June 12, 2020 10 min read
When it comes to the elite, there’s not much higher you can get than the special forces of the world. And then when it comes to the special forces, there’s not much higher you can get than the American Special Forces—the Navy SEALS.
The road to being included in their ranks is tough and arduous, taking more grit than most of will ever need. Infamously grueling, the training and testing that are part of the program break many people, pushing them to their limits.
And this shouldn’t come as a surprise. While, “Tough on the training ground, easy on the battlefield” might ring true for a lot of things, training to be a Navy SEAL and then actually being one are probably just as difficult. Which is why the training needs to be that much harder.
And unlike other training and conditioning regimes, your life (and the lives of many others) literally depends on successfully accomplishing what’s required of you both mentally and physically.
To make this even more difficult, you’re never training for a single scenario. You’re not training for strength, nor for endurance, and definitely not for hypertrophy. There’s no manual that says you’ll need to be able to jump this high or crawl that fast under these circumstances. This is as real-life as it gets—as functional as it gets. And the stakes are as real as they get.
That’s why there’s such a rigorous process when it comes to training. A process that emphasizes full-body fitness and conditioning while also including strength training and mobility. The 26-week training program has been developed over decades in order to weed out the weak and improve the strong. And while you might not necessarily be training for the Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) Physical Screening Test (PST), there’s a lot of things we can learn when examining the methods behind the madness.
Think you have what it takes to become a Navy SEAL? This is just the entrance exam:
Is the PST your first-time swimming 500 yards? Then you’ve got a slim chance of finishing, let alone passing. The rest might sound relatively do-able to the more physically fit among us, but keep in mind that these are the minimum standards. What this essentially means is that you have a 6% chance of actually becoming a SEAL if you get through the entrance exam on the bare minimum standards.
The competitive standards look more like this:
And even considering this, and coming up at the top of the range, you still only have about an 80% chance of becoming a SEAL. Once you’ve passed, there’s a 26-week training program to get you in shape for Hell Week. This infamous week is when potential SEALs are taken through a week of rigorous drills and routines—barely sleeping through the entire week.
The Naval Special Warfare Physical Training Guide (PTG) was created in order to get potential recruits in tip-top shape for getting through BUD/S, and it’s publicly available too. While not necessarily offering specific exercises and workout routines, it does give very in-depth descriptions of what to focus on, what’s important, and what to avoid.
Much like the physical fitness test, the PTG places a major emphasis on cardio—specifically, running and swimming. These two activities are the bedrock on which training revolves around. It doesn’t matter how strong you are if you can’t even get where your strength is needed most.
And while cardiovascular endurance is important, your muscular endurance also plays an important role. The point is to be able to exert a lot of force over a long time, and not tire out until the job is done. While endurance strength training will help when it comes to muscular endurance, strength training is also important when it comes to injury prevention.
Going through the rigors of both training and a battlefield, an injury can spell disaster. That’s why it’s essential to train while keeping in mind to develop your week areas and furthermore, your range of motion. Doing the big three lifts—deadlifts, bench press, and squats—will obviously make you strong, but it won’t come close to the well-rounded power that’s necessary when it comes to being a SEAL.
The document outlines these problem areas that should be targeted in training in order to prevent injuries:
There’s also a large emphasis placed on speed, agility, and mobility. The last of which helps in avoiding injuries, but the first two are just as important. Especially when it comes to exerting a lot of explosive power, it’s necessary to train your functional strength.
Push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups are also essential. These three calisthenic exercises have a number of benefits to them, one of them being that they take very minimal equipment (literally just a pull-up bar). They’re also required in the fitness test, so it’s a good idea to get really good at doing them. While entirely focusing on these three wouldn’t be prime, if that’s your only option then it’s still a good one. Adding in body-weight squats and different variations of each (for example, wide vs. narrow grips) would allow for a full-body, bodyweight workout that’d get you in shape for the fitness test.
All of these aspects should come together in order for a recruit to become a successful SEAL, and they’re all just as important. We’ll look at three workouts that target different aspects of these necessary ingredients. While not officially U.S. Navy SEAL workouts, they hold true to the requirements outlined in the PFG. To summarize, the PFG includes these in their weekly workout summary:
And while hypertrophy isn’t emphasized at all, you really can’t expect to do all of this and still not have a chiseled body. Maybe more than with any other routine, you’ll look like a lean, mean, fighting machine.
Since mobility and injury prevention are paramount, it’s always important to do a dynamic warmup, cool-down, and stretching at all parts of these workouts. Remember to keep it relatively simple, as per the PFG, and remember to always keep your form up to point.
Done correctly, with the proper cadence and resting periods, and stretching, these workouts will have a multitude of benefits, physiologically speaking. They’ll address some common weaknesses, stabilize your core/strengthen the trunk, and fix any asymmetrical weak sides that might be keeping you back.
This workout utilizes the punching bag, which might not only be a fun change from your regular routine, but it’ll also emphasize the fighting-ready state that SEALs need to be in.
Since it’s an endurance workout, you need to go fast and hard. This workout utilizes supersets which require you to move from one exercise to the next with as little rest period in between as possible (preferably none). Expect this to be exhausting—but it will show results.
And of course, we can’t talk about endurance without talking about cardio. Like you saw above with the fitness test, it’s important to really, really, emphasize cardio workouts such as running and swimming. Not only will this have benefits on your cardiovascular endurance, but it’ll also help you when it comes to squeezing out those last few reps in your last set.
Superset Three: Shadow Box / Stair Climbs
Superset Four: Jump Rope/Speed Bag Supersets
This workout will have you gasping for breath at the end, but that’s what’s necessary when it comes to training as a SEAL. A routine like this will also probably help when it comes to improving your swimming and running times, without actually doing either of those things (except for the sprints and stair runs).
This workout will emphasize your ability to move quickly and with a high level of agility. Once again, we’ll be utilizing supersets in order to really push your endurance, and this time speed will be of most importance. And, as always, expect some running!
Sprints of at least 60 feet with 5 rounds of all-out effort. Take a 2-minute break in between each round to let your body recover so it can go just as hard the next round. Aim to make each round faster than the last, but no need to time yourself.
A multi-stage fitness test, also called a shuttle run, PACER, or beep test. Make sure it’s timed and you’re running at least 30 feet. Aim for five rounds of an all-out effort with a minute to two minutes of rest in between rounds.
In the first superset, go for 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps—not stopping as you go from chin-up to bench press. Also, note that you’ll be doing chin-ups rather than pull-ups for this exercise. That means a reverse grip—your palms facing you. This superset will place a major emphasis on your chest and arms, especially with the chin-up rather than the pull-up.
Once again, do sets of 8 to 12 reps with a minute rest in between each superset. While making sure to hammer out these quick, don’t forget about your range of motion and form.
Aim to do 3 sets of 15 to 20 reps of this superset—but this time, don’t rest when going from one to the other. This superset will polish off this workout by seriously targeting your abdominals to another level. The difference between the sit-up and the crunch is that the sit-up engages more of your stabilizing muscles in your upper body, while the crunch focuses entirely on your abdominals—something that’s extremely necessary when training for the trunk strength that’s needed with the Navy SEALs.
End this workout with a 3 to 5 mile run at a steady pace, or an equivalent swim. If you want you can substitute in cross-training, such as the rowing machine or elliptical. As long as you’re making sure to get in enough running and swimming.
As the name suggests, the strength workout will be all about making sure you’ve got the explosive energy necessary to smash through any potential obstacles in your path—whether you’re a SEAL or not.
Deadlift or back squat:
Aim for 4 sets of 5 reps with this one, and a 2-minute rest in between. Whether you choose the deadlift or the squat will probably depend on what you choose in the next exercise, but whatever you do, it’ll definitely help in training up that explosive energy.
Seated leg curl or Romanian deadlift:
Once again, do 4 sets of 5 reps each, with a 2-minute rest period in between each set. Depending on what you chose to do in the previous exercise, aim to choose something different for a fuller body workout.
For this superset, aim for 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps each and a one-minute break after each superset. The plyometric push-ups will require you to do a jump with your upper body as you reach the top of the movement. Depending on your fitness level, you can try to jump higher, clap with your hands, or even clap behind your back. Whatever you do, these advanced push-ups will definitely get you ready for the 100-push-ups-in-2-minutes benchmark for the entrance examination.
Go for 4 sets of 5 to 8 reps with each and a one-minute rest in between supersets. This superset will really emphasize your back muscles and a full range of motion—so make sure that your movements are controlled, fast, and you’re utilizing as much range as you can. This will hopefully help in preventing any future injuries.
For the hanging leg raise, aim for 3 sets of 15 to 20 reps. When it comes to the planks, go for 20-30 seconds after each set of leg-raises. You also won’t be resting in between exercises, so this will once again be extremely grueling when it comes to your core. And don’t forget—while we’re only calling for 20 to 30-second planks, the more the better.
To finish this off, once again do some cardio. Aim for a steady jog or swim, but if you’re doing enough of that and you’re sick of it, you can supplement (or complement) with some cross-training on the rowing machine, cycling, or even hiking. Just make sure to go hard from beginning to end.
These workouts are aimed to really bring out the best in you. They require grit, persistence, and a whole lot of endurance training. But more importantly, they all your body to reach its fullest potential in a very rounded way. Nevertheless, while we might’ve not mentioned aesthetics once in this post, don’t doubt that the chiseled body will follow.
Navy SEAL training can teach us a lot about what our goals should be when it comes to becoming physically fit. While there’s nothing wrong with going solely for bodybuilding, for example, it’s good to see what options are out there and choose what fits best for us.
But whatever program you choose, always make sure to stay well-fed and rested. All of the work you put in now, and the nourishment you consume, can be capitalized on in the future when you’ll really need that strength in your own Hell Week. So, while potential SEALs might only get up to 4 hours of sleep in the last week of Basic Conditioning, that’s nothing you should be aiming for on purpose—but it’s always good to be ready.