It’s easy to admire a big chest and arms, but these often-neglected muscle groups are critical to getting you through NSW training.

Episode #37 | 6/24/2020


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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 neck, ankle, and forearm strength with director of fitness for SEAL and SWCC training, Mike Caviston. Let’s get started.


Daniel Fletcher [DF]: We’re at Turner Field on the Coronado Amphibious Base right next to the Peak Performance Fitness Center. This is where a lot of guys come out do some of their accessory running, pull-ups, there’s some general recreation gear out here, you see tires for people to flip, kind of a place to sit and talk about some of the maybe uncommon themes or areas of focus for fitness and training. Mike, welcome back to the podcast. You’ve kind of become a bit of a staple.


Mike Caviston [MC]: Well, thank you. It’s good to be here.


DF: Today we’re talking about some areas of the body that I would say are probably commonly overlooked by most people when they’re training, even specifically people coming into a program where they know that these areas of the body may be stressed more uniquely than people in other athletic endeavors. Specifically, the forearm, ankle and neck area. We’ll start with the forearm. Obviously, there’s going to be a lot of pull-ups done, we know that coming into the program and with the obstacle course, even more grip strength areas that people maybe need to focus on specifically. Is that kind of the extent of where you think the forearm is really kind of tested?


MC: Well, I’ve certainly been asked about forearm and grip strength by a number of different people, so it’s certainly something that has challenged different people at different times I think for being able to do a large number of pull-ups, grip strength can be a limiting factor, and when they get into training, and they’re on the obstacle course, grip can also be a factor. I haven’t addressed it as specifically as some people might expect because I think it’s actually included in a lot of the exercises that I recommend in general training. So, general strength training, working with dumbbells, doing body weight exercises like pull-ups should develop the grip strength. Another thing I would say in those particular cases, if you are doing a lot of pull-ups, if you’re learning to do some of the obstacles on the O course that people have to navigate through training. Technique can be a factor as well. In other words, it might not be a problem of not enough grip strength. It might be a problem of poor technique and burning out the forearms before they need to be, so, you know, learning how to grip in a more relaxed manner, for example, on the pull-up bar. Some people will get on there and just squeeze the life out of it and expend too much energy when they need to learn how to relax a little bit more and still be able to keep their body on the bar to do their pull-ups.


DF: I’ve seen some of that with rope climbs as an example, you know, if someone’s not well versed or even trained in the technique of taking some of the load off their hands by you being able to use their feet to kind of prop themselves up. Is that kind of what you’re talking about?


MC: Oh, absolutely, from my personal experience, before I came to NSW, I was a rowing coach, and the sport of rowing involves grabbing an oar handle, and that’s another common mistake by beginners, is that they grip onto that oar handle so much that their forearms burn out well before they should. So, I’m not saying don’t train the strength of your forearms. You can do that, but also be aware that in a lot of situations, just learning to be more economical, the strength that you have can be helpful.


DF: It’s kind of an awareness to how you’re using your grip, not necessarily you need to like put in tons of reps. It’s kind of I think to me is a little bit of a blend of that, just kind of an awareness. In a lot of areas of the body that you maybe don’t really typically pay attention to in terms of strength training, whether it’s like, you know, areas around the shoulder or ankle, knees. It’s kind of just learning to have a sensitivity for hot spots or just a general awareness of your kind of level of exertion, stability, stuff like that is kind of what you’re talking about?


MC: Sure, but in terms of actually training the forearm, it’s a pretty simple thing to do, so including exercises that involve grip, like the dumbbell exercises is a good strategy, but supplementing that with, I don’t even know the name of some of the gripper machines that people can use, but those are pretty popular and can be helpful. Just using like a straight bar or light dumbbells to do wrist rollers, both with the palms up and the palms down, just extend and flex and develop the forearm muscles can be helpful. Actually, one pretty simple thing that we’ve used around NSW because we have so much access to the beach is just grab some sand. So, get a good hunk of sand and put your hand in it, like squeeze it in your fist and, you know, get the sand to run through your fingers, but just use the forearm muscles to squeeze the sand can be helpful.


DF: I’ve seen maybe one or two exercises, maybe you can comment on, that I thought would probably be helpful, whether it’s I think a PVC pipe with some sort of rope and a weight on it, kind of…


MC: Yeah, it’s a common one, yeah, we used to use in rowing as well to develop it. So, PVC pipe or a broomstick or something with a rope attached to it and a weight, maybe a 5-pound weight, maybe even only a 2 ½-pound weight to begin with, but roll it up one side, then roll it down the other to get the forearm working both ways. Do a couple of reps of that, and that should be pretty helpful.


DF: When’s a time that you think would be not necessarily optimal but maybe that you would recommend people to incorporate this as maybe part of their warm-up or maybe a couple days a week, or what kind of frequency do you think people should specifically train…


MC: The same frequency as in any of the strength training, which should be two or three times a week. It doesn’t have to be multiple sets, a couple of good quality sets. One thing I would say about training the forearms in particular is don’t burn them out before doing some other exercises that rely on grip strength. So, if you plan to pick up a heavy bar, especially if it’s going to be over your head, you know, don’t burn out your forearm that’s going to allow you to grip that weight. But otherwise, it really doesn’t matter, whenever is convenient, whenever it fits in would be good.


DF: Is there any type of metric or feedback you think people could look out for to know that their grip strength is potentially or likely underdeveloped? Is there something that you’d say, like, “If this is happening, it’s probably a good idea,” or is that just kind of something people should just attack anyway?


MC: I guess they’ll sort of have to figure it out for themselves. I mean a common frame of reference for most people trying to get into NSW is that, yeah, if you can’t hold your weight on the pull-up bar for ten reps or just hang off the bar for several seconds, then you’re probably going to be in trouble.


DF: An area that I think there’s a lot more attention to than the forearms is the ankles, another kind of small part of the body, but obviously with the amount of running that’s being done and all the other movements of the body moving around, it’s an area that I think requires special attention, so let’s talk about that.


MC: Well, it definitely does require special attention, and so much so that I’ve included a lot of specific ankle exercises in the Physical Training Guide, the PTG, that I referenced in these podcasts many times, and I encourage everybody to take a look at when they’re planning out their preparation for NSW, but looking at the ankle in particular is very important. A lot of people, if they’re doing exercises for the legs, they think, “Oh, I’ll work on the quads, I’ll work on the calves maybe, work on the glutes,” but a lot of other smaller muscles around the ankle need to be developed because you’re sure going to be using them an awful lot in training. And so, dorsal flexion, lifting the toes off the ground, is something that should be attended to. People should do various exercises. You can simply walk around on your heels with your toes off the ground to make those anterior muscles in front of the shin work hard to hold the toes up. You can work with an elastic band, you can put a sandbag on your foot and lift your foot up off the ground. You can sit down and use your own hands to provide manual resistance but lots of different ways that you can do that. And then for some of the other muscles in the area, a lot of the exercises that I recommend involve a little bit of plyometric or dynamic type of activities, so hops and sidesteps and also incorporating balance exercises, so whether it’s in your barefoot on hardwood floor or maybe on a pad or something softer to challenge the stability even more, but work on challenging balance because it utilizes a lot of small muscles that surround the foot and allow you to keep your position.


DF: We’ve talked about this area before in a few different episodes, whether it’s just in physical preparation or common injuries, and I think maybe we even spoke about it specifically, there being a measurable decline in the strength of the knees and the lower bodies of people in this generation just because of the advent of technology and less playing around outside and more, you know, inside electronic screen time. I just kind of want to bring that up because I feel like it’s worth mentioning that it’s kind of connected to lifestyle. I think people should maybe be kind of aware of that, you know. It’s maybe something you could incorporate while you’re doing those activities that you can’t really avoid checking email and stuff like that these days. So, you know, I think that’s something that can be done at the same time to a certain extent, a little bit of accessory movement while you’re, in your downtime, doesn’t really require you to be at a gym or anywhere specific.


MC: Well, some, one of my general themes is that do exercises when you can, where you can, and some of the ones for the ankle are the simplest ones to do that require minimum to no equipment that you absolutely could do if you were sitting at your desk for several hours and working on the computer, and you’re going to take a short break, get up, and, you know, do a few exercises near your desk and simply doing some balance exercises are pretty easy to do.


DF: Is this an area where you see generalized mobility issues specifically in the body in terms of the ankle or ability to squat, or is there any specific stuff you think people should pay attention to in that regard for their ankles?


MC: There are some recommendations for range of motion, for example, and off the top of my head, I can’t come up with some criteria that people could use, but it can be a limiting factor for sure. And so, as part of the overall training people do, they want to include flexibility, and in particular, stretching around the ankle, especially the Achilles and the calves is recommended to be able to handle the stresses of running and other activities and also swimming. Once people start to get into the water, not only with bare feet, but when they start wearing fins, requires a lot of different muscles to be active in a way that they probably haven’t been active before, so it requires a lot of specific preparation, but, again, not only strengthening but stretching as well so they’re flexible as well as strong.


DF: We’ve talked about the ankle and it’s kind of specific vulnerabilities to some of the specific training that’s done in prep for BUD/S with fins on swimming and boots and running in the sand. I just wanted to kind of bring that up just to reiterate some of your thoughts on maybe ramping up or what your recommended criteria is in dealing with that and bringing it into training.


MC: Well, anything that is introduced into training should be done gradually, and especially if somebody doesn’t have any particular experience or background with that. So, doing some of the things that will affect the ankles such as swimming, people will swim to prepare for BUD/S, and then they’ll recognize that we’ll be doing a lot of swimming with fins, so they’ll add fins to their training, but that should be ramped up, not only in the amount of swimming that’s performed with fins, but just in the type of fins people use. So, rather than starting with the full-blown fins that they use in training, use the smaller cutaway versions that provide less resistance until you get some experience and some strength, and then add in the larger ones, but always make sure the total amount is not large and excessive so that you don’t over-train and burn out the muscles too quickly.


DF: For people that maybe have a previous sports injury or weakness in the ankle, how do you feel about people taping or supporting their ankles?


MC: I’m not trained in that area, so if somebody wants to talk to a good physical therapist or good athletic trainer and find out what the pros and cons are, so, you know, I know that in some instances it’s well warranted and recommended. Maybe other situations not as much, so a case-by-case basis and somebody with a specific injury would do well to consult with their doctor, whoever’s been treating their injury and get guidance from them.


DF: Okay, cause I’ve seen some of those materials that are kind of more and more commonly used by the end user. So, you’re saying it’s probably best to speak to a specific physiologist, or if you have an injury, obviously don’t just try to handle it yourself.


MC: Well, that’s good advice. If you have an injury, don’t try to handle it yourself. Let a professional guide you.


DF: Anything else you want to touch on with ankle?


MC: Yeah, it’s any other part of strength training; treat it similarly and find the appropriate exercises that challenge the movements that you want and incorporate them into your training. There’s a lot of different exercises that can be used, and one of my overall recommendations for strength training in general is don’t depend on the same few exercises all the time, rotate around among different things, and there are plenty of different things that can develop and strengthen the ankles.


DF: So, moving onto an area that I think is a little bit more sensitive in terms of training and topics and prevention, injury prevention, the neck. Are there specific areas that you’ve seen, injury that people can work to prevent that coming into BUD/S with some neck strengthening? What’s your take on that?


MC: Well, people should strengthen their neck. They should strengthen the whole body, and that’s been a theme of mine consistently, is the whole body, top to bottom, so ankles right up to the head, including the neck. So, strengthening the neck, people should have a realistic understanding of what that will do for them in training. One of the things that candidates are aware of and are told about is that when they get to BUD/S, they’re going to spend a lot of time carrying around big rubber boats on top of their heads, and that’s going to put a lot of pressure on the heads, and the neck’s going to get sore, and it might cause some neck injuries, and so people want to train as effectively as they can. And, I’m sorry to tell you that there’s only so much the anatomy of the neck can do. The muscles are only designed to work in specific ways. They won’t necessarily relieve that pressure of pressing directly down on top of the head, but…


DF: The neck is not really built to carry boats.


MC: Exactly right, the neck is not built to carry boats, but you’re going to have to do it anyway. But, you can definitely strengthen the neck, and so a lot of the core exercises that I recommend, simple things like the front plank and the side plank and flutter kicks will actually strengthen the neck as well. You’ll be holding the head in place and challenging the neck muscles during those exercises. You can do specific neck exercises to target and isolate the neck muscles. That’s easy. My simplest recommendation is to do manual resistance. You can use your own hands to provide resistance, and the neck can flex, it can extend, it can laterally flex, laterally extend, and it can rotate, and just by placing your hands and providing a little bit of resistance, your arms are stronger than your neck, so you can use your arms to make your neck muscles work through all the different movements that the neck can perform, so that will get you stronger. There are other things that people can do, some gyms anyway have four-way neck machines or cable attachments that people can do. My general recommendation is don’t use too much weight. A lot of people will put on a lot of weight, and then they’ll end up just sort of thrusting their body to the side and using their whole body and not really isolating the neck muscles. So, be aware of what movement you’re trying to target, and use the appropriate weight. And one other thing I would say, I see a lot of candidates do this or say that they do this, is that prepare for the challenges of boats on heads by doing neck bridging exercises like wrestlers commonly do. So, yeah, you get on your back, and you arch your back, and you support your weight on your feet and the top of your head, and so that just drives the sort of…


DF: Kind of like breakdancing, almost like you’re really just using the neck as the third point of contact kind of with the ground.


MC: Yeah, and so people think, “Oh, that’ll strengthen the neck,” and it’s like, “No, it won’t.” It’ll create stress that will add to the stress you’re going to get when you come to BUD/S anyway. So, I pretty much strongly encourage people not to do that.


DF: I guess in relation to injury or potential injury, what are some of the risks associated with not paying attention to strengthening your neck?


MC: Well, you know, weakness is a potential risk factor for a lot of different injuries, and so all things being equal, I guess it would be better to have the neck stronger rather than weaker. Train the whole body, again, train the whole body, including the neck, right.


DF: I think that makes sense. It’s easy to overlook certain parts of the body because it’s not easy to work out, or it’s not easy to even just pay attention to, so I think that lines up with, you know, this area of the body pretty specifically. It’s not exactly the glamor muscle of the body. Well, Mike, it’s been great talking to you about some of the maybe commonly overlooked areas of the body, and it seems like sometimes we sound a little bit like a broken record talking about training the whole body and applying the same methodology to it, but I think it’s worth noting these specific areas are commonly overlooked, and whether it seems complicated or not or how important or common injuries, whatever, I think just bringing attention to it is doing a service to people, so thank you for your time.


MC: Well, my pleasure.