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Outdoor boot camps are fun, but may not be the ideal workout

Because instructors are limited by the terrain and lack equipment, it can be hard to make the class appropriate for everyone.

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If training outside sounds appealing, you are in luck – outdoor boot camps are a summer staple. Watch for flyers around your neighbourhood or Google events in local parks.

I ran, jumped, squatted and – of course – worked up a sweat during two hour-long boot camps. The first, taught by Karine, a Toronto boot-camp icon, started at 6 a.m. I forced myself to get up in large part because two friends I'd enlisted to come along, Julie and Kerra, were waiting for me; they are my age (34), but they heroically juggle kids in addition to working and staying fit. I also took my friend and client Jenny to a 6:30 p.m. class run by Urban Core. Jenny is fit but nervous about outdoor activities. She is 64 and has previously broken her wrist and ankle.

The promise

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According to Karine, boot camp should provide "a little social time, a giggle and a big sweat." It's a full-body, intense workout, including cardio and conditioning elements, in an encouraging environment.

What to expect

Think hard work combined with sunshine, chatting and laughter. As Kerra said, "The workout is hard, but it is impossible not to be in a solid mood when the sun is coming up and you are surrounded by people."

The morning class took place on a high-school track. Participants were told to bring "weights, a mat and a good attitude." Urban Core's evening class was in a park. We supplied our mats. The teacher brought bands and cones.

Both classes started with a warm-up run. The main section of Karine's class was a "buffet" circuit: 16 exercises back to back, three times through. Think squats, lunges, planks and push-ups. The side leap burpee was a favourite. Leap right and land on your right leg. Place your hands on the ground. Jump your right leg back into a single-leg plank. Finish by jumping your right foot back in to stand up. Repeat moving left.

At Urban Core, we divided into groups to cycle through six exercises including sprints, walking lunges and crab walks. To try the crab walks, place your hands behind your feet on the ground. Lift your hips up. Then "walk" using your hands and feet.

Both classes finished with core and stretching and left the students with – to quote Julie – "extra pep" in their step. I overheard multiple people say things such as, "I never want to come, but I always feel better after." That is the power of movement.

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The verdict

Kerra and Julie loved our morning class, mainly because they have found a teacher, time and location that works – three key elements of long-term fitness adherence. Jenny and I felt outdoor boot camp was fun once – a novelty – but not the best "fit" long-term.

All of us loved the chance to be outside (don't forget your hat and sunscreen), to do something different (variety is motivating) and to work out in a group. Kerra loved "seeing everyone doing their best. Watching others is very inspiring – it is hard not to want to be there." Even Jenny, who didn't love our class, said that the social aspect was motivating; she could see herself booking a workout with a friend instead of going for coffee.

Because instructors don't have to rent space, outdoor classes are usually fairly affordable. The price is right, but it also draws a fairly high attendance. The result? Classes can be disorganized and involve little personal attention. Jenny's advice: Pay a bit more, join a smaller class and get more one-on-one attention.

Another positive and potential negative, to use Kerra's words, is that you just "show up and do." This is a positive if the instructor is knowledgeable and creative. The teacher is limited by the terrain and equipment (or lack thereof). Thus, it can be hard to make the class appropriate for everyone. For example, in one class, the surroundings made the natural warm-up a hill run. As Jenny astutely pointed out, hill running is not a warm-up for most people. If you go, do only what you're comfortable with and alter exercises when needed. Consider, as Jenny suggested, learning basic strength exercises before you go. It's easier to modify a movement you're familiar with.

Because of the limited equipment, classes also tend to bias toward endurance workouts that strengthen the lower body, cardiovascular system and core. If your goal is pure strength, muscle hypertrophy (muscle girth) or to improve your upper-back and postural strength, head to the weight room.

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Finally, classes would be notably less enjoyable if it were cold, rainy or muddy; crab walks in the mud would not have been fun. You also have to be okay with people watching you work out.

Curious if boot camp is for you? Sample a few. If ultimately the format is not a good fit, no problem – you still did a workout. As Jenny said, even a less-than-ideal workout is better than sitting on the sofa.

Kathleen Trotter is a personal trainer, Pilates equipment specialist and author of Finding Your Fit. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter @KTrotterFitness.

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