Army Style Knife

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Why Army-style fitness workouts are all pain and NO gain

Taking a stroll on a grassy common these days, you’d be forgiven for thinking that National Service still existed.

Increasingly, green spaces across the country are taken up with puffed-out people in bibs performing gruelling exercises. Their faces getting pinker by the minute, they run and jump about under the eyes of a watchful leader.

But this is no Army training camp, nor is it a team-building exercise for a large investment bank. Rather, it is a group of people participating in a military fitness class – and they’re supposed to be having fun.

Pushed to the limit: Amry-style boot camps can force people to exert themselves beyond their capabilities

Over recent years, this no-frills bootcamp-style training has been adopted by fitness professionals and organisations everywhere.

Every day more people flock to join the sweaty throng, perhaps as a result of our increasing awareness of obesity, or because classes like these cost approximately a quarter of the average personal training session (about £10 a class in comparison to more than £40 for an hour’s one-on-one training).

By far the best known of such outdoor fitness providers is British Military Fitness (BMF), running classes nationwide, with 100 a week in London alone. But should you be signing up?

Dr Ralph Rogers, consultant in sports medicine at the London Orthopaedic Clinic, worries that these kinds of bootcamps result in injury, not weight loss and fitness.

He says: ‘Exercise needs to be done gradually, with proper supervision, otherwise there is a risk of injury. I would never recommend an overweight patient to do one of these military bootcamps. When you overload the body, the result is injury – anything from shin splints to back problems – and, in this kind of environment, people make things worse by trying to soldier on.

‘Neither the psychological aspect of why someone is overweight or the nutritional aspect is addressed by a bootcamp. Even fit people can hurt themselves by being over zealous.’

Osteopath Paul Raw agrees: ‘I’ve seen a lot of ex-soldiers with bad backs because the idea of military-style training is to push yourself beyond your limit. This means the likelihood of eventual injury is high. It’s a British thing I think, to assume that exercise must equal pain.

Under orders: The risk of injury is increased in fitness classes where individuals don’t get enough attention to ensure they are doing the exercises correctly

‘As an osteopath I look to the quality of the exercise. Just being tired from it isn’t always productive.’

As a personal trainer, I have worked with clients from all walks of life. Everybody is individual, with different strengths and weaknesses, and making someone do lots of press-ups when they can’t even do a single one properly is a recipe for a bad back.

And if the ratio of instructor to participant is about 1:20, clearly the instructor does not have enough eyes to ensure everybody is doing everything right.

Sit-ups are one of the main culprits when it comes to developing back problems through exercise. From what I have witnessed, all those who pay their £48 BMF monthly membership fee (not including the £50 joining fee) are encouraged to do lots of sit-ups.

Yet such exercises are appropriate only for those with no lower back or postural issues – a small percentage of the population – and even then there are preferable exercises less likely to encourage a rounding of the shoulders or put pressure on the spine.

Stretches can be similarly problematic. Placing your hands in the small of the back and squeezing your elbows together is one way of stretching out your chest, but getting your partner to hold your elbows from behind and force them together, as I witnessed recently, is damaging.

The one being stretched will only arch their back to relieve the pain in the shoulder. We start with a natural arch in the back, but if it is increased, the segments in between spinal discs are further squeezed, creating compression. Over time, this can cause problems, the kind which only the orthopaedic industry will profit from.

And then there is the endless jogging, upon which the military bootcamp is founded:

‘Running is integral to improving fitness,’ says the well-spoken chap in the video voiceovers on the BMF website. But this is only partially true.

Endless jogging: Running isn’t always the best way for overweight people to lose weight because of the strain it can cause on their joints

Certainly running is good for cardiovascular fitness, but so is swimming. If you are carrying extra weight, fast walking is better than jogging, the impact of which can cause lower back pain and exacerbate existing injuries.

But the majority of BMF leaders don’t know if their clients have such problems because they provide no screening at the outset. This is typical of most bootcamps.

All you need to do before participating in a class is to register online, fill in a health form and liability waiver.

When we questioned BMF about this, Simon Richman, London area manager, said: ‘The health form has a list of injury questions.’

In fact, while the form does contain health questions, they are standard ones regarding things like allergies, heart issues, blood pressure and asthma.

‘The onus is on the participant to tell us about any injuries themselves,’ Richman added. ‘But we do check at the beginning of the class whether there are any first-timers and they can ask questions if they need.’

But this courtesy doesn’t seem to extend to everyone, as Catherine Cooper, 34, experienced. A former county tennis player, Catherine wanted to regain lost fitness. She was living in South-West London when she tried an enjoyable free introductory session with BMF.

According to Cooper, the instructors asked who was a first-timer.

She says: ‘They were particularly nice to those people. But I went again after paying my membership fee and they were more arrogant.

‘I told them I had a knee injury from skiing, and that it was playing up from all the squats, but they insisted I continue. It was like they were on some kind of power trip.

‘I argued with the instructor, but he carried on being aggressive and telling me to continue. Luckily I refused, so my knee did not get worse. It was only at the end of the session that he apologised, but by then it was too late. I knew I would never go back.’

Simon Richman says: ‘It is our company ethos that everyone has a military or service background, but on top of this they must have a recognised fitness qualification, which includes being a physical training instructor in the services.’

They must then complete a day’s training course and shadow other classes before passing an assessment rendering them proficient to teach without supervision.

‘We are all about creating a welcoming, motivating environment and not about humiliation,’ he says.

So the intention is there, even if it does not convert to reality: surely no self-respecting adult really enjoys performing a wheelbarrow (crawling along the floor on your hands while another holds your legs behind you)?

There are more dignified ways of honing your core strength, which do not risk back injury to such a high degree. If you can’t afford personal training, it is worth saving up to get an assessment from a sports therapist.

You’ll learn what you should and shouldn’t do before joining group exercise. If you were buying a house or a car, you would most likely do any necessary research, so why treat your health and fitness any differently?

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