Ask Stew: Spec Ops Candidate Bumps in the Road During Preparation

Students with Officer Candidate School (OCS) class 08-20 at Officer Training Command Newport (OTCN), take the third-class swimmer test at the Lt. Michael P. Murphy Combat Training Pool, Jan. 7, 2020. The test consists of jumping from a 10-foot tower into the pool to simulate abandoning ship, five minutes of floating in the prone position, coverall inflation, and a 50-yard swim. (Photo by Darwin Lam/Naval Service Training Command)

Preparing for the physical and mental challenges of joining the military can take time both physically and administratively. Be patient. Here is an email from a potential spec ops candidate.

Stew, I am training to become a SEAL one day. I thought about other special forces units, but my swimming background and the fact that I come from a Navy family makes it a logical step for me to go Navy. Any suggestions for the training? I have heard there are many bumps in the road along the way with medical screening, physical screening test (PST), preparing for actual BUD/S, and the officer/enlisted option. I am kind of overwhelmed with options and to-do lists. Any help? Thanks -- Freddy.

Freddy, getting to and through spec ops training is a long journey that is best traveled with patience and research.

First - Ask yourself these 10 Questions.

You are correct. There are many options as well as many steps along the way. Not only must you prepare physically, there's also a daunting administrative process. For now, with a few years out, I would focus on becoming a more well-rounded athlete instead of concentrating on swimming. That means you need to lift, do calisthenics and run in a progression system so you do not attempt too much too quickly.

Sure, being a swimmer may help you with some of the events, but it does not help you with running durability, strength under logs and boats, and high-repetition calisthenics. All of those need to be part of your fitness foundation so you can endure all of the elements of training that involve gravity.

Swimming and water confidence is great, but getting out of the pool is necessary for your success.

Step 1: Determine your current weaknesses. Can you ...

  • Crush the fitness test? (500yd swim, push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, 1.5-mile run)
  • Pass selection standards specific to your goals (4-mile runs, 2-mile swims with fins, endure boats and logs and rucks on your back, i.e. load bearing activities)?
  • Get a spec ops contract? (Medical, legal, ASVAB, approved to serve)

Step 2: Figure out how to:

Step 3: You have to be patient with the entire process as it is easy to get frustrated by the fact that you are:

  • Seeing very little progress with all you have to do
  • It's more competitive to get a slot to training than you realized
  • It's even harder to get through the training once you get there (getting to the training is the easy part). See To and Through the Training article.

Step 4: Start working on programs that answer the questions ...

  • How can I quickly become a better runner without typical overuse injuries?
  • How can I get stronger to handle the load-bearing activities of training (such as rucks, boats, and log PT)?
  • How can I prevent injuries and deal with aches and pains so they don't stop me?

Step 5: You need to focus on your goals and what you want to do and WHY. In your case, you want to ...

  • Pass selection on the first try -- First Time Every time!
  • Not even consider quitting during training!
  • Serve your country with like-minded people in an elite team setting!

Here is where I would start the journey:

  1. Go to the official SEAL/SWCC Website and see the process to join for either officer or enlisted. Other articles: Officer vs Enlisted Route. Both require significant processing, and you must first meet standards required just to join the military. There are additional challenges for spec ops-level activities.
  2. Start training, but consider these training rules. Learn what your weaknesses are, then turn weaknesses into strengths. That is what a training program should do.

When you start preparing for any of the tactical professions, it is very likely that you have a variety of strengths that you have accumulated throughout your athletic history, but it is also very likely that your focus on those strengths has created weaknesses and imbalances.

Build a solid foundation to maintain your strengths and focus on your weaknesses because any selection program will expose a weakness in the first day. For example, swimmers are typically poor runners if they haven't practiced that activity. See the following articles for weekly training structure options:

3. Keep training. After a good progressive run and calisthenics cycle, dial it back a little and focus on your strength. Since you have time, consider a tactical periodization model where you cycle through fitness training elements throughout the year. See a recommended tactical fitness periodization system. Keep focusing on your weaknesses and use swimming as a cooldown activity while practicing some of the water confidence events like treading, combat swimmer stroke and BUD/S skills.

4. Go to the recruiter when you are ready to crush the PST. You should have practiced and gotten this test down to near-perfect scores with a moderate amount of effort.

You should break it down and make a list. The thing you can control now is your physical training. You should not see a recruiter until you can hit the competitive numbers of SEAL training candidates, so do not worry about that process yet. One step at a time. Once you are enlisted or in an officer program, then the to-do list gets much smaller and you just need to focus on getting through training.

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. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to starting a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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