours when shifting winds cause a fire to spread, and military servicemembers may need to deploy much longer than initially anticipated, often with a supply of minimal, nutritious food.

RELATED: Should We Still Be Consuming Oat Bran in Our Foods?

Tactical Athlete Training Using the Three Anatomical Planes of Movement

Conducting tactical athlete training based upon someone’s job description entails devising a program for exercise within all three anatomical planes. According to Healthline, the three anatomical planes of human movement are:

1) Sagittal (longitudinal) plane – separates the left and right halves of the body

2) Frontal (coronal) plane – separates the front and back halves of the body

3) Transverse (axial) plane – separates the upper and lower halves of the body

Training with these different planes of movement in mind makes tactical athletes better able to successfully conquer any physically demanding tasks they encounter, such as dragging victims away from danger. First responders who only conduct endurance movements within the sagittal plane may encounter more hardship during tasks where smooth, efficient, and powerful movement within the frontal and transverse planes is needed.

Training within the three planes of movement can be organized according to nine main training variables:

  • Type of lifts
  • Length of periods of training
  • Number of workouts per week
  • Order of exercises
  • Number of sets per lift
  • Tempo
  • Number of repetitions per set
  • Amount of weight to be lifted
  • Amount of recovery time between sets (to be covered in a future article)

To meet specific job demands, tactical athlete training need to stress and thus enhance the proper energy systems. Police officers assigned to patrol duty may find themselves in sitting in vehicles for much of the day and then quickly participating in a high-speed foot chase that requires the use of both anaerobic and aerobic energy metabolism.

Tactical athletes assigned to a tactical entry team need to condition their phosphagen energy system for quickness and power. For instance, someone using a battering ram to force open a locked door needs strength, power and explosive movement.

Tactical athletes also need to implement several types of exercise equipment to achieve optimal performance. Having access to weight-training facilities is a benefit but some tactical athletes may not have this access. For instance, a deployed soldier may not always have access to a gym or portable training equipment.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, tactical athletes still needed to maintain physical and mental fitness, but many gyms were closed due to health concerns. Consequently, these athletes needed to find other methods of keeping fit. Some tactical athletes resorted to using unconventional fitness training methods such as hauling sandbags, wearing heavy backpacks, and pushing wheelbarrows to keep themselves mission-ready.

RELATED: Sprint Interval Training: A New Method for Physical Fitness

Using Resistance Training and Bodyweight Exercises

There are various exercises that can be used to develop and improve physical fitness in a tactical athlete training regimen. These exercises fall into two categories:

Resistance Training Exercises – These exercises include bench presses, deadlifts, squats, Romanian deadlifts, front squats, goblet squats, and farmer’s walks. Other exercises include push presses, landmine presses and twists, bicep curls, triceps extensions, and Olympic lifts (hang clean, power clean and power snatch). Exercises (such as front squats and goblet squats) that emphasize placing stress on anterior core muscles have a direct correlation to the movement patterns tested in the United States Army Combat Fitness Test.

Bodyweight Exercises – Using the weight of the body for exercise includes pull-ups (wide, close, and reverse grip), straight-arm dead bar hangs, pushups, planks, suspension squats, face pulls, and medicine ball squats when the ball is thrown or slammed to the floor. Other forms of this type of exercise include distance running, rucking, sprinting and swimming.

Year-round tactical athlete training is critical for first responders to prevent injuries and maintain peak performance in areas such as explosive power, speed of movement, muscle endurance, rapid recovery from fatigue, and balance. With such training, tactical athletes can perform their jobs more efficiently and hopefully save lives that might otherwise be lost.

About the Authors

Daniel J. Borowick, M.S., C.S.C.S., is a former DEA Special Agent and Physical Task Test Administrator, who has over 27 years of tactical experience in state and federal law enforcement. Currently, he is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS®) with certification from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA®) and a private contractor in serving the US Army’s 1st Armored Divisions H2F/(Health and Fitness) Program.

His capstone project, “Program Design Based on Genetically-Determined Type I and Type II Fiber Typing In Order to Achieve Optimal Athletic Performance,” was written under the guidance of Professor Daniel Graetzer and is available online. Any inquiries concerning this article and a program design in order to achieve optimal physical performance and human movement in order to be a better tactical athlete can be directed to Daniel Borowick at CSCS and NCSA are registered trademarks of the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

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Daniel G. Graetzer, Ph.D., received his B.S. from Colorado State University/Fort Collins, a M.A. from the University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill, and a Ph.D. from the University of Utah/Salt Lake City. He has been a faculty member in the School of Health Sciences, Department of Sports and Health Sciences, since 2015. As a regular columnist in encyclopedias and popular magazines, Dr. Graetzer greatly enjoys helping bridge communication gaps between recent breakthroughs in practical application of developing scientific theories and societal well-being.

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