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There are no shortcuts to a successful fitness regimen, only hard work and consistency. And to navigate through the mountain of fitness advice available, candidates must learn to separate fad from function. I’m Daniel Fletcher, welcome to The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday, The Official Navy SEAL Podcast. In this extended series, we’ll speak with select special warfare performance experts to clarify common training misconceptions and provide insight into areas of focus specifically important to Naval Special Warfare candidates. Today, we start our fitness series with a discussion about upper body strength, with Director of Fitness for SEAL and SWCC training, Mike Caviston. Let’s get started.
Daniel Fletcher [DF]: Mike, thanks for joining us in your, I guess I should say one of your workout facilities here. We’re on Coronado, currently in Hell Week, and there’s a graduation, so it’s a bit of a buzz going on. We’re going to talk about fitness over the next few episodes and specifically do some deep dives into certain areas of the body, movement standards, a lot of stuff, but today, we’re going to be talking about upper body strength. I think a common place where a lot of guys tend to maybe unintentionally over-train or mis-train, in terms for functional fitness especially at BUD/S. So, you could start with giving us kind of your overall philosophy on upper body strength.
Mike Caviston [MC]: Yeah, thanks. I’m glad to do that. I’m glad to be here, and there’s a number of different things that we could talk about. There are a lot of things that apply to strength training in general, and so whether it’s the upper body or the lower body or the core, some general themes are to be balanced and not over-train certain muscle groups and ignore other muscle groups. We want to be aware of some of the specific areas that relate to injuries that candidates typically encounter in training so that they make sure that they’re developing those areas properly. And so, when we talk about the upper body, in particular, there are some specific things that we can talk about.
DF: So, I guess coming into BUD/S, or before, rewinding back when people were prepping or training initially in their ramp up, I think a lot of guys that are interested in the program, being former athletes or existing athletes, have a strength training program or have been exposed to weight training, and a lot of that I think generally gets biased toward the upper body just for vanity reasons [MC: Yep.] and maybe for lack of information. You think that’s on track with what you see here?
MC: Oh, that’s absolutely true. A lot of people do prioritize and focus on the upper body, and that’s why we’re going to talk on another time about some of the other areas of the body. I don’t want anybody to ignore the legs or to ignore the core, but they do need to train the upper body.
DF: So, what areas do you see BUD/S candidates coming in with general weakness or maybe weakness isn’t the right word for it, maybe imbalance…
MC: Well imbalances is the correct word, so that’s the first thing that I try to get people to think about when they’re putting together a strength program, whatever part of the body that they’re looking at. And so, a phrase that I use often is push/pull, and all that means is that every motion that involves a push, you want to try to come up with a complimentary or opposing pulling motion, and training both those groups with the same amount of effort and intensity so that they develop at approximately the same rate. And what we find is that a lot of people coming into the program, and especially because the physical screening test, the PST, requires them to do well at pushups and pull-ups, they’ll focus on that as their upper body, and they’ll do a lot of pushups and pull-ups and also weighted pull-ups and bench press. And so, they’re focusing on those two areas, and as a result, they become very developed, and other areas are either ignored or under-trained, and so they’re underdeveloped, and so that’s where the imbalances come from. So, the take home message is not to avoid doing bench press or pushups or not to avoid doing weighted pull-ups but to in addition to that do other complimentary, opposing movements.
DF: Are there certain parts of the upper body where you see specific lack of development, I’ll say for lack of a better word?
MC: Well, so, if we look at the development that comes from doing pretty much the anterior movements, like the bench press or pull-ups, the front side of the body. So for the chest, the pecs, the front of the shoulder become very developed, and it tends to pull the shoulder forward. And so people become literally rounded, and it creates an imbalance on the softer tissues and the joint in the shoulder, so we see shoulder problems that are related to imbalance. And so, the solution is to, in addition to doing weighted chest press exercises, whatever you use, dumbbells, you could use a barbell, you could use machines, there’s all kinds of ways you can create resistance for that motion, but in addition to that, people should be incorporating rowing motions. So, the opposite motion of a chest press is a row pull, and include different rowing variations in your routine to balance the chest press. And so for anything else that you do, the similar concept applies. And if you’re doing pull-ups, you’re pulling your chin up to a bar, you’re pulling the weight down, however you want to think about it, do overhead press as well to balance that out. So, pushup, pull down, balance those motions.
DF: What way would you recommend people do maybe an initial assessment to gauge that balance to maybe just start doing the opposite of what they have been doing?
MC: Well, if they haven’t been doing the opposite, include it, and just sort of accept that that’s going to be underdeveloped, and so it’s going to be proportionally weaker, and I don’t recommend overthinking it beyond that. You know, it’s possible, I think different clinicians have developed strength tests or imbalance tests, but I just sort of accept it that people are going to be imbalanced unless they’ve specifically have been training the way I’d recommend them to train. So, you’re going to get in there, and maybe you’re rowing movements are going to be weaker than you want them to be, that’s okay. If you keep training over several weeks, several sessions, things will work themselves out. The strong muscles won’t be overdeveloped because you’re not emphasizing them too much, and the weak muscles will get a chance [DF: Right.] to catch up. And so, if on day one, you’re out of balance, that won’t surprise me. [DF: Right.] Just stick with the program, and over weeks, you’ll find yourself in better balance.
DF: So, there’s a large emphasis at BUD/S on endurance [MC: Absolutely, yep, yep.] and not necessarily just strength. Are there specific movements or exercises that you recommend to kind of hone in on that in terms of upper body?
MC: People can consult what we call the Physical Training Guide, or PTG, for more information about how to structure an overall training program, including strength training and specifically including exercises for the upper body. In the Physical Training Guide, there’s a basic template for how to choose different exercises, and it basically involves pushing and pulling in different directions. And so, the basic motion of the pushup, balance that with the basic motion of rowing. The basic motion of the pull-up, pulling your chin up to the bar, balance that with pushing overhead. The basic motion of the dip, which involves using the triceps to push your body up from dip bars, balance that with doing something that involves pulling weight up like a bicep curl or maybe an upright row. And then two other critical areas that people need to address would be the rotator cuff and then some of scapular muscles that regulate what the scapula does, and so there’s some basic dumbbell exercises that people can incorporate into their routines. And so, by structuring the program to include all those different areas in relatively the same amount of effort will give you a more well-rounded approach that applies to a lot of things that people are going to encounter when they come to BUD/S.
DF: So, I’m kind of hearing from you, your guidance being, pay more attention to balance than hitting big strength numbers for yourself.
MC: That’s absolutely true. Balance is critical and a lot of the problems that people encounter are probably traced back to imbalance, if not completely, at least partially, so that’s a big thing that’s preventable that people can deal with. Talking about maximal strength and putting up big numbers, there might be a time and a place for that, but in terms of getting through BUD/S, it doesn’t seem to be a critical element, and as a matter of fact, looked at the data that we have of how much maximal strength, such as let’s say, being able to do multiple repetitions of the bench press using your body weight. So, some people would think, “Hey, the more reps I can do, the better off I’m going to be,” and they’ll train hard so that they can do lots of reps. But gathering data on students just before they start BUD/S, it turns out that the guys that are at the low end of that spectrum don’t do as well, but the guys that are at the very high end of the spectrum also don’t do particularly well. [DF: Interesting.] It’s the guys that are somewhere in the middle that do the best. And so, the take home message is, you need to be somewhat strong, you don’t want to be weak, but you don’t want to be overly strong. And I think what the problem is, why people suffer some difficulty is that they spend so much time developing all that extra strength that they either injure themselves in the process of training by trying to handle too much weight, or they ignore other things that are critical for success because they’re spending so much time on the bench press.
DF: So, instead of getting their heart rate up, they’re laying on their back pushing weights around, [MC: Correct, exactly.] through a larger portion of their working out. [MC: Exactly.] And then I heard you mention paying specific attention to areas of the shoulder. [MC: Yep.] Is that an area commonly underdeveloped in recruits?
MC: Commonly underdeveloped and commonly not thought about by most people. So, the rotator cuff, you can work the rotator cuff, especially the external rotator, simply by lying on your side and grabbing a light dumbbell and then opening your arm up, so lifting the dumbbell off the floor, letting gravity resist the dumbbell as you’re rotating your shoulder to the outside. That motion is critical because the muscles that control that are typically very weak. A lot of times the internal rotators are strong just because of natural activities that people do, whether it’s swimming, or say they play a sport like baseball where they’re throwing a lot, that requires internal rotation. So in most sporting activities, people have strong internal rotators, but they don’t spend time, or they’re not aware of the need to develop the external rotators. So, when I talk about rotator cuff, I’m talking about both ways, but probably people are weak with external rotation and they want to figure out how to strengthen that and make that part of their program.
DF: Is that weakness, we’ll say, set people up more for injury, or is maybe a specific performance issue that…
MC: Well, certainly for injury, maybe for performance as well. But I think a lot of the shoulder injuries that we see, and we see a fair number of shoulder injuries, that most of the therapists and doctors that treat the students would agree that if only their rotator cuff had been stronger, they’d have been less likely to have that injury.
DF: Well, we’ll touch back on this area a little bit more in detail, but since the hands and arms are part of the upper body, [MC: Yep.] maybe you can touch on grip strength a little bit.
MC: Sure, yeah, absolutely. It’s important, and I do get a lot of questions about that. If you look at the Physical Training Guide, you don’t see any specific recommendations for grip strength, but what people should recognize is that it’s actually embedded into the training that I would recommend doing. [DF: Okay.] So, if you do pull-ups, you’re going to grip the bar, [DF: Right] and your strength is, your grip strength is going to improve. If you incorporate dumbbells into your training, there’s all kinds of different implements or different resistance methods you can use, but dumbbells should be incorporated pretty regularly, and just by gripping the dumbbell, you’re going to increase your strength. And so, if you do that, you probably don’t have to worry about isolating your grip strength, but it’s certainly possible to do that. You can get different gripper exercisers, doing simple wrist curls with a lighter dumbbell. If people feel like they need to do that because they don’t think their grip strength is enough, I’d say go ahead and do that, but if you follow the program as I’ve laid it out, I would think that your grip would be challenged regularly enough that you should have a proportionally adequate grip strength.
DF: Right, is that an area where you see guys failing when it comes to BUD/S in terms of volume?
MC: Guys have certainly mentioned that, hey, they have a hard time staying on the pull-up bars as long as they need to for some of the workouts that they do, but that’s probably the only example I can think of off the top of my head. And if you do, you know, pull-ups as part of your regular routine, although I don’t encourage people to do 1,000 pull-ups in a day, but, you know, if you’re doing pull-ups occasionally, I think you’ll improve your grip strength. So, I don’t have the definitive answer to, “Hey, does grip strength really create a problem, or are people failing because of grip strength?” but my intuitive answer is, “No, not really.”
DF: Right, right. Well, getting back to the upper body being, in many cases, overdeveloped or maybe overemphasized in terms of strength training for vanity purposes or what have you, because of that, a lot of different movements, machines and apparatus or kind of specialty movements, whether it’s free weights or whatever, have been developed for the upper body, what nontraditional movements do you think people should avoid doing that might be cause for injury or that they should be doing under close supervision of a qualified coach?
MC: Well, I can’t think of a specific example off the top of my head. I’m sort of looking at that from the other way, though. I strongly encourage people to keep things simple, and when we talk about technique in general, and this applies certainly to the upper body, make sure that the exercise you do allows you to go through the full range of motion. And a simple example would be doing either a bench press or a curl where you’re only going part way through the range of motion, [DF: Right.] and people can hold more weight, so they feel comfortable doing that, but they’re not getting the full benefit of the exercise. So you’ve got to go through the whole full range of motion, you’ve got to use control to go to, say, full extension and then all the way back to, to full flexion, and it’s important [DF: Right.] to do the range of motion properly.
DF: Are there any, maybe I could say like nontraditional forms of equipment or movement specifically that you would recommend that set people up for BUD/S, and I’m saying that and specifically to maybe target some of the static holds or that type of stuff?
MC: Sure, I guess I’m just sort of turning the term nontraditional and thinking about what that really means, but here’s something that might answer your question is I encourage people to use a variety of different modes of resistance, and so that includes definitely dumbbells, includes Olympic bars, there are kettle bells, there are different machines that can accomplish it, elastic bands, and then body weight exercises, so don’t depend on only one. Use a wide variety of exercises using all kinds of different modalities on a regular basis, so don’t become dependent. Don’t define strength. I try to encourage people, for example, not to define upper body strength by how much weight you can bench press. You want to train the chest press muscles, and so do it in a different, a variety of different ways, including some pushups, some dumbbell presses, you know, all kinds of different ways so that you’re getting a more well-rounded strength stimulus for that movement.
DF: There has always been a continuous fitness fads or the next new implement or whatever, whether it’s stuff that’s a little bit more old school, that’s kind of had a resurgence, like flipping tires or, you know, swinging hammers and stuff like that, which I think all have really good place in a workout. Is that something you recommend people completely avoid or mix in with the right kind of coaching supervision?
MC: I would say mix in, mix in with the other activities, and so terms like old school, you know, I like that, or keeping things simple or being creative when you don’t have traditional weightlifting equipment. Certainly operators are out on deployment, they have to be creative, and so they develop things like sandbag workouts. There are lots of heavy things that you can pick up that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in a typical gym but that will still challenge your muscles. So, all of that is good, but on the other hand, don’t necessarily follow every fad that’s out there. Don’t jump on something just because it looks cool, and you saw somebody else doing it, and you want to give it a try, I would use a little bit more judgment than that. Going back to the theme of variety, I think that incorporating alternate methods as part of the overall training is a good strategy.
DF: Yeah, I think the amount of variety is definitely helpful in terms of maintaining stability. [MC: Yes.] You know, machines can only do so much, but they can offer what other things can’t, etc. Are there areas of upper body strength that you think are really completely ignored by some people other than the shoulder that you think, should be specifically highlighted?
MC: No, I think besides the shoulder, most people target the basic movements, and there are, you know, only so many movements you can do with the upper body anyway, and so most exercises will touch on some of them. So, no, I think that if people do a lot of the basic exercises that they’re used to doing, that they’ll be fine. They just need to do them in the appropriate numbers for opposing sides. I don’t know if I touched on it, in terms of balance, besides front and back, right and left is actually something that some people need to address specifically.
DF: Okay, and can you maybe give us an example, maybe of someone maybe has a previous injury, and then they know they’re biased to a certain extent…
MC: It could be an injury that will bias somebody, it could be focusing too much on things like a bar or machine that allows you to use both limbs at the same time so that the dominant one can overpower the weaker one. So, I like to include as part of the routine like isolated dumbbell, one dumbbell in each arm so that you can make sure that you know how strong each limb is, or some machines will allow you to separate the right and the left so you know how strong each one is. So, sometimes it’s okay to do both together, but you want to make sure that sometimes you’re doing both separately so that the weak one has a chance to catch up to the strong one.
DF: Yeah, I think that’s a good thing to address. I think having awareness whenever you’re doing dumbbell movements to individual muscle groups, not just front and rear but also left and right, to notice any signs of maybe instability or lack of strength in a certain arm, and then maybe you can kind of address that in your own training. So, in summary I guess if you could wrap it up for us, what areas if you have 30 seconds to a minute to tell somebody, “Hey, this is where you need to kind of change or address your strength training.”
MC: The upper body is part of overall strength training, apply the same general principles, and the biggest one that I try to get across is balance, and that means balance between front and back, between right and left. Make sure that you’re doing all different directions, try to think of how many different ways you can, you know, push and pull in up and down, side to side motions so that you’re targeting all the different muscles that you can. The shoulder, especially the rotator cuff, is something that is predominantly underdeveloped for most people, so be particularly aware of that. You can incorporate a lot of different alternative methods to challenge the muscles, and it’s a good idea to be as diverse as possible over time so that you’re not only doing the same few exercises over and over again. And then another thing I would say is that the upper body is part of the whole body, so you don’t have to isolate your upper body workout from your other workouts. One of the general themes for strength training I encourage is, we can do a little upper, a little lower, a little core, mix it in. We might not get the whole body done on Monday, but between Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, we’ll get the whole body done and then start over again on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
DF: Where can people find out more about some of the specific standards and information that you referenced today?
MC: Yeah, a lot of the information on our website, SEALSWCC.com, we have a training forum that answers specific questions. There’s a whole section devoted to strength training called, Strength Training Start Here. Of course, we have the Physical Training Guide, or PTG, which can be downloaded and has specific instructions about strength training among all other aspects of training, and we also have a video section with short video clips that give examples of simple exercises including the ones for the upper body that we talked about today to give people ideas about how to correctly do some of the exercises that are important.
DF: Well, Mike, thanks for joining us. Appreciate your information.
MC: My pleasure.