Do not show up late to Mike Lawson's "boot camp" exercise class. Or if you do, prepare for the former Army sergeant to holler, "Drop and give me 20." Twenty push-ups, that is. At which point, the bear-size, shaven-headed, 38-year-old Lawson is apt to mockingly tease: "Do you love me?"
"Nooooooo," boot camp regular Christina Scott will scream back. From the ground.
"What about me don't you love?"
Such is the thrill, punishment, and, if you can see it, humor of participating in one of the latest trends in the fitness industry: the workout as faux military drill, run by real-life veterans who offer urban professionals a taste of grueling, humiliating, and character-building Army life—all within spitting distance of a Starbucks.
Lawson believes he helped launch the trend by starting boot camp classes in 1998 with Fremont's Sound Mind & Body. The twice-weekly boot camps he still runs through that gym and the Redmond Athletic Club attract 150 people a session and fill up in the space of a week. Attend four days a week through both gyms and Lawson will hand you a golden dog tag, complete with name and serial number. You might then be ready for Lawson's "Island of Fortitude," an adventure in what he calls "commando training" on Blake Island.
When the weather gets too cold for boot camps, which are held outdoors, Lawson offers a gentler version of his drill-sergeant persona in sports conditioning classes. On a recent Monday night, he could be found directing a ski conditioning class at Sound Mind & Body. As the 100-some participants bend into low-down "prisoner squats," run while being held back with rubber "torture tubes," and jump a dozen ways around a roped obstacle, Lawson weaves his hulking body through the crowd, shouting with hints of cadence, "Let's go, let's go, let's go!"
The ski conditioning class is a sweat- drenching hour-and-a-half workout, but if you didn't know about Lawson's background, you might miss the military allusions. In boot camp, he ratchets it up a notch. The activities, which start promptly at 6 a.m., are even more intense. Participants might engage in tug- of-war, or a timed run on a hilly course that Lawson dubs a "Bermuda Triangle." Then there's the humiliation. "I have fun with it," Lawson says. "I make nicknames." During class, one guy rolled in dog poop. Forever after, he was "Doo Doo." Another heavyset man became "Moose."
"People want to be pushed," he says, explaining why they put up with it.
"It's the accountability," reflects Jan Benson, a boot camp regular. Fifty-two years old and a geographic information systems coordinator for a federal agency, Benson is speaking while warming up for the ski conditioning class. A handful of other Lawson addicts listen and nod their heads.
"I work an awful lot in my day job," says Moose, known elsewhere as Paul Raidna, a 35-year-old certified public accountant. "Boot camp gives you the structure and pressure to show up." Even when he's only had four hours of sleep, like the previous night, having just returned from a business trip to China, Raidna knows Lawson won't cut him any slack. "He keeps it intense. He gets in your face. And I know I'll still have a great workout." It wouldn't occur to Raidna to skip class in those circumstances. "You know he knows if you show or not."
"Right," says Allison Everett, 32, a project coordinator at Swedish Medical Center. "He's paying attention." For all Lawson's military bluster, to his fans, he's a nurturing figure, more coach than sergeant, someone who takes all comers, thin or heavy, young or old, fit or not, and half pushes, half teases them into the best shape they've ever been in. "To give you an idea," says Everett, "I went from working out sporadically in a gym to doing triathlons."
It makes you wonder if Lawson's military background is important at all to his students. "You know what?" asks Benson. "It's important because the military has made a big impression on his life."
Lawson had a difficult childhood in Massachusetts; he says both his parents were alcoholics. To escape, he retreated outdoors and into athletics. "It's what saved my life," he says. Later, his athletic prowess and his ability to overcome hardship were just the skills he needed to thrive in the Army. He went into antiterrorism work, which he can't talk about even now, except to say that he conducted reconnaissance missions in Africa, Eastern Germany, and elsewhere. He also did a stint in a notoriously punishing school run by the French Foreign Legion. According to Lawson, 350 guys entered the school with him; only 36, including Lawson, graduated.
The commando is an image Lawson cultivates. But found outside class with a sweet smile on his face, he now takes his "warrior work" in a different direction. In addition to running fitness classes, Lawson conducts sessions for a national organization called the Mankind Project, which encourages men to become "New Warriors" by getting in touch with their feelings.
Lest you think Lawson has gone all touchy-feely, listen to the discipline he imposes on his 8- and 10-year-old sons. "In my family, we don't do time-outs. We do push-ups." The kids have been doing them since they were 2.
That's the thing with Lawson. You might get a gentle pat on the back for encouragement, or you might get him screaming in your face. Either way, you will work out.
To buy a gift certificate for the classes Lawson teaches, contact Sound Mind & Body, 437 N. 34th St., 206-547-3470, www.smbgym.com; or the Redmond Athletic Club, 8709 161st Ave. N.E., Redmond, 425-883-4449, www.therac.net.