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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 continue our fitness series with a discussion about lower body strength with Director of Fitness for SEAL and SWCC training, Mike Caviston. Let’s get started.
Daniel Fletcher [DF]: We’re at BUD/S today in the barn. You can hear the recruits graduating. They’re playing music off in the distance, and on the other side of us, they’re just finishing up their Hell Week class, so we’re in a bit of a special place here, right in the heart of it, speaking with Mike Caviston about strength training and specifically, today, the lower body. Obviously, it gets us to where we need to go. It’s an important part of the body. There’s a lot of running that goes on at BUD/S, there’s a lot of lifting, there’s a lot of various movements. Give us your kind of overarching philosophy with strength training the legs in preparation for BUD/S to start with.
Mike Caviston [MC]: Well, in some regards, strength training is strength training, whatever part of the body we’re talking about, and, of course, we’ve also got to think about the upper body and the core, and so a lot of the principles apply equally in all areas, and the most common overlying principle that I can stress is balance. And so, when we talk about the lower body, I’ll talk about some specific areas that are probably overemphasized and talk about some other areas that are typically underemphasized. Another thing I might talk about in regards to training the lower body is that a lot of people, in particular, those planning to come to BUD/S that recognize a need to develop their running technique and their ability to run well, I hope everybody that plans to come to BUD/S is aware of that. If they’re not, they should be, you’ve got to be a good runner. And people that are trying to become good runners think, “Okay, I’m going to lift my legs so that I’ll be stronger and can run better,” and there’s some logic to that, but I think a lot of people tend to misapply that. And so, when I talk about the lower body, especially as it pertains to preparing for BUD/S, I’m going to emphasize a lot of the neglected areas that are actually even more important than just developing strength in the big muscles that propel you when you run.
DF: You talked about running and people maybe substituting running for lifting and vice versa or to try to kind of create a bit of a better performing athlete. Talk about that a little bit more in terms of how that maybe negatively impacts people’s ability to run or…
MC: Well, they’re both necessary, and especially, again, coming to BUD/S, you need to run, you need to get stronger, and so you need to lift weights as well as run. One doesn’t replace the other. They complement each other. They need to be developed consistently and properly in both areas. And so, some people that might want to do, for example, a high intensity circuit weight training routine and think that that will make them a better runner, I think they’re probably fooling themselves a little bit. They need to spend some time running, but they should certainly also spend some time strength training and including the lower body.
DF: Is there bias do you think in athletes coming in, or I’d say recruits/athletes coming into BUD/S where they may be more strength biased, or they may be overtraining running? Is it one or the other?
MC: Well, probably for what I see, it might be a little bit more of bias towards strength training, and there’s a belief that being very big and very strong is beneficial, and being strong is beneficial up to a point, and if you want to become stronger, I think that there are probably time efficient ways that you can accomplish that without spending hours in the weight room. So, don’t want to discourage anybody from lifting weights at all, but I do want to encourage them to do it in a streamlined, efficient fashion and to recognize that it shouldn’t take away from developing important cardiovascular skills like running and also swimming that are important for success in BUD/S.
DF: Lower body strength training is an area where you often see a lot more machines being used, like leg press, etc. Why is that, in your opinion, on the lower body, machine versus…
MC: Well, that might be true in some gym settings. Actually, I’m probably more used to the opposite, where people are biased against machines, and they think the machines are evil and that they want to avoid machines at all costs, and I think that some machines are designed poorly and shouldn’t be used, but some machines are actually designed pretty well and offer advantages that you don’t get with free weights. And so, one theme that I develop when I talk about strength training, whether it’s the upper body or the lower body, is that you want to select a variety of different resistance modes to train. And so, machines are actually appropriate to use occasionally but not exclusively. And there a lot of different ways that you can challenge the legs, and I would encourage people to utilize a wide variety of exercises.
DF: Are there any machines specifically you think, maybe that have gotten that unfair treatment in your, in your life?
MC: Yeah, well, if you look at the leg press, it’s hard to describe vocally and point out some of the different design flaws of different leg press machines, so they’re not all created equal, and so I just keep it pretty simple and say, you know, don’t overemphasize leg press, but they’re okay. One machine or one piece of equipment that I think is underutilized that I want to encourage people to incorporate regularly is the leg curl and working on the hamstrings. And when I talk about poor balance, a textbook example is if people will have very overdeveloped quads and very weak hamstrings. And so, you need to isolate the hamstrings, and you need to target them, and so, find a good leg curl machine to do regularly. Some people are opposed to leg extension, and I think people can abuse the leg extension, usually try to do too much weight and place too much stress on the front of the knee. That’s not good but using a moderate amount of weight and going through proper range of motion to target some of the muscles that control the way the patella crosses over the knee joint is actually pretty beneficial. So, I would include some isolated leg extension as part of the strength training routine for lower body.
DF: You mentioned the hamstring there, and do you think that part of the lower body is akin to the area of the shoulder that you mentioned in terms of upper body neglect in terms of strength?
MC: Yeah, upper body is another example where we see imbalances, and I referred previously to people doing lots of pushups but ignoring rowing motions, and so they become overdeveloped in the front or the anterior part of the chest and shoulders. And in the lower body, the same concept applies. People spend a lot of time doing leg press or squats, people are actually pretty big on squats, and they do lunges because they know in BUD/S they’re probably going to have to do a lot of lunges, and so they isolate that. Those exercises are fine in and of themselves, but they’re very quad dominant and if that’s all people do, those muscles are going to become overdeveloped, and the corresponding opposing muscles are not going to get challenged. And so, you need to actively seek out ways to challenge the hamstrings and the glute muscles more effectively than most people do.
DF: Other than the leg curl, what other movements or exercises or apparatus do you recommend for that back of the leg development?
MC: That’s a challenge because without a specific machine, it can be hard to target. There are some ways, and I’ll just take a minute here to plug some of our resources that are available on the website, SEALSWCC.com, in our training information. And so, there are some video clips of different exercises that would give you an idea. Something called the Nordic hamstring curl, which often requires a partner, but you can do it by yourself if you set up the right parameters to target the hamstrings and things like elastic bands if you need to. There are different ways that you can do it, you need to be creative, but it is something that’s important enough that I recommend people look into how they can target the hamstrings.
DF: Yeah, I’ll second that. I mean just in my own personal training, I definitely recognize that as weakness, and I think it makes sense if you think about how comfortable it is to be on your stomach on a leg curl machine versus the opposite with a leg extension. It doesn’t feel good to be on your stomach, uncomfortable, you’re smooshed in there, your legs aren’t in the right position, you have to adjust it, but push through it, right?
MC: Well, I often see in gyms where there are available leg curl machines that they go unused for just exactly what you described, and they’re not fun.
DF: Yeah, it’s not fun, it’s not comfortable, it’s tough to adjust, but, yeah, do it. [MC: Do it.] Yeah, definitely do it. There’s potential for more weight and more loading in the lower body versus the upper body in general, and because of that, I think there’s a certain amount of programming that goes in line with people either maybe avoiding it because it’s scary, or it’s heavy, or it’s uncomfortable. And along with that, people sometimes use weight belts or specific shoes and all this stuff. What are your kind of core principles for avoiding injury when you’re moving bigger weights, or should that be even done in the training for BUD/S?
MC: Well, in my opinion, and I really admit that are other opinions out there, and people can solicit them if they want, but in my opinion, try to keep it pretty simple and not use so much weight that you require a special apparatus to, to do it. So, you know, special shoes or weight belts or things like that are not something that I would actively encourage people to do. There are, as I mentioned, a number of different exercises that people can do, and for the lower body, the gold standard for many people is the squat. I don’t tell people not to squat, but I try to encourage them not to emphasize it as much as they do. I look for a variety of other things that will be of value in terms of providing overall condition to the legs that they need.
DF: That to me is a big area that I’ve heard you emphasize in our other discussions, and I’m hearing again now, so I think it’s worth reiterating pushing for strength numbers that are stronger than a friend of yours that might be competing or even pushing yourself to incorporate your one rep max strength numbers, to putting yourself in the strongest you’ve been heading into BUD/S is something to almost outright avoid, what I’m hearing from you.
MC: Yeah, it’s important to recognize that I encourage people to be somewhat competitive and to push themselves. You got to know how to push the envelope, go to the limit, but recognize when you’re going to go over the edge, and don’t go too far. And so, a lot of the problems that I’ve seen over the years that are centered around weightlifting, the two major things are either people try too hard to lift too much weight for no other reason than to just be able to brag that they lifted more weight than somebody else. Or as a result of focusing on a couple of things, the glory exercises, the vanity exercises or whatever it may be, as a result of spending all their time doing those exercises, they ignore other important exercises that affect their performance. So, you know, with any, any aspect of training any part of the body, you want to try to avoid isolating any one area so much that you exclude other areas.
DF: We talked previously about some of the kind of accessory movements that people can do to strengthen the lower extremity of the foot and ankle. I think that should be incorporated in our discussion here of lower body strength. Maybe you can kind of touch on that, because that’s something that I think is really, really not uncommon but almost invisible to people that are training for their legs, you know.
MC: When I set up training for the lower extremities, I try to make people recognize anatomically we’ve got the hip joint, we’ve got the knee joint, we’ve got the ankle joint, and then think about what movements can we perform at those joints. So, at the hips, we’ve got flexion and extension, but we’ve also got lateral movements, so what’s called abduction and adduction, so moving out to the side. And so, people are likely to incorporate flexion and extension if you do a squat, or if you do any sort of pushing motion with your leg, you’re going to activate your extensors to somewhat. If you do things like sit-ups, you’re probably going to activate your flexors to a degree, but a lot of people ignore the side to side motion, and that’s actually very critical for supporting yourself, at any point, but especially in a lot of the environments in BUD/S where the surfaces are unstable. They’re in soft sand, or they’re on uneven ground, or they’re carrying weight on their body that might not even be distributed evenly, so it creates a lot of off center stresses. And so, to be able to keep the leg in proper alignment and in order to keep pressure off the knee, people need to be able to stabilize their hip. And if the lateral muscles, the hip abductors are weak, they’re not able to stabilize their hip. So, it’s a longwinded way of saying, make sure you’re working on the hip abductors as part of the overall training. And then, you just think about that going all the way down the leg, so we’ve got the hip, we’ve got flexion/extension and lateral motion at the knee, we’ve got extension, and as I mentioned, flexion, that’s what leg curls do, they flex the knee, so we want to make sure that we’re doing that regularly. The knee’s not supposed to go side to side, so don’t plan to incorporate that into your training, but then down at the foot and ankle, there’s lots of different things. People are pretty good at developing their calves, they do toe raises; they really want the calves to look big and strong. If they overdevelop the calves at the expense of other muscles, that might be a problem. So, in addition to doing heel raises, that’s what we call plantar flexion, make sure to do dorsa flexion, which is the muscles that actually lift the toes up off the ground. And then think about side to side motion, think about doing what’s called abduction and adduction for the foot or what’s called inversion and eversion. So strengthening those muscles can make people less likely to experience ankle sprains, for example, and distribute the forces better so that they are more likely to avoid shin splints, which are a common complaint among people that go through BUD/S, “Oh, my shins are hurting. Why is that?” Well, there’s a number of different reasons, but a contributing factor is an imbalance where the calves are very strong, and the opposite dorsa flexor muscles are weak.
DF: That’s a huge area I think that maybe even is, I guess, in general, going from the hips all the way down, the lateral movement of the legs, something that is really ignored. I think you mentioned using elastic bands. [MC: Absolutely.] It seems like that would be a really good place to start for people with a lot of this kind of stuff that’s non-squat or non…
MC: Yeah, doing something called the monster walk is a basic exercise. It’s very easy to do it, very effective to do, so, yeah. Just put an elastic band around your thighs just above your knee, and just sort of shuffle side to side or front to back a little bit to get those side muscles working more.
DF: Yeah, I think that especially paying attention to ankle strength or lower leg strength is an area where I’d imagine people are definitely not putting in the amount of time that you would recommend. Maybe if you could go over a couple movements or key coaching words that you could provide to them in terms of frequency they want or methods, exercises or how to know if they’re doing it enough, kind of stuff like that cause I think that’s an important area that’s overlooked.
MC: Well, the most important thing is to come up with a plan or a template to follow that alerts you to targeting these different areas and some of them that they maybe have never done before. And so, you know, the basic format, as I said, incorporates eight different motions, and so, just come up with exercises that will target those different motions. As I’ve been stressing, there are lots of different exercises that may accomplish that. So, for a simple knee extension, there are all sorts of different things, and it might be a lunge, it might be a squat, it might be a leg press, it might be an isolated leg extension. There are different ways that you can challenge that, but find something, and over time, choose different things so that you’re not always doing the same thing every time, and then, for the exercises that you do, just do them in proportion, in balance. So, for example, most people that focus on the quads, they do multiple sets of squats, multiple sets of lunges, all sorts of things that target the quads and overdevelop the quads, and because they’re spending so much time doing that, they’re not doing the other things we’ve been talking about. So, just make sure your routine includes a balanced attention to all the different areas that need to be developed.
DF: Specifically, in terms of the ankle and the ankle and foot stability, what recommended ways, other than some of the more I guess careful manipulation of whether it’s, I think you spoke before about doing kind of like a towel crunch with your foot. Is swimming with fins beneficial for this, running in sand? I know that this is kind of a careful area to prescribe movements for, but maybe you could touch on some of that.
MC: Well, it’s actually a good question. I do want to be careful about how I frame the answer, but swimming with fins and running on soft sand are common activities that give people problems if they don’t actively prepare for them. And so, one of the ways that you can make sure that you’re ready to swim with fins is do some of the ankle conditioning exercise that we’re talking about and the same thing for running in soft sand. It requires a little bit more stability, and so doing some of the specific strength training exercises for the lower body that we’re talking about will help prepare them and then recognizing at the same time that doing those things, if you spend a lot of time running in sand, or if you spend a lot of time swimming with fins, that’s going to cause stress on some of these muscles. And so, one of the general pieces of advice I’ll tend to give people is that, “Yeah, you’re going to need to run in sand, but don’t go out on the first day and run ten miles in soft sand. Build up to it gradually. Yeah, you’re going to need to swim with fins at some point, but don’t go out in your first swim and do two miles with big stiff fins because that’s going to, that’s going to create some stress and problems that you’re going to pay for later.” So, recognize that those activities, swimming with fins and running in soft sand, challenge the muscles, and it works both ways. So, your overall training, you’ve got to be careful not to overdo it either in the weight room or in the water or while running. A good way to help prepare for running and for swimming is to incorporate some of these basic exercises into your routine.
DF: Yeah, I think just the awareness of this area in your training and I think a lot of people are more focused on joint pain or specific, you know, lactic acid buildup in major muscle groups as opposed to that kind of intricate soreness in some of these stability areas. Kind of at least mix it into your training and pay specific attention to the soreness level and be a little bit more careful with that area…
MC: With all things. You know, pay attention to soreness, pay attention to overdoing it, and you want to feel like you’ve gotten a good workout, and so there’s going to be a certain amount of discomfort, but it’s a sort of discomfort that should fade relatively quickly. And so, if it’s something that’s lingering hours or days later, then you know you’ve done something wrong, and you want to try to avoid that. But, you know, if your ankles are constantly sore day after day, then you’ve got to figure that you’re doing too much of what are probably good things but just not in that quantity, so you’ve got to figure out how to dial it back a little bit.
DF: Are there areas in the lower body or the legs that have specific mobility limitations, in general, from the athletes that you see come into BUD/S?
MC: So, in terms of mobility in the lower body, some of the issues that we see if they’re not caused specifically by an injury or maybe some sort of anatomical abnormality…
DF: You mean like someone being, let’s say a shorter person versus taller person [MC: Correct.] or maybe one leg’s shorter than the other.
MC: Yeah, or just one leg shorter or just the way some of the joints are formed when the bones come together creates more limited motion in some people than in others, so that’s not something that you can necessarily directly address. But for most people, if there’s a mobility problem, it’s probably going to be due to a combination of tightness in some muscles and weakness in other muscles. And so, keep up the balance that I’ve been talking about in terms of trying to make sure the weaker muscles are being addressed, and then the strong muscles that tend to get tight as a result of being worked so often, make sure you’re stretching them out to be able to allow the joints to keep their normal range of motion.
DF: In terms of strength and conditioning in the legs, how do plyometrics play into this for you, in your opinion?
MC: Yeah, I think that plyometrics are something that should be incorporated as part of the overall training. So, strength training for most exercises, I’ll encourage people to be kind of slow and deliberate and make sure they’re going through the full range of motion, making sure that they’re emphasizing what we call the negative or eccentric portion of the lift, and that’s true for the lower body. But strength training can include and should include some plyometric activities, and for the lower extremity that means simply jumping, doing vertical jumping or leaping and bounding or…
DF: Maybe, if I can just interject real quick, if you could give the listeners a quick definition of what you mean and what your training goal is with incorporating plyometrics.
MC: Well, so, besides just doing slow and controlled movements, sometimes we have to do fast, explosive movements, so a plyometric is just a very fast, explosive movement, a burst of strength that’s applied as quickly as possible. And so, for the upper body, you can actually sometimes do plyometric exercises, toss a medicine ball, for example, try to explosively toss it as far as you can, so it’s appropriate for the upper body as well. But, it’s probably more commonly used for the lower body, and the simple way to do it would be instead of doing a slow, controlled squat, which is how I would want to do it a lot of the times, you can also do an explosive jump. Try to get up off the ground as high as you can, and then you have to also catch yourself when you come back down to the ground. Or people do box jumps, so you jump onto the box and then control yourself when you land when you jump off of the box. Some other things that could help the lower extremity training would be simple short sprints and incorporating, I didn’t coin the phrase, but the frame change of direction, so, you know, stopping and starting and turning and pivoting and doing, again, short high bursts of speed that will challenge the different stabilizing muscles, either in the ankle or also in the hip and knee when you change directions is a good part of training to incorporate occasionally.
DF: Yeah, it’s impressive to throw around big weights, but sometimes running through tires or, you know, stepping through the rope ladder is not as impressive to do in gym but arguably probably more helpful.
MC: Well, things that challenge agility are good, so agility drills, some people call them that. Those are good things, and plyometrics and agility and sprints, they’re not the basis for doing the entire program, but definitely something to incorporate into the overall program.
DF: And we talked about this a little bit in terms of balance with the upper body, balancing strength movements and training with also more of an emphasis on range of motion and balance and maybe not such large reps. Is that something you think is mirrored in the bottom half of the body, in terms of plyometrics versus weight training, probably a little bit more focus on weights than it should be as opposed to that type of explosive movement?
MC: Oh, I think I see a wide variety of approaches, and a number of different people do different things, so I don’t think I see any one particular trend. When we talk about plyometrics, as with any other aspect of training, though, I would incorporate or encourage people that haven’t used it to introduce it gradually. And some coaches will count contacts with the ground if you’re doing jumps or different forms of exercise that involve landing with force, then that’s a stress, and you don’t want to overstress or do too many reps too soon, so, you know, moderate the amount that you do and gradually build up as you get in better shape, but…
DF: Be aware of it and how it can fit into your program and don’t avoid it.
MC: Don’t avoid it, don’t overemphasize it.
DF: If you could just walk us through them from top to bottom some of the areas that you think that are important to highlight in terms of a summary of lower body strength training for BUD/S.
MC: Well, lower body strength training for BUD/S, or for other activities, is pretty straightforward. And so, a good way to do it is just visualize, start at your hips and work your way down and think of what exercises or movements you’re incorporating that will challenge, flexion and extension at the hip. An underdeveloped area are the glute muscles, and for many people that don’t challenge them regularly, they need to think of exercises that will target them sufficiently. And then the lateral hip is critical because most people don’t target it at all, or if they do, not sufficiently, so make sure that you’re doing things that challenges the abductors at the hip. And then the knee, it’s very common to work on the quads, which are the extensors of the knee, so straightening the knee out, that’s an important movement. You definitely want to incorporate that into your training, but make sure that you’re also specifically targeting the hamstrings and trying to keep the hamstrings in close proportion to the quads, in terms of strength. They won’t be equal, but they should be pretty close. And then going down towards the foot, just think of the different muscles and movements that involve standing on your toes, lifting your toes off the ground, allowing you to balance, say on one foot, feel the different muscles that are challenged as you’re trying to maintain stability and the muscles that you would use if you were to change directions, going from right to left or left to right or front to back or stopping suddenly, and making sure that you’re incorporating that into your training.
DF: Well, great, Mike. If someone would like to find out more, where can they get some more information about some of this training?
MC: We have plenty of information, and everything I’ve talked about and more is available at SEALSWCC.com. We’ve got a training forum that talks specifically about fitness topics, including strength training. We’ve got a document called the Physical Training Guide, or PTG, that outlines a complete comprehensive program including running and swimming and lifting, and we’ve also got some video clips that will visually demonstrate some of the different exercises and some others that we’ve been talking about today.
DF: Awesome. Thanks so much for your information.
MC: My pleasure.