Specificity: Strength Training Guidelines for BUD/S

Mike Caviston

We often talk about planning one’s training around a specific training goal.  For individuals with physical job requirements such as professional athletes, law enforcement, or military operators, training plans should be as specific as possible to the demands of the profession.  Strength and endurance need to be addressed as individual qualities to get the most out of one’s training while also avoiding injuries.  In this article, Mike Caviston, Director of Fitness for the Naval Special Warfare Center, lays out his specific recommendations for Basic Underwater Demolition/Seals (BUD/S) training.  Reprinted with permission.  

Rationale for the Guidelines:  When it comes to endurance training, my recommendations are pretty specific (one high-intensity short interval session, one long interval session, and multiple LSD sessions per week for running and swimming), and I encourage candidates to follow those recommendations pretty closely. When it comes to strength training, there are many approaches to training and many programs you might follow, with different methods used and various exercises selected, but each approach capable of adequately preparing you for BUD/S. There are also programs I would discourage you from following because they are ineffective or unsafe. The specific strength training guidelines I am providing here are appropriate for candidates starting preparation with a low level of fitness, and for people with little weightlifting experience. (The guidelines are also appropriate and effective for experienced lifters beginning with a high level of fitness.) The guidelines are designed to provide good results with limited risks (we want training to prevent more injuries than it causes). The strength recommendations are also intended to be time-efficient, keeping your schedule more open to develop your running and swimming abilities.

Definition of Strength: “Strength” refers to the ability to produce force in a single all-out effort. High levels of strength allow you to lift or move heavy objects or to control the movements of opponents or aggressors. Strength is determined by such variables as muscle fiber type, architecture and size (bigger muscles tend to produce more force), as well as neural stimulation (activating more fibers during a contraction results in greater force production). While maximal strength is limited by genetic factors, it can be increased significantly if the right training stimuli are applied.

Benefits of Strength: For a BUD/S student, strength has many benefits. Early in the program, you and your classmates will spend a lot of time carrying 200-lb logs and 300-lb boats. Later, you will carry weapons, ammo and gear everywhere you go. The stronger you are, the less physical and mental stress these training evolutions will cause. Developing strong muscles will also develop strong bones and connective tissues, making you more resistant to injuries – a very desirable quality for a BUD/S student. I strongly encourage BUD/S candidates to structure strength training towards goals of injury prevention as well as goals of performance. Success at BUD/S requires a body that can take the ongoing pounding of daily training evolutions as well as occasionally move heavy things.

Muscular Strength and Muscular Endurance: These two qualities complement each other. Increasing your absolute strength using such exercises as bench press and lat pull-downs will make it easier for you to move your body weight multiple times when doing push-ups or pull-ups. Increasing your general muscular endurance with multiple sets and repetitions of a variety of calisthenics exercises (push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, dips, lunges, flutter kicks, etc.) will enhance your strength training. While these qualities are related and overlap each other to some extent, they are not the same and so training time should be devoted to each. To some extent, strength and muscular endurance routines could be performed on the same day, but for best results it is probably a good idea to do most of your calisthenics work on days when you are not strength training.

Core Strength:  Core strength is required for both optimal performance and to make the body more resistant to injury.The muscles that surround and support the spine and help transmit forces between the upper and lower extremities need both strength and endurance. There are several specialized “core” exercises (such as plank, side plank, bridge, and bird dog) that should be incorporated into training. Additionally, a proper weight lifting/resistance training program will enhance core strength.

The Training Stimulus: We want our strength program to generate the optimal training stimulus (a signal that tells the muscles to get stronger, and if desired, to get bigger). Many people assume a hormonal response is the most important signal, but in fact hormones will only amplify the response to training, not cause changes to occur. The actual signal to the muscle results from changes that occur at the molecular level due to mechanical stress within the muscle fibers during forceful contractions. An effective program will include some exercises that isolate muscles very specifically (allowing the most forceful contractions per unit of muscle), as well as some whole-body exercises that utilize many muscles simultaneously (causing a greater release of anabolic hormones such as growth hormone and testosterone). Optimal stimulation occurs when movements are performed slowly enough to allow fibers to generate high levels of tension, and movements are performed through a full Range of Motion (ROM) to affect the molecular components of the entire fiber. Negative or eccentric contractions are particularly effective for developing intramuscular tension and stimulating strength adaptations.

Mike Caviston competing in February this year.

Here’s a basic template for PT/strength training I use with students and Instructors. The same basic movement patterns and techniques can and should be used whether the workout is performed on the Grinder using only body weight for resistance, or in a gym with multiple resistance options such as free weights and machines. All the terms and concepts I’ve discussed previously still apply. There’s nothing new here, but maybe said a little differently so the examples seem fresher. I want each workout to be as complete and well-rounded as possible, working the entire body (upper, trunk, lower) in multiple directions and all three planes. Every movement has an opposing movement (push-pull) to promote balanced strength. Movements are performed through the full range of motion with controlled, deliberate actions and exaggerating the negative (eccentric) portions. There are a couple Plyometric or explosive variations, but those are a small percent of the total work.

I group movements into twenty different categories (eight for upper, four for trunk, eight for lower). The goal is to use one movement from each category. Sometimes a category will be skipped, and sometimes more than one movement in a single category will be used, but try to utilize all categories equally. Some exercises will satisfy more than one category (e.g., squats satisfy both hip and knee extension). Usually do only one set for each exercise, varying the target reps on different days (see previous discussions above). A complete and effective workout can easily be accomplished in an hour and generally in under 45 minutes.

Here are the basic movement categories…

Upper body:
1. Overhead push
2. Overhead pull
3. Chest press
4. Row pull
5. Downward push
6. Upward pull
7. Rotator cuff
8. Traps

Trunk (do a variety of dynamic exercises or static holds):
9. Flexion
10. Extension
11. Rotation
12. Lateral extension

Lower body:
13. Hip extension
14. Hip flexion
15. Hip abduction
16. Knee extension
17. Knee flexion
18. Ankle extension
19. Ankle flexion
20. Foot abduction/adduction

These movements don’t have to be performed in any particular order, but it is best to alternate between pushing and pulling movements. When working with a group I segment the workout into upper/trunk/lower portions, but that’s just for logistics. On your own, jump around however you prefer to make the workout flow well, and perhaps mix the order up on different days.

Here are the basic movements, with examples of exercises I would use during a Grinder-style PT. The only equipment available is pull-up and dip bars (plus canteens filled with water).

Upper body:

1. Overhead push – pike push-ups
2. Overhead pull – pull-ups or rope climbs
3. Chest press – push-ups or clapping push-ups
4. Row pull – horizontal pull-ups (on dip bars)
5. Downward push – dips
6. Upward pull – chin-ups (underhand grip; this is a simulation of a biceps curl, though the arms are actually overhead)
7. Rotator cuff – lying on side, perform shoulder external rotation using canteen for weight
8. Traps – from quadruped position (hands & knees), perform Y & T exercises using canteen for weight; or, arm haulers

9. Flexion – variations of sit-ups, crunches, knees-to-elbows; leg lever hold
10. Extension – Superman; front plank
11. Rotation – leg wipers or Russian twist; bird dog
12. Lateral extension – side plank

Lower body:
13. Hip extension – vertical jumps or broad jumps
14. Hip flexion – sit-ups, flutter kicks or good morning darlings
15. Hip abduction – side plank; agility drills; 5-10-5 sprints; carioca; side hops (1- or 2-leg)
16. Knee extension – vertical jumps or walking lunges
17. Knee flexion – bridges; manual resistance (provided by partner)
18. Ankle extension – vertical jumps or broad jumps
19. Ankle flexion – heel walks
20. Foot abduction/adduction – agility or balance drills; 5-10-5 sprints; side hops (1- or 2-leg)

Here are the basic movements, with some examples of exercises that could be performed in a gym (this is not meant to be a complete list). Note that any of the body-weight exercises listed above could also be used in a gym.

Upper body:
1. Overhead push – straight bar, dumbbells, kettlebells, machine (also lateral or front raise with dumbbells)
2. Overhead pull – pull-ups with vest, lat pulldown machine
3. Chest press – straight bar, dumbbells, kettlebells, machine
4. Row pull – straight bar, dumbbells, kettlebells, machine
5. Downward push – triceps pushdown or kickback, weighted dip
6. Upward pull – upright row, curl, shrug
7. Rotator cuff – dumbbells, cable machine, elastic band
8. Traps – dumbbells, cable machine, elastic band
9. Flexion – inclined bench, machine
10. Extension – RDL, machine
11. Rotation – cable wood chopper, medicine ball toss
12. Lateral extension – single arm push or pull with dumbbell or kettlebell (must hold torso stable)
Lower body:
13. Hip extension – squat, leg press, dead lift, kettlebell swing, box jump
14. Hip flexion – elastic band, machine
15. Hip abduction – elastic band, cable
16. Knee extension – knee extension machine, squat, leg press, weighted lunge, box jump, dead lift
17. Knee flexion – leg curl machine, elastic band, cable
18. Ankle extension – weighted heel raise, box jump
19. Ankle flexion – elastic band, machine, weighted heel walk
20. Foot abduction/adduction – elastic band, cable

I encourage plenty of variation of exercises on different days (i.e., don’t do the same chest exercise like flat bench workout after workout after workout; use dumbbells and do incline/decline variations as well). An exercise like the dead lift is a great all-around exercise but it doesn’t work any joint through a complete range of motion, so don’t rely on it exclusively. There are some exercises such as renegade rows that hit at least three categories, but none perfectly. You may also choose to incorporate Olympic lifts, but my strong recommendation is to learn to do them correctly and only perform them occasionally (if at all). Once again, the critical point is to create a balanced program that targets prime movers (so you can pick up logs and boats and stuff) but also stabilizing muscles so your shoulders, back, and knees stay injury-free.

These and several other recommendations can be found on the Seal and SWCC forum on the Official Navy Special Warfare website: https://www.sealswcc.com/forums/showthread.php?38-Strength-training-Start-here

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