My Beef with Bootcamps

In this video, Coach Erik, owner and head coach of Viking Athletics, discusses the pros and cons of boot camp style training. He emphasizes the importance of the mindset behind training, and advocates self-improvement coming from a place of self-love. Erik also advocates for focusing on performance rather than body composition and stresses the need for tracking progress and setting defined objectives in fitness programs.

00:00 Introduction
00:36 Qualifying the Whole Debate
02:13 Bootcamp Positives
04:58 Bootcamp Negatives
15:00 Applying Fixes

Hi everyone, welcome back to The Fitness Edda. I am your host, Erik Castiglione, owner, and head coach of Viking Athletics. It’s been a while since we’ve done one of these. And I wanted to cover today, my beef with bootcamps and bootcamp style training. Spoilers! Spoiler alert, I don’t really have one, but I have been accused of being critical with bootcamps in the past, and so I kind of want to put to bed that whole issue.

Before we get into it, a couple of quick qualifications. First of all, debating and any kind of exercise methodology is pedantic from the get-go, considering that only 20-30% of adults get enough exercise as is. We don’t move enough in general, let alone get enough exercise. That range depends on which study we’re talking about, whether it’s citing World Health Organization or the CDC, the exact percentages differ depending on the year of the study and where it’s coming from. But all of them are in that 20-30% range. So, bottom line is, we’re not getting enough exercise in general. If a bootcamp style class is what it takes to get you moving and you’re going to stick with it, that’s fantastic. By all means, keep doing that. I would never tell you otherwise. I’m just being pedantic when it comes to exercise methodology.

Along those same lines, criticism does not mean that I dislike the program or that I’m trying to bash it. And I’m not only critical of bootcamps; I’ve been highly critical of all things CrossFit as well, other programs too. I like to think I’m pretty even-handed in my criticisms because they are based on exercise science. And if I see something that I disagree with, that kind of flies in the face of established exercise scientific practices, I’m going to say something and I’m going to try to explain why. So, let’s get pedantic.

Some positives when it comes to bootcamp style training. Number one is from a marketing perspective. When you see the word bootcamp, you have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to be doing in that class. A lot of body weight movements, maybe circuit style training, calisthenics, and you’re going to be sweating. I think it’s moved far enough away from the days of constantly having an instructor scream at you. So, there’s a power to that. When you see the term, you know what you’re getting into. Kind of the same way that the term CrossFit has some marketing power.

It gives people a general idea of the kind of things that you’re going to be doing. It may be a little bit nebulous. The specifics are going to differ from facility to facility, but in general, and that’s really what this is, is sweeping generalizations, you’re going to have an idea of the kinds of movements that you’re going to be doing, so you know what to expect.

The second positive is that it is class based. That’s not positive for everybody. Some people prefer personal training, or one-on-one coaching. That’s fine. I personally train mostly on my own due to schedule, but I have no problem being part of a group. For a lot of people, having a class-based environment is motivating. It provides them with a source of accountability, and they’re going to keep going back because of that. Anything that’s going to keep people motivated and returning and exercising over and over again, I’m all for. So that is a big positive there.

And it’s mostly an aerobic activity, especially if it’s done circuit-style, where you’re going from station to station. You may get a little bit of muscular stamina in there, but you’re going to be developing your aerobic system, you’re going to have a healthy heart because of it, and considering the prevalence of heart disease in our society, that is a big deal to see people doing that.

In terms of getting results, results mean different things to different people, we’ll delve into that on the next slide a little bit more, when I kind of get into some of the criticisms or negatives, if you’re brand new to exercising, and you’re starting with a bootcamp, you’re going to see progress, however you define that. Improved aerobic fitness, improved muscular definition and strength, maybe even changes in body composition, and you will see that progress up to a point. Which brings us to our negatives.

Before we get into results in stagnation. which I will obviously get into in a little bit, I want to get into the biggest beef I have with bootcamp style training. The first three bullet points here are kind of bundled together. What is the origin of bootcamp? Where does the term come from?

Bootcamp is also a term for basic training in the military. When you enlist in the military to become a sailor, an airman, a soldier, or a marine, you start off with basic training, a.k.a. bootcamp. And in addition to establishing a kind of baseline physical capacity that you’ll need to be successful in your branch of service, teaching you the very basic skills that you need, really kind of the underlying goal, and you can argue with this all you want, but in a military unit, unless you’re a special forces operator, your goal is to do your job, to follow orders. The goal of a bootcamp is to break you down psychologically as an individual, to mold you into a cog in the machine.

They break you down as an individual, get rid of that individual thought, make you more susceptible to following orders, so that you’ll do what you’re told, because that is what is necessary for a military unit to be successful, is that you do your job well, and you follow orders, and you’re not insubordinate. So, we’ll get into that again, the mindset that that kind of brings about. When it comes to recreational exercise, ah, but if we look at associated terms with a lot of bootcamps, you’ll get an idea of where I’m going with this.

You know, you may see a burn bootcamp, or melt, or sweat, terms like this, where the idea is excretions, and it continues with the idea of breaking down the individual. So, my biggest issue is the idea of exercise to break you down. I firmly believe that exercise should build you up.

And I mean that both physically and mentally. I think one of the great things that CrossFit does is focus on performance as opposed to body composition, and they argue that your form will follow function. If I improve my fitness capacities, my body composition is going and the way I look will follow that. It is a by-product, not the goal.

And considering how much negativity we see everywhere when it comes to self-image, body dysmorphia is rampant. We’re constantly being inundated with fitness influencers and magazines of photoshopped people. This is how you should look. And it leads to a ton of negative self-image. And that’s a problem. I don’t want to reinforce that when it comes to exercise.

I want people to exercise from a place of self-love rather than self-loathing. And that’s why I like the idea of performance is if you focus on what your body can do or you’re exercising because you want to be physically capable of doing something as opposed to “I hate the way I look and I want to change it,” you’re going to have a much better time and you are more likely to stick with it. That negativity really will lead to breakdown and burnout if you’re constantly beating yourself up as a source of punishment.

Couple that with the idea, well not the idea, with the fact that your body adapts to exercise over time and the things that you’re doing to lose weight from a physical standpoint give a diminishing return over time and it just, you know, exercise in general for weight loss is a bad idea because when you hit that plateau and you stop losing weight you’re more likely to quit and go back to whatever you were doing so it doesn’t, you know, it doesn’t matter how experienced you are. In fact, the more experienced you are, the less likely you are to lose weight doing exercise. It’s just a fact.

Your body becomes more efficient at the movements. This was an argument for muscle confusion back in the day was if I keep doing new things, I’m confusing the body, I’m going to feel it more, I’m going to lose more weight. And that’s true to a point, but eventually, once you’ve done all these movement patterns and your body knows how to do them, it doesn’t matter if I’m doing a back squat, front squat, and air squat. I know how to squat. And it’s not going to help me burn calories. I can use it to build muscle and change my body composition that way, but when it comes to fat loss, nutrition is really where you’re going to make a difference. Especially if you’ve been doing this for a while.

Long story short, I believe in exercise coming from a place of self-love to make you physically capable, to see what you’re able to do, and to build you up, as opposed to breaking you down. Which, given the origins of the bootcamp and a lot of the terms associated with it, and the reason that a lot of people start exercising in general, that’s what I take issue with. So, that’s not exclusive to bootcamps by any means. You can say the same thing for any fitness intervention. But I think, generally speaking, bootcamps feed into that, given the messaging around it. That’s just me.

Moving on to results tracking. I said that if you’re brand new to exercise, a bootcamp can get you results up to a point. If you’re doing random things, and there’s no structure, and there’s no progression, then anything will help you in the beginning, but eventually you’re going to stall, and the only way to make progress is to apply a structured stimulus that progresses over time, getting more difficult, continuously challenging the body. If you’re not tracking anything, which a lot of bootcamps don’t do (again, that’s a generalization), you’re not going to make progress long term. You’re going to hit a plateau.

And if you have no clear objective in mind, other than “I want to lose weight,” once that scale stalls, you’re going to get discouraged, and you’re probably going to quit.

So, a personal story for an example. The last gym that I was associated with had a bootcamp style program. It was originally called bootcamp, and then the managing partner decided to get one of his personal relationships, he decided to bring that person into the business. They claimed to be a marketing consultant. After taking an online course or something, they rebranded the program with an even more nebulous name than bootcamp, which I thought detracted from the market value in the first place. So maybe I’m a little bitter about that.

But, what really got me was, we claimed at this gym, to be selling results based fitness. And regardless of the style of training that you do, and we offered probably six or seven different programs in order to help people get fit, if you’re not tracking some sort of metric, how do you know that you’re delivering results? Doesn’t matter what the metric is, it could be body fat, it could be waist circumference, it could be performance measures like a particular lift. You need to track something.

And in this gym we had so-called benchmark workouts. They were workouts that we repeated, and they had names, and people wrote down their scores on the whiteboard. But they didn’t track them over time. So, we had no way of gauging whether or not they were getting faster, using heavier weights, or anything like that. They didn’t keep personal records. So, to me, that was a mismatch between our messaging of results and what we were offering.

And, three years in, I would see people doing the exact same workout, the exact same weights, kind of mailing it in. So, once again, they had no way of knowing that they weren’t making progress. They’re doing the same thing over and over again. Yeah, they’re breathing hard. They’re sweating. They feel like they’re getting a workout, but I knew better, and it was really disingenuous in my mind to offer this as a program without any way of tracking results, especially considering that it was a popular program. It was a cash cow for the gym. It just made me feel all kinds of…icky. It was, it did not sit well with my integrity.

So, point being, if you’re going to claim to offer results-based fitness, you damn well better have a metric that you’re going to use to measure results. And again, this is not unique to bootcamps. This is a sweeping generalization. It could also be true of any other fitness program out there. If you’re not tracking something, or you don’t have a coach or trainer that’s tracking something for you, you’re ultimately going to be spinning your wheels.

So, how do we move on from this? What are the fixes? Number one, when it comes to bootcamps in general, I would love to see a moving on from the terminology of burn, sweat, melt, and just a more positive messaging that is focused on what the body can do, rather than focusing on body image, losing weight, sweating, burning things off, and exercise as punishment. So, that’s kind of a marketing fix, just being mindful of the words used around a program. It doesn’t have to be bootcamp – just coaches and trainers in general, we have that responsibility when we’re working with clients and members to build them up.

Having defined objectives when we claim that we’re offering results-based fitness, what are we using to measure that? Our powerlifting program at our gym uses the squat, bench, and deadlift. Our Olympic weightlifting program uses your snatch, and your clean and jerk. With personal training clients, we have defined goals and objectives for each of them. With CrossFit, we use benchmark workouts and max effort lifts that we check time and time again from year to year to see how we’re doing. Those are our defined objectives. And the metrics that are associated with them.

So, if somebody does have a defined objective to get stronger, I mean it’s not very well defined, but it is defined, what lifts in particular are you going to use to gauge that performance? Or are you going to use body weight movements instead? Maybe it’s the ability to do a strict pull-up. But, point being, have objectives and metrics so you can show progress to your client. And again, this is not unique to bootcamps. This is across all fitness programs in general.

I just like to single out bootcamps because they are known for that negative messaging. But, with sweeping generalizations, there are exceptions to every rule. There are CrossFit gyms that do the same thing. So, as I said in the beginning, I like to be a little bit more even-handed in the criticisms that I level out. I hope people understand that when I poke fun at bootcamps, it’s all good fun. And, it is not unique to them, these problems. So, this is really a fix for, all fitness programs everywhere. And at the end of the day, we’re just being pedantic in general. Whatever gets you moving.

I hope you guys liked this. If so, give us a like, give us a subscribe. We’ll keep doing this, and we’ll catch you next time.

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