The Blog

Bootcamp for Weight Loss: An Appraisal

The only problem is that bootcamp is hideously inefficient at burning fat. The format of near-constant workload means the heart rate of the average participant rarely drops below 140bpm.

It is somewhat tragic that, should you ask a member of the public to picture a personal trainer, they often think of a bulky figure in a tight vest, barking instructions at a sweating throng of neophytes. Yet this isn't personal training at all. It's bootcamp, something completely different.

It's influence on the workout community has been steadily growing for years, and this type of exercise is threatening to become the default choice for those looking to lose weight. Yet bootcamp itself is not new. The concept of group workouts has been around for decades. What's new is the format of these sessions; 20 years ago, we had camp aerobics with headbands and 8-counts. Now we have a gruelling test of character with blood, sweat and tears.

There have always been fitness professionals who tell their clients that more pain is actually good. Some are actually so stupid that they believe it themselves. Others, the personal trainer equivalents of dumb blondes, simply find thinking to difficult; instead of considering what type of loading may suit their clients, they just revert to their one-size-fits-all caricature. This normally involves shouting, growling and flexing.

This never seemed to be a problem in the industry before, where the wannabe-drill-sergeants were consigned to the corner of your local Fitness First, proudly counting reps and urging their subjects to "push push push". They were there to provide passing amusement to the members and, for the other trainers, an example of what not to do. But now these are the guys taking the sessions. Bootcamps are the result.

And the public is going mad for them. Fed up of weight loss solutions that promise easy results, disillusioned by high-tech fixes that claim to make fat burning effortless, they turn to good ol' fashioned hard work. Those bulges around their midriff are their Everest, and they're going to climb it if it kills them. Yes, it's torture, but they're stronger than that. They're Rocky for the day. And, what's more, they're doing it as part of a group. Strength in numbers. Salvation through perspiration.

Sounds great. The only problem is that bootcamp is hideously inefficient at burning fat. The format of near-constant workload means the heart rate of the average participant rarely drops below 140bpm. As I have explained in more depth here, less than 10% of people can effectively burn fats at this level of intensity. The rest are stuck burning carbohydrates. As, because the session is essentially aerobic, the muscular overload (and the increase in metabolism) that weight-lifters experience is also missing. Good for aerobic fitness, inefficient for weight loss. Just like running.

This is why, despite the occasional success story ("I know someone who lost 6lbs in a week doing bootcamp!"), the majority see no movement on the scales. They do get fitter and they do get stronger, but fat loss remains entirely elusive. I'm not saying bootcamp is worthless - it definitely improves aerobic conditioning plus many, understandably, enjoy the social aspect - only it is entirely unsuitable for the aims of most people that turn up.

The key message here is that hard work does not equal good results. Flogging yourself to the point where it's difficult to drive home afterwards is almost certainly a bad idea (this should be reserved for elite athletes only as part of a planned periodisation program). All this does is trigger the release of cortisol, the body's primary stress hormone, which induces weight gain. Many popular world religions have instilled in us the idea that the more we sacrifice now, the better the salvation later; sadly, when it comes to fat loss, hard work and blind faith cannot compete with strategic hormonal manipulation through diet and exercise.

Not convinced? Watch the Biggest Loser, that reality TV show, that takes super-obese individuals and challenge them to lose weight. They control their food intake and flog them 4 times a day, 7 days a week in some seriously sadistic workouts. No-one is working harder. Yet, when it comes to the weekly weigh in, it's not uncommon for competitors to have lost no weight. And, as any experienced trainer will tell you, it's almost impossible not to achieve serious weight loss with morbidly obese clients.

So am I predicting the death of bootcamp? Far from it. The popularity of fads in the gym world rarely correlate to their effectiveness. After all, you can still buy vibration machines now, several years after the public cottoned on to how useless they are. The weekly slimming clubs still exist, even though consistent slimming has been the one thing missing for the last 30 years. Internet health nuts are still alkalyzing themselves silly, despite seeing the same improvements as the rest of the messageboard users (none). And, while I admit that the demand for these once-popular approaches has dwindled, they are all still around. A lot of people still consider running as an effective way to lose weight.

Meanwhile, despite the increased effort, despite the lack of results, despite the difficulty they have in driving home afterwards, the public are loving it. They no longer need to climb Ben Nevis, they don't have to run a marathon. They can now itch this scratch in their own town. And be home for dinner. Bootcamp is good, bootcamp is pure, and they will not listen to anyone who says otherwise. Sadly, as we have learnt repeatedly with previous crazes, belief alone does not burn fat.