What would cause an army of yuppies nation wide to eschew the cozy confines of their health clubs in favor of push-ups in the cold, wet, pre-dawn hours?
My first wind of "boot camps" came last fall. I heard that my friend Anna was getting up before dawn, five days a week, and participating in some sort of hellish exercise regime. Now Anna is a former soccer player at Stanford University, one of the best programs in the country. I wondered how anything tailored for the general public could be considered "hellish" for her. My friend Molly, an aerobics instructor, was so intrigued she immediately went out and found a "boot camp," and attended it the following week. When I heard no report of anachronistic drill sergeants screaming, "Don't you eyeball me, girl!" I lost interest. Over the next few months I didn't really give any of this much thought, but from time to time, I'd hear people-here and there-complaining about being too sore to walk up stairs, or I'd see my colleagues limping around at work. I also kept overhearing scuttlebutt about "boot camps."
I started to get intrigued. After all, I'm a fitness nut. I don't much care for the latest techno-crazes: water weight, pilates, aerobics, kickboxing classes. Not that anything is wrong with them; I just have an old school bent. The idea that people were excited to get up before dawn and put their bodies through torture, without trying to benefit national security one iota, appealed to my old-school sensibilities. It was time to do some research.
From Hardcore to Hypnosis: Boot Camp options
I got on the Internet and, sure enough, there were fitness boot camps everywhere. First on the list was Corps Fitness Boot Camp, located in Cincinnati. It looked pretty much how I expected, and in their photo section there was an image of a guy dressed like a Marine drill instructor yelling at what looked to be a middle-aged woman in baggy sweats.
The next was located in Arizona and went by the acronym S.W.A.T. This conjured up images from the old TV show, and I began to picture housewives dressed in black, rappelling off building with M-16's over their shoulders. The photos, unfortunately, showed nothing of the sort, just people involved in what looked like team exercise.
Then I found a guy called "The Sarge", with camps up and down the eastern seaboard. The photo showed a buffed guy in a tank top and a camouflaged sergeant's hat, pointing a finger and yelling something. He looked like a castoff from the Village People. The Sarge's slogan was catchy: "Be all you used to be." Turns out he's quite popular and has appeared in People Magazine. He's the real deal: an ex-Naval officer turned fitness guru. While he didn't make the claim, his site suggests that he may have started the boot camp craze. In the photos he was dressed more like a personal trainer than a DI, but he did claim to "yell a lot."
In Chicago, Elite Force Fitness seemed to have been at it for awhile. Their site was loaded with testimonials from satisfied customers and they played up their low-key attitude more than their military style. They did mention that classes were held rain or shine-pretty hardcore I thought, given Chicago's weather. In New York City I found Getfitnow.com that offered many different types of exercise programs, including boot camps. They scheduled different levels of classes, with advanced classes at dawn. The intro camp started at 11 a.m., which seemed a nice "one step at a time" alternative for beginners.
Far and away the most militant site I found was Team Delta. Trumpets played reveille when I logged on, and while on another page of their site my office sounded as though it was being barraged with mortar fire. On page one a guy in full battle fatigues holds a machine gun, and courses are offered in POW Resistance, Interrogator Training, and Battle Tactics. You can buy a T-shirt stating, "I yell because I care" and their slogan: "Welcome to Fitness Hell." They have been featured in many national magazines, a Dutch TV show, and their camps have been chosen as one of the 43 best "Gonzo Getaways" by Stuff Magazine. Oddly, nowhere on their site could I find out where they were located. They "recruited" in Philadelphia but the camp locations were listed as Camp North, Camp South, and Camp Delta. It almost seemed like they were recruiting mercenaries, but I found a page that had quantitative results and a photo of one of the classes. The class looked like totally normal civilians, not a group of paramilitary wannabes. The age range was 23 to 48. It appeared that two people didn't finish the two-week session and that those who did showed improvements (in push-ups, sit-ups, two-mile run) ranging from 15%, to more than 100%. Pretty impressive for a two-week period.
Next I found something completely different: Mind-Body Fitness Boot Camp. I have no idea how the words "boot camp" fit into this title. It seemed like Zen camp to me. Their "boot camps" are classes in awareness, meditative techniques, and interactive self-hypnosis. "You slimy worm, drop and give me 20 (minutes of meditation)" … naahhhh.
What I found was that these boot camps vary quite a bit. Many were destinations where you attended an all-day camp for various periods of time. Some, however, were starting to have appeal as an alternative to the gym, with one-hour classes done in the mornings before work, usually over five-week stretches. For five weeks, prices varied from an economical $225 a visit ($9 a class) to a somewhat astronomical $1,200 (for very scientific camps guaranteeing results). It was time for some hands-on experience.
Basic Training: A Fitness Nut goes to Camp
I asked Anna about her boot camps and it turns out she was doing two-hour, pre-dawn spinning classes, which sounded more like boot camp for the Tour de France. As anyone who had participated in a one-hour spinning class can attest, two hours is a lot of spinning, and five days a week is borderline absurd. Sounded fun, but it wasn't what I was looking for.
I'd seen my friend, Kathleen Greene, limping around her house complaining that anything that brushed against her calf brought on severe pain. Having seen this symptom around the office, I didn't have to ask about its cause. I did ask about attending a class, and Kathleen gave me a look like the cat that had just eaten the canary-sure, she'd "love to" have me tag along. We made no formal time and about a week later I found myself at her house after finishing a basketball game with her husband. We were hangin' out enjoying a few post game beers when Kathleen came in, greeted us, than said "goodnight," followed by, "Steve, why don't you sleep in the guest room, I'll get you up at 5:30"-gulp!
"Where you from boy?"… "LA! The only thing comes from LA are steers and queers and I don't see no horns boy, so you must be"-knock, knock-I was awakened from my nightmare by Kathleen. "Throw on some sweats, we leave in five minutes."
It was still dark as we walked into Stanford stadium. My first reaction was surprise at how many people were there. It must have been more than 50 (I found out later that 90 are enrolled). I met the instructor, Cody, who didn't resemble Louis Gossett Jr. one bit. She laughed at my trepidation over my boot camp research. "We don't yell too much here." She said. Looking around I started to feel less intimidated. The class was all shapes, sizes, and ages. I figured that I could keep up.
We started with some stretching, then went into ab work. It was harder than I thought it could be for such a varied group. Many of the people didn't look as though they were in great shape but they all seemed to get through what I felt was a pretty advanced abdominal workout. The instructors, a lead and two assistants were a far cry from those in Full Metal Jacket. They only yelled positive things and didn't harass anyone who couldn't keep up. In fact, they encouraged them. I guess that here in California we have kinder, gentler boot camps.
Next we moved inside, grabbed some hand weights, and did laps of lunges across a basketball floor. This, for me, was also hard because the rep scheme was so high that you really wouldn't do it in a health club, or probably anywhere else. This was followed by more high-rep weight training. The class ended sooner than I expected, and while I didn't find it that hard, I knew I would be sore the next day. Apparently, the instructors alter what you do each day; sometimes they tell you, sometimes not. It definitely keeps your body guessing. I figured I needed to keep going for a proper experience.
Asking around I got various answers as to why people attend. From Dave Morro's honest, if uninspiring response: "I like it because I'm asleep through most of it and by the time I wake up I'm through exercising for the day," to Kathleen's more calculated answer: "It has been far more rewarding for me versus going to the gym on my own. I get there first thing in the morning with no idea what to expect-free weights, running stadium stairs, sit-ups and push-ups-it's far more exciting for me than running through the same old routine over and over."
My research wasn't quite over. I wanted to attend a full week. I chose Time Out Services; they hold boot camps all over California, including the one I'd attended. Their founder, Patty Gish, told me that they have been in business for three and a half years and have been growing rapidly. The Stanford class has been going the longest. Jen Jolly, the instructor in San Francisco, said she started with eight people in September and now her class has more than 40.
I started my week with Jen at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco. We did Fartlek training (intervals without stopping) to start, something I hadn't done since college. We then did lunge/push-ups, followed by running the stadium stairs, followed by tricep and ab work, then some stretching to warm down. I was impressed with the class. If I didn't have a track background I may have found it extremely difficult. Jen apologized for the difficulty, saying it was the fourth week of a five-week program. She needn't have apologized as I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The next day, back at Stanford, word of Jen's class had trickled south. "I heard it was really tough," was the word around Dave's office (he works in San Francisco). True enough, nothing the rest of the week matched it, or maybe I was just getting used to the program.
Subsequent workouts involved a lot of stadium-stair running, lunges with push-ups, grueling ab workouts (with Cody), and grueling tricep work (with Jen). Warm-ups and warm-downs are short but efficient, and I found both not only adequate, but also better than what I usually did on my own. There were two "fun" or "testing" days (one at each location), where you either tested to gauge your progress, or competed for fun. These days allowed you to either go all out or take an easy recovery day, depending on how you feel. It was a nice way to keep classes of different abilities together.
The Warm-Down on Boot Camps
For me, the crux is getting out of bed. Once there, I find it fun. However, I must point out that I'm in pretty good shape and have a long history of both sports and painful, physical exertion. Certainly, many of the participants find it grueling. But the instructors know how to structure classes so that it's hard, but not too hard, and in a way where those who fall behind don't feel inferior. More than military boot camp, the session felt like practice for a sport, except that instead of competing, the sport is life.
Overall, my observations are that the Sarge is pretty accurate when he says, "Be all you used to be." Boot camps, at least the ones I attended, are not for body sculpting. They are for getting into shape. You will get stronger, faster, and lower your heart rate. You will not get personalized training (though higher-priced courses may offer something similar to team personal training). With classes so large the instructors must schedule general workouts and don't have time to invest in personal fitness issues. If you want to re-shape your body than perhaps you should invest in a personal trainer. However, if you desire to get back to how you looked in high school, or even just get in shape, then boot camp might just be your ticket, and an entertaining one at that.