The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration.
Joint Special Operations University recently released its "Research Topics for 2023," an annual booklet that challenges researchers to address the complex issues facing the military's special operations forces community. The questions there will spark groundbreaking research for the field of special operations, but I think they missed something.
SOF training, and specifically selection events, is severely flawed. They are causing deaths and making tactical athletes less prepared for the mission. So how can the SOF community remedy this?
On Feb. 4, 2022, seaman and aspiring Navy SEAL Kyle Mullen died only hours after completing Hell Week. During an investigation of the incident, it was reportedly revealed that about 40 members of Mullen's class used performance-enhancing drugs, or PEDs, to increase their likelihood of securing "The Budweiser," also known as the SEAL Trident. PEDs were found in Mullen's belongings after he died.
Mullen was recovering from swimming-induced pulmonary edema that developed during his first attempt at the course when he learned many of his classmates were already using steroids, his mother told The New York Times in August. Mullen, a former Yale football player who had remained clean throughout his sports career, then carried out a plan to buy a car with other SEAL aspirants so they could stock PEDs in it.
News articles have been released every week as information comes out about the situation. In all of these articles, the incident is being looked at as an ethical issue. Were the SEAL candidates in the wrong for using steroids? Are the cadre in the wrong for pushing them too hard? Is the Navy in the wrong for not having a testing protocol for PEDs or for making the selection process so difficult?
All of that is subjective and not within the scope of this article. I think PEDs are only an issue when used in sport, and if anyone is going to use PEDs, it might as well be those in special operations. With that, I think PED science is extremely complex. I'm a master trainer under the International Sports Sciences Association and I don't fully understand it.
PEDs, especially anabolic, androgenic steroids, can lead to heart attacks, strokes and a number of other health problems. To the contrary, PEDs could provide a solution to fatigue, muscle recovery and injury issues present in SOF selection events and training. If the military were to sanction steroid use, it would have to be extremely well supervised and done as safely and intelligently as possible.
Suffering Has Its Cost
Setting the topic of PEDs aside, there may be a way to vastly improve selection events and training pipelines while lowering the risk of muscle loss and injury. The problem with selection events, specifically for the SEALs, is that making the candidate suffer is valued more than eliciting useful training adaptations.
On the surface, this makes sense. SEALs should be tough, but at what cost? Is it worth their health? Sickness is one thing, but what about fractures and tears? If that's acceptable, what about the loss of muscle mass, explosiveness and overall athleticism?
The focus on suffering brings up two main issues: muscle catabolism and a lack of training specificity. Catabolism in the muscle is essentially a response to stress, resulting in the loss of muscle. Anabolism is the opposite, meaning if something is anabolic, it is pro-muscle building. The human body is in a constant tug of war between these two states.
Some of the main contributors to a catabolic state are a lack of sleep, low calorie consumption, low protein intake, stress, cardiovascular exercise and a lack of strength training -- a list that perfectly encapsulates SOF selection events. Thus, extremely capable athletes, like Division I football players from Yale, go to these selection events, only to get stripped of the muscle they have accrued over years of training.
During the selection event, they'll do push-ups and flutter kicks, but they'll lose their explosiveness and strength (to train strength, the athlete should be approaching failure sometime before six repetitions of an exercise and have adequate rest before beginning another set). Operators are more likely to have to push something heavy or pick something up once than they are to do 80 push-ups on a direct-action mission.
I think we can all agree with the basis of this argument: We don't want our special operators in worse shape or injured after they are selected.
The next problem with selection events and SOF pipelines is their lack of specificity to the mission. The principle of specificity, or sport specificity, states that adaptations elicited from training depend on the exercises an athlete does and the volume and intensity at which they do them. If the training of an athlete is not relevant to the sport they compete in, their training will not produce the desired effect.
To put it simply, it would behoove a powerlifter to train the squat, bench and deadlift rather than the power clean, the preacher curl and the 400-meter sprint. A more obvious example is that it would behoove a powerlifter to lift weights instead of playing lacrosse. The latter example is more similar to what's happening at SOF selection events.
No Push-up Contests on the Battlefield
Let's continue using the SEALs as an example. Since the SEALs are primarily a direct-action element, they are going to need to win gunfights and exert their will over their opponents. They need to take damage without becoming injured, make fast cuts on their feet, get their gun up quickly and be explosive in their movement. They have to maintain the ability to conduct long-range insertions via sea or land, so a base level of cardio is necessary.
We'll further examine a few of those adaptations to provide an example of what the operator and tactical athlete should be doing. To take damage and not get injured, it helps a lot if their bodies aren't already destroyed from training. They also need to be mobile and flexible. If they have done their mobility work, yoga or even static stretches, their body is far more likely to weather a highly uncomfortable position without acute injury.
They also need to be exerting strength throughout all planes of movement: sagittal, frontal and transverse (aka rotational). An operator will certainly have to rotate their hips and present their rifle quickly. An operator will not have to engage in a push-up competition with the threat. This may seem harsh, but the muscular endurance in the chest and triceps provided by push-ups does not apply to direct action at all. If they must work muscular endurance, at least focus heavily on their shoulders to enable them to fare better when clearing a structure for an extended amount of time.
Speed and explosivity is another area severely lacking in the rearing of special operators. Muscular endurance, steady-state cardio, isometric holds, and getting wet and sandy don't lend themselves to those attributes. Almost any exercise can be made into an explosive one. Instead of doing 30 air squats, which is a muscular endurance exercise, one could simply make the concentric portion of the movement as explosive as possible to turn it into a plyometric.
To make the exercise even better, the athlete could utilize reactive strength to train their muscles' stretch-shortening cycle and immediately bound into a long jump upon touching the ground from their initial jump. For full body explosiveness and triple extension, they could train the Olympic lifts. If that's seen as too technical, they could perform exercises like the kettlebell clean-and-press for explosiveness, which is safer than the barbell variant. They could even train upper-body explosiveness with plyometric push-ups, banded exercises or compensatory acceleration training.
Operators could be progressively overloading the movements needed to clear a room, manipulate a downed teammate, recover from impacts or get into awkward fighting positions. To provide an analogy, if no linemen ever trained for explosiveness off the line of scrimmage, but they still played football every week, some linemen would still rise to the top and be better than other linemen. Take one team of those elite linemen and give them two years of training squat variations, hinge movements, lunges, power cleans and incline bench presses and then let them play the teams that didn't have that. The difference would be astronomical.
That's the beauty of intelligent and periodized resistance training. It can provide a stimulus the body will not receive by doing the sport itself, and that stimulus will carry over to the sport seamlessly as long as the athlete is still training their skills. Bear in mind, it has to be the correct, sport-specific training. That same analogy does not apply if those linemen are running 5Ks and doing aerobics.
Be Prepared for the Gunfight
I've trained and worked at boxing gyms, Krav Maga gyms, mixed-martial arts gyms and even traditional martial arts gyms. I've trained with operators at the Combat Applications Group and Naval Special Warfare Development Group level on multiple occasions. As surprising as it may sound, I've seen fighters get in the cage and pick those guys apart. In every one of those situations, the MMA fighter won, and in every one of those situations, I would describe the special operator as tougher.
The suffering they did as a part of their journey in special operations directly attests to that. Their pipelines are designed to make them tougher. However, I can also promise you, locked in a cage with only their hands and their feet, the most experienced and properly trained fighter wins, even if that fighter is some spoiled brat who has never done a hard day's work.
The MMA fighter doesn't care that the operator let some waves splash over his face and did some push-ups. At the same time, the fighter was doing explosive floor presses and throwing a medicine ball at the wall. It was way easier, yet he knows his punch feels like getting hit by a tractor-trailer.
Sure, MMA is a sport, but the analogy still stands: A fight is a fight and toughness does matter, but skill and sport-specific conditioning matters far more. In a gunfight, would you rather be tougher and get shot, or more prepared and not get shot?
The U.S. SOF community is the best in the world. I'm not disagreeing with that, but with slight adjustments to its training, it can be even better. Special operators can be tough and trained with a high degree of specificity. We know too much about athletic performance to be training like it's 1962.
The solution to this problem is relatively simple, but it's a bear of a pill to swallow for the special operations community: modify the selection events and pipelines for SOF. The training is taking individuals with extraordinary strength and explosiveness and stripping them of it. They may be making some adaptations regardless of their catabolic state, but if those adaptations are push-ups and sit-ups, they are useless in their field.
Use the principle of sport specificity to train these athletes. I understand that the use of poor training techniques is largely because the candidates need to be miserable. Selection events must maintain their level of difficulty and make people quit, or they lose their effectiveness. SOF should be devoting resources to optimizing their pipelines to have the best possible training while maintaining their difficulty.
There are innumerable ways to make training hard. Use survival, evasion, resistance and escape (SERE) and enhanced interrogation techniques that don't have long-term repercussions. Use a higher volume of good training. Use combatives, so if they get hurt, they'd at least be learning hand-to-hand combat. SOF could even manipulate other variables, like optimizing the candidates' nutrition to the appropriate macronutrients by making them drink their food so they don't get the enjoyment of eating.
In summary, use any method that doesn't acutely injure them, give them pneumonia, train them with junk volume or force them to take performance-enhancing drugs to recover. The SOF pipelines are not bad, but complacency kills, so let's strive to make them better.
Ray Vawter is a national security commentator and contributor for Aethon Enterprises. He is a master trainer, combatives coach and tactical conditioning specialist through the International Sports Sciences Association. He is currently in a military human intelligence pipeline and has a background in CT analysis and graduate studies in intelligence. He can be found on Twitter at @rayvawter.