The latest shape in fitness workouts - 'boot camps' at dawn article page player in wide format.
By Calvin Hennick
Globe Correspondent / May 17, 2009
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If you want to get in shape, you can buy fancy workout clothes and take yoga and Pilates classes at a posh fitness club with limitless towels, a swimming pool, and a sauna.

Or, you can wake up at 5 a.m. to do pull-ups, toss medicine balls, and run sprints in grungy sneakers and sweatpants.

Some area residents are opting for the latter and signing up for fitness boot camps.

"I thought I was going to die the first day," said Sally Murphy, a 52-year-old Southborough resident who has attended a 6 a.m. boot camp in her hometown three times a week for about a year. The class is led by local fitness instructor Dan O'Rourke, a former Marine who also runs a small company that produces energy bars.

Murphy has grown to love the morning routine and says it has helped her lose weight. "I don't think any of us want to fail him or ourselves," Murphy said, citing O'Rourke's motivational powers. "He challenges us, and you want to come back just for that."

O'Rourke runs another boot camp in Holliston, and fitness instructor Mike Alves runs a series of boot camps in Newton. Gyms have been adding the workouts to their schedules, too. The Lexington, Natick, Waltham, Watertown, and West Newton branches of Boston Sports Clubs all offer boot camps, as do some Bally Total Fitness branches in the area.

"Across the country, this is hot," Alves said. "It started more on the West Coast, and it's making its way over here. I think it's pretty popular because people get better results in groups."

In addition to the added accountability of working with an instructor, participants say they enjoy meeting new people - not to mention the full-body workout provided by the combination of cardiovascular work and strength training.

"I'm not as much of a Pilates or yoga person, because I'm looking more for the calorie burn," said Perrin McCormick, a 40-year-old Newton resident who attends a boot camp run by Alves. "I measure my workout by how sweaty my hair is. Sometimes it's as if it's been washed."

"I wouldn't do any of this on my own," said Kevin Sanford, a 48-year-old Southborough resident and one of O'Rourke's clients. "Put your face in the mud with these guys, you get to know everybody pretty well."

On a recent Wednesday, O'Rourke led his charges through a quarter-mile jog and then a series of stretches. "Warm up those muscles!" he shouted in a tone that was more encouraging than demanding. "I want to see some enthusiasm."

"I'm still sleeping," one woman commented.

The group did some jumping jacks, went on another short jog, then stopped at a playground for some pull-ups and bar hangs. Then it was time for a third jog, this time to a soccer field - still wet with dew - where O'Rourke had set up an agility course with cones, medicine balls, hurdles, and exercise stations.

"I try to make it challenging but fun," O'Rourke said. "When they're having fun, they don't feel the pain."

Still, they weren't able to completely ignore the pain when O'Rourke led them through a set of "suicides" - a series of increasingly lengthy sprints - to cap the workout.

"This is when you get in shape," O'Rourke told the group. "Right here, when you're already fatigued, and you reach down and give it some more."

The "boot camp" moniker doesn't always signal military-style exercises.

Alves said his sessions are varied, incorporating implements such as weights and stretch bands with more traditional exercises like push-ups and running.

Christie Sulkoski's Tuesday afternoon class at the Watertown branch of Boston Sports Clubs is an even bigger departure from a military-style regimen. Her students gather in a mirror-paneled workout room, with thumping music playing and Sulkoski at the front of the room providing encouragement via a headset microphone. On a recent Tuesday, the workout was a mixture of aerobic step exercises and dumbbell lifts.

"It's not a boot camp" despite the name, said Needham resident Susan Moore, 36. "That's why I come."

Still, Moore said, she likes the mixture of cardio and strength.

"It doesn't get boring," she said.

Rich Rowland, the fitness manager for the gym, said some of the other boot camp classes at the club focus more heavily on strength training. The classes all provide some mix of cardio and strength work, he said, but they each offer club members something different.

"Boot camps have gotten to the point where you can pretty much do anything you want," he said.

O'Rourke begs to differ. "The words 'boot camp' should be reserved, in my opinion, for former military," he said, "or that style."