The first book I ever bought on military fitness was The Complete Guide to Navy SEAL Fitness by former Navy SEAL Stew Smith. I was a teenager, maybe 15 or 16 years old, and for me, the Navy SEALs were the epitome of physical fitness and preparation. The book contained sections on nutrition, stretching, a collection of different exercises, some information about pullups and dips, running and swimming at BUD/S, etc. But the meat of the book were the workout plans. There was a beginner, intermediate, and a 12-weeks-to-BUD/S plan. The idea was that someone would start with the beginner program, work that until they could fulfill the „entry requirements“ for the intermediate plan, do that plan until they were ready for the 12-weeks-to-BUD/S plan. You get the idea.
Boy, have military fitness books come a long way since then! I have read many more books on military fitness since my teenage days. Most of them were very thick on motto, but very thin on information. They were basically workout plans (that might have helped the author of that book pass his selection event…maybe) that were beefed up to be books. One unifying characteristic of most of these books was the fact that the workouts were usually very high in volume and contained lots of beatdown sessions. They were beyond any principles of exercise science and I am convinced that people who used them to pass their selection event succeeded despite these programs, not because of them.
Building the Elite by Jonathan Pope and Craig Weller is different. Jon, a strength and conditioning coach, and Craig, a former USN SWCC, teamed up to write what has become maybe the best book so far on military fitness and physical preparation for a SOF selection program!
I had the chance to review the book, here is what I found.
(Full disclosure: Craig and Jon provided me with a copy of the book so I could review it).
Chaos, Complexity, and Systems
Craig and Jon take a very different approach to their book than what is usually done in the realm of military fitness. Instead of launching into a story about how badass they are, or providing a list of „secret“ or „forgotten“ exercises that will „revolutionize“ someone’s preparation for selection, they talk about systems theory. Systems theory and complexity are at the heart of this book. The goal is to have the reader understand that the human body (and psyche) is an incredibly complex system and that each part of the system influences every other part as well as the whole system. It‘s not as simple as doing plan A or following diet B and voila, a new operator is born, but each person reacts differently to stimuli (in both physical and psychological realms) and workouts have to be designed with this individuality in mind.
After explaining systems theory and the role it plays in physical preparation for members of the military, the focus turns to psychology, i.e. the influence that psychological factors have on performance, especially in a selection-type event. For me, the chapters on psychology are the best parts of the book and where Craig and Jon shine. This is not the typical „you just don‘t quit“ rah rah motto talk that is so typical for a lot of the discussions on military training, with a healthy bit of anecdote mixed in. No, this is an evidence-based summary of the current research for laypeople. They don‘t simply stick to describing the status quo, but provide several exercises that can be used to work on one’s mental game. Personally, I struggle a lot with long workouts, be it runs, bikes, rucks, or a long workout in the weight room. I get bored quickly and my mind wanders, even if there is music or some other form of stimulation. I tried some of the exercises described in Building the Elite and I have to say that they worked very well. Psychological preparation, i.e. getting one’s mind ready for the ordeals of such a challenging event, is interwoven through the fabric of the whole system described in Building the Elite. This is not just a book about preparing the body but a holistic approach to preparation, giving equal emphasis to preparing the mind as well as the body. This is done via a step-by-step approach, picking up the prospective selection candidate where they are and slowly but meticulously building them up to where they need to be.
The last few chapters are about physical preparation, including nutrition. Here I have the feeling that Craig and Jon ran out of time or space, or both. It is obvious that they know what they are talking about and they tried to (and were mostly successful) to bring their thoughts onto the page in a structured way. I think the information on those pages was enough to give the reader a basic idea of the concepts, but not enough detail to be able to use those concepts. This is in contrast to the chapters on complexity and psychology. I think this was not on purpose, as is obvious from the attention paid to detail and their evidence-based approach.
I have talked to Craig about this. In regards to content, Craig said that they are working on a second edition (which should be out by the end of December) that will have a lot more content on the physical aspect of things. I have to be honest, I am a little excited about this second edition.
So far I have been very positive about the book, but of course, there are some things I did not like. For one, there were a lot of typos, especially towards the end of the book. This is not a big deal for me, especially knowing that the rest of the book was very well done. I also talked about this with Craig and he told me that the first printing (which I ended up getting), had many typos but that this was cleaned up in subsequent printings.
I was initially also very critical of Jon and Craig’s approach to nutrition. Craig and Jon posit that nutrition is an essential part of preparation (which I agree with) and propose an approach consisting of several blocks. The first block is supposed to build a foundation for good eating habits and take you below 15% body-fat. The second block is a keto diet approach with very low carb and high fat intake, lasting one to two months. The idea is to first teach and prepare the body to metabolize fats, and second to psychologically prepare for how it feels to be in a carbohydrate depleted state. The last block is a maintenance block, which is supposed to be kept up until selection.
The physiological adaptations and advantages/disadvantages of a keto-style low-carb diet are still controversially discussed in the scientific community. It is not yet clear which adaptations persist beyond the diet and which disappear once one reverts back to a higher carb intake. Exercise nutrition expert Louise Burke and her husband exercise nutrition expert John Hawley both state that fat adaptation disappears once carb intake is upped. However, a keto-style diet might lead to other adaptations, for example, enhanced mitochondrial biogenesis, which could persist.
However, the much more powerful application of the keto diet in this context, and one that is consistent with Jon and Craig’s approach to selection preparation, is using it as a tool for psychological preparation. A keto-style diet can be used to prepare prospective candidates for the rigors, the hunger, and the cravings that go along with these events, and in so doing set them up for success. Craig and Jon were successful in convincing me that this is a viable approach to nutrition in the context of selection preparation.
I think Building the Elite is a very good book and I think it might be the best book I have read in the realm of military fitness. It has a great layout and I especially love the emphasis on psychological preparation and the explanations on complexity. None of this is made-up stuff, Craig and Jon regularly cite their sources. Is it the complete guide to preparation for military selection events? No, I don‘t think so. At least not yet. However, I think it is a very good starting point on the journey. I am excited for the second edition of Building the Elite, where I hope Craig and Jon will go into much more detail on physical preparation.
I strongly recommend Building the Elite.