Boot Camp How-To

Implementing an effective boot camp program is simple if you follow the right steps.

Boot camp classes are again on the rise in popularity, and many fitness centers offer these programs as either a part of their revenue-generating line-up, or as a benefit of membership. However you decide to implement a boot camp class, it can quickly become one of your most popular offerings, and develop almost a cult following of devoted fitness masochists.

Choosing an instructor

As with any group exercise class, success or failure begins with the instructor. The instructor chosen to lead a boot camp class needs to possess a group exercise certification through a credible organization, as well as have practical experience leading group exercise. Proper certification and experience ensures that the instructor has demonstrated the knowledge necessary to safely and effectively organize, present and supervise group exercise. The instructor also needs to have a great personality and the ability to motivate students. Since boot camp participants are looking for something different, the instructor needs to have the ability to make it so. Simply taking a group strength class and calling it boot camp won't do. The instructor will also need to demonstrate proper technique and be tireless in their leadership, while simultaneously safely supervising a sometimes high-impact class. Leading, demonstrating, supervising and correcting students while thinking ahead to the next exercise aren't new practices to a seasoned instructor, but the irregular pace and high intensity of a boot camp class require the instructor to sometimes be even more capable of multi-tasking than with a more traditional class, where all of the students are generally doing the same thing at once. Instructors also need the ability to devise and implement an ever-changing and evolving routine to avoid the pitfall of becoming stale. The key to a great boot camp program is that the students never see the same thing twice, and the instructor is able to challenge the fittest members without excluding beginners. Contrary to the perception, boot camp instructors aren't all overbearing drill sergeants (although some are). The personality of the class needs to fit the personality of the instructor. If camouflage fatigues aren't an instructor's style, then it shouldn't be forced on them. If the instructor is not an "in your face" type, they shouldn't become one. Good boot camp instructors should integrate into the boot camp format the parts of their personality that made them successful fitness instructors. Polite sarcasm and levity at their own and their student's expense usually works wonders, as boot camp students are looking to be challenged. Instructors must also look and act the part. Personal appearance and fitness levels must be beyond reproach. Instructors must be able to lead from the front to run a successful program, rather than just stand around barking orders. Boot camp students want to tell every one they know how challenging their program is and how tough their instructor is. Boot camp instructors have to look fit, be on time, start on time and set a great example for the students to shoot for without appearing too cocky or acting superior.

Class format

The boot camp class format should follow the same lines as a traditional group exercise class. The class should be challenging enough for your most fit members, but offer variety so that even beginners can participate. There are three parts to a successful class: warm-up, exercise and cool-down. In a boot camp environment, the warm-up might consist of either power walking or jogging a couple of laps around a track, followed by some light stretching and calisthenics. The exercise routine will build from the warm-up and consist of some upper- and lower-body strength training and/or intense cardio such as interval runs, sprints or star jumps. The cool-down might include some jogging or power walking, more stretching and some core exercises. Warm-up. In keeping with its military background, your instructors can call your warm-up "The Daily Seven" or "Daily Dozen," depending on how many exercises they plan to offer. They may not actually perform seven or 12 exercises, but the name gives the students some type of expectation of what's about to come. The warm-up exercises, as with most boot camp exercises, should be performed in four-count, cadence-count repetitions. The instructor counts the cadence, the students the repetitions. For example, the instructor might command, "Good morning boot campers! (A role call may precede the warm-up to get everyone in the mood.) Today we will conduct the daily seven warm-up. All exercises will be four-count cadence count. I will call the cadence, you will call the repetitions. We will do 10 repetitions. The first exercise is side straddle hops - jumping jacks, for you civilians. You are in your starting positions. Ready exercise one! (Students respond, 'one!') Two!" (Students respond, 'two!'), and so on. Have instructors start the warm-up slowly with low-impact exercises (see Sample Boot Camp Exercises for examples). Instructors should increase speed and intensity throughout the warm-up so that by the time students move into the exercise portion, they are near their target exercise zone and ready to pick up the pace. Exercises. The exercise focus of the class can be broken down into three areas: upper-body development (UBD), lower-body development (LBD) and cardio. Since core exercises should be performed every session, there is no need for them to have a separate category. Instructors should schedule a series of UBD, LBD and cardio so that the students get something different every session. For example, if the class meets Monday, Wednesday and Friday, they may perform UBDs on Monday, cardio on Wednesday and LBDs on Friday. In addition to breaking down the routines into three categories, instructors should devise many routines for each category. This way, even though they might perform UBDs once a week, the routine is at least slightly different each week. Instructors can also switch the order; for example, don't perform cardio every Wednesday. To stay organized, instructors can have a series of cards with different routines outlined on them (see Sample Boot Camp Routines). For example, they can laminate the cards and thread them onto a large ring. Prior to each week, they can review the cards and choose which ones they'll use. Instructors should regularly create more cards to ensure the program remains fresh. Delivery of the exercise routine is important, and countless options and methods of delivery exist for the exercise portion of a boot camp class. While many instructors prefer to use the military style of counting cadence, they can use various forms of counts to lengthen the routine or vary the pace. They might use four counts up and four counts down on calf raises, for example, or have participants perform eight-count push-ups instead of four-count ones. Over the course of a boot camp class, instructors will use interval training, strength training, sprint workouts, circuits and/or a long series of demanding calisthenics. LBD routines can focus on lunges and squats with abs or cardio in between each set. Class participants can use dumbbells, barbells, bands and body weight in the UBD training, and incorporate steps, an indoor or outdoor track, or basketball court or soccer field into the cardio portion of the training. Stability balls, medicine balls and mats can be incorporated into the core portions of the program. Cool-down. The cool-down is as important as the other two elements, and it is critical that students participate. In many fitness classes, it is routine for some participants to head for the door as soon as the stretching starts. To combat this, instructors can implement core exercises into the cool-down, and use buddy stretching techniques to keep everyone contained. Additionally, if your fitness center offers incentive programs or a points system for participation, save such administrative details for after the cool-down.


Although equipment can be incorporated into any boot camp routine, a good program can be run with almost no equipment. Much "real" military fitness instruction takes place with large groups on open fields. Push-ups, jumping jacks and running have been performed for exercise as long as humans have been exercising, and what was good for the Spartans is just as good for us. As long as the boot camp instructor develops varied, organized and interesting routines, an effective program can be run with nominal equipment at virtually no cost.

Revenue-generating or free?

Whether you decide to offer your boot camp program at additional cost to members or as a benefit of membership (free) depends on the management style of your facility. Do you see programs as an avenue to create revenue, or as contributing to revenue by attracting more members? If programs are expected to contribute positively to revenue, the boot camp program must be packaged and marketed so that it can be filled with paying participants. If the class is seen as a benefit of membership, it must be packaged and marketed so that people will join the class and remain members in order to continue participating in the program (and other parts of the fitness center). Either way, a solid boot camp program can positively contribute to the bottom line, if run effectively.


Marketing a boot camp program is no different than marketing any other class or program. Word of mouth is usually the best way to attract new students, and in the long run, is how the majority of students come to a new class. Initially, though, it is important to get the word out to your members by direct mail, flyers in the fitness center, a facility marquee, emails, newsletter, website, etc. Whatever you can do to pump up the class will help. Incentive programs are a great way to keep students involved. In the boot camp program at the Waukegan Park District in Waukegan, Ill., every student gets a Boot Camp Card the first time they attend, and the instructor signs it after every workout (the card itself is a pretty cool keepsake). After every 20 workouts, the student gets a T-shirt adorned with a humorous phrase like, "Thank You Sir. May I Have Another?" or "The Beatings Will Stop Once Morale Improves." Of course, the T-shirts also have the fitness center's name somewhere to help promote the facility. T-shirts or other giveaways are a great way to promote your program, and a fun incentive to keep students coming back.

Now get out there and train!

Boot camp programs are a great way to attract members to your group exercise program, and provide them an opportunity to experience intense fitness training. How well a boot camp program will do depends primarily on the instructor and their ability to devise, develop and implement an interesting program. Additionally, that instructor has to lead from the front physically and possess a dynamic, motivating personality without being seen as self-centered or arrogant. Put together properly, boot camp programs can be fun and entertaining, and can evolve into an identifying feature of any fitness center.
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