Naval Special Warfare Sailors are warfighters first, and must always be ready to respond to conflicts worldwide. The constant workload of training and exercising can take a toll on the human body, so in order for NSW personnel to remain physically prepared for their next missions, many operators and support personnel participate in a program called Ultimate Human Performance.
The chief executive officer and head coach of UHP, Joseph Hippensteel, has trained more than 1,000 special warfare and special boat operators in his program since it started four years ago. UHP trains athletes how to stretch properly and how to obtain certain standards in flexibility.
“What we do is teach advanced training methods,” said Hippensteel. “[The] first thing we do is educate the operators that there are four pillars of fitness. We have strength, conditioning, cardio and flexibility, and virtually everyone we worked with so far has been deficient in flexibility.”
This knowledge has far-reaching effects on operational readiness. “To have operational longevity and to be ready, operators can’t have aches and pains,” said Hippensteel. “The pain, if severe enough, will limit the operator’s capabilities. These ranges of motion [promoted in UHP] take them back to what all kids can do, and UHP likes to think of the program as getting operators back to the condition of teenagers, when nothing used to hurt.”
Because being elite Navy commandos requires a tough training regimen, Hippensteel and his team focus on helping operators reach their potential. “You can train hard, but without these ranges of motion, you have deficiency, therefore dysfunction, therefore pain,” said Hippensteel.
Hippensteel has a bachelor’s in physical education with an emphasis on physiology/ kinesiology and biology. However, he said his education for this program was not learned through books but through his personal struggle to accomplish his Olympic aspirations.
“The main part of my education for what I do now was created through my training program, running for many years and being a small guy without the talent to make it to the Olympic team,” said Hippensteel.
Hippensteel, only 5’8” and 168 lbs, trained for 30 years for the decathlon. His commitment to training for the Olympics had him training eight to ten hours a day, five days a week. Although he never achieved his goal of making it to the Olympics, he developed intense and creative training programs to enhance the performance of the human body.
“The main thing is, I kept training,” he said. “I have literally put in 30,000 hours of [research and development] trying to figure out how to improve a Volkswagen to go to the Indianapolis 500.”
Hippensteel’s determination to improve others’ physical well-being is demonstrated during each session, as he moves from one operator and enabler to another to make sure they do each exercise to the UHP standard and improve at a healthy rate. While in BUD/S, candidates are challenged to push themselves to the next level and, as the saying goes, “power through it.”
In the UHP program, operators cannot have a “power through it” mentality, as that mindset can inflict more injury. Operators are limited to stretching only to a moderate pain level in order to effectively work their way up to the standard of flexibility and range of motion prescribed by UHP.
One Navy SEAL assigned to a West Coast-based SEAL Team started the program more than 2 years ago when, after a 400 meter run, his back seized up and he could barely walk.
“I walked straight up to a stretch lab,” he said. “Throughout language school and several months after, I spent a lot of time in here and my back opened up. I was able to run with no problems.”
Knowing how your body works and how it should be functioning is another plus of this program.
“This keeps you physically ready by mitigating injuries, but it also keeps you tuned to your body, and you can feel something coming on quicker just because you focus on it more,” the SEAL said. “You start performing like an athlete, asking yourself, ‘How do you perform at the optimal level?’”
The SEAL said he appreciates the services that Hippensteel and the UHP team provide for him and his teammates.
“I think the instructors are great, very knowledgeable and have a lot of experience,” he said. “Working with a professional athlete makes all the difference in the world.”
UHP is funded as a resource to supplement physical therapy by the Navy SEAL Foundation, a benevolent organization dedicated to supporting NSW operators, support personnel and families.
“I think that it is great that the Foundation funds this, because it allows this program to operate freely to the most benefit for the operators and their support,” said the SEAL. Once trained in this program, operators and support personnel can take it wherever they go.
“I have taken what I learned here and applied it while I was out on deployment in Afghanistan and Kuwait,” said the SEAL. “[My Teammates] see me stretching all the time; they usually wonder why, and then I can get on my soapbox and tell them.”
Awareness about UHP is spread through word of mouth, and UHP has grown at a steady success rate ever since it started four years ago. UHP hopes to expand services to East Coast-based SEAL teams and detachments around the world.
“Our goal would be to penetrate even deeper into NSW and ultimately be able to hit as close to 100 percent of the operators as possible and their support personnel,” said Hippensteel. “We are honored to be able to support NSW,” he said. “The operators have proven their level of commitment, and I am grateful we are able to do this for them.”