The Problem With Boot Camp Training

One of the fitness rages of the past few years has been the Boot Camp model. A personal trainer shows up at a park with a handful of clients and engages in a military-style exercise routine for 30-60 minutes. This is a brilliant business model for the trainer. Instead of doing one-on-one consultations at some Glitter Gym that wants a piece of the action, they can use a park for free and they can bill several clients at once. The problem with Boot Camp style training is it is built upon several false premises and the expectation and sustainability of the results aren’t realistic.

Who Am I?

I am not a personal trainer. I’m a fitness enthusiast and researcher who is in better shape now than when I graduated from real Army Basic Training over twenty years ago. Basic Training was never about turning lumpy out-of-shape middle-aged people into warriors. The purpose of Basic Training is to break down the individual and build them up as a team player. Along the way, you do a bunch of push-ups and run, but the function of Basic Training is not about designing optimal athletes or getting lean. It is about building soldiers willing to kill or be killed in defense of their country.


Me taking notes at Ft. Benning, GA.

Selection Bias

The biggest difference between real Basic Training and Boot Camp training is the massive pre-screening effort the Armed Forces does to ensure a higher rate of success. When you take a bunch of healthy men and women who are mostly 18-20 years old and subject them to high levels of training, they tend to respond positively. Young people have a greater window of recoverability. To further ensure success, the Armed Forces does extensive physicals on all enlistees. If you are overweight, you are instructed to “make weight” on your own before you can even start Basic Training.

When you watch some movie or TV show showing buff soldiers doing exercises while some drill sergeant barks at them, what you aren’t seeing are all the candidates that were rejected by the recruiter or medical personnel. In other words, the military stacks the deck in their favor by selecting the candidates that can best respond to military training. The personal trainer in the park isn’t getting those people.

The takeaway lesson here is that soldiers were ALREADY LEAN AND HEALTHY before they ever started Basic Training. And it wasn’t Basic Training that made them lean and athletic. For most soldiers it was youth.

Back to the Army

Did Basic Training make the soldiers in my platoon stronger or leaner? Not as much as you’d think. Remember that many of the men who join the military are already active. I’d say over half the men in my platoon played sports in high school. I could spend several paragraphs explaining why Army metrics for fitness are flawed, but their mission has little to do with fitness. It is about inflicting a high amount of stress, both physical and emotional, on recruits and then allowing the survivors to continue their enlistment. Those that fail are removed.


I was 17 in Army Basic Training.

Self Loathing

Something I’ve noticed about the type of person attracted to Boot Camp style training is they often have some self-loathing issues. They hate their body. They feel their past failures with other programs were their fault. As a way to undo their past sins, they will pay some personal trainer to put their body through grueling military-style workouts as a form of punishment. They look at the success of the warrior as proof that if only they trained like a perfectly healthy 18-year-old, they’d achieve the same results. The fitness industry loves to feed into our insecurities and then turn their failures into your failures. Training an overweight woman in her 30s that just had a baby as if she were an 18-year-old infantryman doesn’t make sense to me.

Ignore the Success Stories, Look For the Failures

I’m sure at this point, a few Boot Camp personal trainers are ready to tell me about some of their clients who made amazing transformations. My response would be that some people respond well to any type of training. People who make progress continue showing up. Those that don’t go away. The failures are hidden. The fitness industry loves to label these people as quitters, when in reality it may be a host of factors, including an excessive training plan that may be the cause of the failure. Those with superior recoverability skills will respond best to Boot Camp style training. But they tend to respond well to any type of training.

Another straw man argument will be that Boot Camp training is better than nothing. This is pure silliness as it defines the world as having two options: extreme or nothing. A better discussion would be the sustainability of any training program. How realistic is it that someone continues the commitment in time and money to a given program? People tend to imagine that they will be highly committed to a program and then weeks later when life interrupts their plans or the results aren’t coming, they have to quit the program. At my core, I am a strong believer in The Minimal Effort Approach.

You Don’t Need Boot Camp

Fat loss is 80-90% diet. Figure that out first. Go for walks and maybe a few sprints. Add in a few push-ups and bodyweight squats and you’ll make progress. I have designed an outdoor workout that can be done at a park or backyard in under 10 minutes just once a week. It is ridiculously effective. Fat loss is within your control. Hiring someone to yell at you at the park is time and money that can be better spent in a cooking class. If you enjoy the community aspect of Boot Camp training, then, by all means, do it. Just don’t hurt yourself.


Add yours

  1. As a personal trainer for well over 10 years who has run many bootcamps (although I have officially “retired” from doing them years ago)…I agree with your message 100%.

    Fitness routines should be kept simple for sustainability and not “extreme”. Then just focus on eating and an active lifestyle.

    Well said, and something I was planning on talking about soon myself too…great minds must think alike! 😉

    PS. Just ask any physical therapist how much their business picks up when “bootcamp” season starts in the spring…they will tell you plenty.

  2. I sort of look at the motivations from a different angle other than self-loathing.

    Last week at my gym I saw a middle-aged married couple (mid 40s, white, white-collar professional looking) being trained by a militaristic-looking PT (btw: if you are a white guy and want to get into personal training – shave your head bald – I think that gives you 85% of credibility right there).

    Anyway, this couple looked like they were in pain and the PT was forcing them to do body exercises beyond the scope of their abilities. The couple looked dazed and exhausted.

    I observed that the couple seemed to like the idea of getting their money’s worth. Alone, they might have straggled the workout intensity. Whereby herein, they paid someone to command them and received the instant (albeit ineffective) gratification they sought. That is what I think these folks pay for, the feeling of accomplishment or in other words, being led rather than clearing their own path.

  3. @Thomas – That couple surrendered their fitness to an “expert”. I don’t have an issue with this if the client is learning from their trainer proper form or working around injuries all with the goal of empowering themselves to take more control of their own fitness outcomes.

    People place too much faith in their personal trainers. They don’t question enough and they fail to really learn what makes their body tick.

  4. Yep. Keep it Simple, Safe and Effective. I think the best thing we can do here is to lead by example. Showing people how we tackle these issues day to day and learn from them is one of the great gifts of the internet.

    And you do a marvelous job of it MAS. Thanks for all that you do.

  5. @Aaron – Thanks for the kind words.

  6. Although I agree with you that PT may be needed for introduction to form. I really do think the personal training industry is overwrought with a type of benign sado-masochism. Those cross-fit videos you posted some time ago is a great example of this mentality.

  7. It’s funny you posted this. I was complaining on my blog’s FB page the other day (well, ranting would be a better way of putting it) about the whole boot camp fad. I was in the Army too, and it boggles the mind why anyone would *choose* to punish themselves that way when (1) they didn’t get screened first like you and I did and (2) they’re not really getting a boot camp level of training because if they were they’d puke all over their Vibrams. And even with the official precautions, people in real basic training still get hurt!

  8. @Dana – Absolutely correct. People have no idea all the steps it takes just to get to Basic Training. I guess that would make for boring TV.

  9. Well said my friend!

    As I mentioned Saturday, I’m starting the process of getting certified as a personal trainer and one of the main goals I have is to show people that you don’t have to go to these extremes to get and stay fit. I have numerous friends who have ended up benched for weeks because of injuries sustained at various flavors of boot camp style sessions and it’s getting old.

    Enjoy Wheat Belly and we’ll see you next month –


  10. @Jesse – Thanks Jesse. Seems I sold back my copy of Wheat Belly on AMAZON, so I’m going to have to go off memory. 🙂 See you next month.

  11. It’s not always a question of self-hate. I’m an average woman in her 30’s and I took part in boot camp style training for a few weeks. What attracted me to it was:

    (1) Not having to think. As someone suffering from almost terminal indecision, it was a great relief not have to think about what to do next, or what version of the exercise would be the most beneficial, or keep track of how many repetitions I have left. Trainer say “Run”, I run. Trainer say, “Ten push-ups”, I do ten push-ups. Simple.

    (2) Motivation. The big feature of intense training in a group setting is the same that the real Army Basic Training takes advantage of – it plays into your primal instincts to “follow the herd”, to be a team player. You do things because others are doing them. You don’t question or doubt. This has the effect of forgetting your own individual limitation, or what *you think* are your limitations, and in effect you end up achieving much more than you ever thought you’d be capable of.

    (3) Motivation II: Trainer’s leadership. There is something in that yelling, no-nonsense, confident attitude of the trainer that is strangely motivating. (A psychologists might suggest it’s an instinct to submit to an alpha leader or something along those lines…) Also, raised voices raise your adrenaline; so does constant, rhytmic, loud counting of repetitions or repeated instructions. This has a “charging” effect on a very physical level.

    Bootcamp-style training opened my eyes to what my body can do. It does something to your mind, which is very different from individual one-on-one training or play-style exercise.

  12. @Ender – Thanks for the comment. I’m glad “boot camp” training worked for you. It clearly works for some people and in the end that is all that matters.

    This post is speaking mostly to those people who come in with false expectations and then blame themselves when this style of training fails to deliver the sustainable results they expected.

  13. I think to say boot camps all run on said boot camp model is misinformed. I run boot camps for dependents, civilians and service members on a military base. I teach people proper form 1st and foremost and each person works within their safe range of motion.

    The only people to not continue my boot camp thus far are because they have moved to another duty station. Some boot camps work. People need to research, observe and find what works for them. Group motivation, learning how to exercise safely, and gaining confidence in an athletic setting are all great reasons to go to a boot camp. I will agree that most fitness “professionals” have no business training anyone, let alone a group of people. But some of us, the ones that take our jobs and the responsibilities that go with it seriously, can help a larger number of people affordably.

  14. @Susan – This post had nothing to do with the quality of training provided by boot camps. It was about expectations and selection bias. Two completely different topics.

  15. i live in south-west london with plenty of beautiful parks all around and at the very first sound of spring birdsong the boot camp brigades come out in force like a plague of locusts. while i agree that any excercise is better than none, these outfits dominate the open spaces with their endless shouting and running all over the place and thereby pushing those who might be in their way effectively away onto the sidelines. luckily my local borough council has seen sense and despite a howl of protests from the boot campers has now rightly classified their activities as a commercial enterprise and as such they will have to apply and pay for a business permit in order to use the parks for their activities (which after all are financed by local tax-payers). as a result, the boot campers have migrated to parks in other boroughs which do not (yet) levy a fee and my local parks have returned to bliss- and peaceful sanity.

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