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7 Boot Camp Exercises That Can Elevate Your Fitness Even Now

Your drill sergeant may have been a tyrant, but that workout could still work

spinner image a man is in a plank movement
Andrew Hetherington

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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Right after boot camp might well have been the fittest you’ve ever been. All the pain was worth it because you were filled with pride in what your body could do when you put your mind to it.

Ben Reale, an ultramarathoner who served as a Marine Corps officer, wants us to take ourselves back to that time. Now an Atlanta-based personal trainer and nutrition coach, he tells AARP Veteran Report, “As veterans, we are typically type A personalities and want to do everything all at once or everything 110 percent.”

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The most important thing is to start. “Maybe it’s just getting outside and hiking or going for a walk,” he advises.

Reale has devised a series of “throwback” exercises, which he shares with us here. They don’t require any equipment — or a sergeant major yelling at you.

The Superman

Building spine strength is important as you age. The Superman can get you there.

Lie on your stomach, reach your arms forward and lift your legs off the ground. Beware of extending too high, which could exacerbate back issues.

  • Make it harder: Reach higher or hold it longer. Lift the opposite arm and leg higher in an alternating pattern.
  • Make it easier: Take more breaks, or don’t go as high.

The Glute Bridge

Lie on your back with your knees bent, and squeeze your butt, pushing your hips into the air, and then return to the ground. “In the military, these are done primarily with bodyweight, [and] also maybe with a sandbag or kettlebell over the hips,” Reale says.

  • Make it harder: Use a single leg for support.
  • Make it easier: Don’t pause at the top — come right back down.

The Squat

Squats are the ultimate example of “functional fitness” — exercises we all need in our daily lives. Reale remembers doing around 50 air squats between runs or obstacle courses when he was in the Marines.

Position your legs shoulder width apart and bend your knees, keeping your eyes and chest up. Sit back as low as you can without leaning forward, preventing the knees from popping out over the toes. Then return to standing.

  • Make it harder: Hold a weight or any heavy object.
  • Make it easier: Hold on to a bar, pole or counter for balance.

The Russian Twist

Begin in a seated position on the ground. Bring your hands together in front of your chest and interlock your fingers, as though hugging a beach ball. Raise your feet off the ground and bend your knees, bringing them toward your chest. Try to keep your knees together. Rotate your torso from left to right, touching your elbow on either side as you rotate back and forth. Begin with 20 to 30 seconds of continuous rotations.

  • Make it harder: Add time in 5-to-10-second increments or extend your legs straight out. You can also hold a weight in your hands.
  • Make it easier: Place your heels on the ground for additional stability.
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The Split Squat

This involves putting one foot forward and one foot back, then moving up and down. Picture a lunge, but without stepping. “Control your body as you descend,” Reale says. This is ideal for people with achy knees or old injuries, because removing the step makes you more secure and it strengthens multiple lower-body muscles.

  • Make it harder: Step forward into a lunge. Put a weight in your hands, such as a kettlebell or even a bag of potatoes or gallon of milk.
  • Make it easier: Don’t go down quite as far, or hold the position rather than moving up and down.

The Plank

Most major muscle groups in your body are worked by planks. Move to a push-up position, keeping your core tight and your body straight. The plank has many variations. Side planks are a go-to for oblique strength.

  • Make it harder: Add push-ups between your plank holds. You can also do shoulder taps, touching the opposite shoulder one hand at a time.
  • Make it easier: Try a knee plank or an incline plank, in which your hands are on a bench or wall.

The Bench Dip

Sit on a bench and place your hands beside you. Plant your feet on the ground, and shift forward a bit so your butt is positioned above, and just in front of, the bench. Bend your arms behind you as your butt drops toward the ground, keeping your spine vertical, not diagonal. Then straighten your arms, pushing your body back up.

  • Make it harder: Extend your legs out in front of you.
  • Make it easier: Bend your knees, placing your feet closer to the bench. ​

Alexandra Frost is a Cincinnati-based journalist, content marketing writer, copywriter and editor. She is the granddaughter of a veteran, and her work has been published in The Washington Post and Reader’s Digest. You can learn more about her at​

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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