SEAL fit

This next post is done with some fear and trepidation. I say this because I know just how silly and misguided many are and how weak their own sense of self-perception really is. I say this because so many people think they’re elite or special, with no actual evidence to back it up.

Recently I was asked if I had some spare time to speak with a Navy SEAL. Due to timing we didn’t even meet face to face, just via skype, and because of the poor connection where I was not even video chat. I could walk past this man in the street and not even recognise him. Although from the conversation that followed I’m pretty sure if I saw him at a gym I’d take a lot of notice. And this leads me to point one – the guys who are actually on the teams and out in the boonies keeping us safe are every bit as special as elite athletes. Not only are they a capable of incredible things physically but they can do them all then jump out of a plane at 30,000 feet, march for a couple of days with little sleep or any kind of optimal nutrition plan then shoot some bad guys dead.

The first thing that stood out in neon when we started speaking was the immense training volume this man goes through. People who read things I write will know that I’ve always been a big advocate of volume for one simple reason – it works. When in doubt, do more. I guarantee you’ll improve.This guy is just back from operations overseas and is working to maintain fitness so he is ready to go again when asked. To reach his fitness goals he is training twice a day most days, splitting up the day so that he does some kind of fitness work (usually running) and then hits strength work later on.

One of my biggest pet peeves with the fitness industry is that people who have no idea what it is like to go on a 48 hour patrol feel like they should tell people how to get in shape for one. I have some news for you – if you are used to only short duration, thirty minute workouts, what do you think will be your body’s reaction to a non-stop 48 hour effort? If volume is the first thing that goes into creating the kind of fitness needed to make a soldier safe, then the second one is the understanding that people need to get out of the mindset of minimalistic training if they plan to work in this field or attempt selection. Fitness, the kind of fitness needed to be successful at these kinds of things, needs to be smashed into place with the hammer of volume. As long as you eat and sleep as much as needed you’ll cope just fine. Yes, you’ll be tired. Yes, you’ll be sore. But your body will adapt and the result will be staggering levels of fitness and strength. When your life and that of your friends and colleagues depends on your ability to stay focused and keep up for extended periods of time your training needs to reflect that. Looking for a minimalist, short duration plan won’t get you in the kind of shape needed to either pass selection or keep your job and stay alive.

Speaking with my friend in black for a bit longer I started to realise just how special he is. We had been talking about Crossfit, and in particular how he and the other older guys (he is late thirties) try to talk the younger, newer guys out of it. Too many torn up hands that impact on weapons handling. Too many sore shoulders from kipping pull ups and bad muscle up attempts. (Not to mention that the workouts are too short, as pointed out above). But then he told me he did Fran as a warm-up to one of his other workouts. In a time of 2.29. For people who aren’t Crossfit aware, a 2.29 is smoking fast. I called him on it and said that I would have thought that if he was telling the young guys not to dit, then posting crazy fast times like that he wasn’t being a good example to his men. And then he told me that he did Fran with strict pull-ups. Now, Fran is 21-15-9 of thrusters and pull-ups done for time. I’ve never heard of anyone going fast who does strict pull-ups, as all the fast sub-3min times I have seen are by those who use kipping pull-ups. Except this guy. Turns out he can do 55 strict pull-ups, so knocking out 21 in the first round is less than a 50% effort for him.

This kind of leads me back to my first paragraph – if you can’t do 55 strict pull ups, or close to it, you’re not ready to follow this man’s plan, no matter how much you think you’re as fit as a SEAL, or need to train like one. You’re just not that special, own it, and modify accordingly.

For starters, there’s running 4-5 days per week. The optional day often ends up being a row, just to keep some load off his legs. There’s also another day of the week, taken mid-week that has a 5000m row. So for people keeping count he does major cardio every day. It seems that not only is it rule #1 of Zombieland, but if you want to be a SEAL then cardio is a high priority too. But strength plays an equal part and is done four days per week along with two “technique days” where the door kicker does some get ups, handstand push-ups and what you could consider to be movements on these days. One of the things he did mention in particular was that he’s felt a lot better since adding in get ups regularly to his training.

There’s also a lot of core work. I don’t mean he does a few sit ups and a plank for a minute tacked on at the end of a session either. I mean that if you count core work he does it every day. Some days he does over 200 reps including 200 sit ups and some L sit holds for max time. Other days he does get ups between every exercise. He also does really long plank holds. Most of my customers, and most people in general, struggle to hold a plank for a minute. Try 12 minutes. He goes from both arms, to one hand, swaps to the other, then goes back again repeating the sequence for 4 rounds. When you consider that his body needs to stabilise his spine for days at a time while carrying heavy loads this makes a lot of sense. But ask how many people you see with that kind of crazy core stability?

As an example of the extremes of his training, the day he told me about his Fran workout, he actually used that as his warm-up. He then went onto a session involving super sets of dips and get ups, presses and get ups, lateral raises (a shoulder stability complex used by the teams to prehab their shoulders and keep them healthy), some grip work, a 12-15min plank, some extra abdominal work then a big stretch. He likes to work in lots of 5 so most exercises are done for 5 sets. That may not sound so bad, but consider that the day before he ran first thing – averaging 4min/km for 5kms – an easy run for him with an RPE of 6 out of 10. He then chased that down later in the day with some strength work – Power cleans plus row 20 seconds x 5, back squat plus row 20 seconds x 5, bench press plus pull ups plus a get up x 5, dips plus pull ups plus get ups x 5.

After I got done congratulating him on his high level of fitness, work capacity and discipline we spoke for a little bit about what he might be missing. I mentioned that if the amount of hard work he does starts to run him down to replace some of his interval run sessions with longer aerobic runs. I also told him about an observation in one of Pavel’s books that assault teams that spent some time doing swings suffered less hamstring tears. I also mentioned that McGill’s work showed that they had a therapeutic effect on the spine, possibly due to the high rep nature, which allowed them to flush large amounts of blood into the area – a great way to revitalise a back that was likely stiff from carrying heavy loads. I also spoke about some elasticity work – as the body ages it loses it’s ability to be bouncy and produce power quickly. But you can maintain it easily enough with some simple jumping work, even skipping rope is useful, and if you make sure to move in a variety of ways it teaches the body to deal with different landings which is a useful skill if you’re jumping from a plane or running across uneven terrain. Finally we spoke a bit about useful resets for the body such as crawling and rolling, as well as some basic tumbling as part of his warm up. Beyond that, what he is doing is working a treat and the first rule of coaching is don’t mess up the client, so I didn’t try to change anything he is doing.

The big things that stand out for me – he’s got incredible levels of work capacity and strength. Neither of these qualities are built overnight. There’s tons of cardio in there – every day nearly. It always makes me laugh when I see people shun cardio or talk about how strength is the most important thing, yet all evidence from guys like this point to the contrary. Core work is another often missed element. And not in the “I’ll just do a few sit ups at the end of my session…maybe…” kind of way that most do it, nor in the “I lift heavy so I don’t need to do core work at all” kind of way either.

If I were training someone to go through military selection again I’d be right in line with this – high volume, tons of cardio, lots of big lifts and strength work as well as an ample amount of body weight training to make PT beastings no big deal, and tons of core work. As I said before – if you’re not getting the result you want do more. Then do more again. I guarantee that training volume will cure what ails you whether it be lack of fitness, physical weakness or even not having a six-pack.