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Training Review: TMACS / Pat McNamara’s Combat Strength Training (CST)

Instructor/System: Pat McNamara is a 22 year US Army veteran, having served both with vanilla Special Forces and, for thirteen years, with 1st SFOD-D — Delta Force — before retiring as a Sergeant Major in 2005. In the training world, he’s primarily known for his firearms and combat tactics training, under his TMACS brand, but he also offers a class on his approach to physical fitness and readiness. Now in his early 50s, he remains a physical powerhouse and endless font of energy and enthusiasm. He is the author of Sentinel: Become the Agent in Charge of Your Own Protection Detail which covers some of the same topics as the class reviewed here.

Content: McNamara’s “Combat Strength Training” (CST) course is a one-day class on how to obtain and maintain physical fitness and readiness. The word “combat” in the title reflects two things. First, that the basic functional attributes developed are relevant to combat, specifically in terms of movement in the transverse plane, which McNamara believes is sorely underdeveloped in most combat athletes. And second, that the relative workload, while severe, is not so severe that one would be unable to fight effectively the moment they walk out the gym door. In other words, nowhere in this schema will you find staggering squat regimens that leave you unable to walk or similar.

The basic idea is that you approach fitness via a number of avenues: strength, power, speed and quickness, and muscular hypertrophy. Your weekly workload is spread across those domains, each one being populated with exercises that are compound, functional movements with real-world carryover. Broadly, the exercises are not significantly different from CrossFit or other functional fitness systems: squats, bench pressing, deadlifts, Olympic lifts, etc, all have a strong presence here. The class is structured into “mini-workouts,” where you do a handful of exercises in whatever domain you just discussed, performing a circuit. Note that McNamara’s comment on hypertrophy is that he likes settling into a “fighting weight” rather than continuing to pursue size. (This mirrors other remarks from people who the special operations community who’ve noted things like, “There’s no such thing as too strong. There is such a thing as too big.”)

Overall, there’s a lot to like here. There’s an emphasis on functional movements. There’s a schema whereby different athletic attributes are stressed on different days. There’s a focus on longevity rather than just beating yourself into the ground with work volume. That’s all good. Unfortunately a lot of the ideas are short shrift: power development is reduced to one line on a whiteboard and a few remarks, highly complex functional exercises like the Olympic lifts are reduced to a sixty second demo (and then “Go!”), proprioception is mentioned only in passing — to name just a few examples. The copious (and interesting! and varied!) exercises within each domain that are spilling from an excited McNamara aren’t given to the students in any kind of list form, so unless you memorize the details of all 30+ or take notes essentially during the circuit-style workouts themselves, they’re lost when the class ends. There’s an incongruous and very short section in the middle on the mechanics of throwing a 1-2 punch combination.

We get that the class is short, that it’s an introduction, etc. Much of the above doesn’t bother us. A few things do, though. First, things like the overall schema for scheduling workouts and the odd movements that McNamara advocates — that’s both the skeleton and meat of CST and it’d be a small thing to give the students handouts on the above. This is a value the students deserve. Second, and much more importantly, the incredibly superficial treatment given to what are highly technical exercises is both a disservice and a danger to the students. McNamara’s own form on the exercises is decent — not perfect, but pretty solid. They’re just not properly explained to the students before students are asked to do them and the class moves forward to the next topic. (At our class, the people running the facility where it was held also offered input and shouldn’t have — it was abundantly clear they knew little about how to properly clean, or properly overhead press, for that matter. McNamara was oddly deferential to them when he shouldn’t have been.) Third, some of the science is wildly out-dated: the hypertrophy section, for example, is predicated upon a simplistic “time under tension” model that McNamara learned from an old football coach, decades back. (Remember the 70s bodybuilding secrets that were things like 20 rep sets, super-sets, and 10 eggs for breakfast? That vibe.) There are better answers to solve the problem that have actual evidence in the performance science world to back them up.

So where does this leave us? McNamara himself is an n=1 physical specimen, and his charisma and enthusiasm are exceptional, but the class falls short on direct value to the students, lacks precision in the most important places, and advocates some decades-old ideas. We think the CST program has some interesting content for people who’re already involved in functional fitness but looking for a different approach — one that doesn’t grind them into the ground. But someone new to functional fitness isn’t going to learn what they need to learn here. And someone advanced in functional fitness isn’t going to find anything new here, and will probably chafe at the litany of movement errors and outdated information. Overall, at nearly $300 for a day, your money would be much better spent, as a newbie, on a month of CrossFit on-ramp and small group classes, where you’ll get some meaningful training on how to perform the array of common functional fitness movements. That’s a much better place to start.

RMSR Recommended: No.

Pre-requisites: None.

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