By the time a U.S. Navy SEAL makes it into combat, he is a finely honed instrument of war. He’s a ruggedly built, deadly practitioner of combat who is unflinching in the face of danger. His archetypal superhero physique speaks to the tremendous physical strength, stamina, and durability that are emblematic of these elite operators. Before a SEAL is made, however, he must be unmade— deconstructed, one humbling training exercise at a time.

Yet it is not the sets and reps alone that test a SEAL’s constitution and reveal his mettle. It is also those moments of fatigue when perseverance wars with capitulation, when the realities of human limitation must be consciously and repeatedly dismissed for the sake of mission. And here, in the quiet, well-to-do enclave of Encinitas, CA, civilians and aspiring SEALs alike get to fight those battles every day. Welcome to SEALFIT.


SEALFIT’s 20,000-square-foot training complex lies just a block away from the Pacific Ocean and is a short drive from Naval Base Coronado, whose shores are the first stop for SEALs-in-the-making. The complex features housing for clients, a yoga studio, an expansive flat-top area flanked by pullup towers for outdoor training (the Grinder) and a 1,000-squarefoot box for CrossFit and TRX ( — none of which will be wasted today. It’s 0630 in this sleepy suburb, the humid, salty air carrying the faint sound of waves kissing the beach.

Navy SEAL pushups

But as a small white-teed army of participants (read: willing victims) prepares for Day 3 of its 16-day residential Special Ops Immersion Academy, that serenity is replaced with the shuffling of boots, the dropping of barbells, and the audio-caffeinated musical stylings of Rob Zombie.

The man running the show is retired Navy SEAL Mark Divine, author of 8 Weeks to SEALFIT, which landed on the New York Times best-seller list earlier this year. He spent 20 years as a SEAL, retiring as a commander in 2011, but is now fully entrenched in the business of helping others realize their full human potential. Divine, 51, is tall and lean but more approachable than you might expect from such a tested warrior. The physical component, he assures us, is just a small part of it.

“SEALFIT training is really about developing five mountains,” says Divine, who spent time as a CPA before answering his calling as a SEAL at age 25. “Physical, mental, emotional, intuitional, and spiritual. We integrate aspects of these five into the workout. You’re not just working out. You’re not just developing physically. You’re developing as a whole person.”

SEAL Team standards chart

Still, the physical results are quickly apparent. Depending on the program, Divine says, participants tend to walk away from SEALFIT carrying five to 10 pounds more muscle and looking leaner than ever—in days or weeks.


After some initial breathing drills, yoga, and mobility work, the Grinder rumbles to life with the prescribed “warmup” of 30 sandbag getups and stepups using a 70-pound sandbag and a 24-inch box, which is about as awkward as it sounds. But SEAL training, by design, is expansive and covers multiple physical domains. It’s not enough to be able to swim farther and faster than the other guy. You have to be exceptional at everything to be of any use to a SEAL team.

“SEALs operate in very small units, deep behind enemy lines, in all terrains in rough environments,” says Divine. “You have to have a very broad athletic skill set. If you come into SEALs as a bodybuilder or an endurance runner, you won’t succeed until you morph into a more hybrid athlete. You need the strength, stamina, and functional mobility. It’s the training that weeds out those who can’t adapt. It is no different here at SEALFIT.”

Yes, this multifaceted approach is aesthetically and evidentially productive for most athletes (see: CrossFit), but it just plain makes for a more durable athlete: “Durability increases survivability in the world of the SEAL and therefore cannot be overlooked,” Divine says.

Beau Burgener was one of the first men to go through SEALFIT and then go on to become a SEAL. He’s still heavily involved in developing the school’s programming.

“On the physical side of things, it teaches you to embrace the suck and get comfortable being uncomfortable,” Burgener says. “It teaches you to push the boundaries and shows you what your body is capable of handling.”

But this academy isn’t full of aspiring SEALs like Burgener. Participants range in age from 17 to 42, with most having taken time off work (and life) to be here. Those breaking a sweat this morning include, among others, an avionics technician, a student, a software engineer, an industrial engineer and a greens maintenance tech. Two participants are current military, including a female soldier and a Marine hoping to make the jump to SEAL. All have joined here for some of the most grueling training known to man or beast, electing to suffer physical and even verbal beatdowns from Divine’s cadre of instructors.

Coach Derek Price, a chiropractic doctor and former Detroit Lions tight end, lays into one athlete for having his hands on his hips after a set of heavy barbell overhead presses, penalizing the entire class with 30 burpees at day’s end.

“We want them to stay present in each moment,” he says, as the group continues through its 10 sets of three. “Putting their hands on their hips or knees is a sign that they’re checking out and that’s not acceptable.”

Minutes later, Price jabs another participant for using his legs to get through a rep. “Try to be stronger. If you were stronger, you wouldn’t have to do that.” Divine states that SEALFIT training allows you to “work near peak output for extended periods of time for unknown rest periods.” This comes in pretty handy for a Special Forces operator engaged in a firefight and not knowing when reinforcements might arrive. For the rest of us, it serves as a brutal gut check. The next phase, or evolution, called for the class to perform 20 minutes’ worth of work, circuit style.

Navy SEAL sandbag carry

The first move alone—the Curtis P—carried a heavy demand. This barbell-based maneuver calls for participants to do a power clean followed by a lunge on each leg from the rack position and is capped off with a push press. That’s one rep. Five of those at 95 pounds, followed by 10 body-weight dips, and 15 “wall ball” throws—repeat this as many times as possible for 20 minutes.
Instructors shout out motivational phrases for the class to repeat:
“Easy day!”
“Love this!”
“Looking good. Feeling good. Ought to be in Hollywood!”

And with each hooyah, the class digs deeper. The 20-minute mark passes, but Divine urges them to continue. And they do.


The class gets something of a break after work-capacity training. Grabbing some open real estate on the Grinder, they partake in a little yoga with Divine. But each man (and woman) is wrecked, and even the most basic of poses prove to be a labor.

“Will yourself to recover,” Divine says. Then, after hearing a few groans he adds, “But suffer in silence.” Enter the water hose.

Coach Price takes to blasting participants in the face, one at a time, with a steady stream of H2O. Some of the participants look relieved, others irritated. But it’s all part of the experience. As during BUD/S— the initial 24-week phase of SEAL training—candidates must be separated from their sense of self for the sake of the team. They must be broken and rebuilt, something that Divine says is both necessary and incredibly valuable.

“We want to see if they have the ability to sustain well under that pressure,” Divine says. “My instructors are masterful at taking you to the breaking point and pointing out to you why you’re breaking, and then giving you the tools to step over that chasm. Anytime they face that again, they understand how to dig deep inside and do it on their own. For a civilian who doesn’t have the chance to go to SEAL training, that’s incredibly hard, but I get calls from people years later saying how it’s helped them, not just physically but in life, in relationships, and in business because they’ve gone through these crucible experiences with us where, afterward, nothing seems difficult anymore.”

Navy SEAL barbell lunge


The sanitized trappings of franchise gyms have produced plenty of great physiques over the years. But there is a trend afoot to decontemporize common training methods in favor of grittier, more primal techniques. And at 0950, after 20 minutes of group sprints in an adjacent alley, the class gets to work with battling ropes, tractor tires, sledgehammers, and logs.

In another homage to BUD/S, students gather in teams of four with a 350-pound log and await commands. Retired Navy SEAL and master training specialist Lance Cummings coaches groups through various team exercises with the log including alternating overhead presses, squats, and team log burpees. If one man falls out of sync, someone is catching lumber on their boot. “This teaches them to stay focused and draw energy from one another,” says Divine. That concept of mutual reliance is further tested a half-hour later when the entire class embarks on a pilgrimage to the beach…via buddy carry. Alternating who does the carrying every hundred yards or so, the class makes it down to the Pacific for surf torture.

In what is maybe the most familiar component of known Navy SEAL training, instructors order the class out into the breaking waves, then back onto the sand, where they must roll around and actively try to get as much sand on their bodies as possible before performing more calisthenics, causing what one instructor called an “ungodly amount of chafing in places you don’t even want to know about.” Then it’s a bear crawl back to the surf and onto their backs, faceup, arms interlocked, head to the water as the tide rolls in. More than a little seawater makes its way into mouths and noses, but the class is unshaken.

Surf torture finally comes to an end. Participants line up in formation for a jog back to the compound, where they must now keep pace with their fresh-legged instructors.

This closes the book on the first half of Day 3. Just 13 more to go. You may not have the ambition of joining the world’s most fearsome fighting force, but you can still train like it and, in the process, cultivate a warrior spirit. Muscle failure equals mission success, and that holds true whether you’re grinding it out in your garage gym or tracking down high-value targets in the Hindu Kush.