Special Operations Programming Overveiw

In this article I’m going to be covering the general structure that I use to prepare people for special operations selections programs and for active duty operators.

Before we get into the details of programming, we need to define the fundamental qualities that we are looking to develop or maintain in an operator regardless of their specific job.

Fundamental traits:

  • Aerobic capacity
  • Movement
  • Relative Strength
  • Resilience (physical and psychological)
  • Biological Power (more on this in another article)

Long-term approach

Preparing an individual for a special operations selection course or training a stateside (non-deployed) operator allows you to take a longer-term approach to training. When we have a several mostly uninterrupted months to train, we use a block training approach.


Foundation block

(4-12 weeks depending on current fitness level):

The goal of the foundation block is to restore or build fundamental traits that drive the top-end outputs required in an operational setting.

The general goal is to increase the amount of work an individual can do and recover from on a day-to-day basis.

This allows operators to deal with stress more effectively, recover faster, and increase their longevity and top-end outputs in an operational environment.

This phase has several components:

1Establish a large aerobic capacity foundation

  • General adaptations – Slowly build a large foundation of aerobic capacity via low intensity aerobic work (Zone 2 or controlled breathing level of intensity) performed with ideal technique
  • Specific adaptations – Make sure to do task-specific work (i.e. if you need to be able to swim, don’t sit on a bike for your aerobic work)
  • Fast-twitch muscle fibers – use methods such as HICT, explosive repeats, and aerobic plyos (see Joel’s book and DVD) to develop aerobic adaptations in fast-twitch muscle fibers

2 – Perform lots of aerobic-alactic strength work

  • Focus on volume and quality over intensity
  • Slowly increase the complexity of exercises and intensity without allowing technique to break down

3 – Include alactic power work

  • Focus on rotational and lateral movements and restoring or building elasticity, not just max outputs
  • Perform lots of med ball work, lateral power and movement exercises, and sprint work

For examples of rotational med ball work, check out this video.

4 – Improve specific work capacity

  • Grip strength/endurance – Work on a variety of grip exercises such as weighted carry variations, hangs, and rope climbs.
  • Rucking – if you need to able to ruck, you must ruck. Never run with a ruck in training.
  • Swimming – Swimming is largely technique and specific work capacity. If the selection program an individual is going into requires swimming, the only way to become proficient is time and deliberate practice under a good coaching system. We have all our selections candidates work with a swimming coach who is familiar with coaching the combat side-stroke. We highly recommend Total Immersion coaches.
  • Overhead work – Once movement has been restored, we slowly introduce a variety of overhead strength and strength-endurance techniques.
  • Pull-ups – We build these over time using a variety of techniques. The key is to never allow technique to break down or to grind out sets.
  • Push ups – Similar approach as pull-ups. We use techniques such as HICT to build up fast twitch aerobic capacity in this movement as well.
  • Sit ups – You really only want to be as good at sit-ups as you need to be to pass under the radar, since training them intensely tends to mess up a lot of other stuff for most people.

Intensification Block

The intensification block is characterized by reduced volume and increased intensity. Aerobic conditioning is maintained and anaerobic power and capacity workouts are introduced to develop the anaerobic energy system.

This phase includes:

1. Anaerobic Conditioning

  • “Met-cons” and other anaerobic soul-crushing workouts
  • Anaerobic power and capacity

2. Max relative strength

  • Higher loads, more complex movements, and lower volumes

3. Muscular Endurance

  • Now that the foundation of general and specific work capacity has been built, we peak these qualities through various muscular endurance protocols

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Active duty operators

When working with active duty deployed operators, the goal often changes: under intense operational pressure, we want to maintain or slow down the degradation of physical capacities.

To do this, we modify our training approach. We typically use a concurrent model in which the focus is on training whatever traits aren’t being maintained by the operator’s job demands.

The general idea is that we are trying to maintain abilities, not improve them, so we train all physiological adaptations concurrently.

We also prioritize recovery and avoid adding unnecessary fatigue or stress. Recovery is a malleable capacity just like strength, and if it’s not emphasized deliberately, it will degrade over time.

If an athlete has a bad game because they trained too hard, they can look ahead to the next game to perform better. If an operator can’t perform effectively because I gave them a workout that crushed them the day before, the mission, their health or their lives may be compromised.

We tend to err on the side of caution and we suggest you do too.

If the operator is doing a lot of low-end aerobic work (e.g. long-range land nav or patrolling) on a day-to-day basis in the field, we cut out all other low-end aerobic work from their training.

Conversely, if an operator is primarily doing short-burst high output activity (e.g. DA raids), we’ll want to spend some time maintaining their aerobic output.

The exact structure and outputs we want to maintain vary drastically depending on the operational demands of the individual. That said, here is a general structure that we use:

  • Day 1 – Strength maintenance
  • Day 2 – Aerobic – 60-90 minutes
  • Day 3 – Anaerobic power/capacity
  • Day 4 – Aerobic recovery – 30-45 min
  • Day 5 – Strength Endurance/specific work capacity
  • Day 6 – Aerobic – 60-90 minutes
  • Day 7 – Power maintenance

These days can be moved around as needed and replaced if the operational environment facilitates demands similar to one of the workouts.

The general structure follows a moderate intensity/low intensity model. Volume is low-to-moderate on all days and if 2-3 high intensity days are occurring in a row, they are followed by a low intensity aerobic day.

Be strategic with stressors

Movement quality should always be maintained. Operators need to be capable of handling very large volumes of training, so it’s critical that joints are stressed only as much as necessary.

If you don’t prioritize movement fidelity you’ll be two-thirds of the way to an injury before you even leave for the actual event.

Tendons, ligaments, and bones are subject to Wolf’s Law, which states that tissues adapt to handle stress in the specific way that they are loaded.

If you don’t do activities that stress tissues in a manner similar to what operators do in the field, their tissues won’t be capable of handling field-level stress loads.

Accumulate stress strategically

Adaptation occurs through the balance between accumulating stress and facilitating recovery. While you need to accumulate stress and fatigue, it should be done in a manner that never puts the operator at risk for injury.

When maximal amounts of stress are accumulated, high intensity or high-risk movements or activities should be reduced or avoided.

cameron cool guy pic

Recovery is still important

Regardless of what training structure you are using, don’t forget to develop and maintain the parasympathetic nervous system-based traits that dictate your ability to recover. Without attention, these will degrade over time.

These include:

  • Aerobic Capacity
  • HRV
  • Movement Capacity
  • Metabolic Flexibility

To maintain these you’ll need to program specific recovery work such as PRI breathing exercises, massage or other restorative soft tissue interventions.

You’ll also need to prioritize healthy recovery habits such as quality sleep, nutrition protocols, and mini breaks throughout the day.

The most effective operators don’t just hit the hardest; they also drop deepest and fastest into recovery when appropriate. This variability is key.

What’s next

The next article will cover psychological elements of training and how it aligns with training structure we outlined in this article.