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Answers to many questions about Special Ops Fitness

Instant Insight Q and A:  Here is a list of questions I was recently asked about fitness, team building, mental toughness, and other aspects of military / special operations fitness.  Feel free to send me your own and I will answer them.  Your emails inspire training / writing ideas everyday - so thanks.  Stew -

What is the key to Endurance both mental and physical?

 Creating a body and mind with endurance can take a lifetime of hard knocks but equally as important is hard work and succeeding in your quests.  This combo of consistent hard work and succeeding (even after many failures) builds mental and physical endurance or raw toughness as well as develops confidence in yourself so that you know when you “put it on the line” you will be able to succeed in your endeavors.  This applies to academic schooling, physical challenges, as well as daily lifetime events that require “never giving up!”

 How do you control emotional responses to enhance physical performance?

This requires some practice in being out to “think about something else” or compartmentalize your emotions.  I personally have what I call performance cues - I remember winning something, graduating from a challenging training program or performing at my best in the past.  I then recall that moment and this triggers a physiological response in my body and I am ready to perform physically as well as mentally. 

Which exercises form the best foundation for fitness? 

In my opinion, calisthenics are a great foundation to core and over all body strength and endurance.  Adding in some form of cardio-vascular exercises like swimming, running, or biking will only enhance your fitness foundation.  Once you build this foundation, you are then ready to supplement with weights, longer distance on cardio events, and any other sports or athletic event. 

How do Special Ops define Fitness & which training disciplines best achieve this? 

This is where the community differs a bit.  I am more “old school” and believe in doing a calisthenics, longer running, swimming base program supplemented with weights, full-body exercises like Olympic lifts and athletic movements.  However, there is a segment of the Spec Ops training population that would recommend reversing that combination.  I am not saying they are wrong as you cannot argue with results, but I have been doing my method for nearly 25 years (now 40 years old) without major injury and will continue my method for decades to come.

What equipment is required in a tactical approach to fitness? 

The only equipment I use is the following:  Running trail or 400m track, swimming pool or lake / ocean, pull-up bar or playground with monkey bars, and some floor space for the basics.  If you are getting into the intermediate and advanced levels of training it is best to add in a barbell / weights, dumbbells, and a TRX for suspension training.  See my article at for more info on the TRX trainer. 

Is there a precise science to progression? 

Any physiologist or trainer will tell you that we all progress differently.  It is a combination of genetics, nutrition, training level, and goals.  I typically like to progress over a 12-13 week period.  Logical progressions are typically 5-10 percent a week on cardio events (time / distance) and can be the same or higher with weight and repetition progressions.  The answer to that one is nothing is precise when dealing with human performance.  The body is an amazing adaptable machine and will strive to survive and get stronger as much as it can. When we fail to adapt is when you usually injure ourselves.  Periodization is my method of progression and it helps with maintenance and injury prevention too. 

How does heat and cold effect performance?  What is your advice in surviving extreme temperatures? 

Both hot and cold can seriously and quickly deteriorate physical and mental endurance.  The expending of extra water and calories to stay warm or cool off is the biggest culprit in decreased human performance.  As your hydration and energy levels deplete your core temperature will either rise or cool to uncomfortable and dangerous levels.  Then, your attitude can easily be altered to a negative state if you are not aware of your internal state. My advice is if possible, stay hydrated and fed well in these conditions and your performance will not suffer as much.  The basics in surviving the elements are to use your surroundings to get cooler or warmer. This question can take many scenarios but for human performance purposes stay fed and hydrated.  See Hypo – Hyperthermia Article 

Which foods make your preferred fitness fuel list?

I like to stay “carbed” up when days are long as your brain works better when you have plenty of glycogen stores.  But even more important, electrolytes!  If sweating profusely or in arid environment naturally you need to hydrate often with water but you also need a variety of potassium, sodium, calcium, etc.  When I sweat more than 5-8 lbs in an afternoon, I need to eat good carbs like bananas, kiwis, potatoes, baby carrots, apples.  In a pinch, one of my favorites is chicken noodle soup as it is loaded with sodium and potassium as well as needed carbs and protein.  Of course, protein is an absolute for repair and recovery especially for multiple day events.  I like lean meats, nuts, and eggs for that source of nutrient.  See ABD of Nutrition article

Are there any specific exercises that women should include to improve performance? 

Most women in the advanced level of fitness can hang or beat most men in endurance, but if a woman can do pull-ups, they are more capable in certain upper-body strength situations such as climbing and pulling their weight.  So add pull-ups to your life.  Start off with flexed arm hangs, pulldowns with weights, or assisted pull-ups and build up to a full pull-up.

How do you approach a challenge / obstacle to avoid or indecision?

 No matter what I do I like to time myself.  Whether it is mowing the grass or changing a flat tire, I like to beat my previous time.  Same goes for writing assignments.  As a writer I work best when I set a deadline.  If a physical challenge, I decide my route and stick to it but also remain flexible to change course if I see a short cut to save time and effort.  So I guess it is all about TIME.  Time motivates me to finish strong. 

What is the best way to foster team spirit and cooperation? 

When I am working with my sports teams or a group of future Spec Ops soldiers, I always tell them you are as fast as your slowest person.  When you finish together, you create a team dynamic - some are strong and some are weaker.  This can usually build the weak or cause them to quit.  In sports I try not to create that environment where people fail and doubt themselves and their abilities - especially with kids.  But with future Spec Ops soldiers, I am not trying to motivate anyone.  In fact, I want to test their drive and motivation to make them realize that they can actually live and die by their team work skills.  You have to make them realize that this future profession they are seeking is bigger than any individual and that service to their country is the number one reason why they are putting themselves through misery.

What is the best strategy for recuperation during bouts of sleep deprivation (do you use sleep cycles)? 

Yes mini sleep cycles is a way to semi-recover your mind and your body to a small degree.  But the true method of full recovery and recuperation is a good night’s deep sleep.  That is how we recover so if you can mimic that to any degree you will be better off than skipping it.  It is what we call “combat sleep” - basic REM vivid dream sleep.

See related article on sleep

How do you stay focused during fatigue? 

Staying focused during fatigue requires keeping yourself busy - especially your mind.  But when you stop moving or thinking - that is when fatigue turns into sleep or grumpiness.  Staying fueled with good carbs helps with the mental attitude and fatigue as well as physical energy.  Every now and then a low sugar caffeine drink can help with alertness.  I am a big fan of un-sweet iced tea and bubble gum.

Do SEALs need supplements and if so which do you recommend?

I never took any supplements until I turned 40.  Now I take a recovery drink which is basically protein, carbs, amino acids.  The ones I like are Intensity Nutrition Recovery and EAS Muscle Armour, but I take others to see how they work.  Chocolate milk provides an excellent post exercise recovery drink as well and I typically use this after hard weight / calisthenics workouts.  Both make my Friday / Saturday workouts feel like they are Monday workouts after a day off of training when I am eating well and adding in recovery drinks.  But I have always eaten well and maintained a high good carbs / good protein / good fats eating plan.  I tend to treat supplements the same way I did an MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) in the military.  If I have a cafeteria / restaurant / home to eat at I will eat a good meal – if not I will have an MRE. 

Finally - how do you break through the pain barrier?

I wish I could put this to words better.   Mainly I try to focus on something other than the pain using the same compartmentalization and simulation techniques as earlier discussed to get my mind off the pain I am tolerating.  Eventually pain subsides into numbness or a dull ache and you are able to better focus on the task at hand.  See article on Disassociation.  


Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. If you are interested in starting a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle - check out the Fitness eBook store and the
Stew Smith article archive at To contact Stew with your comments and questions, e-mail him at

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Complete List:  BOOKS / eBOOKS / DVDs

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Published Books / DVDs

Complete Guide to Navy SEAL Fitness (Book / DVD)
Maximum Fitness

The Special Operations Workout

The SWAT Workout - From Recruit to SWAT Team Member
The Combat Swimmer Stroke DVD

The Pre-Habit Workout DVD
Clinic DVD for Navy SEAL PST
The FBI Special Agent Test Clinic DVD

The Complete List of Stew Smith's eBooks:

Fitness for All Levels of Fitness

The 90 Day Beginner Guide to Fitness
The Advanced Maintenance and Recovery Program

Reclaim Your Life - The Erin O'Neill Program

Veteran's Fitness - Baby Boomer and a Flat Stomach

The Busy Executive Workout Routine
The Advanced Weights / PT Workout (Fall / Winter Weight Gain Cycle)
The Perfect Pushup Workout

The TRX Workout
NEW - Circuit Training 101 ebook
NEW Obstacle Course Race Ebook


The Special Forces Physical Fitness Workouts
 Combat Conditioning Workout

Navy SEAL Workout Phase 1  Beginner Weeks 1-9
Navy SEAL Workout Phase 2 - 3 - Intermediate Weeks 1-12
Navy SEAL Workout Phase 4  Grinder PT -  Four weeks before Hell Week

Navy SWCC Workout

The Army Special Forces / Ranger Workout 

The Army Air Assault School Workout

The Army Airborne Workout

Air Force PJ / CCT Workout

The Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Workout

The OCS, ROTC, Service Academy, & Bootcamp Workouts

Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard OCS Workout
The USMC IST and PFT Workout
USMC OCS / TBS Workout
The Service Academy Workout (West Point, Navy, Air Force Academy)
The Navy, Air Force, Marine Corp Bootcamp Workout

The Army OCS and PFT Workout
The NEW Army PRT and Combat Readiness Test Workout
The PFT Bible - Military / Police Standard PFT


The Law Enforcement Physical Fitness Test Workouts

The FBI Academy / PFT Prep Workout

The DEA Prep Workout

The FLETC Prep Workout - Ace the PEB

The State / Local Police Academy Workout

The Fire Fighter Workout

Why a 52 Week Workout Cycle?

  Seal Multi Men's Multi-Vitamin Multi-Mineral

Become a TRX Trainer   

 TRX Train Like the Pros


Some Titles Above available in Print Softcover Format