Your Special Forces Fitness Program

By Paul "Batman" O'Brien 

B.A., N.C.E.H.S., Dip. Acu., Cert Clin. IMed., Dip. Adv. OBB, Dip. CHM, Pn1, PN-SSR, PN-NCA, M.AFPA., M.C.Th.A.

The Special Forces fitness program is tailored specifically to prepare the body and mind for combat and conflict, and to resist injury. Depending on the outfit, the exercise selection and the focus of the training is dependent on the unit being trained. For instance, the SEALs as they are a water based unit are big fans of swimming. The Russian GRU, less so. The German GSG9 Special Forces units are big fans of upper body strength and stamina. You modify for the unit but the base and its goal remains the same.

In this article, I'll outline the best way to prepare for the US Navy SEAL's and their special forces fitness program. 

The US Navy SEAL's Naval Special Warfare Physical Training program is designed to,

That means they focus on running, swimming, and exercises that improve your pushes, pull ups and crunches numbers. 

All units share a similar trait in their training: 

  • Keep it simple
  • Use proper technique (get coaching from qualified sources)
  • Develop the whole body, especially the parts known to be vulnerable to injury

Keeping with simplicity we can divide things between 2 columns Cardiovascular work and Strength development. See my article on preparing for the Army Fitness Test for more on these distinctions.

How to Structure a Special Forces Fitness Program?

The Special Forces Fitness Program's I design are structured so that each week there will be: 

  • Daily Flexibility Routines
  • Specific injury prevention exercises as needed
  • 1-2 Long Slow Distance workouts for cardiovascular endurance (in the Seals's you're looking at 1 running and 1 swimming session per week)
  • 1 Continuous High Intensity workout (Again Seal's go for both running and swimming)
  • 1 Interval workout (and yes, the Seal's go for both running and swimming)
  • 4-5 Callisthenics Routines
  • 4-6 Strength Training Sessions – 2-3 each for upper and lower body
  • 4-5 Core Exercise Routines

Special Forces Strength Training

That sounds like a pretty heavy work load. And it is but remember these men and women are paid, in part, to be in great shape. It's their job description. In fact, this is so arduous, the US Navy Seals actually have a specific 26 week program that develops a moderately healthy and fit man or woman to these standards. But it takes 26 weeks. Half a year, to go from being in good shape to SEAL shape. But they do it like this to minimise injury. That's a smart way to do things. 

Outside of the long distance cardio and interval based running and swimming, the bulk of Special Forces units is strength training. And they use all three modes of training body weight based, partner weight based and weight lifting based

Multipurpose Training

Nearly every strength training exercise is multi-purposed. It will work one or more of the three primary body sections: Upper, trunk, lower and will create movement in all three planes.

In addition, they will generally be self-balancing (push-pull; right-left; front-back),and move the joints through a full range of motion.

There are multiple variations of each basic movement (e.g., outward push, downward pull). One other interesting thing - they will nearly all emphasise negative (eccentric) contractions, and when dealing with the trunk a mix of Isometrics and dynamic eccentric contractions. 

As noted earlier the, Special Forces train with weights and user partner based exercises. For instance taking a training partner and putting them in the fireman's carry position and then performing squats. Or performing a pushup, and then walking forwards on the hands as your partner holds your legs etc. 

During BUD/S and for the PST, for a US navy Seal and many other Special Forces Units you will be required to perform numerous push-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups. These exercises require strength in nearly every plane of human movement - which is why they are tested. It's also the basis of my special forces fitness program.

I'll also give you routines to develop your numbers rapidly later and I'll also show you how to put these exercises together to form a near infinite series of strength and cardio workouts and provide you with a load of variation for years to come.

A Sample Special Forces Fitness Program

Let me show you how this all comes together with an actual example posted on Vim and Vigor Isometrics, one of the fitness forums I frequent. This calisthenics workout combines with Japanese martial arts and modern Reality Based Combat Drills: 

First I'll give you the workout and then explain how it all fits - 

  • Full body foam roll
  • Joint mobility warm up
  • Selected stretches.
  • Shadow boxing and bag @75%MHR for 2 minutes
  • ZNKR Jodo kata 1-3
  • Shadow boxing and bag @80%MHR for 2 mins
  • ZNKR Jodo kata 4-6
  • Shadow boxing and bag @85%MHR for 1.5 mins
  • ZNKR Jodo kata 7_10
  • Shadow boxing and bag @90%MHR for 1 min
  • ZNKR Jodo kata 11-12
  • Shadow boxing and bag @95%MHR for 30 seconds
  • Tanjojutsu kata 1-4
  • Shadow boxing and bag @100%MHR for 15s
  • Tanjojutsu kata 5-8.
  • Shadow boxing and bag @75%MHR for 2 minutes
  • Tanjojutsu kata 9-12.
  • Tiptoe walk 20 secs as many reps as possible 10 sec Iso hold (20/10)
  • 1 Leg squats 20/10
  • Scorpion 20/10
  • Single Leg Bridge 20/10
  • Handstand Pushups 20/10
  • L-Press 20/10
  • 4 rounds.
  • Cool down.

Seems like a lot right? Well...kind of...but not as much a you think - lots of this is multipurpose - like all good martial training. ;-) 


Okay, the Warm Up, Cool Down and Foam rolling are all pretty much self-explanatory and covered in Samurai Strength Vol.3 Secrets of the Special Forces and many of my other programs. 

You can learn more about the warm up - here.

You can learn more about foam rolling - here. 

The Shadow Boxing and Bag work serves multi-purposes - firstly I'm using it to perform HIIT cardio training. Elevating and maintaining my heart rate at specific levels for cardio benefits. The second reason is I'm working through specific striking combinations, and engaging in realistic bout time, utilising a "no conflict pause" approach. This is modern martial arts and combat training. Thirdly it develops specific mental attributes. Fourthly it's a great core and upper body workout. So lot's going on here. 

In between, during the rest phases of the HIIT training I'm performing specific martial arts techniques. This trains me to perform calmly, under excess adrenaline, control that response through breathing and stabilise my heart rate and breathing quickly. Lot's of physical and psychological benefits here. In addition, there is speed, strength, neurological adaptation, range of motion, balance, skill, attributes all being trained here. This section took about 29 minutes. 

Next I transition into a body-weight based full on special forces training sequence. This one has two upper body, two lower body and core exercises. These are worked through in a HIIT manner, with an extended repetition set for endurance. 

The exercises themselves incorporate strength development (isometric holds), cardio endurance, muscular endurance, balance, multiple plains of movement etc. This section took just under 20 minutes in total. 


So in this one workout, I've covered; 

  • A Daily Flexibility Routine
  • Specific injury prevention exercises as needed
  • 1 Continuous High Intensity workout
  • 1 Interval workout
  • Multiple Callisthenics Routines
  • Multiple Strength Training Exercises
  • Multiple Core Exercises. 

+ Modern Martial Arts, Classical Martial Arts, and Combat Training (and done a savage fat lasting workout to boot) all in under an hour. The conflict conditioning exercises you can find in Samurai Strength Vol3. If you want the same, you can get all the exercises, all the routines and the warm ups and foam rolling sequences - here

You can learn more about the complete Special Forces Fitness Program here.

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