After reviewing my article archives -- and, more specifically, my Navy SEAL-related articles -- I realized I have written about how to get to BUD/S and what workouts will help you make it through BUD/S, but I never wrote about Hell Week.
I received an email this week asking about my Hell Week. It reads, "Stew, do you think SEAL training Hell Week is still as hard as when you were going through BUD/S?"
Of course, any old frogman will tell you his Hell Week was the toughest ever, but I have to say that I have seen several Hell Weeks since I graduated from BUD/S in 1992 and they still suck. After talking to some recent BUD/S graduates, we shared Hell Week stories that were as similar today as they were 20 years ago. This article is going to try to explain to those who have not been through Hell Week what it is like and why it is one of the most successful tools in Navy SEAL training in determining a student's desire to serve.
First, My last two years of preparation:
My last two years at the Naval Academy were spent busting my butt preparing for SEAL training. My 1991 USNA classmates who wanted to go to BUD/S totaled about 50, yet there were only 20 slots. We trained together often during those years prior to graduation. After hearing stories from the USNA Class of 1989 and 1990 BUD/S students as they progressed through BUD/S, we got excited to challenge ourselves like our mentors did.
Then one day, we heard four academy grads quit during Hell Week. This sent shock waves through the community as the academy grads get pre-screened to go to BUD/S quite thoroughly for two years prior to graduation and not many ever quit.
Many of my classmates changed their minds about going to BUD/S as it rattled the Class of 1991 midshipmen who were seeking to go to BUD/S, too. We knew the guys in 1990 who quit were tough as nails. "What was it that got them?" "Is this possibly our future, too?" We all asked, "How do we better prepare ourselves for Hell Week?"
We kicked around getting colder during our workouts, staying up later and sleeping less, getting under the log more in our workouts for log PT. We did this for a while, and then our SEAL chief stationed at the academy, Rick Black, said: "Hell Week is like a kick in the nuts; you can't really train for that wisely."
We laughed and agreed, but we made our workouts harder and prepared well that last year. We sent 20 strong SEAL candidates to BUD/S in 1991, all ready for the challenges of BUD/S and wanting to save face for the academy ensigns. Here is my Hell Week story:
As you might imagine, we all had the same doubts in our head about whether we were tough enough, but we were so well-prepared that we turned that doubt into, "No way am I quitting. I just pray I do not get hurt." We also turned each day into a competition with each other.
All the BUD/S classmates had their strengths and worked on the weaknesses prior to BUD/S so the weaknesses were now moderate strengths. Little victories, such as winning the obstacle course, doing the most pull-ups on the PST or swimming the fastest were daily challenges that really turned BUD/S into a competition and fun, not a torture session where we were trying just to survive each day. This is where I came up with the saying: Live to compete, not just survive. It really helped make BUD/S a series of races, as opposed to pain and torture.
When BUD/S Class 180 started the first phase, we had 120. By the time Hell Week started, we were down to fewer than 90 students in our class. People left every day for various reasons. Too cold, too much stress, too many push-ups, too much running, too many water skills -- pretty much, BUD/S will give you too much of everything.
The night before Hell Week, we were all jacked up. We forced ourselves to sleep and just waited for the late October Hell Week in 1991 to begin. BUD/S Class 180 was about to break out for Hell Week. Hundreds of rounds of blank M60 guns and many smoke and concussion grenades made us all aware Hell Week had begun.
We had about 90 start Hell Week that Sunday evening in October. We spent the first 30 minutes staying as close to our swim buddies as we can amid hundreds of reps of push-ups and flutter kicks and running to the surf zone, getting wet and sandy while the sounds of bullets/bombs and instructors with bullhorns directed your every move. We stayed wet the entire week and lost 40.
We eventually low-crawled from the Grinder to the ocean (about 200 meters, mostly on pavement) and stayed in the surf zone, locked arm and arm while singing songs in the dark for a few hours. We were cold but not freezing, but already had members from the class quitting while we were in the surf.
We got out of the water an hour or so prior to midnight. We knew we would eat roughly every six hours, and our mental goal was to make it to the next meal. So during the next two hours, we grabbed the logs and started log PT. We knew that after Hell Week, we would be done with Log PT at BUD/S so we actually were excited to start and finish our last log PT at BUD/S.
We stopped around midnight, thinking it was our last Log PT and we could go eat, but evidently the first meal would not be until 6 a.m. so we ran around with the IBS boats on our heads for a few hours and came back to the logs.
What, log PT again? We did log PT until breakfast at 6 a.m. This was about four hours of running, lifting and working together as a team and lying on our backs, half-naked on the steel pier on the bay side of Coronado. One thing Hell Week will make you do is to work together as a boat crew team, or you will suffer for not being a good team.
We actually got to eat breakfast and then continued doing another six hours of log PT. We later figured it out that our last log PT session was about 12 hours total. You still get the full benefit from log PT during Hell Week these days, I am told from recent BUD/S graduates.
So we made it through the night, got some chow and were ready to go to the next meal. The first day was spent doing four-mile timed runs as a boat crew -- you're only as fast as your slowest man -- and more surf torture and low crawls.
The whistle drills became instinctual after hundreds of times. One whistle -- drop and prepare for incoming; two whistles -- low-crawl toward the instructor. This was a constant double whistle (tweet-tweet, tweet-tweet), and you kept low-crawling until you could touch the instructor blowing the whistle. Waiting for the three-whistle blast to stand up and recover, you would get it after at least 100 yards of low crawling.
For a few months after Hell Week, I woke up low-crawling in my bed when my alarm woke me. The days got warm but not hot, but the nights got cold as we sang goodbye to the sunshine and hello to the darkness. "Goodbye, sunshine; hello, darkness," we sang every night until the instructors got tired of our voices. Then we spent the next few hours in the surf zone, either singing or doing boat races.
For as many times as I have watched or been in Coronado when Hell Week was taking place, it never failed to rain. It rained on us as well and made the nights a little colder in the air, but the water temperature actually was warmer than the air temperature so there was no sudden shock of being cold.
But you were cold -- long term and never stopped shaking. You need all the calories you can get to stay warm when you are this cold and active, so it is highly recommended to eat everything on your plate and your buddy's plate if he leaves anything for you. Stay full. Stay warm. Remember that.
There is nothing worse than the constant pounding of the boat on your head during Hell Week. You will do this for miles and pray you will be in the water soon so you can paddle instead of run. There is no good spot to get under the boat. The middle of the boat gets constant pressure on your head, and the front and the back get to bouncing on your head as you run with your six- or seven-man boat crew under the 200- to 300-pound boat.
How can you prepare? Neck exercises are smart to add into your training as well as good core workouts for your abs and lower back. I wish I would have had the TRX suspension trainer back then in my preparation phase; my back at 43 is stronger than it was at 23 due to the constant core work the TRX does for me. But some hang cleans and power cleans are good, too, if you do not have that background under your belt.
After your third day of staying awake with no sleep, you start seeing weird things; yes, hallucinating. But what really is happening is that your brain wants to go to sleep and go into a dream land, so you actually start seeing your dreams superimposed on reality. You can be talking to your buddy, and he falls asleep standing up. It is funny when he wakes up, talking gibberish.
It is also really weird to see cartoons running the obstacle course, or a little muscle man for a fire hydrant. One of our boat-crew members kept seeing a wall and trying to push off the wall during our 12-hour "around-the-world paddle." The paddle is a boat race that starts in the bay on the Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, and you have to paddle out of the bay into the Pacific Ocean and then south to BUD/S.
This takes many hours, but if you win, you actually get some sleep time. Our boat crew won and actually waited for two hours for the last boat crew to arrive and get hammered for losing. We slept under an overturned IBS on the sand, huddled together for two hours. It was probably the most comfortable sleep I have ever had.
After you bust your butt for three days, you pretty much go into zombie mode and just get things done. There is a point where there is nothing the instructors can do to hurt you. What are they going to do to you? Make you do more push-ups, get you wet and sandy and cold or make you run more?
However, there are moments toward the last half of Hell Week where you have to engage the thinking part of your brain again and actually plan mini-missions of stealth and concealment and hide from the instructors. Winners get to hang out by a huge bonfire, and you can stay with your boat crew as long as someone in the group tells jokes that make the instructors laugh. You also start running like an old man with serious chafing after 4-5 days of being wet, cold and sandy.
There are other events during Hell Week that are more fun than challenging, but I guess that depends on your mindset as you are going into and through it. BUD/S Hell Week teaches you that the human body is 10 times stronger than the mind will let it be.
You really have to turn off the rational thinking part of your brain that tells you that you need to go to sleep, rest and recover after a long day's work. You actually have to regress back to a caveman where there are no "creature comforts," but you learn to enjoy food like it is a wonderful gift. Moments of sleep feel like they are hours, and jumping into a swimming pool feels like a bath.
Regardless, finishing Hell Week still stands as the defining moment for a member of a SEAL team. You have earned the right to start training to become a SEAL after this gut check. It shows the SEALs that you want to be there, and you will not quit when needed by your team.
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 start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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