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SEAL STRONG: Meet the Former Navy SEAL Who’s Whipping Hollywood Into Shape

Duffy Gaver is a former Marine sniper, Navy SEAL, and veteran of Operation Desert Storm. Today, he’s a stuntman and highly sought-after trainer to Hollywood’s biggest stars. Duffy says there’s only one reason you’re still out of shape: You’re not being honest with yourself about what you can really do. If you ever have the opportunity to talk to him, it helps if you’re dressed for the gym when you do. The 51 year-old speaks with such authority and passion that he’ll immediately make you want to run through a brick wall—or at least run, period.
When Brad Pitt got in the shape of his life for the role of Achilles in 2004’s Troy, it was Gaver who was pushing his buttons in the gym. Ditto Toby Maguire for Spider-Man, Scarlett Johansson for Avengers, and Chris Hemsworth for Thor. He’s never met an excuse he couldn’t see right through, or a lazy client he couldn’t shame into working harder. RI Magazine caught up with Gaver while he was working on the upcoming Spider-Man Homecoming to discuss what everyone can learn from his military service and his work with Hollywood’s elite.

RI Magazine: Your celebrity clients have had such incredible success. What’s one thing that they all have in common?

Duffy Gaver: They always show up ready to work, no matter what’s going on. That is a big similarity between the film industry and the military that people might not realize. In the military, you don’t ever call in sick to work. The film industry’s the same way. There is no “I can’t do it today.”

A big budget film is spending millions of dollars a day. You can’t quit on that. I know people look at the factors in the film industry and what some people are paid, and they think, “What do they really do that’s so hard?” But most people can’t understand what it’s like to have a $200 million film resting on the fact that you had better show up to work. When it comes to training for one of those roles, it doesn’t dawn on the actor that they might quit along the way or come up short. They’re going to get it done no matter what. By the way, the ones that do quit, you don’t see them anymore.

RI: But regular folks quit all the time. How do you motivate them? Does the military background help?

DG: Obviously, the way I come across has some bearing on the outcome. One story comes to mind. This is a conversation I had with a woman 17 years ago, because she really looked at me and the people I had trained as being one type of person, and she saw herself as being a different type of person. As if we were born athletes, and she was born not to be an athlete.

I sat her down on a beach. I sat next to her, and I said, “Feel your leg right here.” She touched her quads and then I had her touch mine. I said, “Those are your quads, and those are my quads, and they’re exactly the same. My muscles are built out of the same tissue as yours are. They connect at all the same spots, they do all the same functions. The only difference is I take mine out, and I work them all the time. You haven’t done that, but now you will.”

I was trying to break that negative preconceived notion that a lot of people have, which is that they are one type of person, and those other people who succeed are another type of person. That’s nonsense.

You can get into the whole issue of different body types, but that’s just coming up with excuses. Because as much as you can say that one person is predisposed to being fat, that person is also predisposed to carrying a boat load of muscle if they challenge themselves. If a person is predisposed to being rail thin, the muscle that they do build will be shredded; it’ll look incredible. You can speak to it in negative terms, or you can speak to the positives of your body type.

RI: You’ve been very critical of the fitness industry in the past, saying there’s more industry than fitness. What do you mean by that?

DG: The fitness industry has no interest in getting you fit. It only wants to get bigger and sell you more things. What they want is to make you feel f—ed up and inferior so you’ll buy their shit.

“You should look like this guy, but you don’t, which is pathetic, so buy this jar of stuff.”

“You’re a woman so you should have big boobs, and a ripped stomach, and a tight butt, or you’re totally inferior, so buy this pill.”

RI: You’re also a big champion of old-school, no-frills workouts. Do you dislike new equipment?

DG: Don’t get me wrong, equipment in and of itself is not a problem. If you can use it to stay motivated, that’s great. If I have a client and we have to travel, and we’ve got a hotel gym with all different equipment than we’re used to, I tell them to look at it as a challenge to use all the new stuff. If you can get away from the marketing of it, that’s perfect.

But the problem is, running used to be this: “Hey, you want to go for a run?” “Yeah sure, cool.” Just two guys, out running, with no preconceived notion of what it has to be. One day you’re a little faster than me, and I think, “Shit, I gotta go faster.” You push me and I push you. We’re happy as can be about running.

But now it’s, “You should have this kind of heart rate monitor, you should be in this heart zone, you should be using these orthotics, you should be running in these barefoot shoes…” The “should” has everybody staying at home, too freaked out to go to the gym.

RI: How can you tell when someone has bought into your philosophy?

DG: You see the lights coming on in their head. It’s that clear. When I was working with Brad Pitt I told him, “Discomfort is where all this change takes place.” He grabbed a grease pen and wrote it on the gym wall. At that moment, I thought, “This is going to get done.”

Then I trained other people where three months in, you hand them an EZ curl bar, and they look at you like, “Are we doing squats?” You’re amazed. You wonder how someone can be this absent. I get that you have a busy life. I get that you have stuff going on, but we’ve been doing this same workout and every time I hand you this bar, we do curls. By the same token, they get the results they deserve. Which, again, is whatever result they’re ready for. Everybody can only get what they’re ready to have.

RI: Why did you join the Marines?

DG: I was 18. I was going down all the wrong roads. School was not working out, and my mom and sister were talking to me and said I should join the service. Three days later, I was in the Marine Corps. That was 1983. I went down and joined and then talking to one of the Marines on the range, he suggested that I be a sniper so I did that.

Later, I went overseas and I met the SEALs, and I talked to them about the difference between my job and their jobs, and it sounded like a good game plan. When I got out of the Marine Corps in ’87, I joined the Navy and went to SEAL training. I served there through Desert Storm.

RI: There is a lot of information out there about SEAL training, and what that life is like. There are documentaries, books, movies. It’s become a cottage industry that caters to civilians who are fans, SEAL enthusiasts, I suppose. They engage with enough of this stuff and they seem to think they have a good idea of what being a SEAL is like.

DG: There are a lot of SEAL-like things people do now. The Spartan races, the SEAL Course, pretend to be a team diver for 72 hours or whatever. I’m sure to them, it means something. To me, it means nothing. Because you really haven’t said, “I’m in.” The difference between a bunch of guys spending 72 hours on a course that they’ve paid for, where they could, at any moment, just walk out of it, is a far cry from being on a team. Watch the videos of a BUD/S class, when they go through Hell Week. It’s 24 hours a day. It’s not just that it’s hard. It’s hard, and all your cards are on the table. I can’t speak to the guys that quit, that ring the bell, and put their helmet down. I don’t know what that is. But it’s what the majority of the guys do. A recent training had 164 guys in the beginning of the class and they were down to 54 guys by the end. You tell me how hard something has to be that it makes 110 guys quit the program. What can you do to 110 guys, who are already in the military, that makes them pack it up and go home?

So those classes… to me, it’s about the equivalent of people that have pets and say that it’s just like having a kid. Having a dog is about as close to having a kid as flying a paper airplane is to going to the moon.

RI: What is the most accurate movie about the Navy SEALs? Recently you’ve got American Sniper and Lone Survivor. You go way back and you’ve got that Navy SEALs movie with Charlie Sheen.

DG: I just saw 13 Hours. The actor’s name is Pablo Schreiber [Liev Schreiber’s brother] who played a team guy named Tanto. I had to look him up the other night because I thought I knew him. He was that good. He had it down. As far as the conduct of the team guys, I really liked 13 Hours.

RI: Can you talk about any missions you were on? The author of No Easy Day, which recounts the Bin Laden mission, is being forced to hand over every dime of profit to the government.

DG: No. Here’s my other thing about being a team guy: If somebody wants to know about it, they can go talk to a recruiter. Or join the teams. That’s kind of where I’m at with it. Go be a SEAL. You will know everything there is to know about it.

RI: So you’re not surprised at all to hear these guys getting in trouble for talking about their operations.

DG: There was an instance that happened a few years ago. A team guy behaved in a certain way and it was personally embarrassing to me. I wound up talking to his training officer about it and he said, “You’ve got to remember, these are different guys than us. It’s a different generation.”

The guys that go in now, they know what Twitter is, they know what Instagram is. They take selfies. I was trying to talk to the old guys about it and I had to explain what a selfie was. I had to tell them, “That’s a picture of yourself, that you take, most likely with your shirt off with something stupid in the background.”

If you talk to an old guy, that seems like the dumbest thing on earth. But as we know, this is how life is now. It’s not shocking that everybody feels compelled to talk about everything they’ve done. The old riddle, “If a tree falls in the woods, and no one’s there to hear it, does it make any noise?” Apparently nobody thinks so. Because now we think nothing really happens unless you post it. Nothing is worth doing unless you show the whole planet.

RI: You’re a dad. How old is your son?

DG: He’s six.

RI: If you’re not a fan of selfies, I’m sure you resent the idea of participation trophies and the coddling of the next generation. How do you balance the parental instinct to protect your kid with the knowledge you have that adversity builds character?

DG: I don’t want him to get hurt any more than any other parent, but I also don’t want him to be one of these kids that won’t take a risk or can’t make a decision. I’ve been hearing a lot about things like kids that grow up so sheltered that at the college level they can’t make any decisions. Kids have to learn how to make a decision and not to waste time or else their options go away.

I’ve let my son hang out with kids that are a little problematic at times, much to the dismay of his mother. I want him to learn that other kids aren’t going to be easy. Not every kid is going to be your best friend. You’re going to have to learn to manage things. You’re going to have to learn to say, “I don’t like that kid and I don’t want to be around him.”

People say you’re defined by the company you keep. I think you’re also defined by the company you won’t keep. If some kid’s a little racist, I want my kid to turn around and go, “Wow, you’re a bad guy, I don’t want to hang out with you. My dad wouldn’t like you.”

RI: The answer is not to make sure he’s never around the racist kid.
DG: No. He should be around them. He should hear what that is. He should have a discussion with them and say that doesn’t sound very right to me. I think he’s a little young for that conversation, but that’s the direction I want him to go.


Instructions: Pick a set of relatively light dumbbells and repeat this circuit three times through. Do not rest between exercises and rest only 2-3 minutes between circuits. You can add this circuit to the end of a regularly scheduled upper body workout or perform it on its own.

Dumbbell Lateral Raise 10
Dumbbell Front Raise 10
Dumbbell Rear Delt Raise 10
Dumbbell Overhead Press 10

Originally appeared in Robert Irvine Magazine.

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