Sick of boring cardio workouts? Get back to basics with a fitness boot camp class. These group sessions, which focus on military-style exercises and functional movements like push-ups, squats, sprints, and sit-ups, provide a killer workout and a chance to sweat outside the gym. Here’s what to expect for every civilian left-right-left-ing to a class.

Basic Training — The Need-to-Know

Photo by Mykalee McGowan

Based on programs used to whip new military recruits into shape, fitness boot camp classes aren’t for the faint of heart. These high-intensity workouts deliver results in a total-body approach, combining sprint intervals, bodyweight exercises, and high-intensity moves like kicking and punching. The key: limiting rest time in between each move to get the heart rate up and burning calories fast. While Barry’s Bootcamp may have launched the boot camp trend in the late 90s, the craze really took off in 2008, with heavy hitters like Pure Power Boot Camp and Warrior Fitness Boot Camp hopping on board. A typical class lasts one hour and can burn around 600 calories, building strength and aerobic capacity all at the same time. Plus, with a dedicated instructor and group of friends all sweating together, it’s easy to stay motivated and go for that last crunchSocial relationships and physical activity in health club members. Unger JB, Johnson CA. Department of Preventative Medicine, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA. American Journal of Health Promotion, 1995 May-Jun; 9(5):340-3..

Forward March — Your Action Plan

Ready to drop and give ‘em 20? Here are some quick tips to get the most out of a boot camp experience.

  • Plan ahead. Scope out class options and pick a good fit. “Boot camp” is often a catchall term for all outdoor instructor-led fitness classes, so make sure to read the fine print. Some programs are geared towards specific groups, like women or young adults. Some classes devote more time to cardio and bodyweight exercises like squats, lunges, and push-ups, while others may incorporate equipment like kettlebells, sandbags, and free weights.
  • Follow the leader. More of a Disney Princess than a G.I. Jane? Make sure to find an instructor whose intensity level inspires hard work, not fear. Ariane Hundt, founder of Brooklyn Bridge Boot Camp points out that “some [instructors] are more like ‘drill sergeants,’ while others are more supportive of different fitness levels. Search for an instructor that fits your motivational style.” And above all else: Make sure they’re certified to train group fitness classes with some solid experience under their belt.
  • Know your strength. While some classes are great for fitness beginners, many target a more advanced audience. Make sure the boot camp matches your fitness level, and don’t be afraid speak up if an exercise is too difficult. “Arriving early and letting the instructor know about any special needs or injuries is always a good idea,” Hundt says.
  • Prep right. Most fitness boot camps meet in local parks or gyms, and provide all the necessary equipment. Wear comfortable workout clothes, sneakers, and be sure to bring plenty of water in case there’s no water fountain nearby. Although most classes include a thorough warm-up, it’s always a good idea to do a quick 5-minute jog and stretch before class begins. Feeling like you’re not quite up to speed? Try practicing boot camp moves outside of class. Hundt recommends that participants “take the show on the road. Do some exercises alone in a park — all you need is a bench and your body weight.”
  • Fuel up. To keep blood sugar and energy levels high during tough moves, opt for a carb-based snack (try fruits or veggies with whole grains) an hour or two before the workout, Greatist Expert and trainer Noam Tamir suggests. It’s also key to stay hydrated; drinking 10-15 ounces of water 30-60 minutes before class should do the trick. And as with any intense exercise, make sure to recover properly with a healthy carb- and protein-packed snack (ideally within two hours of leaving class).
  • Be a team player. Boot camp workouts are all about group camaraderie. Greet fellow exercisers with a smile and don’t be shy about shouting out encouragements. If you’re lucky, they’ll do the same.
  • Go with it. It’s only an hour, so give each class 100 percent to get the best results. “If you are willing to be pushed beyond your comfort zone and trust your instructor, you will see better results than when working out alone,” Hundt says. One final word of caution: Always listen to your body first and foremost. If you’ve got nothing left in the tank, or feel an injury coming on, remember that no amount of encouragement (or ego) will get you through that last rep safely. So always train smart.

Fitness boot camps can be great for exercisers of all levels, especially those looking to get in tip-top shape, break past a fitness plateau, or drop a few excess pounds. Just be prepared to work! Looking for a boot camp near you? Head to a local gym or community center to see if they offer any classes with a certified, experienced instructor, or can recommend something nearby.

This article has been read and approved by Greatist Experts Noam Tamir and Joe Vennare.

Have you ever sweated through a boot camp fitness class? What did you think? Tell us in the comments below!