How do I Prepare for Special Forces Training? It DEPENDS!
by Stew Smith, former Navy SEAL and trainer
Here is a question I get often concerning the way a person prepares for Special Forces type training programs for both military and law enforcement SWAT teams. My answer is usually, “It depends – Not only on the training you seek, but your athletic history and background.” Here is his question and my lengthy answer that takes many of the body types and foundation of fitness issues that arise when people start a training plan for Spec Ops. Here is the letter below…
Stew:I’m going to guess you’ve already answered this question somewhere, so forgive my redundancy. I’m 27 and looking to get into the Navy–possibly going for Diver or SEAL. I’m looking for the best workout to prepare me for the rigors of Special Forces training. Even if I don’t go into those fields, I want to be able to perform at that level. I steer towards programs with weights like Crossfit and Sealfit. My question is, what fitness regimen will best help me prepare?
STEW: Good question – and the answer is “It depends.”
It depends on your athletic history and where your foundation of fitness is focused. For instance, I often get former football players, swimmers, wrestlers, body-builders, power lifters, runners and some kids who have no athletic history at all. The answer will be different for each of these groups of people.
The truth is people have been graduating tough special operations programs long before there were specific books, DVDs, websites, and pre-Special Forces (Spec Ops) training programs. The best answer must contain a foundation of fitness and construct a peak on it so you perform at your absolute best without overuse injury. This can be done in a relatively short period of time if you have that foundation, but it requires perfect balance between weights, high rep calisthenics, long distance running, swimming, and rucking, rope climbs, obstacle courses, etc. Creating a high muscle endurance / strength to bodyweight ratio is also vital for maneuvering through obstacles and combat conditioning courses. All of these depend on where your present strengths lie. What is your foundation of fitness built upon?
Another factor is mental toughness. This is absolutely the most difficult element to measure in a person. These Special Ops training programs will push you to your physical limit. The question is will you have the mental toughness to keep moving and not quit. One thing for sure is that the better in shape you are the easier the mental challenges become.
But here is the difference in the way you must prepare for long and intense Special Forces training programs:
If you have a Football / Power-lifting Background then…
This body type has a fitness foundation of speed, power, strength. These are great assets to have but you do not need to cultivate them further in your quest to join a Special Forces unit. Many football players / power lifters at first think that a 1.5 mile timed run is long distance running. That mindset must change so that run becomes short distance and your speed to ace those runs increase. Many programs will have you run 4-5 miles timed so you need to pump up your running and endurance training more than lifting weights. Complete Guide to Navy SEAL Fitness Book / DVD. This book has been turning football players into SEALs for more than a decade.
It is a challenge to drop the weights for up to a year – maybe longer – but it does take some time to change over to more endurance type athlete. Many must drop some weight to be able to do more pull-ups and run faster. The good news is that the powerful legs / hips of these athletes make swimming with fins much easier. I remember a few college football players who could barely pass the swim without fins at SEAL training, but when they put on fins for the 2-4 mile ocean swims, they were in the front of the class. Ruck marching was a piece of cake to them as well. Even log PT was not that bad for them. What got them the most to have to dig in and suck up the pain were longer runs, obstacle courses, and high rep calisthenics PT. So if you are in the power athlete foundation group, I would focus more on higher rep calisthenics – maybe balance it out with some light weights – not much is needed though. For cardio, you have to be better at longer running, longer swims – with and without fins. This takes time. If you are young and in your late teens / early 20’s it can take you 6-9 months – maybe a year to fully transition to top shape ready for the endurance challenges of training.
A periodized program that will allow for you to withstand hours of working and miles of moving – Special Forces training style! – The opposite athlete is in the endurance foundation group. Typically, longer distance runners make up the majority of this group and have little or no problems with running, rucking and moving on the ground. The same goes for wrestlers as running is never an issue nor is high rep calisthenics. Wrestlers actually make great Special Operators as long as they can swim. The running group is however typically weaker in upper body strength and leg power, so doing some foundational lifting is recommended. If seeking Special Ops training programs, you need to focus on lifting that involves full-body movements not isolations of muscle groups. Olympic Power lifting is a great source for building the power relays needed to move with more strength and there are many programs out there that can help you learn these as you mentioned.
If your background is a Swimmer
This group ideally does the best using the high repetition calisthenics / fast paced longer runs and swimming workouts.
If you have a background as an Endurance Athlete
The endurance is not going to be an issue to you. Usually even the high rep calisthenics are quickly increased with some basic supersets and pyramids, but GRAVITY is going to be your biggest killer. You have to get your legs used to running and rucking. Typically, if you have no solid foundation of running, you will be susceptible to shins splints, stress fractures, tendonitis flare ups – all of which will take you out of training for some time or for good. In this case, building your arms / legs is essential, but it is wise to build from the core using dynamic movements as seen in Olympic Lifting.
Athletic Background in Bodybuilding
For many, this was your first introduction to fitness. Build big muscles and look better was the goal. However, many of the bigger muscle guys at Spec Ops training programs are the first to fall due to lack of endurance – both cardio-vascular and muscle stamina. If your foundation of fitness is doing a muscle or body part each day of the week, you need to change quickly as this is not a functional way to build a foundation. Adding higher rep calisthenics will help you quickly build the endurance you need to sustain a long training day. Building up to higher mileage of running and swimming over time is what you need to focus on. No longer should you be worried about how big your biceps are but how many pull-ups you can do. Get away from the aesthetics of fitness and change over to performance fitness. You should be having conversations of how fast you run, how fast you swim, and how many pushups can you do it two minutes versus how much body fat you have around your mid-section.
No Athletic Background?
For those who have no athletic history whatsoever, I have been working with this type for several years now and it does take some time. Typically, a year of building a foundation and an additional 6-12 months of peaking to a level of Special Ops capability is the going rate of time for the Nintendo generation. I will say that I personally get more reward / satisfaction from taking a kid who is overweight and de-conditioned and getting them into top shape, than I do with an advanced athlete who drops his swim time by 1 minute. So it can be done but you really have to look at it long term and it is not something you can do in a few months time.
If you are a true lifting novice, the Prehabit Fitness DVD is a way to start that foundation of full-body movements that are safe to do, easy to follow, and requires nothing but some floor space and dumbbells. However, in the end, adding higher rep calisthenics for testing purposes and muscle endurance is the goal. Muscle endurance is different from cardio-vascular endurance – wrestlers typically have both, but runners do not. Multi-Joint Dumbbells or Kettlebell training even. But the goal here is to get used to the real world where gravity exists.nutritional tips, non-impact cardio options, a beginner fitness plan, then some time to build a solid foundation balanced with weights, calisthenics, walking, running, rucking, and swimming.
The one thing to remember is that Special Operations Training is not 45-60 minutes in a gym each day. It is an all day thing and often an all night thing as well. So, training a few muscle groups in the gym is not going to cut it. You need a healthy mix of running, swimming, rucking, weights, and calisthenics each week in a long term
How do I Prepare for Special Forces Training? Article by Stew Smith – a former Navy SEAL and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) by the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He specializes in military and law enforcement fitness, particularly Special Forces units.
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