Operation Bikini Boot Camp
We don’t wear bikinis.” Bethany Roley wants to make that fact perfectly clear. We’re sitting at a table in Bean Baskette, a small café in Evans. Roley is dressed in her exercise attire, bouncing her three-month-old son on her knee. Between the distraction of being interviewed by me and attending to the baby, she has barely touched the chicken salad sitting on her plate. Something tells me it’s just an ordinary hectic day in the life for this busy mother of four.
I’m here to interview Roley and eventually get a first-hand experience of her boot camp. I plan on joining a few sessions in order to make an honest writer out of myself, mainly because I’m a fairly active guy and I’m curious as to just how tough the boot camp is.
“We don’t wear bikinis,” she says again, with a laugh. Apparently that subject has come up before, even though I haven’t asked about that specifically. With a name like Bethany’s Bikini Boot Camp, I’m sure it has raised questions and a few eyebrows. The Bikini Boot Camp is Roley’s brainchild, started back in 2006 on sort of a whim. She was working at a “mother’s day out” program and mentioned the boot camp idea to her co-workers as a way for them all to get exercise. They loved the idea and soon it became more than just a way for the fellow teachers to stay in shape.
Now Roley’s boot camp is a full-time job and she has six trainers working for her in four different locations across the CSRA. It’s one of those impossible success stories because she does little advertising and depends solely on word-of-mouth for new client sign-ups. Talking to her and seeing her enthusiasm about her job leads me to believe that her success may owe a lot to the seemingly boundless amount of energy she exudes.
While the name may be fuzzy around the edges, the Bikini Boot Camp is anything but soft. The foundation of the boot camp is woman-centered; it gives women a chance to work out in a group setting without the pressures of being in a male-oriented gym. Roley makes sure the atmosphere is friendly and supportive in order for the women to find encouragement. “It’s not easy, we aren’t yelling, but we are challenging. We show them they are capable of more.”
How much more? Well, for one thing, Roley does not care much for excuses from her clients. Even if her participants are going out of town on vacation, she’ll provide a special exercise plan to take along. And never pull the busy and tired mom routine on her. “Whenever a mom says, ‘I’ve got two kids, I can’t do it,’ I say, ‘Oh yeah? I’ve got four kids and three of them were C-sections.’” She pauses for effect. “And this one is only three months old.” All of a sudden I don’t feel so tough because any excuses I may proffer at my boot camp debut are sure to fall flat in the light of that sentiment.
At this point, Roley’s husband Abram strolls into the restaurant and picks up the baby. He’s a big guy, kind of like you’d expect—handsome, tough-looking and athletic. Obviously, fitness is a household priority. At last, Roley turns her attention to the chicken salad and tells me more about the boot camp between hurried bites.
As if she notices my hesitancy about making excuses, she tells me that they also have special boot camp exercises for pregnant women. “I like to use them as encouragement—I just say, ‘Don’t let the pregnant girl lap you.’” Suddenly, I’m having nightmare visions of being lapped on the running track by an expectant mother. This might not be pretty at all.
Apparently, I’m not the only man who is curious about boot camp because at the end of every six-week session, the boot camp holds “Man Week,” where husbands and boyfriends are invited to participate in the exercises alongside their significant others. Roley describes it as a “coming out” event for the women to show off and, more often than not, put their male counterparts to shame. “Many of the women will say, ‘My husband is coming, so make it hard,’ and the men really have no idea what they’re in for.” Roley gives me a little smile, as if to tell me that I don’t either. We’ll see. After a little more discussion on the exercises and what to expect, we part ways and I contemplate how to proceed.
I decide to do two days of boot camp, about halfway into the six-week course. One session of strength training and one of cardio, giving me a small taste of what it’s all about. I like to think that I’m in pretty good shape: I eat right, I work out three times a week and I try to ride my bike a couple of times a week for cardio. In other words, I’m not going into this as a couch potato. I’m hoping it works to my advantage. At the very least, I hope it means I will last through a complete session.
Here’s how the boot camp works. The sessions are held outside, usually in a park setting, and a trainer leads the women through a series of exercises throughout the week, rotating daily between strength training and cardio. Each trainer is rotated among locations and each day’s exercises are different, so the participants never get the same thing twice. The reasoning behind this is that the women are never able to get into a routine—their bodies are constantly being worked and tested.
Now you have to consider something here. Like I said, the sessions are held outside, year-round. That means everything from 100-plus degree temperatures and humidity in the summer to freezing cold temperatures in the winter. Rain is not an excuse either. Unless there’s lightning or severe weather, boot camp is on. Talk about no excuses.
I show up on a warm Monday evening. There’s a group of women gathering behind the Evans library, with exercise mats and dumbbells in tow. I can’t help but notice that one of them is pushing a baby in a stroller. Oh boy. Bethany introduces me and points to a spot on the perimeter. “Pick your spot and we’ll warm up in a second.”
I wasn’t sure how much weight to bring, so I settled on 10-pound dumbbells, thinking this was a good weight to start with. And wouldn’t you know, it wasn’t long before I was getting the business about it. “Ten pounds? I can get you some 15s,” says a voice off to the right, with laughter soon following from the circle. “We want you to fit in that bikini,” chimes in another voice, with more laughter. It was at this point that I knew I was in for it.
First comes the warm ups and then we go right into the strength training exercises. It doesn’t take long to realize that I’m going to have a tough time. As soon as we start doing one-leg squats, it occurs to me there are certain muscles I have been neglecting in my own workouts—mostly in my posterior. These are muscles that are not tested in bike riding and I can’t remember the last time I bothered to do a squat. Now I am feeling the burn.
About this time, I try to make conversation with those around me, in the hopes that I could glean a little insight on why these women were willing to put themselves through this torture. “You guys really do this in the summer?” is about all I could gasp between the squats. A few giggles erupt and multiple answers to the affirmative echo throughout the circle. “You’re all crazy,” I simply state. Seriously, the routine is just beginning and I’m already getting winded.
Roley then proceeds to pass out jump ropes and tells us that we’ll be jumping rope for two minutes. Let me just say here that I’m not the best at jump rope. I’m pretty coordinated, but jump rope is something I have to concentrate on doing properly. It does not help that I’m breathing heavily and I have an audience. I stumble through the two minutes and, by the end, there’s more rope fighting than jumping.
Next up, stair runs for five minutes. As I stagger toward the stairs, with everyone passing me by, Roley takes the time to point out something to me. “Three of these ladies just had babies.” She smiles with a knowing look and I just shake my head. Up and down the stairs and around again in a tight loop, we all run at varying speeds. Everyone passes me at least once, some multiple times. I’m already getting lapped and there’s nothing I can do about it. My male ego is being pulverized and, to be honest, I don’t even care at this point. My goal right now is to hang in there and finish.
While I’m struggling, I notice something going on. Roley is encouraging her class, members of the class are encouraging each other and some of it is even being directed toward me. Some of Roley’s words from our interview are coming back to me, where she describes the boot camp as being more of a support group than an exercise class. For a moment, I stop worrying about being lapped and start seeing a bigger picture. This is more than just a way for these women to get fit. There’s an underlying dynamic pushing these women to succeed.
Now we move on to plank rows, pushups and chest presses, a deadly combination of strength exercises that makes me glad I chose to bring the 10-pound weights. Basically you hold in a plank position and do weighted rows with each arm, followed immediately by pushups. Then you flip over and do chest presses. If I had done nothing up until now, these moves would be a breeze. Now it feels like I am moving in slow motion and the 10-pound weights feel like they weigh three times as much.
A short break and then we sprint around in a big circle, which includes a hill. Or at least, they sprint. I jog along. I decide to try and strike up some conversation with the slower of the bunch, thinking I could disguise my growing fatigue by appearing to get more info for my story. I have to drop this idea pretty quick, though, because I see that I’m holding the others back too much. As my jog turns into a walk up an incline, Roley is standing there at the top smiling. “You’re halfway done. Now we do walking lunges, all the way down and back up again.”
Everything in my body is starting to rebel now. My legs hurt. I don’t ever do lunges, so the pain is really starting to take hold. I am beginning to reassess my normal exercise routine and I’m taking note of all the things I need to start doing. A woman named Amber sees me struggling. “You’ll be feeling this on Wednesday,” she says with a smile. I feel it right now. I wonder if I’ll even be able to walk come Wednesday.
Insult comes to injury when the next exercise is announced—wall sits with bicep curls. My legs are uncooperative and this is purely a leg exercise. If you’re not familiar with it, you squat with your back to the wall and then do bicep curls with your weights. Your legs take all the punishment. After the rounds of squats, sprints and lunges, my legs want nothing to do with this. As soon as I lean against the wall and put all my weight onto my legs, my thighs begin to shake uncontrollably. All I can do is laugh and stand back up again. I can’t even pretend my way through this one.
Then we do crunches. You know you’ve had a tough time when crunches are a relief. I was glad to lie down for a moment and get off my legs. We do a mad combination of regular crunches, bicycle crunches, reverse crunches, leg flutters and leg raises. This routine ends out the session and not a moment too soon. I am fully aware that I am lucky to finish in one piece. I get assurances from the group that I did well for my first round of boot camp, but it does not make me feel much better. I’ve just been shown that I am not in as good a shape as I thought I was. The next day I wake up sore, knowing that I have to face the music again that night. I spend the whole day shuffling around slowly, feeling every muscle in my legs tingle with every move. Thankfully, round two is not quite as bad as the first, but that’s not to say it is easy. There are only a handful of women attending tonight, about half the size of the previous night’s class. The trainer’s name is Mary Stewart and, of course, she’s very pregnant. She even takes the time and effort to demonstrate many of the stationary exercises before we do them, so I feel even more obliged to participate. Tonight it’s all cardio—runs, jumping jacks, sprints and more stairs. I find myself needing to stop and breathe more often than the others, but I’m not doing too bad overall.
During one of the running exercises, I realize something important: I would not be doing exercises at this intensity on my own. The group setting and the encouragement of the trainer is pushing me beyond what I would consider my limit. Run those stairs one more time? Not on your life, no thank you. But with very pregnant Mary standing there telling me I can do it, I push through the pain and do it one more time.
“No one is in last place. Everyone does the exercises at their own pace,” says Stewart with a smile. She seems to be cut from the same cloth as Roley, full of endless enthusiasm about the boot camp. She has been with the program since the beginning and believes in the purpose behind it—to not be competitive, but supportive. I am intrigued by the idea of the boot camp as being a support group and it is something I would not have fully realized had I not been a participant. After seeing it first hand, I ask a few of the women about this aspect and what it means to them.
“It’s not a race against my peers, but against myself and against all the things my mind may tell me I can’t do.” Amy Horne has been doing the boot camp for more than a year and truly believes the notion behind the program being more than simply a way to get exercise. “I am amazed at the things I can do now that I never would have thought I can do.”
Another boot camper, Audrey Ferguson, agrees. “They (the trainers) are always there for support and encouragement, when you think you can’t do anymore, they are there to say, ‘Yes you can.’” She adds something even more telling right after that: “I have found more than a workout group, I found a family.”
So what have I taken away from my boot camp experience? In the days following my sessions, I try going through the exercise routine on my own. The reality of the support given by the group setting becomes immediately clear because I give up on each exercise fairly quickly once I get winded. Perhaps I need the boot camp more than I realized.
According to Roley, she is contemplating starting a male version of boot camp. Something tells me I could be first in line. Maybe I’ll fit into that bikini after all.