Fighting Fighting: Why MMA and Bootcamp Training Are a Step Backwards

Frank Forencich | 03 Aug 2011

Dulce bellum inexpertis (War is delightful to the inexperienced).~Erasmus, the 16th-century scholar

Every profession has its trends. Fads come and go, attention shifts and culture changes. In the world of personal training, the trend of our day is militarization, especially in the form of boot camps and MMA.

I believe that this trend is inappropriate and counterproductive. I believe that it's time to drop the combat orientation and create more appropriate and relevant forms of physical experience.

Before you dismiss my proposal as that of a weak and skinny whiner, let me just say that I've done the martial arts circuit. I trained really hard for a couple of decades and earned a couple of black belts. Back when I was training, I could really dish out some physical punishment to myself and others. And now, on reflection, I see that a good deal of that training was wasted. Wasted on domination and posturing. Wasted on a futile quest for security. Wasted on maximizing the self at the expense of integration. What I finally realized was that there are far more beneficial and interesting ways to train the body.

Fitness pundits like to talk about the great conditioning benefits of MMA combat training, but MMA isn't about conditioning at all. Any biologist would see the obvious. That is, MMA is primate dominance behavior, pure and simple.

Contestants train, not to become better people or to make the world a better place, but to establish their place in the hierarchy of other primates, to dominate men and get access to the females. For a primatologist, it's completely transparent. In this sense, MMA fighters are no different than chimpanzees tearing limbs off of trees in the forest, trying to impress the tribe. And we, as trainers, are simply offering our expertise so that these fighters can get better at tearing limbs off of trees. Why not call it what it is?

Ultimately, it's all hormonal, a cultural case of testosterone poisoning. As our nation and our world slide deeper into economic insecurity, and with multiple wars in progress, people feel an ever greater need to assert their position. Men lead the way in this behavior, doing whatever they can to exercise power, often with the body. In contrast, secure people do not go looking for ways to dominate one another. They look for rapport. They look for solutions.

Along with MMA, the other trend in fitness militarization is, of course, the boot camp. Boot camps have proliferated in recent years, based on the assumption that the only way to really get in shape is to have an unpleasant physical experience, motivated by a loud authority figure. It's hard to believe, but the history, imagery and context of boot camps are lost on both trainers and participants. In fact, boot camps are preparation for killing people in war. They are about obedience, conformity, unit cohesion and the ability to withstand intense physical hardship. Boot camps are not about health, longevity, sustainability or integration.

MMA and boot camp trainings are narrow specializations devoted to the body and very little else. Yes, there are benefits in the form of speed, strength, mental focus and the like, but what about human relationships? What about the earth, land and habitat? And what about the tragic state of the world that we now inhabit? Our biosphere and our social systems are on the verge of collapse. Wouldn't it make more sense to develop physical arts that promote human relationships and integration with the natural world?

It would be one thing if combat conditioning and boot camps were the only ways to develop physical excellence, but that's not the case at all. There are thousands of ways to make our bodies stronger and healthier. The number of physical art forms is almost endless. And that's the beauty of it. With so many ways to train our bodies for strength, vitality and exuberance, why not create something beautiful, progressive and productive?

If the proliferation of MMA and boot camps tell us anything, it's that our professional imagination is failing us, just at the time we need it most. MMA and boot camps are crude and to be completely honest, ugly. The imagery and metaphors they provide are counter-productive to both individuals and our culture at large. If we were a little more creative, we would invent new forms that are appropriate to the conditions that we live in.

Some will argue that by offering MMA and boot camps, we are simply giving people what they want. We, like good businesspeople anywhere, are simply responding to market forces. If people want combative, militarized physical training, that's what we'll give them. We are nothing more or less than good service providers.

But this view is passive, reactive and ultimately, irresponsible. It is followership, not leadership. As trainers, our job to get out in front of our culture and show the way to something better. This would be a demonstration of real strength.

Our profession has some of the brightest, most intelligent, most creative people in the world.

Boot camps and MMA are a step backwards.

We can do better.

Frank Forencich is an internationally-recognized leader in health education and performance training. For additional information, visit Frank's Exuberant Animal website.

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Frank Forencich

About the author: Frank Forencich

Read Frank’s full bio for access to links to his latest workshops.

Frank Forencich is an internationally-recognized leader in health education and performance training. He earned his B.A. at Stanford University in human biology and neuroscience and has over 30 years teaching experience in martial art, functional movement and health promotion. He holds black belt rankings in both karate and aikido and has consulted to major corporations, human resource groups and fitness professionals. Frank has climbed mountains across North America and has traveled to Africa on several occasions to study human origins. He is the author of Play as if Your Life Depends on It, Exuberant Animal and Change Your Body, Change the World.

To register for Frank’s October Exuberant Animal Workshop, click here

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Comments (6)

Brown, Kwame | 21 Aug 2011, 02:00 AM

Folks, I think we may be getting too bent out of shape here. Frank is using some pretty provocative language to make us aware of some trends.

The fact is (and I speak as a former martial artist - gong fu) that the MMA world is NOT necessarily about the traditional practice or mood of martial arts. That paints a picture of the best of it, which DOES exist, don't get me wrong. What a great deal of that world is about: domination and posturing. And that's also what most get out of watching it. When I observe people watching these matches, the reactions have NOTHING to do with the positive attributes of martial arts. So, in that way, the MMA world, the MMA "mood", incites feelings of ego promotion and dominance.

Then, take boot camp. Boot camps, circuit training, at their best, are about challenge, togetherness, and fun (the best of that world). At their worst, and all too commonly, they are about punishment 3 times a week.

Before you dismiss my opinions out of hand as some out of touch author - I have been in the fitness business since 1997, and ran fitness departments with 40-50 instructors at facilities with 60,000 - 90,000 square feet for 5 years. So, I know this world.

What Frank is railing against is this feeling that seems to have taken over the fitness industry. This feeling that fitness has to be about punishment, ego, and dominance. His point is that we can be about more.

What the hell is wrong with enjoyment, cooperation, and togetherness? Why does it all have to be about winners, losers, and amounts?

That is where he is saying that we can do better, that there is something more.

Check out the website before you judge too harshly. HINT: A lot of the framework for Exuberant Animal is based in martial arts history and practice.

Ashman, Casey | 06 Aug 2011, 18:10 PM

The only question you have is one of clarity. And, by clarity, I mean reaffirming some ideas.

As fitness providers, our job is 'client adherence'.

With that, we can guide, coach, encourage, interact, 'mutually support', discuss, etc. anything we want, and in any manner we choose.

There's a difference between studying and developing in M/Arts and taking part in Boot Camps. The former is something people enter into for their own psychological reasons, and is an activity, a hobby, an interest. The latter is part of something else – the goal is not the successful completion of the Boot Camp, but the whole event is driven by a desired change – in fitness, or in another area of that customer's life.

Really, B/Camps are just another name for circuit training, and we can program a circuit in any way we see fit, whilst maintaining its 'look'. Reinvent the Boot Camp – why not [10 minutes in a coffee shop].

Another way to express the difference: in BodyJam classes, you really have to dance; in BodyCombat classes you aren't really fighting.

Similarly, I can't accept that MMA and B/Camps are, inherently, the same thing. Certain people may use Camps to achieve the same end as Martial Arts training – but, that is down to that individual.

Please, I'm only judging by the language you used: 'could … dish out … punishment'. You really missed the point of studying the Fighting Arts. That's not a crime, it's just a shame, and disappointing. If you had discovered something more, whilst progressing within them, I'm sure you would have never left them – as your main focus/career. There was nothing lacking on your part …

You, probably, found exactly that thing in 'Fitness', which is why you are where you are now.

Your ethos and drive in your industry is what, for some reason, you just couldn't quite discover in M/Arts.

Your whole piece is fascinating – it's great to see a whole other field of concern being aired in this fitness forum.

It is intertwined with the research you did in Africa, no doubt. I put some new ideas to Elaine Morgan OBE – a name which you probably recognise – which she was very enthusiastic about in her replies.

So, I truly share your drive.

Thank-you for writing a great piece.

Case Ash

Tawn, Jason | 06 Aug 2011, 04:42 AM

I totally agree with Mr Cappuccio! Surely it's horses for courses? I cannot be as eloquent but surely how can it be a step backwards when it's getting people out and exercising? If you don't want it, don't buy it. If you do, go for it. And have some fun! I'm kinda hoping this article was a way of stirring up some discussion as I find it very generalised and it makes rather sweeping statements.

Rast, Steve | 05 Aug 2011, 22:12 PM

Mr. Forencich,
While I hope to see some reader comments that agree with your article, I am going to respectfully disagree that bootcamps and MMA Training are a step backward. Primarily, I'd say you're painting too broad of a brush stroke with your words. My perspective is as both a military veteran and a trainer who has coached countless young women and men in the sport of wrestling. Having coached other sports as well, I have observed over and over again the mental toughness and self-confidence that can only be gained through combatives training. As to likening fitness bootcamps to military bootcamps, I would simply say that the term 'bootcamp' is used so loosely on so many group fitness classes that again, you're being a bit too general. While you refer to these training styles as "a cultural case of testosterone poisoning," I have to say I find that statement to be both intriguing and something that calls for more research. I'm not an evolutionary biologist, but I see that your B.A. from Stanford is in human biology and neuroscience. I think a good question to ask is, "Is it a bad thing from the evolutionary/hormonal perspective of a healthy, thriving human to act in such a way as to mimic our ancestral behavior?"
I will say that with such kinds of training comes a call for the responsibility to when and how to apply such skills learned, but I think that speaks to the overall development of a person. "Si vis pacem, para bellum." If you want peace, prepare for war.

Cappuccio, Bobby | 05 Aug 2011, 14:30 PM

I must admit I find that respectful contention on PTontheNet can be potentially quite constructive. This type of discussion often yields ideas, greater understanding and synergy. Frank, I have always found you to be brilliant, as do many people I highly respect within my circle.

I think your point on combat training being an exercise in domination is a valid one. In fact, although there are many operative elements present in sports like MMA its inarguable that the contest is in part based on the drive for domination, if not what is the point of winning?

I grew up immersed in and surrounded by violence so there are parts of your message that resonate strongly with me.

In my response I will neither condone or condemn bootcamp nor MMA, my concern here lies solely with the client.

However I do want to respectfully add a perspective, hoping it will be helpful.

I think much of what we do in today's society if examined by a biologist is sub-consciously directed by the same drives you see inside the octagon.

It may be a bit presumptive to suggest that what the end-user desires from boot camp classes has anything to do with combat. The "combat" or "bootcamp" class often serves as an experiential theme to group exercise, which has many psycho-social benefits that are supportive.

How many clients have aspirations of getting into an actual match? Is it possible that clients who seek out and participate in "combat like" exercise programmes are not consciously desiring enhanced performance in actual combat but rather seeking to cultivate the inner attributes that the nature of such an evolution demands.

If we admonish the consequences of a sport, philosophy, business model, etc. we may also benefit from an open minded concession of its potential benefits in contrast as well.

The motive to train could be based on the intrinsic belief on the part of the client that he/she requires discipline, the support of a group dynamic, the excitement the programme offers, etc. In reality we can only pontificate about any of it.

Whatever the motive as fitness professionals if we appraise the prudence of a clients intention we step into yet another precarious arena.

By establishing a judgement on who our clients should be or what ideals they should embrace, the trainer becomes instantly biased and therefore overly directive (too much assertion of our own dominance over his/her choices ironically) in in the clients journey, we tell and don't ask and essentially become a source of judgement and therefore potential rejection.

This shuts the client down emotionally rendering our ability to optimally facilitate change difficult if not impossible.

If we set the propriety of training objectives, failure to meet those objectives becomes about us and on the far end our reproach.

What's more, if we qualify the propriety of the training experience, we remove the responsibility for change from the client and place it upon ourselves, both factors allaying the chances of long-term success.

Our job is not to determine the social utility or virtue of an intention, but to solve problems from a perspective that is client-centered as opposed to being driven by our own predispositions.

I personally have seen bootcamps that are not crude but made to be fun, again a theme based backdrop that have offered conditioning and support packed in an experience that makes intense exercise, an activity usually associated with pain, fun.

Often participants experience not only extrinsic changes but intrinsic transformation as well. So, when we talk about bootcamps being crude and ugly we need to be careful to specify which bootcamps and in what specific ways?

Are all bootcamp classes counter-productive to society or the individual? Are any of them just for fun, affirmative, perhaps even inspirational?

When we talk about leadership we need to ask what does a leader do? I am not saying there is a right or wrong definition of leadership but we do need a clear one.

One plausible observation could be that a leader is an individual who influences others to take action in correspondence toward the fulfilment of a collective vision or outcome.

That does not have to be everyone's definition of leadership but it seems to fit the role generally and if so then a leader must be able, more accurately willing to meet the follower where he or she is and then guide not push them toward an outcome.

A guide cannot simply shout through the forest "hey over here, you come find me where I am." The follower has not been on that journey yet; he doesn't know how to find you, he can't see what you see because he doesn't perceive what you perceive? The mental map that brought you through the forest has not been imprinted in his mind yet.

He can't see the forest through the trees so to speak.

A leader conversely has to find the follower where he is and then journey together. This does require a bit of responsiveness to the followers needs (which you can argue drives market forces) and mutual trust.

The moment we impose the outcome and intention on the client from our experience, our autobiography, we violate that trust and lose collaborative participation in exchange for compliance at best.

Boyce III, Theo | 05 Aug 2011, 03:32 AM

Mr. Forencich I fear that I will not be nearly as elegant as the other gentlemen in my response to your article. Your appraisal of what happens in the octagon and the driving factors behind those who enter is extremely myopic and it borders on offensive. How is the desire to win at other pursuits like figure skating, chess, ping pong, or baseball, suddenly higher on the scale of virtue than wanting to win in the ring? As a martial artist who has more than one black belt, you should have learned long ago that the training and competition is intended to instill discipline, courage, selflessness, humility, and a sense of honor that transcend the visceral reactions most people have to life's difficulties. It seems that you regret gaining these attributes through martial arts and would have instead preferred to get them by testing yourself in kickball or badminton. I'm sure those activities are on of the many pursuits you feel would have yielded the same or better results. Goodness knows that the skills one learns playing tennis might one day help you protect yourself or your loved ones in the highly unlikely event of a violent physical attack. At the highest levels, the true martial artist is the definition of a teacher, and not just a cornerman yelling profanities at someone. I'm sorry you feel that you wasted much of your time on posturing and the quest for dominance, but that is your own fault. It is hardly the design or intent of quality martial arts dojos and bootcamp classes. MMA clubs and bootcamp classes become small communities of people improve their physical fitness, make connections, and help their communities. There are a myriad of examples when martial arts or intense physical training succeeded to transform lives and help communities, and you are remiss not to acknowledge them. I am not advocating MMA and bootcamp to the exclusion of all others, nor am I insinuating that there aren't drawbacks or viable alternatives. The other gentlemen stated well the dangers of trying to dictate why someone should do this and not that. It's almost inconceivable to think that you have yet to encounter the person who initially wants to train for aesthetic reasons but over time, and with your guidance, comes to realize that their continued health and happiness are more important and lasting goals. The same occurs with MMA and bootcamps and it frustrates me very much that I would even need to remind you of it. Being the lone dissenting voice does not always make you crazy or wrong, but in this case I wish you luck in trying to convince anyone that fire is not hot.