Cris LaBossiere

Cris LaBossiere
Strength training and mountain biking. My two favorites

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Why boot camps are stupid

In my previous post I mentioned unabashedly that I think boot camps are stupid.  What inspired me to do a follow up about why this form exercise mayhem is stupid is a reader response on FaceBook.

"I agree Cris, Boot camps are stupid. They will not cause lifestyle change."  Thanks to KM for the post.

Rather than just saying that boot camps are stupid, I'll do what I usually do and that is tell you like it is with facts and reason.  

I did a Google image search for boot camp. Endless pictures of people suffering and also endless pictures of very poor exercise form.

The boot camp idea perpetrates the myth that hard, arduous exercise is what counts. Anything less has no value. Suffering equals success. Sure, hard training is needed to capture peak performance, but hard training isn't what getting started is all about.  Forget this Hollywood idea of what productive is supposed to be.  In reality even for well conditioned athletes hard training is best done with careful preparation and timing, not arbitrarily entering a boot camp to kick ones butt into shape.

 I think a person could make a boot camp with few people work.  Maybe an instructor - student ratio of one to eight. You'd have to do a complete fitness assessment on each person so the instructor would be properly informed as to what exercises are appropriate for the people in the group.

You'd start slow with basic moves and gradually increase the intensity and complexity of moves over months of boot camps.  When anyone became tired you'd encourage them to take a break or stop altogether so they can resolve their fatigue with proper rest.

I've never heard of a boot camp being run like this but if there is one out there run correctly, this article is not about them.

For most, the kind of anti-boot camp group exercise I suggested, catering to peoples needs and starting easy, is going to sound too boring.  But, only because it will be compared to traditionalized expectations of loud music and or a loud instructor, and pushing so hard you wonder why you showed up.  How about a re-think?  What would be wrong with building gradually and hitting it hard when you're ready?  There's nothing wrong with that.  In fact, research shows that's the most effective way to make large, long term gains.

Lets take a look at the actual military boot camp which the civilian exercise fad is based on.

Results of this study (1) show that 39.6% of of military recruits entering boot camp became injured.  Keep in mind that the military recruits from the general population, not the athlete population. These are everyday folks that are entering an abrupt change in how much they exercise, like most people taking part in exercise boot camps.

The cause of 78% of the injuries? Overuse.  Researchers concluded that abrupt increases in training intensity and volume are the cause of injury.

An abrupt change in training volume and intensity.  Um, isn't that the point of a boot camp?  I'm sorry folks but my brain gets twisted when I try to make sense out of that.  This is harder than trying wrap your head around quantum physics.  The very thing that causes injury is the very premise of boot camps.  And boot camps are super popular. What the H E double hocky sticks is wrong with this picture?

The model of boot camp training is bogus.  People are pushed too hard too soon without preparatory training.

How about those pro-level pre-season training camps?  This is where the pro's tune up for real competition.  Sort of. In reality (2) this is where 51% of hamstring injuries occur in NFL players. The reason?  Training too hard too soon.

What? So even pro athletes who are far more conditioned than the average person considering a fitness centre boot camp still get hammered with injuries from advancing too quickly with volume and intensity?  You got it.

According to this study (3) girls aged 9 to 15 who participated in more than 8 hours per week of high impact sports and sport training were twice as likely to sustain a stress fracture compared to those doing 4 hours or less of high impact activity.

Is this an obvious outcome?  I think so, but obviously others don't, otherwise nobody would be training 9-15 year old girls 8 or more hours per week without proper preparation.

Whether adult or child, pro or not, there seems to be a tie that binds most popularised exercise- go really hard, and do it often.

Boot camps are the anointed child of the ever popular go hard or go home concept; a concept that is continually proven invalid by sport science, yet continually offered to and sought out by the public.  I feel like I'm in the middle ages trying to tell people the earth isn't at the centre of the universe.  I must be a sorcerer.

In my personal observation I've seen boot camp instructors shout out what sound like good instructions.. keep your core tight, watch your knee alignment, etc.  What I find a little weird is that the instructor will also shout out platitudes, you're doing great, keep it up, burn that fat..  Why is this weird?  Isn't positive encouragement good?

Strangely most of the students have poor mechanics, indeed even the instructor has poor mechanics. So what's with telling people to watch their knee alignment then have most of the class express poor knee alignment then do nothing about it other than saying good job keep it up?  Why can't these instructors see the poor mechanics and help people make the necessary corrections?  Is it a case of you can't teach what you don't know?  Most of the time I think this is the case.

Confounding that problem is the one size fits all formula, along with the need to turn over classes in a timely manner to produce revenue.  So each class has a script.  Next class; repeat script, and say it with meaning so you can sound convincing.

Something else to consider.  Although many instructors say things like, go at you're own pace, in reality there is great pressure from the instructor plus peer pressure to push hard no matter what.  Also how could it be that everyone in the class is at the same level of conditioning and equally capable of doing the intensive moves?

Remember KM's comment about lifestyle changes?  Boot camp is all about short term pain and short term gain.  This is not a suitable strategy or a "kick start" to a new you.  It's more like a kick in the hamstring.

The sport science is clear; training too hard too soon and over-emphasizing intensity and going for the burn as well as skipping assessment and base conditioning is disaster in the making.  Some of the complex moves found in boot camps are simply made up by the instructor or are culled from the black hole of fad exercises instead of being well thought out proven exercises that are gradually implemented based on an individuals ability to do the exercise.

Sound like TMI? This is another common error made with those feeling like they need to do something to increase their fitness but feel that they don't want to be burdened with too much of a learning curve; "just tell me what to do and I'll do it, I don't want to know about how my lungs work, I just want to get fit fast."

The outcome of following this path is nearly always failure, even though it may seem perfectly justifiable at first.  Lifestyle changes include gradually changing how we think and feel about the reward of exercise and how to integrate healthy living habits permanently into our lives, and that involves learning a little bit about how our bodies work.  It's about  making informed decisions.

It is true that starting with less complex and easy to implement actions is the best way to start.  Better to start with simply eating less of what you already eat rather than with an instant overhaul of your diet.  Better to start with going for walks for exercise rather than with a complex exercise routine.

The conflict here is that most boot camps employ fairly complex exercises that are advanced well beyond base conditioning, so while boot camps may imply that you can simply be a body in a crowd accepting instructions that you don't have to think about much, the reality is getting good at complex movement does take time, concentration, practice and long term improvement.

Boot camps are the antithesis to the healthy living idea.  Boot camps are the animation of our get fit quick fantastical thinking.  Boot camps are about playing to the idea that you don't have time to exercise, you don't have time to waste.  You need to work hard fast for short periods and get it all done so you can get back to a busy schedule. Boot camps survive on the old urban myth that sweat and burning muscles are an accurate measurement of exercise quality.

I've been in exercise labs a lot.  I've even had the privilege doing exercise studies. The standards of measuring effective exercise are not sweat or a burning sensation.  In fact the body of sport science tells us the best way to ensure continued gains while avoiding the setback of injuries is to start really easy, so easy that you never feel tired during or after your exercise.  Gradually you build your exercise capacity and when you're ready to go harder you can continue to get more benefit from higher intensity exercise.

You should only expect to feel tired from exercise once you're fit enough to endure hard training.  I'm not about avoiding high intensity exercise.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Just ask the athletes I train how hard they work during VO2 Max intervals or doing 4-6 rep max single leg squats.

I'm no stranger to high intensity training myself, you name it I've done it.  VO2 Max, TABATA, German volume training, plyometrics, and circuit training that we lovingly used to call "the barf circuit". I've done hill running sprints carrying a person on my back using the fireman's carry and loved every moment of it.  I manage to win the odd bike race as well.  I've also endured my self-imposed misfortune of training too hard too soon and can tell you repetitive strain injury isn't fun.

Training hard works, but training too hard too soon doesn't.  You don't need hard arduous exercise to experience great improvements in weight loss and strength gain.  The greatest gains I've made and any of my athletes have made have been on a long term gradually more challenging path to harder exercise. That's athletes though.  Nobody needs to train that hard to be healthy and fit. Athletic training routines is not where we start out with getting into healthy living or even bumping up our fitness to the next level.  What is generally not that well understood is that to do the most popular balance provoking exercises, and the jumping exercises, and the high intensity gut wrenching exercises, we need to have a substantially strong foundation of very strong core, hips, and shoulders.  Otherwise we're just asking for trouble.

Making healthy living choices is about learning about how our bodies work, making both short and long term easy to accomplish realistic goals that build us towards more complex goals.  Healthy exercise doesn't blow your brains out (or biceps out) or make you hurt every time you do it and we need to be mindful of this.

Boot camps don't instill or support this healthy and realistic thinking.  Boot camps will tell you to push hard when you're tired.  Sport science says to cut back exercise when you're tired to allow your body the recovery it needs to adapt and progress healthily.

I'm sure if a person tried hard enough they could find a boot camp that isn't as extreme as I'm describing here, but the reality is the very concept of group training where people are pushed into complex exercise too hard too soon simply makes no sense.  It's a marketing gimmick.

I could easily put on boot camps and act like an excited drill sargent.  I'd make a good dollar too. Trouble is I wouldn't really be helping anyone make the key lifestyle changes that will really benefit their health long term.

I have an athlete whom I love to reference often because he's in his 50's.  This guy in his 50's can do over 30 good quality chin-ups (yes, in one shot with no breaks) and over 80 push ups.  He doesn't do boot camps.  In fact he hardly does chin-ups.  How can a person spank of 30 chin-ups if they hardly do chin-ups?  Don't misunderstand me.  The fellow worked many many months to build up to this, but he backed off when fatigued and added a little more when recovered and wasn't fanatical about it.

He does chin-ups once a week or sometimes once every two weeks.  Of course he has a complete program as well, but he does it at his own pace doing strength training once or twice per week along with cardio training 2 - 3 times per week.  He's more fit than he's ever been in his life and he loves it. .. I'd put my money on him to kick butt on any boot camper..

(1) Military training-related injuries: surveillan... [Am J Prev Med. 2000] - PubMed - NCBI

(2) Hamstring Muscle Strains in Professional Football Players

(3) JAMA Network | Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine | Prospective Study of Physical Activity and Risk of Developing a Stress Fracture Among Preadolescent and Adolescent Girls

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