Strength for the Fight: Interview with Stew Smith

Stew Smith, former Navy Seal

Stew Smith, former Navy Seal

When people talk about the Navy SEALs, implications of super-endurance and strength go hand in hand with the legendary aura of skill and invincibility.  People often question how SEALs work out, or better yet, how to become one.  That’s where Stew Smith comes in.  



Stew, a former SEAL officer, is now a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist who specializes in helping people achieve their dreams of serving in law enforcement, emergency services, and the military, especially in the field of special operations.  Stew has a number of workout books available, and also runs the Heroes of Tomorrow project to help people prepare.

Fatal Fitness was lucky enough to get the chance to chat with Stew.  

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Mike: You went to the Naval Academy and joined the SEALs right after.  What made you choose the SEALs?

Stew: Back in the mid 80's there were no Navy SEAL books, movies, videos etc.  I knew of the SEALs but referred to them as Frogmen.  Even as a young kid 7-8 yrs old I said I wanted to be a Navy Frogman - truly not really knowing anything about it.  As I grew up and became seduced by fighter pilot movies like Top Gun (ha - funny I know) I started to learn about the Naval Academy.  With Grand-dad's and Dad in the Army, they thought West Point.  I guess my "rebellious" youthfulness prompted me to go to USNA.  But on a visit to both schools, I saw the town of Annapolis with several bars and lots of girls and figured the Navy profession would at least have me somewhere on this Earth near a beach, I chose to go Navy.

Mike: What was preparing for SEAL training like for you?

Stew: Once at USNA, it was a struggle both academically and physically having to turn a power lifting football player body into a PT machine.  It took about two years and hundreds of SEAL PTs later but it worked and prompted a desire to challenge myself again in life to pursue a career in the SEAL Teams.  My physical fitness education began in the 8th grade training for football (big football school in Florida) and grew into military style training with SEAL mentors leading the way for me.  I was hooked on a new way to workout - without weights, tons of reps with many many miles of running and swimming.

Mike: The SEALs have a saying, "the only easy day was yesterday."  I'm sure there's no "easy days" from the day you start BUD/S to the day you retire.  What would you say was the most challenging thing you faced during BUD/S and your career in the SEALs? 

Stew: The Only Easy Day was Yesterday - funny saying but it means basically since yesterday is over and you are still here / alive that it was easy.  And we are stronger from that experience.

For me I was in the group of big guys and did well on the PT, obstacle course, swimming with fins.  Running was tough on the knees for me, but I was able to suck it up and though I never finished in the top 10% on the runs I was never in the goon squad either.  Everything else I was in the competition for top 10% of the class.

Sure there are cold, wet, miserably uncomfortable days and nights at SEAL Training and that gets a lot of people.  For some reason that never bothered me.  The instructors challenge your desire as well verbally to see if you really want this program on top of all the above as well.  So being able to compartmentalize negative feedback is a good characteristic to have too.



Mike: What are some reasons why so many fail at BUD/S and other special ops selection processes?


Stew: Everyone one has a nemesis when attending SEAL training.  For example:

1 - Great swimmers are typically not great runners as stress fractures, shin splints and tendonitis tend to flare up on them as they start rigorous running programs.  Gravity is a bitch.

2 - Bigger guys (200+ lbs) are usually great with the PT, strapping on a pair of fins and swimming fast, but have trouble hanging with the runs times.  The obstacle course is tough on them as well.

3 - Great runners are usually not that strong in the upper body and have trouble with the 100's of reps of pushups, pull-ups, dips, etc during a normal day at SEAL Training.

Every now and then you have guys who can do it all and that is impressive BUT they had to work at a weakness as no one is naturally good at swimming, running endurance, and upper body strength. 

Mike: How long does it take for most guys to adequately prepare themselves, both physically and mentally, to make it?

Stew: I usually recommend most folks to take at least a year to prepare for SEAL type training programs.  The reason is most are usually power sports (football, power lifters, non swimmers) and you need a solid foundation of endurance workouts, swimming, running fast for distances greater than 2 miles.

Most people think 1.5 mile is long distance running - when you no longer think that then you are closer to being ready for BUDS. 

Most people do not swim often enough, when you swim 4-5 times a week, you are closer to being ready for BUDS. 

Most people do not do 100 pull-ups in a single workout.  When you are able to do that in 15 minutes and consider it a warm-up, you are closer to being ready for BUDS

And believe it or not, most of my emails come from kids seeking to lose 20-30 lbs before the military will even allow them into the ranks.  For that kid to prepare for BUDS, it will take at least 2 years usually.

I have seen very active, endurance athletes (wrestlers, swimmers, triathletes) take about 6 months to prepare and do well physically.  BUT everyone has the issue of dealing with the cold, wet, sandy days and nights and instructors seeking an individual moment of weakness.

Mike: In regards to swimming and running- form can make the difference when it comes to efficiency and injury-prevention.  What do you think about "POSE" method for running and the "Total Immersion" method for swimming?

Stew: I highly recommend both methods to learn how to run and swim properly.  As you may know Terry Laughlin and I made a Combat Swimmer Stroke DVD that works really well using TIs methodology of teaching swimming mixed with a Spec Op version of swimming.


Mike: Hydration is something that gets debated.  Even in our own circles, we hear debate between those who say that athletic men should drink even around a gallon a day of water, and those who say that this is over-hydration, capable of killing you.  Where do you stand in this?

Stew: I know I have been drinking more than a gallon a day of water for decades - as well as other liquids - tea, sports drinks.  If I sweat I tend to drink more water and electrolytes (bananas, salty foods) - workouts in humid weather where you can lose 10 lbs of water weight.   You need to replenish salts AND water.

Many reasonable standards I have seen is if you are active - more than 1-2 hours of activity where you sweat then you need about an oz of water / liquids (mostly water) for every lb of bodyweight.  (liquids = electrolyte replacements) More conservative estimates have you at 1 oz for every kg bodyweight.  I do not have an exact solution - find what works for you personally.  One size does NOT fit all on rehydration.

[See Stew’s article on over hydration and how hyponatremia occurs]

Mike: What is your exercise routine like nowadays?

Stew: You can still say that my programs are callisthenic, running, and swimming based supplemented with weights, power lifts, kettlebells, dumbbells, TRX, and plyometrics.  After doing this now for more than 20 years (turning 40 this year), I am still hanging with the kids half my age in my Hero of Tomorrow program.

Mike: That's really a great example- most people look at extreme fitness as something just for those people in their 20's.  They really seem to give up on themselves, or at least get too comfortable to challenge themselves that much.  What would your advice be to people 40 and over, looking to stay in shape, get back in shape, or just to challenge themselves?

Stew: I would say diversify your fitness.  I like to break up the year into four quarters where I focus on a variety of types of workouts in order of intensity (high to low):

1st quarter - Light Weights, PT, swimming, running
2nd quarter - High Rep PT, running, swimming, balance with weights, KBs, DBs
3rd quarter - Running, Swimming, Medium Rep PT mixed with weights, KBs, DBs
4th quarter - Moderate / Heavy Weights with KBs, DBs, med/low rep PT, swimming, minimal running

I find this gives my joints a rest for at least a quarter of high reps, mileage of running, heavy weights as well. 

I would focus on flexibility and non impact cardio if first getting into fitness and needed to lose weight / get healthy.  I think as I age, I will tend to lean more toward a yoga based workout and swimming programs - of course PT and weights too...and eventually eliminate running as 30 yrs of athletics / military training has taken a toll on the knees.

Mike: You mentioned that you use kettlebells.  These are growing in popularity nowadays- what is your favorite lift with them, and how do you feel kettlebells stack up when it comes to special operations levels of fitness?

Stew: Like I said - I supplement mostly hardcore calisthenics running and swimming with KBs - some of my favorite exercises are the same exercises you can do with barbells but the one armed KB adds to the uniqueness of this exercise piece:

Regular squats, one arm swings, power cleans, snatches are what I do the most but I also like the turkish get up done with KBs or dumbbells.  I basically use KB / DBs as lighter power lifts focusing on balance of the one arm movements.

As a former power lifter in HS / college I like the Olympic lifts but the lighter, one armed versions of those have a place in Spec Ops / Athletic fitness in my opinion.

Mike: SO, would you say that the lighter lifts are good for increasing work capacity?  It's not hard to see why that would be helpful during the constant grind of specops.

Stew: Oh yes - in Spec Ops it is all about muscle stamina and cardio vascular endurance to make it through the training programs.  The quicker you can recover from muscle failure the better you will be in training programs like BUDS that are long days and night for six months.

Mike: Many of our readers may have seen you shoot a man in the face on TV recently.  Tell us about that!

Stew: That was a fun show!  The physiologists on the show were really smart.  I wish you could have seen the full day of filming instead of only a 20 minute segment.  In a nutshell, our bodies are amazing units of survival and we have the ability to adapt into anything we throw at them - hot, cold, strength, speed, endurance, etc. 

I really learned a lot.  I discuss the day as well as the second day of filming that they did not even show.  See this page for the full interview I did with the doctors after the show.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: For those of you that don’t know, Stew was on a show called “Fight Science”- click here to check it out!] 

Mike: You were submerged in a tank of ice water for how long?  How do you endure that- how do you keep control of your body under such harsh circumstances well enough to even stay conscious, let alone run an obstacle course, find a target in a dark hallway and have steady enough hands to hit him in the face? 

Stew: Good question - truth is I do not know.  I was expecting what the docs were expecting 20-30 minutes in the 45-50 degree ice water.  After 65 minutes, my body temp did not really move that much - still above 98 degrees F.  Now I wish they would have shown this - they did mention it - but when I got out and started to move the cold extremity blood in the arms and legs started to pump through my core dropping my core temp by 3 degrees in about 5-10 minutes.  Then I started to feel COLD.  I credit years of diving in near freezing water for having an ability to handle that one...

The accuracy test on the O course / shooting?  Not sure on that either - I had to really focus on getting over the wall as my legs did not work that well and the shooting I think I got lucky to get that shot on the first take.  I had been doing body shots all day but had tight groups.  I still practice shooting as it is a perishable skill so maybe that helps.  Once again, I have to credit my years of training.  I had shot the weapon I used 1000's of times so I was used to the 9mm Beretta they gave me.

Mike: So, any upcoming projects? 

Stew: I am in the process of creating Volume II of all of my ebooks for military and law enforcement professions with new workouts / pics / info etc. 

Also a NEW published project that will have a theme (not sure title) of Ultimate Fitness over 40 with smart ways to train to avoid injury, like impact / tendon injuries, flexibility, weight loss, muscle development etc...

Also my first workout DVD called Prehabit Fitness

And I do free workouts all the time in Severna Park, Maryland with some pretty hard core guys seeking Spec Op professions - check it out on my site here!

Fatal Fitness would like to thank Stew for taking the time to do this interview!

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Posted on March 12, 2014 and filed under Interviews.