Sir, Yes, Sir!
Boot Camp Basics
By Wendi Kaufman
Friday, February 16, 2007; WE27
On a gray November morning, I find myself down on my hands and knees in the middle of a muddy field. Push-ups. The stuff of recruitment films or high school gym-class nightmares. The ground is cold and squishy, and I am convinced that I feel the first few drops of rain.
There's a reason new military recruits are put through boot camp: to make them strong and fit and all that they can be. But could this hard-core approach work for a 40-something mother of two known for wearing elastic-waist maternity pants even though her kids are in grade school? Could I really be all that I never was?
Boot camp. The name says it all. The words conjure images of a rigid military workout complete with an invective-spewing drill sergeant from the "get down and give me 20" school of fitness. Not exactly a warm fuzzy.
Then why are so many civilians from around the Beltway signing up for exercise boot camps? Blame television, or at least the time we spend sitting in front of it. Shows such as "The Biggest Loser," "Work Out" and "Celebrity Fit Club" have raised our boot camp awareness and helped increase its popularity. Even Oprah launched her own boot camp exercise routine last year.
In the Washington area, the godfather of fitness boot camps is Patrick "The Sarge" Avon, who founded the Sergeant's Program in 1989.
Avon, 44, a former Navy fitness instructor, swears people want to be pushed by a drill sergeant, and pushed hard.
"They love the discipline. They need the discipline," says Avon, who answers his phone with a booming "Hoo-ah" and tools around town in a Ford Mustang muscle car sporting the license plate: "LOSE FAT."
Avon was a man ahead of the curve. He started the Sergeant's Program 18 years ago with a few ads tacked up on telephone poles. Today he employs 50 drill instructors, holds more than 30 boot camp classes and enrolls more than 800 students in Arlington, Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George's counties, as well as the District.
To be honest, I wasn't looking for tough love -- I wanted a kinder, gentler approach to fitness. I enlisted in the Active Duty Fitness for Women boot camp in mid-November. It's a women-only exercise program that meets four days a week for an hour at a local park and indoors at the neighborhood YMCA when the temperature drops below freezing.
As with most boot camps, there is no newfangled equipment, no machines or treadmills. It's just man, or in this case woman, and the elements. I embarked on a training regime that relies on straightforward, no-nonsense exercises, a few stretchy bands and an act of sheer will.
What is new is the approach: There's no hint of the "Thank you, sir, may I have another," gut-it-out training style. Exercise is not a punishment to be doled out, but rather it serves as its own reward.
"Women prefer positive reinforcement and camaraderie," says Doug Vasiliadis, creator of Active Duty Fitness for Women, which has seven locations in Virginia. "They're just not going to respond as well to a militaristic approach."
Another distinctly un-military feature is the time: 9:15 a.m. Early-morning classes are still a boot camp staple, but as its popularity grows, so do class offerings and times. You can now find a boot camp class that meets after work as easily as you can find one that starts at the crack of dawn. Late-morning and afternoon classes are also becoming available.
In addition to flexible times, pricing remains competitive as more boot camps crop up. The cost, less than hiring a personal trainer, can range from $6 to $20 a class and vary by length of contract or days per week.
Some boot camps offer classes five days a week, while others meet three or four times a week. Boot camp programs have become more flexible as they meet and reflect the growing needs of those enrolled.
Vasiliadis, 45, started Active Duty five years ago. In his 20 years as a personal trainer and owner of One to One Fitness, a chain of personal training studios based in McLean, Vasiliadis developed definite ideas about what women wanted from their workouts. He wanted to develop a boot camp around the themes of positive reinforcement, acceptance and camaraderie, noting that women appeared to enjoy group activities with other women more than men did.
His goal was to create a noncompetitive environment where accomplishments -- such as losing three pounds or shaving a minute off a mile run -- were highlighted. At the same time, he wanted to make sure that women with advanced fitness levels could be pushed to their limits.
On first meeting, Vasiliadis cuts an imposing figure. Tall, muscled and a dead-ringer for Mr. Clean (minus the earring), he looks every inch the part of the tough drill instructor. By the middle of my first session, I realize our fearless leader (you would have to be fearless to be the only man in a group of 30 women and ordering workout instructions) was less drill sergeant and more fitness coach. With an easy smile and endless reservoir of patience, Vasiliadis's work was to kindly encourage, correct and instruct us. Over and over again.
Could this kinder, gentler stuff really make for a hard workout?
Absolutely. But what's difficult for me may not be hard for my neighbor to the left, who is trim and fit and into "adventure racing" and weekend 5Ks.
To accommodate all levels of fitness, Vasiliadis breaks the group down into "red," "white" and "blue" subgroups. While I may be sweating it out, sucking in my abs and holding a "plank" maneuver (holding a push-up position on hands and toes) for what feels like forever, those at a more advanced level are holding the same plank position while doing alternate straight-leg raises, working their abductors and their core balance and probably cleaning their ovens at the same time. At the most advanced level, women around me are holding the plank and doing leg raises while raising their opposite hand (basically balancing on one hand and one foot). Vasiliadis offers a modification on every exercise for intensity, health or fitness level, so everyone is challenged. My lack of fitness ability doesn't slow their more advanced workout, and their advanced workouts serve to inspire me and give me a goal to work toward.
Vasiliadis not only wanted to meet varied exercise needs, he also wanted to deliver them in a way that women would appreciate.
"Women don't want to bang their helmets together," Vasiliadis explains.
"They want to give each other a hug."
When Avon launched the Sergeant's Program, he was the only game in town. Nowadays there's a boot camp for just about everyone: baby boot camp, mommy boot camp, even bridal boot camp. Avon sums up the broad appeal in one word:
In a Sergeant's Program class in Rockville, the same instructor and the same group of about 20 guys have been working out together at 6 a.m. five days a week every week for the past 10 years. That is not unusual, according to Avon, who says many of his classes have core groups of members who have been working out together for at least five years.
David Sherer, 49, an anesthesiologist in Northern Virginia, has been a member of the Sergeant's Program for more than 11 years at the Bethesda location. Sherer compares his group to a family.
"After this many years, we now celebrate each other's life events: births, showers, second marriages. Our instructor invited us to his own wedding in Rehoboth, and about 10 of us showed up. When you're with people for an hour a day, Monday through Friday, for many years -- through the rough talk, the hard work, the complaining -- you see people in ways you don't normally see them. They're sweating, making faces, working hard, things we don't see in civilized society. You're breaking people down to their basic elements through physical activity, and it makes everyone more human."
Avon attributes class cohesion, in part, to the consistency of having the same instructor, day in and day out.
"Lots of people can teach a class, but not everybody can be there five days a week, through cold weather and hot weather, every single morning. Our clients keep coming back because they know their instructor will be there. They know we're going to hold their hand and kick their butt at the same time."
The camaraderie that develops at boot camp is real. Just ask Lee Boswell. Director of sales operations for a software company in Reston, Boswell started her Active Duty boot camp program four years ago. She was 51 and had never exercised in her life. She enjoyed the physical challenges of the program. Then life brought its own challenge: In January 2006, she received a breast cancer diagnosis.
Boswell's doctor told her that while she was going through chemotherapy, she should try to live her life as normally as possible. For Boswell, that included boot camp.
From May through August, Boswell had chemotherapy every two weeks, but she still tried to make it to boot camp most weeks.
"I ran my best mile time while I was on chemo," Boswell says. "My best time ever." Boswell says the friendships she made at boot camp -- she didn't know any of the women before she started -- sustained and supported her during treatment.
"The girls took me out to dinner the night before my first chemo appointment, and when all my hair fell out, they told me how good I looked in a bald cap!"
Now in recovery, Boswell has gone on to encourage the women in her group to do monthly self-exams and has raised everyone's awareness about breast cancer. She gladly credits boot camp with helping her deal with the emotional toll of cancer and for having gotten her into good shape before she faced it. She plans to continue with boot camp "for a very long time to come."
By the end of the first day, after a grueling hour of slow and controlled calisthenics and stretching, I am facedown in the muddy grass, not caring about the dirt or the damp and feeling deeply sore before I even get up to leave.
"Hang in there," Christine Montminy encourages. Tall, trim and blond, Montminy, 38 and the busy mother of three, could easily pass for a model in a fitness magazine. She has been a member of Active Duty for three years.
Montminy boot-camped her way to a 50-pound weight loss this year. At 5 foot 8, she used to weigh 187 pounds and wear a size 14. After pregnancies (one with twins, during which she weighed more than 200 pounds) Montminy developed hip and knee pain related to her weight.
"I am not coordinated and can't do the aerobics thing, so there was no way I was going to a gym," she says. "I didn't know enough about fitness to do it myself, so when someone suggested boot camp, I thought I would give it a try."
She now wears a size 4 and in a little more than a year went from 30 percent body fat to 18 percent. "I had to give away everything in my closet, including my shoes. Even my feet got smaller!"
What's even better, Montminy assures me, is that she no longer experiences hip or knee pain. "Looking great is nice, but feeling great is so much more motivating."
Four years ago, Carol Donovan got a postcard about Active Duty in the mail. Unlike Montminy, the 48-year-old from Vienna wasn't necessarily looking to lose weight but to increase her fitness and strength levels. She looked at the postcard every day for two weeks before she called.
For the first three weeks of boot camp, Donovan admits she was pretty sore, but within a couple of months her clothes fit better, she had more muscle tone and she felt stronger. After six months of boot camp, she got an idea to try a triathlon. Something she never would have dared to think about before. Her goal was to finish a sprint triathlon -- a half-mile swim in open water, a 12-mile bike and a five-kilometer run. Almost a year after she started boot camp, she did it.
Now, four years later, Donovan has completed 10 triathlons, a half-marathon and several 5- and 10-kilometer races. She has won first place in road races in her age group and has taken third in a triathlon.
"I feel like I am making up for lost time," says Donovan, whose new motto is "A fit woman is a confident woman." Ten other women joined Active Duty about the same time as Donovan. They are all still in the program and working out together.
"How many women stick it out together in an aerobics class for four years?" Donovan asks. "We count on each other for support."
Vasiliadis admits the dropout rate is pretty low. "Most members come from referrals, from word of mouth, and as a result people stay with it longer. A heavy turnover would detract from the camaraderie we're building here."
The Sergeant's Program is strictly old-school, from its unapologetic motto -- "no music, no dancing, no crybabies, no refunds" -- to its in-your-face instructional style. And yet as its popularity has grown, it has gone through some significant changes: namely, its appeal to women.
"We used to be men-only. Then women started beating down our doors. We found out women want this type of training. They've now become our best customers," Avon says.
Just ask Chuck Dyson, a Sergeant's Program drill instructor who teaches a 5:45 a.m. class in Greenbelt. Like 50 percent of Sergeant instructors, Dyson, 58, was once a client. The former auto salesman dropped 50 pounds in the first 10 months of training in 1994 and never looked back. Also like Avon, Dyson is former military, a Vietnam-era vet "drafted by LBJ," who puts his Special Forces training to daily use. He enjoys getting up before sunrise to put people through their paces.
"I run them up hills forward, backwards and sideways," Dyson says, speaking like a man who clearly loves his job.
Dyson, who has been a Sergeant's instructor for 11 years, launched his Greenbelt class a year ago with six people. Today more than 100 fill his roster, and more than 75 percent of them are women.
"Women know how to step it up. They will work their butts off, especially when they start seeing results," he says.
But do they like to be yelled at while they exercise?
This is not the kind of yelling that embarrasses anyone, stresses Dyson, who has been known to say "get your cookie-eating butt over here and give me 20 push-ups" to people who don't make it to class on time.
(He also requested that this reporter give him 20 push-ups, said in a good-natured way, we admit.) "We're tough. Nobody is going to call you names, but I am going to be on you, without a doubt. And I am going to push you harder than you could ever push yourself."
Participants in Dyson's class address him as "Sarge" (and a few other names under their breath, he jokes). His goal is to deliver a tough workout five days a week, one that leaves people stronger, healthier and better for it. Under the growl and hulking muscled exterior, this Sarge's bark, he assures, is worse than his bite.
When Dyson began the Sarge program and lost 50 pounds, he felt as if he had a new lease on life. "How often do we get a chance to give back?" he asks. "Physical fitness saved my life, and, in turn, I am saving lives each and every day."
If the environment of supportive teammates, inspiring personal stories and encouraging coach weren't motivating enough to keep me coming back to boot camp, my results have been. In four months, I have lost inches, a dress size and the idea that working out is not for me. But, like many others, my boot camp experience hasn't just been about the weight I've lost, but about what I've found.
Wendi Kaufman is a freelance contributor to Weekend and can do regulation push-ups.
Correction to This Article
A Feb. 16 Weekend article incorrectly described Patrick "The Sarge" Avon as the founder of the Sergeant's Program fitness boot camp. Grant Stockdale founded the Sergeant's Program in 1984; Avon has owned the program since 1989.