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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 pushups, sit-ups, and pull-ups with Director of Fitness for SEAL and SWCC training, Mike Caviston. Let’s get started.
DF: Well, Mike, today we’re talking about pushups, pull-ups, sit-ups, or whatever order you want to put it in, usually following the order of the PST I’d have to guess. Obviously, there’s movement standards that they’re going to have to hit during these tests, and it’s a big part of what people are kind of staring down the train tracks at that they know that they’re going to be tested on. Touch a little bit on people maybe falling into the mistake of over-training in these areas and how that impacts people’s programming.
MC: Well, if it wasn’t for the PST, the Physical Screening Test, and requirements to do certain standards in pushups, sit-ups and pull-ups, I really wouldn’t talk about them at all because those three exercises fall within the overall framework that we’ve talked about previously for training the upper body and the core. And so, those are exercises that should be part of your overall balanced routine, but in a perfect world, they wouldn’t be emphasized or overemphasized exclusively. The reality is that people have to pass the standards for the PST, and so they’re going to have to spend a little bit of extra time working specifically on those exercises. We want to try to walk the line between developing the ability to meet the standards without violating the principles that I’ve talked about previously in terms of overdeveloping certain areas. There are actually reasonable ways that we can do that.
DF: So, maybe you can unpack that a little bit. I know pull-ups are a big I guess hurdle for people maybe just starting [MC: Right.] to work out, and they want to try to nail it until they’re really good at it…
MC: Well, so if you can’t do even a single pull-up, that’s kind of a problem. Ideally to get into BUD/S, you want to be able to do in the upper teens, you know, 20. I actually wouldn’t encourage people to do more than that because the statistics show that people that do large amounts of pull-ups, in the 25 to 30 range, are much more likely to get injured and not any more likely to get through the program without quitting. So, more is not necessarily better, but you got to get past one, so….
DF: So, how do you recommend people kind of scale that or kind of assist themselves?
MC: Yeah, two, a couple different ways. You can do assisted pull-ups, and so different people have used bands so they can take out part of their bodyweight, and if you can’t lift your entire bodyweight one time, you can lift part of your bodyweight one or a few times.
DF: What do you mean by that when you say using bands?
MC: I don’t have an example right in front of us here, but an elastic band such as over there. So, you put it around your feet…
DF: Like a large elastic…We’re talking about something that’s maybe two inches or so, different colored bands.
MC: Yeah, even probably more realistic or easier to do if you’re in a gym that has lap pull machine [DF: Oh, okay.] where you can use the plate stack and use less than your bodyweight.
DF: Are you talking about one of those where you would rest your knees or part of your body there?
MC: Well, that’s, there’s a couple of different ways. So, you’re talking about what I think is a Gravitron that will do that. So, there are different designs that [DF: Oh, you mean just the lateral pull down machine, I see what you’re saying, I gotcha]…just the actual, actual weight stack machine, where you grab the bar, and you sit down, and you put the weight stack to an amount that’s less than your bodyweight. So, a couple of different ways you can approach it, but one way is to do several reps with less than your bodyweight until you develop enough that I can do ten at say 70% of my bodyweight, then eventually you can do one or two with your bodyweight. But another, even simpler way, that you could do it is to do negative pull-ups. So, you would get a pull-up bar, get a step or a stair or some sort of platform that you can step on to so that you can put your chin over the bar and then lower your bodyweight down.
DF: Kind of like an arm hang, but with the negative resistance…
MC: An arm hang and then resist gravity, so the negatives are the important thing. If you can’t do one pulling yourself up, you can still do one lowering yourself down. And so, you can do one, rest for a few seconds, do another, and in the beginning, you might only do that five or six times, but after a few sessions, you’ll get enough strength where hopefully you can eventually do one. If you can do one complete pull-up, then you can do it and take a little break and do another complete pull-up and eventually get to the point where you can do two or three. And then once you get up to where you can do five or six, you’re on the way to being able to doing even more.
DF: And then kind of incorporating that in smaller rep counts and kind of building from there.
MC: Correct, yeah. Yeah, but the biggest stumbling block, again, if you can’t do one, then that’s a problem, and you’ve got to figure out a way that you can at least do one and then gradually build from there.
DF: Now, I read in your training guide kind of changing up the variety of grips for yourself. Is that more of an advanced thing? You recommend that?
MC: It’s more of an advanced thing, and I think that over the years, I’ve probably come away from that. I don’t say never do it. It’s actually fine to do it occasionally, but it’s probably not the most important aspect.
DF: Do you think that’s cause people kind of can fall down that becoming a specialist at pull-ups kind of thing?
MC: Yeah, you’re exactly right. So, I’m just trying to discourage people from spending too much time on pull-ups, as an example. My recommendation for pushups, sit-ups and pull-ups is to try to get the most benefit out of the least amount of training that you can do, and so you’re really trying to be streamlined and efficient. And so, if you’re on the pull-up bar, exploring all sorts of, mixed grip and wide grip and narrow grip and different grip, then you’re going to be spending too much time on the bar all together.
DF: So, that’s something that’s not necessarily overdeveloping your pull-up but not developing other parts of your regiment. Okay. Is that an area where you think applying, like we talked about this briefly in terms of training the core, adding resistance, whether it’s weight, weighted vests or some sort of…
MC: Well, you can get to the point where if you can do pull-ups in the high teens that you might want to add a little bit of extra weight, so, yeah, you can do that. Again, I don’t necessarily encourage people to strive for that, but if you can do 20 perfectly executed, controlled pull-ups with your bodyweight, then rather than doing 30 perfect, controlled pull-ups with your bodyweight, I would say you can add a little bit of resistance so you can put on, start with a 10-pound or a 15-pound weight vest. Or if you’re on the lat pull machine, you can pull down more than your bodyweight. You know, you can adjust the plate stack so it’s less, but you can also adjust it so that it’s more, so there’s other ways that you can create a little bit more resistance.
DF: Do you echo I guess that same recommendation throughout the other movements of pushups and sit-ups as well in terms of adding weight or resistance, however you see it?/
MC: It’s probably a little bit different for pushups and especially sit-ups because it’d be a rare person, especially somebody that was seriously considering BUD/S that couldn’t even do a few sit ups or a few push-ups. And so, you’ve got something that you can build off of, then you can get started. If you literally couldn’t do a single pushup, you would do the exact same thing. You would start in the front leaning position and lower yourself carefully down to the ground. Maybe you can’t lift yourself up, but you can lower yourself down. So, lower yourself down, take a little break, lower yourself down and get to the point where you can do at least a couple of regular full-scale pushups. And that would be a long time later although as part of regular strength training, you’re going to be doing some resisted chest press exercises anyway. You’re going to be doing some dumbbell presses or some bench press or something like that, so you’re probably going to be doing some resisted chest press motions in addition to the pushups that you’re doing to prepare for the PST.
DF: I know that pushups is an area specifically where there’s a little bit of variety in terms of hand positioning that can be either beneficial or potentially detrimental. Maybe you can unpack that a little bit for us.
MC: Well, two things. I would say, make sure that you investigate the current standards for the PST so that if you show up to take one that you’ll know exactly what they’re going to expect you to do in terms of what your hand placement is, how far your range of motion is, where if anywhere you can rest during the test and recognize what all of the requirements are so that you can practice that. But besides that, you know, my encouragement is to keep the hands pretty much below the shoulders. If we look at the website, SEALSWCC.com, we’ve got some discussion on that, and I pointed out some technical things that I would encourage people to consider. But the important thing about the pushup is that you keep the hands relatively shoulder width, maybe only slightly wider and not very much wider, and that you incorporate proper body position, back position, identical to doing the front plank. And it turns out that people that are struggling with pushups, a good compliment to preparing for the pushup is to do a good core-strengthening program.
DF: We talked with, if I can remember, I think Steve Drum at NSW Prep, and he kind of hammered home perfect pushups, perfect form, and I think it was him that recommended recording yourself and watching yourself, so I think that’s a really great idea, and I just kind of want to throw that in…because I remember hearing that.
MC: But, again, it’s important to recognize the standards that are going to be enforced when you’re doing your PSTs. You might think you’re doing a good pushup. You better make sure that your view agrees with the official view.
DF: Do your research, do due diligence to make sure that you're not wasting your time training improperly. In regards to sit-ups, I think this is kind of an area that I've heard potential for, you know, rinking your neck or maybe the back being a potential injury there. Talk a little bit about maybe some of the stuff that you see specific for ab training and core training that you would maybe incorporate, whether it's some lumbar support or foot clamps…
MC: The thing that I would recommend for abdominal work, or for actually a variety of different exercises that are involved in core or even some lower body exercises, would be awareness of the pelvic tilt. And if you sit on a Swiss ball, that big, round globe filled with air, and if you sit down, and you start to think about the different movements that your pelvis can do, you can bend your pelvis forward, you can tilt your pelvis back, you can shake it from side to side. You want to try to maintain a fairly neutral pelvic tilt. And if you’re doing a sit-up, or if you’re doing an exercise like the leg lift on the ground, if you lie on the ground, the small of your back should be pressed against the ground, if there’s an arch or a space that you can put your hand underneath, that’s improper. That’s a forward pelvic tilt, and that’ll create pressure on the spine that you want to avoid. So, a good general thing to learn to apply to all the different exercises that you do is how to control your pelvis and how to make sure you keep it in the neutral position. And so, whenever I have guys on the ground doing sit-ups or leg lifts or any sort of exercise like that, we’ll talk about the pelvic tilt, and I’ll have them imagine pressing the small of your back against the ground. If I see daylight, I’ll put my hand under there, and I’ll say, “Press against my hand.” And when they’re doing it, keep the sensation of your back pressing against the ground because once that daylight opens up again, you’re tilting the pelvis forward, and that’s going to create problems.
DF: That’s a really good thing to bring up. I think that’s really overlooked, and it’s a common thing you see with squatting, all over. It’s kind of that lack of awareness of the position of their pelvis in general. Maybe recording yourself if you don’t have a buddy, maybe just take a look at some information to kind of at least bring your awareness to that. In terms of training and volume with sit-ups in general, are there any numbers that you think, you know, when you’re able to hit this unbroken or something, it’s like maybe it’s time to not focus as much?
MC: Yeah, get the specific recommendations in the Physical Training Guide, available on SEALSWCC.com, and so, again, the goal for the PST specific exercises is to accomplish your goals with the least number of reps possible. And a general guideline I throw out there for pull-ups is not to do more than 50 in a day and not do more than 200 in a week. And for pushups and sit-ups, it’d be not do more than 200 in a day and not do more than 1,000 in a week. And so, what you want to focus on is doing the best quality you can, maybe in sets of 50, for example, for pushups, you know, a little bit more if you can. For example, you’re going to do four sets of 50, making sure that you’re maximizing the quality of each pushup. And then if you’re getting in better shape, then you can reduce the rest in between your sets, and if you can combine them into, you know, sets of 60 or 75, that’s fine. But when you get to the point where you can do 100 consecutive pushups with good form, that’s enough.
DF: What are some of the general faults or what are people not doing right in terms of movement standards to have their reps not count during these tests? Is it, you know, something specific that you see over again for the different movements for pull-ups, pushups and sit-ups?
MC: Well, for, for the pull-ups, that would not be getting the chin over the bar, so the chin’s got to go over the bar, and for the descent not locking the arms up completely, and it’s got to be controlled, and there can’t be kipping. So, people are used to…Kipping, kicking the legs trying to pump with the legs to get the torso up. [DF: Like a swinging motion?] So, yeah, you’re not allowed to do that. So you’ve got to be able to keep your body completely still and only use your arms to get the chin up all the way over the top of the bar and then back down to full extension. For pushups, it’s making sure that the back stays straight and making sure that the arms are fully locked out at the top and that the chest comes all the way down to the ground and the bottom. For sit-ups, it’s making sure that the knees are kept at 90 degrees and then the arms have to crossed across the chest and grabbing the shoulders. So, if the elbows don’t come all the way to the knee, or if hands lose contact with the shoulders, those will be discounted.
DF: So, pay specific attention to yourself when you’re doing your movements, not just counting reps and making sure that you’re not doing any of those faults…
MC: Correct, it’s not just counting reps. It’s making sure that each rep is correct.
DF: Or else that’s likely to be a slip up for you.
MC: It won’t be counted in your PST, and you won’t get credit for doing the exercise. Again, the data shows that contrary to expectations, if you get very high numbers of pushups and pull-ups, you’re less likely to succeed, and you’re more likely to get injured. So, everybody always thinks more is better, but I think like more is good. For pushups, you want to be able to do in the high 90s, maybe 100. More isn’t better. For pull-ups, you want to be able to do in the high teens, maybe 20. More isn’t better. So, when you can do that, stop and go on to do something else.
DF: Well, Mike, I think that’s a pretty comprehensive look at pull-ups, pushups, sit-ups. Obviously, these guys are going to be hammering these when it comes to the PST and throughout their training.
MC: And hopefully, they’ll train smart as well as hard.