Have you recently heard about the term ‘boot camp’?

If yes, then there are two positions.  First, you know about boot camps or second you are still wondering what is meant by boot camp.  Let us embark on a journey to explore the concept, history and training value of boot camps. The term boot camps can also encompass outdoor fitness, fitness boot camps, bootcamps and military fitness.

When boot camps were first introduced in the US they were meant for the purpose of reforming prisoners, then soldiers, and finally overweight teenagers, adults and celebrities.  Such has been the rise of boot camps that in 2009, the American Council on Exercise listed boot camp training as one of the top exercise trends (Mercer, 2009) and research suggests it works (Barker, 2010).

Drastically different from the highly choreographed, dance-inspired aerobic classes of the time, boot camps were considered the tough-love approach to fitness.  With no dance steps in sight, ‘troopers’ were put through the exercise wringer performing multiple bouts of high intensity aerobic exercise punctuated by old fashioned calisthenics (bodyweight) such as push-ups, sit-ups and squats.  But this was not the only thing that was different about boot camps.

Gone was the female Lycra-clad 120-pound instructor with the ubiquitous “four-more, three-more” mantra, the male exercise ‘drill sergeant’ clothed in a pair of army fatigues and T-shirt, with a kick-butt attitude, had arrived.

A boot camp is a type of group physical training programme conducted by gyms, personal trainers and former military personnel.  These programmes are designed to build strength and fitness through a variety of intense group intervals over a period of one hour, either as part of an on-going exercise programme or a short (up to 6 weeks) intense block of sessions.

Originally popular in the US, they were brought over to the UK in 1999 and have been growing in popularity ever since.  Boot camp physical training programmes often commence with mobility and pulse-raising exercises, followed by a variety of interval training, lifting weights/objects, pulling rubber TRX[1] straps, press-ups, sit-ups, plyometric[2] exercises and other types of intense explosive routines.  Sessions usually finish with pulse-lowering and stretching routines.

Many other exercises using weights and/or calisthenics, similar to CrossFit[3] routines, are utilised to reduce adipose tissue (i.e. body fat), increase cardiovascular efficiency, increase strength and generally to aid people to get into a routine of regular exercise.  Some programmes may also offer nutritional advice.  Boot camps may take place outdoors or indoors, train small or large groups of people, and may or may not be similar in concept to basic military training.

In the military, the boot camp represents an abrupt, often shocking transition to a new way of life.  Discipline is strict and there is an emphasis on hard work, physical training and an un-questioning obedience to authority.  The recruit soldier is told when to sleep, when to get up and when to eat.  S/he marches with their platoon everywhere they go, such as to meals and to training.  Orders must be obeyed instantly and personal liberty is almost non-existent.  By the end of the boot camp the recruit soldier has become a different person.  Although all military systems around the world provide their recruit soldiers with a period of initial military training, the words ‘boot camp’ derive from the US military’s form of initial recruit training which varies in length (Table 1) between the different branches of the armed forces.

Table 1: Length of initial military training for private soldiers in US and UK armed forces

Branch

United States

United Kingdom

Navy

8 weeks

10 weeks

Air Force

8 ½ weeks

32 weeks (RAF Gunner)

10 weeks (Airmen/Airwomen)

10 weeks (Non- Commissioned Aircrew (NCA)), followed by 11 weeks NCA Initial Training Course

Army

10 weeks

28 weeks (Infantry)

30 weeks (Foot Guards and Para’s)

14 weeks (non-Infantry)

Marines

13 weeks

32 weeks

‘Civilian’, or fitness, boot camp workouts can be described as back-to-basics exercise programmes.  While they are often performed without any type of equipment, some programmes use free weights and although some boot camp exercise programmes are performed in a gym environment, others are performed outdoors.

Although the purpose of these exercise programmes is not to turn civilians into soldiers, it is important to understand the context within which this form of training evolved.

Defining Military Fitness

Before we can discuss and define boot camps we must discuss and define military fitness as this underpins the very fabric of its civilian counterpart.  Although fitness is a relative term which has no absolute value, in military terms physical fitness is defined as being:

“The ability to respond instantly and effectively to the physical and psychological demands of combat with a minimum of distress, and to return to a normal healthy state once the demand ceases.” (ASPT, 2001, p.2)

Within this over-arching definition of physical fitness, military fitness is measured against three different criteria.  According to the Army School of Physical Training (ASPT, 2001) the development and maintenance of fitness against each of these criteria is vital if fighting power and general health are to be maintained at optimal levels.  Thus the criteria highlighted below:

  1. Personal Fitness: The level of personal physical fitness required to afford protection from injury, reduce the risk of hypokinetic disease (disease resulting from inactivity), psychological stress, enhance the quality of life and reduces the risk of dying prematurely.
  2. Vocational Fitness: The level of physical fitness required to perform a specific job safely and effectively under normal operating conditions.
  3. Combat Fitness: Basic Combat Fitness: the minimum maintenance level of individual physical fitness linked to the different ‘generic’ physical demands associated with service in a specific Arm or Service. Advanced Combat Fitness: the level of physical fitness, related to role, required to support the unit mission.

The extent to which these three criteria contribute to fighting power is dependent upon one or more of the following factors:

  • Arm/Service;
  • Career Employment Group (e.g. infantry, driver or supply specialist);
  • Specialist Qualifications (e.g. commando or fitness instructor);
  • Operational Readiness State;
  • Current Role;
  • Future Role; and/or
  • Appointment.

Defining Boot Camps

If this was the late 1990s then it would be very straight forward to describe ‘fitness’ boot camps.  However, in the latter half of the 2000s there was an exponential increase in the number of training providers offering boot camps, and due to the rapid expansion of this segment of the fitness market there is now considerable interchange between the titles given to the various products/services provided by the fitness boot camp market.

For many people boot camps, military fitness and small group training are one and the same.  However, this can lead to confusion for consumers looking for the right type of training provider to suit their particular fitness needs.  As such, the fitness boot camp market can be divided into three distinct segments with a number of distinguishing features, as highlighted in Table 2 below.

Table 2: Fitness boot camp segments and distinguishing features

Segment

Military Fitness

Large Group Training (LGT)

Small Group Training (SGT)

Business Type

Limited company

Limited company or sole trader

Limited company or sole trader

Ownership

Former military personnel

Military & non-military background

Military & non-military background

Qualifications

Military and civilian

Military and/or civilian

Military and/or civilian

Instructor to member ratio

1:12 to 1:50

1:12 to 1:15

1:2 to 1:4

(can be up to 1:12)

Personal Training

Yes

Yes

Yes

Payment Options

Direct debit, standing order or PAYG[4]

Direct debit, standing order or PAYG

Block payment

Free Trial

Yes

No

No

Consultation

No

Yes

Yes

Time Period

On-going

On-going

Typically 2-6 weeks

Military fitness is essentially boot camps provided by former military personnel who wear the ubiquitous military fatigues.  Instructors will have a range of qualifications and experience, and as such instructors may have:

  • A military background and a mixture of military and civilian fitness qualifications.
  • A military background but only have civilian qualifications; or
  • A civilian background and civilian qualifications.

LGT providers are typically instructors with an entirely civilian background, although there are exceptions.  SGT providers are usually personal trainers attracted by the improved revenues and lower operating costs, whilst providing their clients with group work and maintaining that personal trainer ethos.

Another recent development which may cause confusion for consumers is the hijacking of the term ‘outdoor fitness’ which is already affiliated to sports such as running, cycling, hiking and so on.  Many training providers are switching emphasis, or widening their remit, to the concept of outdoor fitness in order to downplay the military image of boot camps in the minds of consumers.  It also helps to widen an otherwise niche market, especially during an on-going and protracted period of economic downturn.

The outdoor fitness, boot camp, military fitness, LGT and SGT labels can lead to confusion for consumers.  This mixing of terminology can make it difficult to define precisely what a boot camp is; as it depends on what individual training providers decide to call their brand and the products that fall within the brand.  However, there are many common elements between the various types of boot camps mentioned above.

The term ‘boot camp’ is currently used in the health and fitness industry to describe group fitness classes that promote fat loss, camaraderie and team effort.  They are generally designed to push people a little bit further than they would normally push themselves in the gym alone.  The fundamental idea is that everyone involved works at their own pace as they team-up and work towards one goal (either in pairs, small teams or even as two large teams head-on).

Boot camps are frequently organised outdoors in local green areas (e.g. parks) and will consist of mainstream calisthenics exercises like press-ups, squats and burpees, high-intensity aerobic exercises (i.e. skipping and boxing moves), interspersed with running and competitive games.

However, a nod towards the current trend of core conditioning and sport-specific training is also occurring and many training providers are incorporating many of the fundamentals of what is now called functional training (exercises geared to improve the activities of everyday life).

Boot camps also provide social support for those taking part, which offers a different environment for those fitness enthusiasts who may get bored in a gym and so find it hard to develop a habit of exercise.  Participants make friends and socialise as they exercise (although how strict the fitness instructors in charge can be will depend on the ethos of the training provider running the boot camp).  Fitness assessments are also a major feature of boot camp physical training programmes and are based on the British Army military fitness assessment.

Fitness boot camps are often based on the military style of training, although this has started to change over the last few years, and a growing trend is the relocation to indoors which improves the physical climate and workout environment for the members.

Themed fitness boot camps often consist of the use of one particular training concept to the exclusion of others.  Kettlebells are the preferred tool for kettlebell fitness boot camps run by RKC[5] instructors, and TRX suspension trainers are the preferred tools for TRX instructors.  Boxing themed fitness boot camps often use heavy bags and the use of themes varies widely between fitness boot camps due to the prevailing ethos of the training provider and also according to the preferences between the instructor and the needs and likes of the clientele.

So, taking all of the above into account we can define ‘fitness’ boot camps as:

A fitness boot camp is a type of group exercise class, either indoors or outdoors, that utilises a variety of military-style and/or non-military-style exercises and training concepts, with most being designed in a way that pushes the participants harder than they would push themselves and may, or may not, use a military format.

 Purpose

The purpose of fitness boot camps, as suggested by the Founder of British Military Fitness Robin Cope, is to provide people with an alternative to the gym with group, social and motivational elements as core alongside the fitness element (Clarke, 2009; Startups, 2011).

Ethos

Traditionally, gym-based training takes the form of either solo training with individuals waiting for the next piece of equipment to be free or indoor group-based training utilising the same training session week after week, although this could be stereotyping!

The idea behind fitness boot camps is to get people, whether indoors or outdoors, to train and work together in a fun and friendly environment.  It is also to develop and encourage a community ethos within the particular training provider for both staff and members.

As there is no pre-requisite to use equipment, everyone can complete the exercises at the same time or rotate around in a manner similar to circuit training.  There is also the concept of no typical session for the hour long programmes, i.e. you do not know what you are going to get in your session.  In contrast, weekend and weeklong boot camps usually follow a set programme.

Further, fitness instructors should be utilising adaptation and progression techniques to make exercises easier or more difficult depending on the fitness level of the group as a whole, and also for individuals within the group.  While there are still some fitness instructors who act like ‘drill sergeants’, most offer encouragement rather than intimidation.  There is criticism from some quarters that instructors bark orders at ‘recruits’ rather than offer advice and teaching point’s to members.  However, I would argue that this is due to a lack of knowledge and understanding of how boot camps operate.

Military Approach and Terminology (LINGO!)

Most training providers require people to wear a coloured bib during the session and being known by your bib number and not your name can be off putting for some.  Also, for those people who have never been in the military, or do not know anyone who has been in the military, then the language used in the sessions may confuse.  Table 3 highlights some of the more commonly used military terminology that may be in use:

Table 3: Military terms and their civilian equivalents

Military Term

Civilian Equivalent

Double march or double time

Break into a run

Quick march or quick time

Break into a walk

Left or right wheel

Turn left or right

Fall in 3 ranks

One (person) behind the other twice, in 3 lines

Definitions:

[1] TRX is a form of resistance training that includes bodyweight exercises in which a variety of multi-planar, compound exercise movements can be performed. These are done with the aim of developing strength, balance, flexibility, and joint stability simultaneously.

[2] Common plyometric training exercises include various jumps and hops, sometimes using obstacles such as steps or cones.

[3] This is a strength and conditioning programme utilising constantly varied, high intensity and functional movements usually lasting 20 minutes or less.

[4] Pay as you go

[5] RKC (Russian Kettlebell Systems) developed by the fitness instructor Pavel Tsatsouline (born August 23, 1969 in Minsk, USSR now part of Belarus).  He is involved with the evolving field of martial arts fitness and is a major proponent of the traditional Russian fitness tool, the kettlebell, as an exercise and strengthening tool.  He is credited with popularising the kettlebell in the US.

References:

Mercer, L.M. (2009) About Boot Camp Workouts. Available from World Wide Web: <http://www.livestrong.com/article/23062-boot-camp-workouts/> [Accessed: 10 November, 2012].

Barker, J. (2010) Ready to Feel the Burn, Soldier? Boot Camp Workouts are Back and Research Shows They Deliver. Available from World Wide Web: <http://www.canada.com/health/Ready+feel+burn+soldier/929233/story.html> [Accessed: 17 November, 2012].

ASPT (Army School of Physical Training) (2001) Fight to Fight, Pamphlet Two: Test Protocols and Administrative Instructions for Individual Training Directive (Army) 2 Fitness Tests. Aldershot: ASPT.

Clarke, J. (2009) Robin Cope: Bringing Military Fitness to Civvie Street. Available from World Wide Web: <http://www.moneyweek.com/news-and-charts/entrepreneurs-my-first-million-robin-cope-british-military-fitness-45734> [Accessed: 08 November, 2012].

Startups (2011) Robin Cope: British Military Fitness: The Ex-officer Tells Us How He Used The Forces to Create a New Kind of Exercise Class. Available from World Wide Web: <http://www.startups.co.uk/robin-cope-british-military-fitness.html> [Accessed: 08 November, 2012].

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