I have a friend who was in the Australian army for several years – and of Bootcamps, he said it’s not about making you fit – it’s the army. They already assume you’re fit, because you passed the entrance requirements. It’s actually about team-building. You’ll push through those last few push-ups, because you don’t want to be the one who lets your team down.
And that makes perfect sense. It’s actually about something other than simple fitness. You train to learn to cope with stress, and knowing that they cannot accurately simulate the conditions of war, they train you to be able to function in high-stress environments in the best ways they can.
But it’s not just random yelling or abuse, it serves a purpose. And I think, these days at least, it’s much less questionable than the training you see in An Officer and a Gentleman. And as you go, they evaluate everyone – they want to know if you are an army kind of person.
This hard-line approach may work well for an individual, or for small groups or teams, but you can’t expect what works for a minority of people in a specific environment to work for everyone, ‘for life’. And you can’t expect people who have not chosen this career to willingly submit to these sorts of power/obedience games, simply for the notion of improved health and fitness. And it also should be obvious, if you want to improve your fitness in any capacity – strength, endurance, mobility, coordination or skills development – that this approach is not required. Can you imagine yelling at someone in an attempt to improve their coordination? There are many paths to the same destination, and many paths to your destination. You can take the road you like, and train in a way that is appropriate to you and your desires.
It’s the same with the stereotype of your elite sports team. The yelling exists not without camaraderie, and the team members aren’t strangers to each other. They want to re-create a high-pressure environment, but it’s also true that not all training is carried out in this way. This approach that is so visible is only one of many possible training techniques that a coach might employ – and the benefit of employing an advanced technique that is specific to training a team, an aggressive technique where everyone involved does understand what’s going on, employing that for the purposes of training an individual who is a beginner? well there are questions that need to be asked.
And people really aren’t as lazy as they’re made out to be. When it’s not too unpleasant – when your trainer isn’t berating you all the time, and the training itself is satisfying, I have found that people actually want to participate. How surprising! People want to feel fitter. They want to be able to move without pain, they want to improve, they want to feel like they are doing something for their health. So how then shall we think of ‘motivation’? If the process is rewarding, and the relationship is respectful, we remove the issues of resentment and resistance. And trainers can be just as lazy as any client – giving the same ‘individualised’ program to everyone, and not bothering to question the methods we are taught.
So of course yelling “do it harder, maggot” will only get you so far, and is useful only in certain ways. And the kinder “come on, you can do it!” is more useful when training someone for endurance, than it is for strength or technical proficiency, when you really want to keep an eye on quality of technique. Instead, you can provide someone with physical cues they can use. If the knees are collapsing inwards, saying “knees out” is helpful. If the back is collapsing, telling someone to arch more is helpful. And as a person fatigues, you always reach the point where continuing the exercise becomes no longer useful.
If you are practicing lunges, for example, the usual technique is to keep the torso vertical and exercise the legs and buttocks. When the buttocks fatigue, you’ll start to lean forwards – the buttocks are done, so you automatically compensate with the lower back and thigh muscles; at the bottom of the lunge you’ll lean forward as you straighten the legs to stand, and at the top you’ll bring your torso back to vertical. So telling someone to stay upright is helpful, but you will reach a point where it is no longer possible. The movement has broken down because of fatigue, and no amount of yelling will make a fatigued muscle capable of more work.
This is the reason for strength and endurance training. If you fail too soon, you can – through training – improve your ability to generate power and to endure, and you also improve your ability to tolerate higher levels of stress – to work effectively at a higher degree of intensity.
I have found it helpful to suggest “two more, if you’re happy”, when I’m watching people practice a given exercise. It brings their awareness inwards, and empowers them. They are choosing to continue if they can, they are free to stop if they need to, and often they discover they are capable of more than they had thought. This is not something I need to force out of people, but something they discover by themselves when they feel free, respected and safe. And so training becomes a positive experience of self-discovery, rather than an exercise in humiliation, and this becomes a long-term process that a person can enthusiastically embrace.
To expect a beginner to be able to perform like an athlete is clearly naïve. Training is a process. And when you are training with another human, it’s as much about building relationships as it is about improving your athletic capacity. All this is a relatively lengthy way of saying: the aggressive training style you see publicly presented on shows like the Biggest Loser, or you imagine taking place in military boot camps or for sporting teams – this is only one training technique of many. It is a specific thing, it is not the only thing. It is advanced, and it serves quite a different purpose from simply getting people stronger or teaching people how to move well. You can train however you like. Enduring abuse is not necessary if you want to improve your fitness.