Pitt, UPMC, U.S. Navy Unveil Center to Enhance Navy SEALs’ Performance, Lives

Issue Date: 
April 27, 2008

Sports medicine and training advances developed for elite athletes now are being used to protect and enhance the performance and lives of the elite U.S. Navy SEALs.

Top officials from the University of Pittsburgh and Naval Special Warfare unveiled on April 19 a new Human Performance Research Laboratory, the first facility of its kind within the U.S. Navy, to be applied specifically to Naval Special Warfare Group TWO’s East Coast-based Navy SEALs. The laboratory is located at the U.S. Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, Norfolk, Va.

Designed by sports medicine researchers at Pitt and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), the new Human Performance Research Laboratory will study injuries and training techniques of the SEALs to optimize their tactical readiness. Researchers aim to reduce the incidence of preventable musculoskeletal injuries during training, combat, and recreation; enhance force readiness by maximizing the effects of training to reduce fatigue and optimize performance; and prolong the operational life as well as enhance quality of life after service. The lab uniquely combines important advances in sports medicine science with the traditional excellence of the Navy’s most elite warriors.

With a $2.1 million U.S. Department of Defense grant, awarded to the Pitt research team over 2.5 years, the 2,200-square-foot laboratory employs state-of-the-art biomechanical and physiological instrumentation and techniques currently used for elite athletes. The new laboratory is modeled after Pitt’s Neuromuscular Research Laboratory, a world-renowned facility for sports injury prevention and performance enhancement, located at the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine in Pittsburgh. Since 1990, the center’s scientists have studied and published research findings involving athletes’ body positioning and neuromuscular control as they relate to injury and performance.

“The operator himself is the most important weapons system of Naval Special Warfare,” said Captain Chaz Heron, commander of Naval Special Warfare Group TWO. “We are always seeking ways to improve our operators’ success on the battlefield. The last thing I want as a leader is for my men to be engaged in a fair fight. I want every advantage possible to give my operators a better chance for success on the battlefield. We’re optimistic the research and practical applications from our Human Performance Research Laboratory will achieve just that, while improving the quality of life for our SEALs after their service.”

Physical training and conditioning are the greatest cumulative source of acute and chronic injuries in this group, according to Pitt’s Scott Lephart, the grant’s principal investigator and director of the new lab. Lephart is a professor in the Department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition in Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (SHRS) and in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery in Pitt’s School of Medicine, and founding director of Pitt’s Neuromuscular Research Laboratory, located in the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine.

“As with an elite athletic team, musculoskeletal injuries significantly limit the war-fighting capability and readiness of the Naval Special Warfare combatant force. Optimal physical training and conditioning are the cornerstones of the maintenance of the weapons platform of the Navy SEAL operator,” Lephart said.

“Collaborating with Dr. Lephart’s research team will enable us to identify potential gaps in current programs and develop a coordinated physical training continuum that is specific to Naval Special Warfare to prepare for their unique missions. This will achieve a critical doctrinal change in human performance strategies,” Heron said. “The new laboratory will provide the impetus and vehicle to deliver Naval Special Warfare Group TWO SEALs with the next level of individual operator performance and overall musculoskeletal longevity,” he added.

Under Lephart’s direction, the lab is staffed by exercise physiologist Greg Hovey and certified athletic trainer Anthony Zimmer, both from Pitt. Lephart’s coprincipal investigators are John Abt and Timothy Sell, both professors in the Department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition in Pitt’s SHRS.

The first SEAL (Sea, Air, Land) teams were commissioned in 1962. Because of the dangers inherent in Naval Special Warfare, prospective SEALs go through what is considered by many military experts to be among the toughest training in the world. The most important trait that distinguishes Navy SEALs from all other military forces is that SEALs are maritime special forces—they strike from and return to the sea. Their stealth and clandestine methods of operation allow them to conduct multiple missions against targets that larger forces cannot approach undetected. There are approximately 2,600 SEALs in the Navy today, supporting at least six geographic combatant regions around the world on any given day. Only men can serve as Navy SEALs.