Friday, August 27, 2010

We must smash them - the rise of bootcamps

We must smash them - purely in a fitness sense

These days you can’t walk through a park without encountering a group of people wearing coloured bibs being shouted at by a guy in a pair of combat trousers. It’s a cross between school PE classes, with everyone dressed to play in a five a side tournament while the staff sergeant from full metal jacket tells them what to do.

Coming to a park near you

A few weeks ago I was driving past one such class in a park near where I live, one group of women was doing bodyweight squats – fair enough. But then I saw another group of men in their coloured bibs running along with another guy on their back piggy back style. These weren’t special forces recruits practising running out of a firefight with their injured buddy on their back, they were a mixture of young, old, overweight. As I watched a couple of the guys struggling as they carried a partner that may have weighed 80-90kg, with their backs in forward flexion under load, I knew I was never going to be short of back pain clients.

Power clean till you puke.

A guy I know who used to be a trainer, would often talk about how he was ‘going to smash a client’, he wanted to break them. He’d often start a workout with a 50 or 100 burpee warm up, if they threw up he considered it a good training session. He would then often get them to do high reps of power cleans ( and by power clean I mean round back Romanian deadlift followed by a reverse curl ) until they were broken. My friend had never heard of crossfit, but he had inadvertently invented his own version of it.

The point is, it’s easy to smash a client, you get them to do a 100 burpee warm up, my friend knew that. But giving a client a workout that’s progressive and addresses their weaknesses and has balance is more than that. Its good to really blast it once in a while, but being completely smashed in a workout and having one that is effective are not necessarily the same thing. And it wont be long before your clients start breaking down with injury.

When I started in fitness 12 or so years ago, everyone was paranoid about ‘contraindicated’ movements that would injure someone, with boot camps the pendulum has swung the other way with trainers getting clients to do all types of crazy things because ‘that’s what the military do’, but most of us aren’t training military personnel or athletes, we’re training people who sit down for 8 hours a day. The type of people who we wouldn’t make run 5k because its ‘bad for their knees’ but then get them to do plyometrics and sprints with appalling technique even though they couldn’t even do a bodyweight squat.

I recently bought a new magazine, trail running (generally a good magazine), in it was a british military fitness bmf) pull out with the standard guy in a pair of combat trousers demonstrating the usual exercises and then I saw a picture of him doing the old skool hurdler stretch with back in forward flexion, have we learnt nothing?!

Now classes have always suffered from the problem that you can’t individualise a workout when you have 20-30 people, but the motivational class environment is what people go for. But making it safe & effective is another matter. Knowing how far to push someone is a mixture of art and science. But some things are obvious, making a middle aged overweight man or woman do hill sprints until they throw up does not make you big or clever or a master trainer.

Pre qualifying your bootcamp participants

Me and my colleague Nick recently ran our own bikini bootcamp. However, we set some criteria for people before they could do the boot camp:

  1. We only let people who had been training with us at least 3 months take part, people we had worked with one to one or in small group training sessions in the gym.  
  2. We made it clear to them that the bootcamp would involve running & sprinting, we only let people take part we knew could do this. 
  3. The clients that took part had no major injuries, especially hip or knee problems.
  4. We limited the 6 week course to 10 people.
  5. We started each session with mobility drills, a dynamic warm up, went through sprint technique with build up sprints and built up over 6 weeks. Now when we first started the sprints,a couple of participant still got rectus femoris pulls (see Mike Boyle Advances in Functional Training for an explanation of what this is & why it happens ).
After all this screening this still happened. Imagine what happens when you have 30 people turning up each week and the instructor is just trying to smash them with the random exercises they have selected that day to try and make up the hour.

Now all of our participant achieved outstanding results training this way 3 x week for 6 weeks, and we pushed them hard, but we had the luxury of pre-selecting them for this. The point of this isn't to say we're any better at bootcamps than anyone else, its to illustrate how we screened, and even with experienced exercisers injuries can occur when they are introduced to new activities.

Don’t get me wrong, bodyweight exercises are a great tool, training outside in the fresh air enhances your mood and bootcamps

I can understand why trainers do them, you don’t have to carry around equipment, you don’t have to pay a gym excessive amounts of rental money each week, you don’t have to plan what you're doing, and when you're training groups of people you’re not relying on one personal training client turning up.

With the growth of bootcamps, military fitness circuits and women only bootcamps hopefully more people will exercise. But lets not trying to build fitness on top of dysfunction (to paraphrase Gray Cook) and end up permanently injuring people who just wanted to lose weight.

Exercise can be intelligent as well as intense.

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