Music open intro...
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 CrossFit and Martial Arts with performance dietician Justin Robinson. Let’s get started.
Daniel Fletcher [DF]: We see a lot of CrossFit and other different types of exercise and movements being really popular with active NSW teams from one form or another, and we’ve touched on that in a few different episodes throughout the podcast series, but there seems to be some resistance to recommending it as part of a BUD/S prep program. Why is that? Is it the programming from, you know, one place to another being too varied to make sure people are like hitting the right benchmarks, or?
Justin Robinson [JR]: I think it’s a matter of perception versus reality of what actually goes on here. And as we’ve discussed, and you’ve discussed with other people, that what it takes to get to BUD/S is one thing. What it takes to get through BUD/S is something different. What it takes to be a quality operator is something different yet. And that’s true from a physical training standpoint, from a mental standpoint and from a nutritional standpoint. So, BUD/S is old school. BUD/S is running and swimming and carrying boats for a long period of time, either by your side or overhead and tossing around logs and climbing ropes and doing pull-ups and pushups and sit-ups. That is BUD/S. And so, if your preparation for that involves a lot of barbell training and kipping pull-ups and agility work, then you are not adequately preparing for the demands of Naval Special Warfare preparatory school or selection and training, if that makes sense.
DF: Yeah, absolutely it makes a lot of sense. That’s a pretty pervasive attitude or maybe misrepresentation or mixed characterization of what goes on here. They see that after product, and it’s kind of like they’re skipping a step or getting ahead of themselves.
J: That’s exactly what they’re doing because it’s true. If you walk into the west coast Naval Special Warfare operator gym, there’s a lot of barbells in there, and there’s a lot of guys lifting a lot of heavy weights and doing Olympic lifts and CrossFit style workouts, and that exists on the teams. But they didn’t do those things while they were getting through BUD/S and getting through selection and training. So, you really have to figure out what the game is and then learn how to play that game. And we’ve talked about that from a nutritional standpoint, too, that getting through BUD/S is high, high volume training. Therefore, you need a high volume of diet, and you need a lot of carbs and a lot of fat and a lot of protein. And during first phase, those first three or four weeks of training, you’re burning six to 8,000 calories a day. During Hell Week, you’re burning ten to 12,000 calories a day. So, it’s a very high amount of calories coming in. So, at some point, it doesn’t matter what those calories look like. We’ve talked about nutrient dense versus calorie dense. Yeah, sure, a candy bar during first phase is probably alright because you just need those 300 calories.
DF: Yeah, they’re burning right through that.
J: You’re burning right through that, but when we’re talking about getting ready to go on deployment, maybe toying around with a ketogenic diet or low carb diet or some form of intermittent fasting, time restricted feeding might be appropriate because you might have to be out in the field for a couple days at a time, and you may have to rely on MREs or killing a goat and consuming that animal as your only source of food for those couple days. And so, if you’re used to having your high carb meal every three hours, that may not be your deployment situation. But when you’re coming through BUD/S, you’re going to get breakfast, lunch and dinner at the chow hall, and you’re going to have access to as many calories as you want, so you should get used to that. And then after that year of selection and training, give or take, is over, now let’s turn the page, and let’s focus on that next thing and how does my physical preparation, my mindset and my nutrition, how does that have to change for this next period of my operational career. So, you’re right. They tend to skip a step or two and get really into, “Okay, well, what does a Navy SEAL do for fitness training? Well, I’m going to train you like that.” Well, you got some time to go. You got a year and a half at minimum to go before you get to that point. And so, we know that during BUD/S, you’re going to run, you’re going to run in sand, you’re going to do a lot of pull-ups, you’re going to do a lot of pushups, you’re going to swim, you’re going to row. So, those are the things you should probably do in your training and focus on relative body strength versus absolute body strength. So, it is about how much of your body you can move around and how quickly you can do that versus how heavy of a barbell you can pick up and put down again.
DF: Yeah, or how well you can accomplish a certain technical movement X amount of times, right. [J: Exactly.] I think people have a misconception that, you know, anything can be thrown at them at BUD/S, and to a certain extent, that is true in terms of the surprise that they’re trying to bring to the table to these people. But in more ways, it is a very specialized program, and CrossFit prides itself on their athletes not being specialists. I think it’s kind of a misunderstanding or misinterpretation.
J: Yeah, and there’s a lot of things that companies like CrossFit do well, no doubt about it. And I definitely see the benefits of barbell and Olympic lifting for certain sports or for certain activities. And so, yes, I think in your preparatory training taking that mindset of, “Okay, well, yeah, I do have to have quite a variety of tools under my belt. I should be used to doing things with a backpack on and with a backpack off,” you know, with that 25 pounds or that 50 extra pounds. So, you should have that variety and have all kinds of things tossed at you, but you’re right, BUD/S is evolved, but it hasn’t changed significantly since post World War II, since Vietnam. With social media and everything, what happens during BUD/S gets out a little bit more maybe than it did 20 years ago. So, I think where the instructors have gotten crafty is throwing things at you is from that mental standpoint. That, “Okay, you thought we were going to run four miles in the heat today. Well, instead, we’re going to go put you in the ocean.” And so, you have to deal with that separate element. So, yes, you’re going to have that element of surprise, but the exertion, the stress may not be from something physical. It may be from something emotional or mental, and so that’s where the guessing game comes in and not knowing what’s coming next. So, we could talk a lot about how you mentally prepare for this program, and I think that the mental training is far more important than the physical training. Like everybody who comes here is physically fit. If you’re not, you’re gonna be the first person weeded out.
DF: Yeah, you wouldn’t even get this far probably.
J: You wouldn’t even get this far if you weren’t strong or fast and/or had good endurance.
DF: So, do you think that CrossFit is maybe more recommended for people that are in that outlier of body mass index, where let’s say somebody is wanting to try to reestablish healthy habits for themselves and get themselves on the right track nutritionally, and they’re not really approaching the BUD/S training yet, does it fit into a programming and to that extent somewhere, or?
J: I think it depends. I think it honestly depends because if you’re looking at CrossFit specifically, but it’s no different from a lot of the other sports performance centers out there, it depends on who the coach is because some people will go and get a certain certification and then plaster that, you know, “I am CrossFit certified,” or, “I am X, Y, Z certified coach,” “USA weightlifting, you need to come train with me,” but they’re not a good coach, so.
DF: Or they don’t know anything about nutrition.
J: Or they don’t know anything about nutrition. [DF: Or very little, right.] Or worse yet, maybe they are great at teaching certain lifts or certain aspects, but they don’t tailor the program to you. They want to fit you to their program rather than trying to go the other way around of, “Okay, how can I adapt my programming to you,” and that’s what it is. So, regardless of the gym or the facility you go to, I think it’s all about the coach. And yes, can high intensity interval training, box jumps and Olympic lifting, can that be a component of BUD/S training? No doubt. To say that you should never touch a barbell in the year before training is false, but to say that you should be in a facility like that four days a week doing Olympic lifts, it will set you up for failure coming into here. So, it really boils down to the coach and how he or she assesses what you do well, assesses where your strengths and weaknesses are so that they can adapt the program to that with the primary emphasis of focusing on your weaknesses. So, if you are an endurance athlete, you can run, you can swim, you can bike really, really well, but you have no explosive power, you have a 12-inch vertical jump, alright, then maybe doing one day or two days a week incorporating some plyometrics into your training is a really good idea. But if you’ve been a star high school running back your whole life, you’re probably pretty explosive, so you don’t need to do more of that in your preparation for this training, but maybe you need to do some hiking or some yoga or swimming.
DF: I think, I guess switching gears to MMA or martial arts as a form of exercise, I think that there’s an assumed overlap in transfer of skills from combat sports to we’ll say real combat. What is your opinion there and appropriateness of involving martial arts or MMA into NSW pipeline prep?
J: I think because the personalities are pretty similar in the MMA community as it is in the military community, that’s why it has such popularity, but you’re right. When operators will teach combative skills to the students coming through the pipeline, they don’t necessarily teach any one discipline. They’ll take some aspects of Muay Thai, they’ll take some aspects of Jujitsu, they’ll take some aspects of wrestling and of boxing. And really, I don’t have military experience, so this is from my observations, what you want to do in an operational component is to create distance what you see in the movies and the physical fistfights and wrestling matches, I don’t think those exist hardly ever. Your goal is to create space from you to that person so that you can get to your weapon, again, from my civilian understanding of it. So, they will utilize a lot of different skills, but it’s not any one discipline, and you’re right. It’s not about accumulating points in a boxing match. It’s about protecting yourself and protecting your buddies and your teammates that you’re going into that battlefield with, and that doesn’t come from, you know, where you land a punch. It just comes from creating that space, again, getting to your weapon and going to that next step.
DF: So, as martial arts as more of a form of exercise, I think it’s similar to CrossFit in the way that people will maybe make the assumption that this is, you know, “I’m going to be…a warfighter. I need to incorporate some of this into my training for BUD/S to give myself an advantage.” To me, it seems like it falls in the category of things to kind of pepper into your workout regime more from an experience and kind of a variety aspect. Do you think that’s in line?
J: Yes, and from a mental training standpoint probably more than anything else. We touched on it a little bit and the importance of mental training. If you haven’t read the book, Mindset, I highly encourage that as a read because what it teaches is the growth mindset. And what I’ve seen and talked to students coming through the pipeline, if you’ve never failed at anything, you’re not going to be successful in this program. And so, if you have always been a track athlete, and you’ve never done any form of martial arts, you’re going to have somebody in there who’s half your body size who’s going to whoop you in your first session, but that’s good because that just taught you how to fail. It taught you how to get back up off the mat. There’s nobody out there who’s never been knocked down or taken down on the mat, but going through BUD/S, cause the instructors here will find a way to make you fail at something. So if you’ve always been the star athlete in everything you’ve done, I would challenge yourself. I would change your mindset and learn, as odd as it sounds, learn how to fail and learn how to come back from that failure so that you can grow mentally, emotionally, and, therefore, you will have more success going through this pipeline. So, I like martial arts. If I was X number of years younger, and if I was deciding to come through this program, I probably would one or two nights a week do some form of a combat type of sport for the activity, from a physical and that mental standpoint, no doubt.
DF: I think that’s interesting because it’s such a physical test, you know, a physical combat, but I think you’re absolutely right. There’s obviously a brain powering that fight, and you’re not always going to be the person who’s in the advantageous position or…
J: And it’s a dynamic sport as well, and I don’t know if fluidity is an actual word, but the fluidity of it, you know, what does Mike Tyson say, “Everybody’s got a game plan till they get popped in the mouth,” something of that effect. And so, it does teach you that when you go into a situation, you may have a game plan, but that game plan may change in an instant. And I think combative sports help teach us that, the, “Hey, I was going to go in high. The guy went in high to me, oh, man, now I have to change my game plan,” or, “Yeah, I got popped in the mouth, and I’m lying on the mat. Now I can’t use my fists. I have to go to plan B or plan C.” And that’s what being a solid operator is all about, is how do you, I think it’s more of a Marine thing, but adapt and overcome. Huge components of BUD/S and huge components of operational careers.
DF: Yeah, confidence, I guess also is a big confidence boost. You hear getting children involved in sports is really important to a lot of aspects of development, but leadership and confidence with yourself and your body I think is a big part of martial arts that, that maybe is a larger benefit as opposed to, you know, a rear naked choke going into BUD/S, you know, is how much benefit does that have?
J: Exactly, and you’re so right on with that, and I’ll add to that, the humility aspect, and you might get this from working out in gyms as well. If somebody else there is bigger, stronger, faster than you, they may humble you.
DF: It’s a lot easier to ignore a guy on a bench than it is someone choking you.
J: That’s very true, so yeah, I like the variety aspect. I think from that standpoint, the variety is crucial, but we don’t like to focus on our weaknesses. We want to improve our strengths. I have a triathlon background. I’m a strong runner, I’m a decent cyclist, I’m an awful swimmer, and when I train on my own without coaching, what do I gravitate towards? I go out for a jog, or I get in the pool only when I have to. So, if I wanted to be a better triathlete, I would spend a lot more time in the pool. So, again, it goes back to the self-awareness and the self-assessment or working with a coach to say, “Okay, what are you great at? Okay, let’s maintain those skills. What are you not great at? Let’s get those skills better,” and that could come from, you know, a micro level within a particular workout, “Hey, we’re going to focus more on endurance versus explosiveness,” or it could be a little bit larger, as you say, I’ve never been in a fight. Okay, maybe you need to get into a boxing ring, a Muay Thai ring once in a while so you know what it’s like to get popped in the mouth and knocked to the ground because that may not happen physically during BUD/S, but emotionally, [DF: Yeah, probably happens a lot, yeah.] that will happen.
DF: Are there certain martial arts that you think have more of a benefit in preparation in terms of physical fitness than others? Are there any standouts you know? I know, obviously, mixed martial arts has developed tremendously in the last ten or twenty years, [J: Yes, it’s its own sport now, it is.] and it’s a hot topic. Obviously, there’s a lot of opinions there. If you were to push someone in a certain direction, is it in any direction, or is that kind of just, is it?
J: That’s a great question because if you look at just the sheer numbers of it, you may say, “Oh, well, boxing maybe burns the most calories,” but then if you look at what the most operators do here, most of them are probably into Jujitsu. But if you look at some of the most successful ex-athletes, it’s the wrestlers. So, no, I don’t have an exact answer for you because we know that people from different aspects can be very successful, so probably whichever one you enjoy, you might enjoy the most, whichever one, and getting back to the discussion of habits, what are you going to look forward to going to every Tuesday night and every Thursday night versus which one is, seemed like a chore.
DF: Yeah, I think that you answered that by saying there’s not a specific answer. [J: I would say no.] I think that is what people need to hear, and I think a lot of times, “Just tell me what I need to do,” [J: Yes, you’re right.] but a lot of this process is about learning for yourself and developing yourself, not just listening to what somebody else is going to tell you to do.
J: Precisely. Yeah, process oriented, you know, we get into the mindset discussion, process, progress versus outcome, those are huge, huge components. We can’t get too locked into, “I did this, I didn’t do that,” it’s, “How did I do this, and how did I not do that,” that I think are much more powerful and going to set you apart and increase your overall success here.
DF: Well, thank you for confirming and maybe clarifying some issues there between CrossFit and martial arts, some things that are really popular with the operational community, but maybe use them sparingly until you get past this test that we’ve been talking about.
J: Exactly, use them as needed. If you’re going to do one of those programs, find a coach who knows what you actually need out of that training program, and then get well outside of your comfort zone, and focus on some of those deficiencies rather than gravitating towards your strengths.
DF: That sounds awesome. Thank you so much for your time.
J: Thank you. It was fun.