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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 special warfare candidates.
Today, we extend our fitness series with a discussion about core body strength, with Director of Fitness for SEAL and SWCC training, Mike Caviston. Let’s get started.
Daniel Fletcher [DF]: We’re here with Mike Caviston in a really beautiful facility. If you could describe where we are, what this place is and what goes on here.
Mike Caviston [MC]: Well, we’re standing in what’s called the Small Arms Gym, and anybody that’s ever been through BUD/S or actually graduated and became a SEAL knows exactly what I’m talking about. It’s at the very center of the Naval Special Warfare Center, just a few steps away from the grinders. So, on a given day, we’re going to see multiple different SEAL operators and instructors come through here even for a few minutes just to do part of a workout.
DF: … Looks similar to like a CrossFit gym in terms of variety of equipment, big squat rack, ropes, rings and some other stuff that seems a little bit more specific to maybe the stuff that you guys do. Today, we’re talking about core strength. As we’ve started the other episodes, maybe you could just start off with a highlight of some of your philosophy on core strength, how important it is and why it’s a key part of training.
MC: Well, on a scale of one to ten, it’s probably like a 13 or a 14, so, yeah, it’s very important to train core strength, but one of the issues that we need to deal with is defining exactly what core strength means. I mean core, it’s a fitness buzzword, a lot of people use it. I don’t know that everybody uses it in the same way, and so I’ll just start with sort of a description of what I think of when I talk about core strength that I encourage people to train properly. You know, the core incorporates a lot of muscles, actually big muscles that go all the way from the hip up to near the shoulders, both on the front and the back of the body, the sides, the transverse muscles, there’s a lot of small muscles that connect individual vertebra that are latticed back and forth on all sides. And so, to target all of them requires actually a variety of different exercises, and so core strength is a lot more than just doing some crunches or, you know, a lot more than just doing some planks, and we’ve got to do a few different things. The first thing we need to do is activate the muscles. And so, I like… [DF: What do you mean by that specifically?] So, get them to fire. There’s a lot of tiny muscles that people in the various activities they use don’t actually hit the important core muscles. And so, that’s why we try to come up with a variety of different creative and sometimes unusual looking exercises that will challenge muscles that don’t normally get used. And so, from the list of exercises that I’ll have people do, things like the birddog might be an example, but we just need to first of all activate muscles. The next thing we want to do is emphasize, probably more than strength, is endurance, make sure that those small muscles can hold their position for long periods of time while we’re doing other things. And so, targeting strength is also a variable that I want to address in training, but more often for most people, it’s not lack of strength that’s the problem in the core, it’s the lack of endurance.
DF: Yeah, it’s not necessarily a glamorous part of the body to exercise. We look around, there’s all kinds of different kinds of gimmicks that have been sold on us over the years, whether it’s the Ab Roller or, you know, everyone’s seen the 5-Minute Abs, whatever, as you’re saying, that’s not comprehensive enough.
MC: Well, the framework that I like to use for all aspects of training, and on different days, we’ve talked about the upper body and the lower body, and the common theme there was balance, and that’s also an important theme when we’re talking about core strength. And so, think about all the things that the core can do, and then choose exercises that challenge those movements. And so, in the core, we can do flexion, and that’s something that a sit-up or a crunch would challenge, and many people do that, that’s fine, but in addition to flexion, the opposing movement would be extension. So, we need to challenge the muscles that extend the spine and work on the backside, the posterior side of the torso. Then we’ve got lateral, side to side. If you just stand up, and you bend to the right or bend to the left, certain muscles control those movements, and we want to make sure we’re targeting those. And then rotation, if you just stand up and twist your chest to the right and to the left and face one direction and face the other, there’s muscles that control rotations. So, those four things, flexion, extension, lateral flexion and rotation, should be challenged.
DF: Is there a specific movement in that selection that you think is neglected more than others?
MC: Well, as for most people, parallel to some of the issues we talked about with the upper body and lower body, people tend to do the front of the body, and in the NSW community, people that want to come into the SEAL or the SWCC community, they have to pass the PST. That includes pushups, pull-ups and sit-ups, so people do a lot of sit-ups and probably more than they need to do, and as a result of doing all those sit-ups, they’re probably not doing the opposing things that they need to do. So, if I could get people to do one exercise in addition to sit-ups, it would be the front plank, and that is an opposing activity. So, in addition to crunching and flexing, you need to hold extension, the front plank position works the extensors, and being able to develop the ability to hold a nice, tight front plank for several minutes, three or four minutes, maybe five minutes at a time would be very beneficial.
DF: Do you think this is a place where people should start their focus in terms of overall strength training as opposed to a specific area cause it’s a common detriment?
MC: Well, I like to encourage people to train the whole package, so everything, top, bottom, middle needs to be trained, and if you have been ignoring some of the areas, incorporate them. Some of the areas that you might have been overemphasizing, don’t take them out completely, just reduce the emphasis. And so, when you finally get your overall strength program, and you’re targeting a routine that challenges your upper body, your lower body, your core, maybe on the same day, maybe different days, there’s no particular reason to emphasize one over the other, just get it done. Just make sure that all the exercises are in proportional balance.
DF: Are there movements or apparatus that you think people should look out for? I know that this is an area where people, because they’re generally weaker than they are in other areas of their body, could probably tweak themselves a little more easily with doing some sort of strange Ab Buster type, you know, or wheeled ab movements, stuff like that.
MC: For most aspects of training, and specifically strength training and to include core training in that catalog of recommendations, keep it simple. Certainly start by keeping it simple. You might be able to expand eventually and come up with more complicated or more elaborate or more skill-demanding exercises, but at the very beginning, and actually it’ll probably be just as well to keep it simple throughout most of your career, do basic exercises. So, that means the sit-up or crunch is a good exercise. You don’t necessarily have to come up with elaborate ways to make that more complicated than it needs to be. The plank, the front plank is a very basic exercise that you can do with any hard surface or, you know, any, sometimes even a soft surface to make it a little bit more challenging, but any place where there’s ground, you can get down and do the planks. So, you know, that’s, that’s a good place to start. For lateral, challenging the lateral muscles, the side plank is a very effective exercise. And so, front plank, you got both arms on the ground, your chest is facing the ground, you’re keeping your back straight, but then you can roll over on either your right side or your left side and keep your spine in alignment and, you know, keep your torso off the ground and work on the lateral muscles. And then for something like rotation, there are lots of different ways that you can exercise the rotators, but if you have no equipment, and you only have the ground, you can do what’s called the windshield wiper, or wiper for short, is lying on the ground with your legs together and swing your legs side to side like a windshield wiper on a car, and that challenges the rotator. So, an effective routine can start out with the basics.
DF: Reading through the Physical Training Guide, there’s a specific note there about activating, I can’t remember the exact muscle used in, what is it, coughing, breathing?
MC: Oh, the transverse abdominis, yeah, yeah.
DF: Yeah, the transverse abdominis. Activating that specifically as a point of focus, elaborate a little bit on that.
MC: Well, so, yeah, if you cough, or if you get on all fours, and you try to hollow your stomach as much as possible, you are supposedly activating the transverse abdominis. That’s actually something different experts have disagreed on how important it is or what actually activates it, but it’s pretty simple to do some of those basic things like cough and figure out which muscles are you using when you cough and try to make sure that you’re targeting them when you’re doing some of the different core exercises. [DF: So that’s more about awareness.] More about awareness and, again, going back to the theme of activation that I was talking about before, so some people might not ever activate their transverse abdominis, and so they want to try to learn how to do that properly.
DF: Does that help with stability, or is that going to help with injury prevention, or what’s the importance there?
MC: Well, the core, there are different ways of looking at what the function is, but the primary thing it’s going to do is connect the lower and upper extremities. And so, for people that are going to come through the program at BUD/S, they’re going to be walking around carrying a lot of gear, and in the early phases of training, hopefully they’ll make it to the later stages of training, but in the earlier phases, they’re going to be carrying logs and boats overhead, and so to be able to use the strong leg muscles and to support the weight overhead, they’re going to need to have a strong core to connect it.
DF: It’s all tied together.
MC: Yeah, and a lot of back problems. Back problems are pretty common for people, maybe not initially, but people that have been in the community, certainly operators that have been SEALs for a number of years, will have back problems that they want to try to minimize or avoid as much as they can, and proper core training should help accomplish that.
DF: Is this segment of strength training and development something that you recommend people interject into some of their more limited time or free time as something that they can add on accessories? It seems like an area where it’s like it would be almost tough to overdo. I’m shy to say that but…
MC: Yeah, if there are things that are hard to overdo, some of these exercises are those exercises. You can certainly overdo things like bench press and squats and pull-ups and some other glamour exercises that people want to do on a regular basis. Really would be hard to overdo the front plank, and so I’m less worried about that. Sure, somebody could prove me wrong and do it to the point where it’s detrimental, but that would be hard to overdo. So, a good thing about core training, actually, it applies to other aspects of strength training as well, but you can tend to fit them in wherever, whenever. And so, dropping down to do a set of crunches and then flipping over to hold the plank for a couple of minutes, most people can do it anytime during their day. It’s actually something that I would encourage people with a busy schedule to think about doing and putting together your lifting program, whether it’s whole body, or you’re just targeting one particular aspect like the core is you don’t necessarily have to get it all done in one shot. And so, if you, throughout the day, get a couple exercises done now, later on, get a couple exercises done later, at the end of the day or at the end of the week, you’ve gotten in your quota, then you’re good.
DF: I’m hearing that the core training is a great place to put additional focus, and especially for somebody who doesn’t live by a really amazing gym, this is something that with running and basic weights can have much more impact than say, like we’ve talked about, large strength numbers on your performance and your ability and endurance to avoid injuries and stuff at BUD/S. You think that’s accurate?
MC: Right, I think that’s pretty accurate. I think another point or to emphasize a point I started to make is that, make sure that we’re targeting the different directions, so flexion/extension, lateral flexion and rotation, make sure that we are thinking more about endurance than raw strength. That might be a little bit different than either the upper or lower body. For most exercises for the upper body and for the lower body, I would say that you can do a set effectively somewhere around ten reps, plus or minus, it might be as much as 15, it might be a little bit more, but somewhere in that ballpark. Fifteen crunches aren’t enough for most people, so you’re going to have to go a little bit more. You can make a little bit more challenging by starting to do crunches on an incline so that gravity is challenging a little bit more. The plank, you know, people that are weak might have a hard time doing it for 30 seconds. They might do a few 30-second intervals and take a little bit of a break, but eventually, they’ll be able to do it for two or three or four minutes, and that makes it challenging enough. People want to choose a variety of exercises that are either static or dynamic, and it should actually be a compliment of both, not one or the other, different ones at different times. And so, for example, for extension, a good static extension exercise is the front plank, and I come back to that a lot, I like that exercise, I want to see people doing it a lot. There are other exercises that would involve range of motion, and so they might be doing a straight leg dead lift or a Romanian dead lift, for example, to work on the lower back. For the abdominal muscles, doing crunches would be dynamic. Maybe lying on the back and doing flutter kicks would be working the hip flexors but also forcing the abdominals to hold the static position, so that would be another example of static work.
DF: How do you feel about incorporating weighted vests or additional resistance in the core?
MC: I’m not opposed to it, but I think a lot of people go too much, too soon, and for a lot of different exercises, they want to add more weight than they should before they’re good enough at doing it without weight. And so, for the plank, if you want to make it more challenging, then a weight vest might be the way to go.
DF: How do you recommend people negotiate that or how do you recommend people approach that?
MC: Keeping things in a realistic framework in terms of how long it takes to accomplish something. So, you could probably get to the point where you could do sit-ups for an hour. Is that beneficial? Probably not. You know, what’s the threshold to be effective, and so if you can do 100 consecutive crunches, then maybe it’s time to increase the challenge so that you can only do 50. For the plank, you know, the world record is, I don’t know what it is, ten hours. It’s a long time, a lot longer than people need to or should spend trying to do, but if you can get up to five minutes, then that’s a pretty good limit, and if you feel like you can do it for five minutes, and you want an additional challenge, rather than going for ten minutes, it might be time to try it with a little bit of resistance. And so, those are some examples. I haven’t worked out, I don’t know if you can work out exact, explicit instructions for when to increase the challenge, but that’s the type of thing I’m thinking of, is that when it becomes fairly easy to do a given exercise without any external resistance…
DF: When you’re bored holding a plank, or when it starts impacting the time management of your exercises…
MC: It’s like I don’t have an hour and a half to sit here doing the plank for any, yeah, so you can make it more challenging by, another way is to make the surface that you’re on more unstable. So, some people will be like the Bosu that we see right over there, that little half. [DF: Can you describe what that is.] Well, it’s just a half. [DF: It looks kind of like an exercise ball but only half of it.] Yeah, cut in half, exactly right, so you can either put the round side on the ground or the flat side on the ground, and so somebody might put the round side on the ground and then put their forearms up on the flat part, [DF: Oh, I see, right.] so their body wobbles a little bit. They have to, they have to work harder to hold stability while they’re holding the plank. [DF: Kind of upping the ante, so to speak.] That’s…upping the ante, so making it more advanced, so, yeah, if you can do five minutes on a hard surface, and it’s no challenge, then you can make it a little bit more challenging by doing an unstable surface like that.
DF: One area of the core that I think has the capability of moving a little bit more, or substantially more weight, than other areas is the lower back in terms of dead lifting, and you touched on it a second ago with, I think you said Romanian deadlifts. [MC: Right.] An area where people can move a lot of weight, obviously, there’s a chance for injury there. How do you recommend people incorporate the dead lift into their core strength?
MC: Well, if you specifically ask about the dead lift, you know, I don’t want to make enemies in the strength and conditioning world, but I’m not as big a proponent as many people are. I don’t say don’t do it, but I don’t think it’s the wonder exercise, and I definitely don’t encourage people to strive to get maximum dead lift numbers. That’s something I’ve had a chance to look at here in the community, and what I found is that for the people that are measured before they start the program, if you can’t dead lift 1.5 times your bodyweight one time, that’s a red flag. You’re in trouble for whatever reason; you’re going to have a hard time getting through the program. But getting beyond that, it doesn’t really seem to make much difference. People can only do it like three times, or if they can do twice their bodyweight multiple times, doesn’t seem to be a particular extra advantage, and so I don’t encourage people to spend excessive time maximizing their dead lift, even though that’s a glamour exercise, and a lot of people want to do it just to be competitive, just to brag to their buddies, and I’ve definitely seen a lot of people that have been injured by trying to do one more rep than they probably should of. [DF: Or 20 more pounds or whatever it is.] Yes, exactly right.
DF: So, that kind of goes into the category a little bit of the big strength movements, the bench press number and, what have you, that we talked about a little in the upper body section.
MC: Yes, exactly. Yeah, so the take home message is don’t avoid the dead lift altogether, that’s not what I’m saying. But be cautious and don’t go down the road of trying to make that the only thing that you ever do.
DF: Yeah, again, balance is more important than having the biggest dead lift at the gym. [MC: Correct.] Any areas that you want to touch on specifically, maybe things that you’re currently trying out with core. I know a lot of it is really tried and true, bread and butter stuff.
MC: Well, so, yeah, I think a good way to approach it is that there are an infinite number of exercises that you can do, and you can’t do them all, so how do you choose? Well, go back to the basic flexion/extension, lateral flexion/rotation, and then try different things to see what works for you, what you like. You can make choices based on what’s available. We’re standing in a gym right now that has a few different apparatuses, including a cable machine that you can be pretty creative and do some rotational exercises, woodchopper type exercises. There’s some kettle bells over there somebody could do some Romanian dead lifts with or do some lower body work with kettle bells. So there’s lots of different options. If you explore them, and you’ll find some that you like, then go ahead and do them more regularly, and then after a period of time, it might be time to say, “I like the cable rotation, but I’ve been doing it for six weeks now. Maybe it’s time to try something else.” And so, you’re working on a number of different things. There’s a lot of exercises out there that I couldn’t even tell you with any certainty if they’re effective or not. They’re marketed as being core exercises, and there’s, you know, the Ab Wheel, there’s the, all kinds of different things that supposedly work the core. Try some, see if you think that it’s targeting the muscles that you look for. Try to put together a varied program. Again, and the same thing is true for the upper body and the lower body, not just doing the same few exercises day after day and week after week and rotating regularly among different exercises that target the same basic movement, and then if you find one that you like, you can use it a little bit more frequently, but continue to try to explore other ones as well.
DF: How do you feel yoga fits into this mix in terms of core strength and programming?
MC: Without being able to speak authoritatively, don’t have a lot of personal experience with yoga, I’m actually, a fan if people want to incorporate that into that. I think it would, to short answer to your question, it would complement but not be the only source of core strength that somebody would want to do.
DF: Yeah, maybe throw it in for variety but not have it…
MC: Yes, for variety. And things like that for, not only core strength, but just for flexibility, just getting ideas about how to target what you want to target. [DF: How to move your body, right.] You know, people ask questions to me about stretching all the time, and I can answer most of the questions, but there’s some that they pose, and I’m, “Jeez, I don’t know. I don’t know if I can stretch that. How would I stretch that?” So, if you have access to something like yoga or other people that target those that are working specifically on a skill, then you’ve got a bigger tool bag to reach into when you want to do your workout.
DF: I think we’ve covered about as much as we have time for. If you could just give us a summary of some of your high points going through core and why it’s so important, that would be awesome.
MC: Yeah, well, for core, similar to the other areas that we’ve talked about in past episodes, the upper body and the lower body, balance, so making sure front, back, side, rotation are all covered. For the core, we want to make sure that we’re targeting static as well as dynamic activities. They’re equally important. We want to make sure that we are first of all just activating the muscles that are involved in core strength. And so, sometimes we have to do exercises that we’re not familiar with that will get those muscles firing and then prioritizing endurance as much, or more than strength, in terms of the muscles that we’re using.
DF: Awesome, Mike. Thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it.