With an emphasis on multijoint movements and interval training, boot-camp-style classes are mainstays at health clubs and boutique gyms. The high-intensity strength-and-conditioning sessions combine challenging body-weight and weighted moves to create circuits that leave you breathless and sweaty.
What Is a Boot-Camp Workout?
Though the name harks back to the militaristic inspiration that originally spawned this type of group training, today’s classes run the gamut. You can still find a drill-sergeant trainer to motivate you through pushups and sprints, but the template has expanded to include Olympic weightlifting, kickboxing, and even activities that are traditionally more low-key, like yoga and barre.
What unites these disparate formats is the fundamental aspect of the boot-camp experience: circuit training that builds strength, conditioning, and mobility while also building camaraderie with your classmates.
“The sense of community is huge,” says Lindsay Ogden, a group training experience specialist and nutrition coach at Life Time. “Participants get not only accountability from their coach or instructor, but also from their peers.” Ogden helped overhaul the club’s GTX program, which includes boot-camp-style high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, classes.
“I’ve seen people achieve things in boot-camp classes that they didn’t think were possible,” she says.
Boot-camp experiences vary widely based on the participant’s mindset, class size, and instructor, among other factors. To reap the benefits, it’s important to recognize your tendencies and respect your body’s limits before jumping into an intense group workout.
“The pros and cons are the same — it’s the group dynamic,” says John Hayley, CSCS, a Level 2 Spartan SGX coach and owner of John Hayley’s Unbreakable Fitness in Forest Park, Ill. “The energy in the room helps you push yourself to a level where you wouldn’t otherwise go. But if you’re looking around the room too much and comparing yourself to what everyone else is doing, you can end up doing a movement that doesn’t fit your body.”
Our experts share their tips for avoiding injury, listening to your body, and getting the most out of boot camp.
Technique Tips & Drills
Going (Not Too) Hard
Follow these tips to push your body beyond its comfort zone while also paying attention to signs that you need to back off.
- Put form first. Don’t compromise quality for speed or reps. “More isn’t better. Better is better,” explains Ogden. If you’re not sure whether you’re doing an exercise correctly, ask the instructor. Avoid taking your cues from your closest friend or the fittest person in the class, Hayley says.
- Respect the rest time. Most boot camps will incorporate some form of interval training. If you feel you need more time between sets, take it — and don’t compare your needs with anyone else’s. Work intervals will commonly push you close to maximal effort; rest intervals intentionally bring you back down. When you feel able to hold a short conversation, that’s a good sign you’re probably ready to go again.
- Be honest with yourself — and with your coach. If you’re not feeling 100 percent (whether because you slept poorly, are stressed, have a cold, etc.), let your instructor know.
- If it hurts, don’t do it. Modifications can help you work around injuries and personalize exercises for your body and needs. Talk to your instructor or check out Experience Life’s “Break It Down” archive for ideas.
- Make time for recovery.On days off from boot camp, prioritize active recovery. Dial back the intensity and add some mobility work. (Learn more at “Why Workout Recovery Days Are Essential for Optimal Fitness”.)
There are common movement patterns in most boot-camp-style classes. Ogden and Hayley offer advice on mastering the basics to get more out of your next class.
Drill 1: Squating
Whether you’re doing body-weight squats, adding weight with a barbell or kettlebell, or adding a plyometric element by jumping, proper form is paramount. Use the wall-facing squat to activate the correct muscles and drill good form:
- Stand 6 to 12 inches from a wall, facing it with hands in front of you.
- Reach your hips back as if you were sitting on a chair, and bend your knees to lower as far as possible without touching the wall.
- Drive your heels and big toes into the ground as you come back to standing.
- Perform 10 reps.
Drill 2: Hinging
The hip hinge is a foundation for many exercises, including deadlifts, dynamic kettlebell movements, and bent-over rows. Master the following butt-to-wall stance and mentally return to it every time your class includes a hinge exercise.
- While standing about 12 inches from a wall, with your back to it, hold a kettlebell with your arms hanging down in front of you.
- Keeping your back flat, reach your butt back toward the wall while allowing the weight to lower straight to your shoelaces. Your shins should stay vertical.
- Return to standing.
- Perform 10 reps.
Drill 3: Scapular Activation
Shoulder instability and immobility are common, so retracting the scapulae — your shoulder blades — will help you avoid injury and also build strength.
A common coaching cue in moves like upper-body rows, pushups, and biceps curls is to draw your shoulder blades down and back, away from your ears and into your (imaginary) back pockets. Try doing this without puffing out your chest or pushing out your bottom ribs. If that’s tough, adding scapular pushups into your warm-up can help:
- Assume a plank position with your forearms and the balls of your feet on the floor, your body straight, head to heels.
- Engage your core and slowly draw your shoulder blades together, allowing your chest to sink toward the floor.
- Reverse the movement, pressing your elbows into the floor and pushing the center of your back toward the ceiling.
- Perform 10 to 12 slow repetitions.
- Progress this move by placing your hands on the floor with your arms straight; make sure to not bend your elbows to compensate for limited shoulder mobility. Keep the movement honest by maintaining straight arms.
This originally appeared as “Boot-Camp Basics” in the March 2020 print issue of Experience Life.