Military-inspired body-weight training in public parks led by “tough-as-nails” trainers used to be all the rage. But has the once white-hot boot-camp trend finally run its course? 

These days, the term “boot camp” is used to describe a variety of workout schemes. For the purposes of this article, boot camp will refer the instruction method of the mid-2000s heyday: an “old-school” workout typically held outdoors, with minimal equipment and with no cap on attendance. Here’s an overview of the decline—and future forms—of this trend, and how to profit from the evolution of boot camps.

The Boom and Bust of Boot Camps

The initial growth of the boot-camp phenomenon was, arguably, a response to increasingly complex choreography in group exercise classes of the late 1990s and early 2000s. And when a few fitness entrepreneurs proved that you could independently make great money, with minimal capital investment by teaching at a park, it was inevitable that everyone would want to get in on the game. 

That window of opportunity, however, may be closing, say some experts. 

Quick Takes: Is Boot Camp Dying?

Tom Kalka, Jr.: “I am struggling with the very question you ask: ‘is boot camp dying?’ Personally, I think it is, but I think it is doing so unfairly. [Unlike fixed weight machines,] boot camp provides amazing results, which transfer to so many other aspects of athletics and general fitness.” 

Ryan Halvorson: “I wouldn't go so far as to say that boot camp is dying. Rather, I'd suggest that it is evolving past the traditional tough-as-nails, one-size-fits-all model that has dominated the world's parks.” 

Debbie Hebda: “There will always be people who like the traditional boot-camp model, but there is so much being offered that ‘boot camp’ is just not king of the hill anymore.”

Pat Rigsby: “Boot camps will be replaced by group personal training. Small-group training will continue to evolve and grow. Great coaching, quality programming, personal relationships and a special experience will be the hallmarks of these businesses.”

“Boot camps were a trend, and the trend has passed, in my opinion… just like the CrossFit trend will pass,” says Cat Smiley, a three-time ISSA Canadian Trainer of the Year. Smiley founded The Original Boot Camp—Canada’s first and longest running boot camp—in 2001, in Whistler, B.C. “I ran my program daily for 13 years. I always said I’d walk away after I made my million. That happened at the 10-year mark, then I kept it going for another couple of years, but business rapidly decreased from about 2010 onwards.” 

Tom Kalka, Jr., is the owner of Custom Fitness Concepts in Sterling, Va., which has offered boot-camp classes for more than a dozen years. “My company’s number-one service has been outdoor group exercise programs and we’ve had up to 25 locations, with more than 500 clients at our peak. That was in 2011. Since then, numbers have started to dwindle. Winters are always hard (we are in Northern Virginia) but we typically bounce back in the spring/summer. Last summer, we never got above 400 clients and right now, we are sitting around 300 with our fingers crossed” for good weather, he reports.

Ryan Halvorson is the director of small-group training at Bird Rock Fit in La Jolla, Calif., and a freelance writer and editor. He reports that local parks, once “littered with boot camp groups,” still have workout attendees. However, he observes that they appear to have fewer boot camps operating overall.

Why the Decline?

Here are some of the issues that have likely tamed the trend:

Too many camps: A market saturated with boot camps and niche fitness programs “has without a doubt negatively affected this model,” says Debbie Hebda, a senior trainer at My Stronger Self in Brighton, Mich. Five years ago, the business offered three boot camps per week, Hebda reports. Now it only offers one, in addition to other personal- and group-training services.

Lack of quality instruction: “Many trainers believe it is easy to set up a class in a park and call it boot camp and that they will make money with it. It’s not that simple,” says Kalka, Jr. A top-notch boot-camp leader must know how to expertly modify exercises, adapt plans to different fitness levels and react quickly to client concerns, he explains. 

Smiley agrees, saying too many trainers jumped on the boot-camp trend without coming up with anything original to match their strengths and background. If you don’t have a strong history in athletics, body-weight training and outdoor workouts, then it won’t be easy, she adds.

Too much intensity: “In the past, boot camps have often been thought of as seriously hardcore training and this was off-putting to those who wouldn't consider themselves to be hardcore,” says Halvorson. “From a business standpoint, this [perception] significantly limits revenue potential.”

The natural process of elimination: It’s not the traditional boot camp model that’s the problem, says Fred Sassani, the founder of Bodies by Design, a boot-camp and personal-training business in Austin, Texas. Instead, he argues, it’s a case of the cream rising. “The bad ones that operate with no business model and no marketing strategies are going away,” he says. 

Where Did the Clients Go? 

The good news is that former boot campers still want to work out, albeit with a different service model. 

Tabata- and circuit-based workouts have invaded the group-exercise schedules of gyms, both large and small. According to IDEA’s 2013 programming survey, body-weight leverage training and indoor boot camps are the first and third most popular group exercise trends. And 67 percent of gyms hold boot camp classes in the group ex studio, whereas only 40 percent of trainers offer outdoor boot camp classes.

Additionally, two for-a-fee service models may be adopted to replace income lost due to dwindling boot-camp numbers. 

Small-group training: Small-group training—a service in which trainers work with between three and eight clients in a shared workout session—attracts former boot campers willing to pay more to get more personalized attention. After all, “it's impossible to really be there for each participant when you've got 20 people to look after,” notes Halvorson. 

Large-group training: In between the exclusivity of small-group personal training and the unlimited attendance of a boot camp is a relatively new niche: large-group personal training. For most trainers, this refers to eight to 15 clients sharing time with one trainer.

Large-group training sessions typically cost more than a boot camp, have a cap on attendance, are held indoors, incorporate more personalized services (such as regular fitness assessments), and use more sophisticated programming and equipment (including TRX Suspension Trainers, kettlebells and various functional training toys). 

“Large-group training focuses on form, function and technique and you have the ability to segment people by their abilities,” explains Hebda. “In contrast, boot camp has become more of a revolving door-type class.” Indeed, an industry survey conducted by the American College of Sports Medicine predicted “group personal training” would be the tenth most popular trend of 2015; boot camp weighed in at number 20.

How to Transform Boot-camp Classes

If you are a current boot-camp instructor, you have three options for continued professional success, say our experts.

Differentiate: If you stick to outdoor boot camps, use your marketing to clearly distinguish your camp from local competitors, and make sure your coaching is the best around, says Sassani. 

Hebda agrees. “You definitely have to set yourself apart from the pack by over-delivering on everything you do and continuing to evolve. Otherwise, client loyalty can become a problem because there are so many interesting, fun and just-as-effective workouts to choose from.”

Go indoors: “Two years ago, I subleased a 6,000-square-foot baseball training facility to use in [the baseball team’s] off hours to train my clients, and it’s been awesome,” says Kalka, Jr. “I’ve been able to keep my numbers significantly higher and provide more ‘toys’ like BOSU balls, TRX equipment and battle ropes.”

Sassani recounts a similar story. “We moved our boot camps inside, into a 6,000-square-foot facility with air conditioning and premium equipment. Our membership numbers are rising each year because our clients know they are protected from the elements and can train regardless of whether it’s hot, cold, raining or snowing.”

Evolve: “My recommendation to those businesses that I currently coach or consult with is to evolve beyond the 'run of the mill' boot camp and offer something more specialized and easier to brand as different, and to provide a higher quality of training,” says Pat Rigsby, a long-time industry consultant who has founded and owned over a dozen fitness-related businesses and is based in Louisville, Kentucky.

For many, evolution means offering fewer boot camps and more small- and large-group trainings. 

For others, the transition may be more unique. “My boot camp program didn’t ‘die’ as such. It simply morphed into something bigger, better and more creative,” says Smiley. Since her long-standing business already had clients flying in from worldwide locations for workouts, she morphed from an outdoor boot camp into an all-inclusive fitness camp vacation model: Whistler Fitness Vacations.We include boot camp as part of their full day’s schedule,” she adds.  

The Future of Fitness

Ultimately, its consumers and not commentators who will decide which fitness trends decline by voting with their dollars. And many well-run, traditional boot camps are likely to continue to thrive for years to come. 

But whether you plan on sticking to a traditional boot-camp model or take a different direction, our experts agree on this: Offer a high-quality fitness and customer-service experience that your clients can’t get from your competitors, and you’ll stand the best change of business success—no matter how you label your workouts.