Military muscles in

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 February, 2004, 12:00am

WHAT DO YOU get when you cross an early morning workout on the beach with a B-grade military movie? The latest fitness craze sweeping Australia. Its proponents say it's the closest thing there is to total fitness. And vomiting is considered a badge of honour. Welcome to boot camp - coming soon to a location near you, in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.

The sun is barely above the horizon when the 60 new recruits return from a brisk run along the shoreline of Sydney's Bondi Beach - back into the clutches of 'Master Chief' James Brabon, a closely shaven ex-serviceman with a mean demeanour.

He splits them into two teams - the Rangers against the Seals - and sets them their morning's challenge: building a bunker out of sand.

And just to make it a little tougher, they have to shovel the sand into large hessian sacks, carry them back up the beach while creeping on their stomachs in what he calls a leopard crawl. There'll be no talking, and no giving up. And anyone who stands up will be punished with 40 push-ups.

As the exercise unfolds, the recruits drag their bodies back and forth filling their sandbags, while Brabon and his fellow instructors scream at them. 'Shut up and stay on your stomachs or we'll drag you back,' he yells as the two teams carry out their mission in what is starting to resemble a chaotic battlefield.

There are some early casualties. Recruitment consultant Melina Harapin, 32, is clearly struggling after delivering her second bag. 'I've hit the wall,' she whimpers as she crawls sluggishly down the beach for the third time on her red raw knees.

But others - like five-time boot camp junkie Darren Partridge - are clearly relishing the challenge. He's already onto his third bag. He softly urges Harapin to keep going for the sake of the team.

And herein lies the apparent attraction of boot camp. Put 60 people of varying levels of fitness together, and sign them up for four weeks of achingly early starts (recruits are committed to attend every morning at 6am, without fail, or their teammates will be punished with more push-ups). Then stretch them to their physical limits for a gruelling 90 minutes every morning.

The idea came from Brabon's days with the Australian army, and training soldiers in the special forces unit. 'A lot of the exercises were about strength and endurance,' he says. 'Boot camp is based on army training and, although I have brought the same style across, there is a balance between being aggressive and being positive.

'It's the closest thing to total fitness training. It builds strength, muscle, agility and the cardio-vascular system. Add in teamwork, and it's very holistic.'

Now in its eighth year, boot camp has steadily grown in popularity across Australia. Brabon says he's been inundated with recruits ready to sign up.

With a launch in Asia and Britain imminent, Brabon is ready to change the way the world exercises. Brabon says he wants to bring boot camp to Hong Kong by the middle of the year, although plans to expand are still in their infancy.

The programme, run through Fitness First, combines traditional forms of training such as sit-ups, lunges and stretches with 'battle PT' (physical training) on Fridays, and Brabon says it tests the body and the mind. 'The adrenalin goes through the roof because it's so competitive,' he says. 'The strongest guys are inspired by those who aren't yet fit but who are trying their hardest.'

Teamwork is a definite drawcard for Katrina Dowling, who has signed up to get back into shape after 10 months on maternity leave from her job at Virgin Airlines.

'It's pushing me to my limits, but I really feel my muscles are more toned and my cardio-vascular level is improving,' she says between gasps of breath. 'You are committed to doing it, knowing there is a group of people there waiting for you every morning who are like-minded and really motivated.'

'It's about people relying on you,' says 28-year-old psychologist Simone Sheridan, who has signed up for her second month.

'But it's not about being your best; it's about giving your best. It's always manageable, even though sometimes it has pushed me to the point of throwing up. But if I was doing it by myself I wouldn't work as hard.'

Vomiting is something of a boot camp badge of honour - welcome to the 'chucky club'. However, the benefits of exercising to the point of nausea are debatable, according to Sid Ball, of Fighting Fitness Australia. 'Exercise that induces vomiting is absolutely extreme,' he says. 'It could potentially damage your health, not to mention your ligaments, if you don't build up to exercise slowly.'

Ball also questions the value of setting a single exercise regime for a large group of people. He believes a tailored approach is best. But Brabon says the so-called chucky club isn't a sign of poor health. It's simply a temporary reaction to certain types of exercise.

'It's a matter of keeping moving, but we have had people break down and cry or spit the dummy. I got punched in the face once by a girl. It's people who had some sort of barrier that they've hit and gotten over. But they've always come back because they have the most to achieve.'

Brabon says the return sign up rate is 60 per cent, with the oldest recruits aged 72 and the youngest 16.

All new recruits must undergo a fitness test at the start of training and are assessed two weeks into the camp.

With his demeanour softening by the end of the one and a half hour session, Brabon promises the red-faced participants that things will get better. With some people improving their run times after a month by as much as three to four minutes, Brabon says the results are incredible. 'It takes athletes three or four months to improve this much.'