Fitness fans swear by (and sometimes swear at) 'boot camp' workouts

Screaming, growling and wailing, I push and shove a complete stranger.

It sounds criminal or rude at best, but I'm following orders.

"Visualize something that really pisses you off. Something or somebody. I don't care if it's me," Mike Lawson, instructor of this fitness boot camp, tells the 27 recruits.

"When you open your eyes, I want you to unleash hell."

Yes, sir.

"Boot camps" or "basic training" intense, outdoor exercise classes that emulate military fitness programs are nothing new. They've been around for about a decade, but are soaring in popularity as people search for a twist on their workouts.

Boot camp has come to mean a lot of things in our lexicon. Take a look online and you'll find ads for actors' and models' boot camps, new dads, tech folks, even "Life Insurance Boot Camp." The Fox Network aired a reality-based show called Boot Camp this spring with 16 contestants vying to win $500,000 or face "Dismissal Hill."

Barb WanWey of Sammamish, attending Pro Sports Club's boot camp in Bellevue, has slimmed down by two dress sizes and feels great. Her 17-second bent arm hang has become a minute and 17 seconds. At first, she quit running after a block; now she finishes the entire two miles.

"I was Mrs. Potato when I started," said the Nintendo employee. "I just kind of did it on a whim. I was very out of shape. It's the hardest thing I've ever done."

She's one of 16 people to finish the class; 50 started it. For an extra dose of reality, this class starts at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m.

As instructor Josh Fitchitt, yells, "Dig 'em out. Dig 'em out. Keep working. All day long. Stay strong. Stay tough," his recruits do as many push-ups as they can in two minutes.

Cindy Arasim records 92. "Oh, noodle arms," she exclaims in pain.

"I take it very seriously," says the 31-year-old Microsoft employee, who gets nervous before a "test day." "There's no other workout I'm going to get that's going to be as hard and intense as this."

Kevin Gilbert, 26, says this workout is comparable to his Marine physical training. And boot camp has been well-received at home.

"When my wife looks at me now, she doesn't say, 'Hey, why don't you get up and go work out,'" Gilbert says. "She goes, 'Hey, you look pretty good.'"

Gilbert and his friend Ray Thompson work for Microsoft.

"We work at a place that has a stereotype of lazy computer guys drinking pop all day," said Thompson, 24. "But we don't want to be those guys. We want to be the healthy guys."

Fitchitt, a graduate of the Marine Corps' boot camp, says the workout is similar, minus the sleep deprivation and harassment.

"It's a phenomenal workout for people and they know they've pushed themselves," he says. "I don't think they come to my class to have me get in their faces and break them down and make them cry. I keep it positive."

Curious about the phenomenon and the are-you-tough-enough mentality, I drop in on a class run by Lawson through Sound Mind Body gym.

For $32, these members have signed up to get mock yelled-at twice a week for two months, rain or shine, in the woods around Green Lake. The class is tough: 100 people started it ... 30 are finishing.

"I don't want to call something 'boot camp' without it being hard," said Lawson, 33, an army graduate of an elite NATO commando program. "It's not for everybody."

Often, expressions are frozen in agony in this class. And people are paying for this?

"Most of us are addicted to this," said Dana Howse, 31. "I complain about it during class, but I love it. I don't know what I'd do without it."

Shared pain a motivator

What they like is the motivation, the camaraderie through shared pain, the outdoor venue.

"At the end of the work day, maybe people need something to motivate each other. And misery loves company," says Tom Coonelly, 35, aka "Slim Jim." "I'm not the kind of person who likes to sit on a treadmill for an hour. This class keeps the muscles guessing."

And people seem to like the paramilitary shtick, which winds up being funny rather than intimidating.

"I know it's a game," said Steve Roberts, 60, who got his daughter hooked on running. Now Leslie Roberts, 26, has returned the favor, inviting her dad to boot camp.

"I said, 'Sure, I've been in boot camp.' And I liked it. It was 40 years ago, of course," said Steve Roberts, who did nine weeks of basic training for the Army and says this class is harder.

A new recruit joins in

When I arrive in class, Lawson, wearing camouflage pants, black boots and a close-cropped G.I. Joe haircut, asks if I have any injuries or conditions such as asthma.

As two girls, dubbed Giggles 1 and 2 for their propensity to chat and laugh during class, mosey in late, Lawson yells, "You're late. You're late. Move it. Move it. All right, drop and give me five."

Down to the gray, chalky soccer field the giggle girls, giggling, drop and give him the requisite five.

We start with an easy lap around a track, then warm up with side steps, crossovers, and plyometric lunges. As we stretch and do jumping jacks, Lawson calls out, "Who wants to get camo'd?" He picks up a handful of dusty dirt and smears it over his sweaty face and arms. "Who's ready for camouflage?" No one takes him up on this offer.

Following Lawson like some Pied Piper of Punishment, we run up and down 29-foot-high bleacher steps again and again.

Along the way, spectators stop and stare, transfixed and bemused.

"Ask them how much they pay to get beat up like that," one says.

"Yeah, I don't need that kind of motivation," his friend replies.

I'm the newest recruit; these folks have been at this for six weeks. Still, I feel a certain responsibility to keep up. (My friends would translate this to: I'm competitive.)

I started the class with my trademark puppy-dog energy, perplexed to see most people taking it easy.

Now, hopping up these huge stairs like a bunny, I am panting, raggedly. My power of deductive reasoning kicks in these folks know that you have to pace yourself in this killer class.

I say a prayer of thanks every time we get to run down the stairs. A few times confessional moment I even skip the top step.

Then we run, again, a third of a mile up a hill, to our next staging area.

Two women walking dogs pause to jokingly admonish one of the class stragglers. "You're not ruhn-ning," one says in a sing-song voice. "We're the monitors, you know."

Another man in the class, Craig, retorts, "Neither are you."

In a grass field, for intervals of 1:15; 1 minute and 45 seconds, I do on-my-knees, girly-girl push-ups. At the end of the three sets, my arms are smarting, but we're not done yet. Lift those arms out straight, palms up, and hold it, Lawson orders.

"What I want to see here is total muscle failure," Lawson shouts. Yes, he really wants to see us dissolve into quaking puddles of sweat.

Running and loving it

For several more minutes we hold these arms out, then circle them, until I'm quite sure my cramping limbs will fall off.

Just when you think, maybe he'll give us a break, we're ordered to sprint up a hill twice. Walking down, catching my breath, my knees are jellylike. I'm afraid one will buckle and I'll tumble to the ground, more an injury to pride than pain.

My first sprint puts me midpack at 40 seconds. Like others, I'm gasping and hunched over.

"If you're going to throw up, throw up on the side," Lawson yells.

The power of a man in cammies yelling at you is astounding I push harder on the second sprint and clock 34 seconds.

For a solid two hours, there is running, lots of running. We run and hop against "torture tubes," for resistance. We sprint up more hills. We do sets of sit-ups against the clock. We use picnic tables for tricep and inverted push-ups. We do army crawls on all fours ("Keep your butts down or you're gonna get shot! There's a sniper in the woods," Lawson yells).

During the primal shoving match, recruits use different images to spark their aggression.

Okashi Roblas, 33, says, "I think of somebody attacking me. At night. In an alley."

Her best friend Conrad Babida, 33, is taking the class too. "For me, it's someone hurting my mom," he says. "That gets my adrenaline up."

Both work as sales associates at Nordstrom, where they extol the joys of boot camp to their co-workers.

"Everyone at work tells me it's a cult," jokes Roblas, who's trying to break the class record of 127 sit-ups in two minutes. She's hit 124 recently. "They say, 'Are you going to booty camp?'"

Find and register online for a boot-camp class in your area!

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