Think you’ve got the chops to keep up with the few and the proud? Military-inspired workouts are a good way to find out and get in shape fast.
Crossfit. Boot Camp. Spartan Race. American Ninja Warrior: Meet aerobics in the 21st century.
While the ‘80s and ‘90s saw the rise of the big-box gyms and large, group workouts, we now realize that we don’t really need all the bells and whistles of a plush gym. We can get by with minimal equipment, but what we really need is a good trainer who can actually show and tell us what to do.
This no-frills approach to exercise, which includes using your body weight to train—think pushups, plank, squats—was identified as one of the top fitness trends to watch in 2013, in the American College of Sports Medicine’s (ACSM) Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends for 2013. And judging by the increasing popularity of military-inspired fitness regimens and competitions, such as TRX, CrossFit and Warrior Dash–type obstacle races, this is more than just a fad.
“The past 20 years have seen the rise of the big corporate gyms and, in general, once you pay your membership, the gyms don’t care if you show up,” says Jim Kean, CEO of San Francisco–based WellnessFX (wellnessfx.com) and an avid CrossFit participant. “People pay for their membership, the infrastructure and the amenities, but in the end they hardly return. People don’t work together in a big-box gym setting. You may take a class, but it’s not a community, and no one is pushing you to be a better athlete.” Find community, buck the establishment and get in fighting shape with these three combat-inspired workouts.
CrossFit is a core-strength and conditioning program designed to improve cardiovascular and respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility and balance. In other words, it uses functional fitness (see page 34) to improve how participants move in their daily lives.
“CrossFit was born out of the idea that as a nation we were increasingly overweight and yet Americans spend more time in gyms than any other nation,” says Nicole Christensen, owner of CrossFit Roots in Boulder. Although CrossFit looks extreme on the surface, she says its intent is to deliver health, fitness and longevity, “What people want in the long term is to stay out of the nursing home. They want to be able to pick up their grandkids and work in the yard without throwing their back out.”
Although workouts such as the infamous Murph—which is named after a fallen soldier and includes a one-mile run, 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 squats and another one-mile run—can be scaled to ability, for the most part, everyone does the same workout and is allotted the same amount of time to complete it. This encourages participants to cheer each other on. You may have a 20-something-year-old working out next to a mom in her 40s and a guy in his 70s. “You actually get pretty attached to your group,” says Kean. “You come out better and not wanting to let your team down.”
People don’t work together in a big-box gym setting. You may take a class, but it’s not a community, and no one is pushing you to be a better athlete. They coddle you and if you have discomfort, they’ll tell you to dial back.
– JIM KEAN
There are computer software developers who have never worked out a day in their life next to former Division I athletes, “ Christensen says. “They’re more intrigued by what the program could deliver for them than they are turned off by the challenge.”
CrossFit isn’t technically a military-style workout, but it has a big military following because of its intensity, community and, specifically, the functional fitness soldiers need in the field. “If a guy has to drag a buddy to safety, running a 5K may not help him do that. CrossFit mimics more how you are going to use your body in the line of duty,” says Christensen. CrossFit workouts are different every day, which heightens their intensity.
“I would go to strength and conditioning classes at the rec center and do the same workout over and over again,” says 43-year-old Lisa Blacker, who works out at CrossFit Castle Rock and whose 12-year-old daughter is also hooked on CrossFit.
While CrossFit is not 100% made up of bodyweight exercises, bodyweight training is still a very important part of it. You’d be amazed how quickly you can get fully exhausted by performing an AMRAP (Crossfitters’ abbreviation for “as many reps as possible”) of push-ups, pull-ups or even squats. If you’d like to improve your bodyweight training endurance and skills, there is a great program called Bar Brothers – The Workout System to help you out.
You don’t have to look far to find a boot camp workout, originally designed for military-recruit training. They’re everywhere: outside, at big-box gyms or at boot camp–specific training centers. Consistently on ACSM’s annual trend report, boot camps have been the most visible poster child for military-style civilian training. You’ll likely conjure up an image of someone yelling at you to work harder as you push through a series of intense drills. But boot camps have evolved.
“I think the boot camp class–style workouts are popular now because of the social aspect. People like the feeling of being part of a team and being motivated by keeping up with a group. There’s power in numbers.”
Like CrossFit, boot camps mix, among other components, endurance and cardiovascular training, interval and strength training, and body-weight exercises including pull-ups and push-ups, jump roping, and stair climbing. And whether someone is barking orders at you or not, the intent is to challenge you to move beyond how hard you might normally work.
“Marine training has taught me to push myself to a new level of fitness,” says Scott Harwood, owner of Scott’s Denver Boot Camp in downtown Denver. “I try to teach that to my clients and boot campers. I teach them mental toughness that helps them get through challenging workouts.”
Unlike CrossFit, boot camps do not have a prescribed format. They can run year-round, but often they are packaged within a limited time period, such as three- or five-week sessions to fast-track you into shape. Devin Burns, founder of Denver Fitness Boot Camp in Greenwood Village, concedes that boot camps can fall short: “If you haven’t worked out in a while, it may be way too hard for you, or if you have been working out a lot, it might be too easy.” This is where smaller classes and more personalized training comes in, he explains. He also emphasizes the importance of first vetting a trainer to make sure he or she is qualified and can help you achieve your personal goals.
Suspension training builds strength using body-weight exercises, and though it isn’t a new concept, it’s garnered a lot of attention since the TRX system came onto the market. Invented by a former Navy Seal trying to get a full strength workout in the field, TRX allows you to leverage gravity and your body weight to do a large variety of exercises. You can change the intensity by simply adjusting your body position. This formula makes TRX accessible to people of all fitness levels, including seniors. But it also has a very strong military and team-sport following.
“TRX is based on military-style workouts,” explains former Navy Seal Stew Smith, author of The Complete Guide to Navy Seal Fitness (Hatherleigh, 2008), “but with this device a typical militarycalisthenics-based workout is more versatile, especially for training without weights.”
The beauty of TRX is its simplicity: It’s a conjoined pair of straps made from nylon webbing that “you can use anywhere,” says Jeff Cowles, 41, of Erie, who keeps his TRX system in his garage most of the time but also takes it along when he travels or just wants a change of scenery. “I’ve taken it to the park with my son. I’ll attach it to the playground structure and work out while he plays.” Cowles says that he doesn’t respond well to authority or group fitness (ruling out CrossFit and boot camps), so he works out solo. But gyms of all stripes now hold TRX group classes for those who want a workout that combines minimal equipment with maximum motivation.
OFF TO THE RACES
When Lisa Blacker competed in her first Warrior Dash obstacle-course race two summers ago, the 43-year-old mother of two said there was a moment when she questioned what she had gotten herself into. The obstacle was the “Giant Cliffhanger,” and conquering it meant climbing a 25-foot wall with the aid of a rope and then throwing herself over the top—but that’s where she got stuck.
“I couldn’t figure out how to get over the wall. I remember looking down and thinking, ‘I’m in trouble, I can’t do this.’ But somehow I overcame that fear and got over the wall,” she explains. “And frankly, just to get through that first Warrior Dash felt great.” So great, that she went back the next year and will not only be back again this summer, but plans to run another obstacle-course event—the Spartan Race—this May at Fort Carson.
The Spartan Race was founded in 2009, and the first race was held shortly thereafter in Williston, Vermont, in 2010. Flash forward to 2013 and parent company Peak Races will hold well over 50 races this year around the world. The story is similar for the Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash races, both of which were launched in 2010. The Spartan series is the creation of a former Royal Marine and his girlfriend, while the Tough Mudder races are designed by British Special Forces. Inspired by the obstacle courses found in military training, obstacle races and courses are cropping up not only all over the United States but throughout the rest of the world as well.
The unique physical and mental challenges draw many competitors, as does the camaraderie. Plus, these events tend to not take themselves too seriously. As the Tough Mudder website says, “….please on’t show up at a Tough Mudder without a sense of humor.” Brian Bain, 46, of Castle Rock concurs, “I do these challenges with friends for the competition and the fun.” He adds, “It is more stimulating to do new and varied things, to push yourself and perhaps venture beyond your comfort zone.”