One day in August, I got up well before the sun and drove over to Darden Towe Park, where I pulled in next to a small group of cars and joined a growing gaggle of people stretching, jogging, and chatting. Within 15 minutes I was face down in a dew-soaked field doing push-ups beside nearly 50 Charlottesville residents, all of whom had signed up for the same rigorous SEAL Team PT (STPT) workout.
By the time I finished a mile-and-a-half run an hour later, my head and shoulders hung as I tried to catch my breath. My arms and legs were covered in grass and dirt, my shirt and shorts soaked. After dismissing all of us for the day, the fitness program’s instructor and founder, John McGuire, pulled me aside.
“I read body language, and I like to think I’m good at it,” he said, standing beside his black Hummer. “You shouldn’t let it get you down that you can’t do certain exercises as well as you’d like.”
He was right. I felt defeated. I could only manage 20 sit-ups in a minute, for instance, and the last three felt like someone was sitting on my chest, but I wasn’t aware that my frustration was obvious. Was he that intuitive? Had my body betrayed me?
I studied him for a second. Unlike the stereotypical image I had of a Navy SEAL —big, brutish, and bald—McGuire is a small, neat man with close-cropped brown hair. With his blue STPT shirt tucked into his running shorts, he looks more like an accountant than someone who used to risk his life protecting the country. But his reserved demeanor doesn’t hide his intensity, maybe it even enhances it. I felt like he was calling me out, and as I got back in my car, I was determined to come back and conquer the next day’s session.
For decades now, America has been captured by successive fitness crazes. When I was growing up, Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons were making millions pushing aerobics, before that it was Jim Fixx and jogging. In the 1990s Tae Bo came along, infusing martial arts into aerobics. As Americans, the kind of exercise we prefer is a sign of the times.
The Internet and digital media have overloaded our senses—effectively giving us each our own version of Attention Deficit Disorder—and our exercise programs have followed suit. These days there is “muscle confusion,” which is employed by the home exercise system P90X and “constant variation,” which is the concept behind CrossFit. While termed differently, both follow the idea that our muscles must constantly be kept guessing by varying exercises so that our bodies will be dissuaded from adapting to the workout regime and hitting a plateau.
“I just do push-ups,” John McGuire is fond of saying, and while there are plenty of those to be had in his program, his statement belies the fact that STPT is very much in line with other current fitness programs. Over the course of my two weeks, each day involved a rotation of various exercises that was never the same twice. For instance, my second day started with a run. Then we crunched out incline sit-ups, followed by some tricep dips, then more running. A minute after that interval, I was doing push-ups in the grass, before flipping over to do leg lifts.
SEAL Team PT, the fitness program John McGuire derived from his experiences as a Navy SEAL, emphasizes a collective commitment to a grueling exercise schedule that forces participants to push past their personal limits. The program meets at parks in and around Charlottesville and begins close to sunup. Above, members of SEAL Team PT brave the frost as they’re put through the paces during a recent session at Walnut Creek Park in North Garden.
With its incorporation of constantly shifting exercises (and sites…we met at a different park each session) STPT is surely of its time, but there is nothing necessarily remarkable in that—so are Justin Bieber and skinny jeans, so were leg warmers and Duran Duran. Instead, it’s the timeless elements of the program that make it work, like STPT’s emphasis on teamwork, a concept McGuire gleaned from his Navy SEAL training. From day one, SEAL trainees’ focus is placed on the value of the whole, not the individual, and this is repeatedly illustrated with tasks that are impossible for a single person to accomplish, but feasible for a team.
A born misanthrope, I initially scoffed at the idea that teamwork could be an organizing principle for my own physical transformation. During my run on the first day, a couple different STPT members uttered an encouraging “Hooyah” in my direction as they passed. “At first I thought it was a little cheesy,” said Melissa Levy, who started the same day as me. Initially, so did I, but by the second week, I caught myself exhorting others with the Navy SEAL war cry as they struggled to finish a run.
“It takes everyone for a team to succeed, but only one for a team to fail” is another of McGuire’s sayings that gets repeatedly drilled into our heads by the instructors. “You will do more with a team than you will on your own” is another twist on the same message. Either way you spin it, the slogan captures STPT’s ethos, the idea that anyone can do push-ups and sit-ups by themselves but with the help of others they can do more.
Sea, Air and Land Teams
In the late 1990s, at the end of a decade serving as a Navy SEAL, and after one particularly long mission in South America, John McGuire returned home to find his young daughter crouched under the kitchen table. She was hiding from him. “She didn’t know who I was,” he says. So he quit the SEALs to work on his family instead. That decision brought to a close a chapter of McGuire’s life that had remade him.
Ten years prior, McGuire was in high school when he came across a magazine called Gung-Ho that featured the Navy SEALS on the cover and depicted them as the toughest men alive on its inside pages. Suddenly, he knew his life’s purpose. “I wanted the ultimate challenge,” he says. “I wanted to see how far I could go.”
Now he had a new challenge—finding a life apart from the SEALs. Adrift, McGuire enrolled in some college courses and found work with a cell phone company where his boss was out-of-shape, and, worse, mentally weak. “He couldn’t look me in the eye,” McGuire says, so he started training him. “It was such a great feeling that I was impacting someone’s life like that,” he said. The idea for a fitness class started to come together.
A year later, McGuire quit his job and started SEAL Team PT, an exercise program that would take the ethos of Navy SEAL training but soften it for the everyday person—not the easiest task as it turned out. Initially, it was a bust. For the first class, five people showed up and no one came back. “I had to go back to the drawing board,” he said, “over and over again.” McGuire immersed himself in motivational books and drew from inspirational figures in his own life—his high school wrestling coach, a geology teacher—and of course all the military training.
He did whatever it took to pay the bills, tasks like shoveling snow and raking leaves. After a year of experimentation, he emerged with the simple but effective idea of an hour long class to be held five days a week (during the work week), conducted outside in parks so it would require little to no equipment. It would be open to everyone and allow participants to go at their own pace.
With that template in place, STPT started to click with people, then thrive. Today, there are three classes held per day in Richmond with 250 regulars attending the morning session. In August 2009, he expanded to Charlottesville—where a morning class is held from 6:15-7:15 five days a week—and more recently to Washington, D.C. There are plans for one in Philadelphia, too, and it’s entirely conceivable that the class could spread across the country.
Winning bodies and minds
On my fifth day at STPT, a new exercise was introduced that involved a handful of us lifting one prostrate person above our heads and then thrusting them skyward. Thankfully, a 5′, 100 pound woman named Annie Kim gave our deltoids a bit of a break.
“I get lifted or carried at least a couple of times a week,” Kim said. “It can be work for your neck muscles, but I enjoy it. I get to look up at the sky a lot more than I ever have.”
I experienced the same sensation the following Monday when we ran out of women to hoist. I wouldn’t normally appreciate that many hands on my body, but with my arms pointing upward, I got shoved towards the blue sky and clouds, and it was exhilarating.
Truthfully, there didn’t seem to be any great exercise benefit to this, but it united a group of us in a common task. The next day there were more team-oriented routines, like one where two of us clasped forearms to form a makeshift seat for a third person, whom we grabbed by the ankles and lugged a good hundred feet. After one such exercise, our passenger, Diana Branscome, offered up a humorous reference to a Monty Python skit. “What is the airspeed velocity of an un-laden swallow?” she asked. “Well, you guys were laden.”
“The camaraderie is what I really value,” Branscome said a few days later as I sat in her warehouse studio located off of Avon Street, watching as she laid out shards of blue glass taken from old Riesling bottles collected from bars and restaurants around town. From these, Branscome creates ornate and detailed items like lamp shades and bowls that are sold at places like C’ville Arts on the Downtown Mall and in cities as far away as Denver and Atlanta. She had tried various exercise regimes before settling in with STPT. “The only thing that gets me out there in the morning is that I’m going to see my friends.”
Everyone I talked to expressed a similar sentiment: There’s something about rolling around in the wet grass and dirt with other people that creates a bond. You don’t worry about what anybody looks like, or how they might smell, or even larger things, like whether the person holding your ankles while you do sit-ups is Muslim or Christian. It even breaks down class barriers.
“I have teenage kids call me by my first name,” Pat McCann said of his mornings with STPT. I assume that doesn’t happen to the Chief Financial Officer at the University of Virginia Foundation very often, but at Seal Team workouts, “we’re all equal,” he said.
That same idea is something that Sebastian Junger elaborates on in his recent book WAR, a chronicle of his time with a battalion operating in the most dangerous part of Afghanistan. “[M]en can completely remake themselves in war,” he writes. “You could be anything back home—shy, ugly, rich, poor, unpopular—and it won’t matter because it’s of no consequence in a firefight, and therefore of no consequence, period.” To compare what we were doing to soldiers risking their lives is ludicrous, but our training was distilled from the military experience, and as everyday non-enlisted people we were being pushed to our physical limits and falling back on our peers for emotional support. “The only thing that matters is your level of dedication to the rest of the group,” Junger continues, “and that is almost impossible to fake.”
McGuire discovered how real the devotion was in October 2006 when he suffered a horrific accident. He was bouncing on a trampoline with his daughter when he tried to do a back flip and landed wrong, breaking the C4 vertebrae in his neck. He was not supposed to live through the first night, then was told he would be paralyzed and never again use his arms and legs.
As he struggled with his diagnosis, he was swamped by visitors, many of them students from his class. “They wouldn’t let me get depressed,” he said. A year later, he was walking. Today, McGuire is still weak in his right arm and leg, but doctors tell him his survival was a miracle, that only 1 percent of people accomplish that type of recovery from the injury he suffered.
While the outside support helped, it would not have been enough to triumph over death and paralysis. That would have required pulling from somewhere deep within, and while it’s tempting to attribute this to the steel will he developed as a Navy SEAL, the source of his inner strength is just as likely to have sprung from the positive thinking model he created while honing his fitness class.
During the first year, he spent a good deal of time studying motivational books and it shows in how he communicates. Instead of barking like a drill instructor, he’s more likely to say something that could come from Tony Robbins.
“He’s very good at giving people little victories that help them move on,” said Scott Donald, another instructor with STPT who initially started out as a basic member. “He’s very good at instilling mental confidence, and encouraging people to push their limits.”
I discovered that when McGuire pulled me aside my first morning. If he had come at me with a different approach, I might have just shrunk away. By combining his Navy SEAL self with a New Age way of thinking and speaking, he has transformed into a guru who can theoretically kick your ass. “I want to impact as many lives as possible before I run out of breath,” he said. And I believed him.
“If you do what you always did, you’ll get what you always got” is another maxim John McGuire regularly dispenses, and like his other sayings, it smacks of self-help books. But it’s also the core truth of the program: You get out what you put in.
The most famous example of this is Richmond resident Brooke Page who was 315 pounds (and 28 years old) when she joined STPT. “They literally took me under their wing,” she told a Richmond TV station. “They helped me, and motivated me.” At last count, she had lost 137 pounds and appeared on the national TV show “Dr. Oz” five times to show off her incredible transformation, the last time posing in a swimsuit.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney for Albemarle County Elliott “Jay” Casey had a similar tale to tell. “I was a total wreck,” Casey said. “I was falling asleep in the middle of the day.” So he joined STPT. After a year-and-a-half of early morning workouts, he was a different guy. “I feel like I have a new body,” said the 37-year-old. “I can do stuff I couldn’t do when I was 25.” For instance, he went from being able to do 25 sit-ups in two minutes to more than 100.
Moreover, Casey said his physical transformation has imbued him with an overall self-confidence, convincing him that he can overcome any obstacle in life, and “that I should not shy away from doing something hard,” he said. “Difficult is not impossible.”
“I just had a newborn and I want to be around when he grows up,” Christian Ramsburg told me on day four, when I was paired with the computer programmer for a sit-up drill. Sporting glasses, short brown hair, and a rotund belly, he at first reminds me of a character from the 1999 film Office Space. Yet, on that morning, he crunched out nine sit-ups, eight more than my aching abs allowed me. These days he’s up to 45.
“I used to be at the very back, and when I’d run I’d feel like knives were being stuck in my legs,” he said. Ramsburg joined in the early summer and could not even do one sit-up. “I can tell that I’m getting stronger.” By October, he’d lost 30 pounds.
I am not looking for a total makeover of that sort, just a bump in my physical capacity. In the last few years I’ve tried to bike and run, but have tired of the routine and, recently, I have had trouble getting motivated to exercise at all. “If it’s boredom, this’ll get rid of it,” Casey said. That is certainly true, the variety of exercises and the pace prevent any sort of tedium. If only it didn’t hurt so much.
“If you say you’re sore, then you’re bragging” is another saying that McGuire likes to repeat, and it’s supposed to be funny—and I guess it is—but not when every part of your upper torso aches, as mine did by the middle of my first week with STPT. That Tuesday night, I made sure to get to bed early, hoping that my throbbing muscles would heal overnight, but when I woke I was in so much pain that I had to literally roll off and out of bed. I could not sit up. My stomach had apparently been replaced with a big slab of pulverized meat, and my triceps felt so tight I thought they might explode.
Fortunately, Wednesday’s workout focused on legs, so there were lunges, sprints, sideways running, broad jumps, and a bear crawl. There were also lots of push-ups and sit-ups. I could barely do any of either and was mystified when an older man was called up to the front of the class and told to pump out his age in push-ups, plus one to grow on. Fifty-four reps later my mouth was agape as he finished.
“You weren’t paying attention to my form,” Stephen Arata said a couple weeks later, trying to deflect my praise. A professor of 19th- and 20th-century literature at UVA since 1990, he joined STPT in June 2010. “I was super sore at first,” Arata added, trying to make me feel better about my low pain threshold.
After that morning’s workout, I returned home and had to have help taking my t-shirt off because I couldn’t raise my arms over my head. Suddenly, a story I’d heard of a past member made sense, that of a woman who was in a similar dilemma. As the tale went, she could not lift her hands over her head to wash her hair in the shower, so instead she squeezed shampoo on the wall and rubbed her head in it. That’s funny, but again, not necessarily in the moment.
By the end of my fourth SEAL Team workout I was thinking of quitting. Not only was I in serious pain but I was exhausted by the afternoon every day. Then I checked myself: I was there to write a story, walking away would not go over too well with my editor. So I made an adjustment.
The next day, I started to pace myself. I didn’t care if my fitness partner was shaming me with the amount of incline sit-ups she could do while I only managed one. I had to be able to walk around relatively pain free, and I needed to be able to hold my 12 pound newborn baby when I got home. On Wednesday, I couldn’t even do that.
Then something surprising happened. The weekend break allowed my muscles to recover (at least a bit) and by the middle of my second week, I was starting to acclimate. The overarching soreness had dissipated. I still hurt, yes, but I was getting used to the physical fatigue.
Mentally, it was stimulating. The fact that I could take whatever STPT was throwing my way made me feel like a warrior. “SEAL Team PT reminds people to live,” McGuire said one of those last mornings, and I didn’t disagree. His class was starting to take over my life. When each session ended I would return home to drink voluminous quantities of water over the course of the day. I was also watching what I ate and foregoing alcohol altogether. My body was becoming a temple.
Then it all came crashing down. I had only signed up for the two-week introductory fitness class (to write this story), so my growing sense of invincibility quickly subsided. With my STPT stint now finished over two months ago, I’m back to struggling to jog regularly, and, truth be told, drinking more beers in a week than I do push-ups. I might have continued with it, but my workday starts at 7:30am, and that early morning time is also my only window to write. McGurire said he’s going to start running a 6pm class five nights a week in Charlottesville. But then there’s the cost. I don’t have $70 to cough up a month.
These sound like excuses, though, and today, it almost seems ridiculous that I was starting to consider myself part of an elite team of extremely fit people. Although it’s hard to admit, I’m not sure I’m the right type of person for STPT. It takes a real single-minded focus to show up morning after morning (especially in the dead of winter), the kind of focus that translates to the rest of life. Most of my classmates had that quality. They were financial directors, surgeons, attorneys, and so forth. Me? I’m just a lowly freelance writer.
If I keep thinking like that, though, then I’ve learned nothing from McGuire. Maybe I should join SEAL Team PT as a regular, and perhaps it would transform me. With abs like diamonds I’d finally tackle the book I’ve always wanted to write. Yeah, I think I could do it, as long as I had McGuire encouraging me. “We all have negative stuff in our lives,” he’d say. “Let’s put it aside and get a great workout.”