My Take On Group Fitness

A lot of strength athletes, endurance athletes, and coaches of all kinds really hate on group fitness. They either feel that they are athletically superior to the “gen pop” you often see at group classes, or they are so infatuated with their own coaching style that they have to assume the worst of any group class, without even taking the time to try a class and see what it’s all about; what kind of person it could benefit, what kind of workout it really is, or how any of these classes could be potentially be integrated into an intelligent program to offer your clients some fun, variety, and social interaction into their training plan.

Like any training program, gym, or well, anything in life for that matter, not all group fitness classes are created equal. Some are especially easy to laugh at without considering their utility for certain populations. Heck, there was a twerking class hosted at my local powerlifting gym, but the trainer was actually an accomplished lifter & dancer who was developing a lot of strength, mobility, and kinesthetic intelligence/awareness among those trainees, and the overall challenge of the class was certainly high enough to improve general health in the average population. Would I recommend it to anyone on my current roster? Probably not, but it doesn’t mean it’s not valuable for someone else, and there might even be some cool insights and applications to other athletic populations if you take a closer look. For example, there were some glute activation / warm-up drills that could work well before squatting or deadlifting, beyond the usual glute bridge that many athletes fall back on. If I can find at least some value in a twerking class, then there’s probably going to be even more insights to glean from other classes that are actually geared towards fitness in the first place.

Social Motivation: Good and Bad.

Even if the group workout is identical to what you would have done otherwise, social motivation can play a huge role in the overall effect of working out in a group environment. Even if you aren’t competitive (or don’t claim to be), the simple presence of other humans tends to push athlete’s to perform harder. For the general population who may not workout often or struggle with motivation to work at a high intensity, this social motivation can be enormously positive. At the same time, it may push athletes to give max effort too often, when they’d better off cruising through a class at low intensity for fun or recovery, not adding even more intense work onto their already challenging schedule. If you are an athlete that follows a training program but wants to incorporate group fitness into your training, be sure you’re accounting for intensity and be willing to take some classes at a low intensity, even if it means you don’t “win the workout”.

Despite balancing a tough running and lifting program, I typically take 1 or 2 spin classes per week. At this particular studio, there’s a slightly competitive nature to the classes - your power, RPM, and class rank are displayed on screen at the front of the room, and the instructor is constantly telling you pick up the pace, push a little harder, etc. With the music blasting, it’s easy to turn these classes into brutal workouts. And sometimes I do! With all of those factors, I’ve been able to put forth some monumental efforts on the bike that I’d have never been able to do on the trainer alone or while riding outdoors. Last week I averaged nearly 5 watts per kilogram for 75 minutes worth of intervals and set a new 60 minute heart rate threshold. I’m careful not to do this often though. More often than not, I’m comfortable with giving 65-70% effort and allowing my name to sit somewhere in the middle of the leaderboard, not at the top.

300+ watts for over an hour is pretty brutal, and not something I’d recommend trying every single time you show up to class.

300+ watts for over an hour is pretty brutal, and not something I’d recommend trying every single time you show up to class.

Having some fun and letting intensity fluctuate a little with the music, but keeping everything nice and relaxed, primarily in zone 2.

Having some fun and letting intensity fluctuate a little with the music, but keeping everything nice and relaxed, primarily in zone 2.

Dealing with Uncertainty

Being able to handle uncertainty is a valuable skill in any athletic endeavor. In competitive road or track racing, you never know when you will have to make an unexpected surge to stick with the pack or break away. In trail running, you never really know how tough a course is going to be (and therefore, how long of a race it actually is), so being able to handle uncertainty in terms of workout duration to develop better internal pacing skills is important. In obstacle racing, you never know what obstacles you’ll face and you have even less certainty when it comes to event duration. Most OCR’s give an approximate distance, have unknown obstacles, and you face unknown terrain.; you never know whether you’ll be racing for 60 minutes, or 90 minutes. In some cases, it could be even worse. At the inaugural Spartan Race World Championships in 2011, no one had any idea how tough the Vermont mountains would prove to be. Favored to win, OCR celebrity, Hobie Call, was talking with me at the starting line about the event, estimating it wouldn’t take more than about 90 minutes. Over 3 hours later, he had bonked hard and so had I. I finished in 11th place. The athletes who finished in the top 10 were certainly better at handling uncertainty and adjusting their strategy on the fly.

In group fitness classes, the workout details are generally a surprise and it’s probably something that you have never done before (at least not exactly), so every time you enter a class like this, your pacing and your strategy has to be adaptable. You never know when the spin instructor is going to add another interval, or you might not realize until 10 minutes into a 20 minute METCON that the weight you chose to use for DB thrusters was too heavy. Anything that teaches you to deal with change and the unexpected is a definite plus.

Education and Inspiration

Even if you primarily train on your own, whether under the guidance of a coach or not, group fitness classes expose you to new ideas and training methodologies. It puts you in front of new coaches and trainers that have never seen you before, and it forces you to try things that you may have never done before. Even if you work with a coach and you’ve done a million pull-ups in your athletic career, the trainer at a group class might mention a cue or corrective that just clicks. They might make a subtle adjustment on a move that you’ve done before but never tried a slightly different way. This doesn’t mean every trainer at every class is actually a good coach and will make intelligent corrections, but it does allow the opportunity for that to happen - it puts you into a position to learn, whether it’s a positive experience or a negative one, there’s always something to learn. If you’re a coach, you might learn new ways to cue an exercise, or you might observe that a certain cue used by the coach simply isn’t working. Allow yourself to appreciate different training methodologies and consider how you could implement novel exercises or ideas into your own training or into your client’s programming.

As a coach, being educated and experienced with a variety of group fitness classes has other benefits too. It will help you make informed decisions with your own clients if they decide to add something in - you’ll have a better understanding of the stressors and demands of a particular class and how you should adjust their 1:1 training. Or, with friends, family, or would-be clients that can’t afford or don’t desire 1:1 coaching, you can offer them helpful advice on lower cost classes that they’d enjoy and that would help them reach their goals.

Even if group fitness classes isn’t as good as one-on-one, bashing other ideas or training programs never helps anything. Seek to understand their purpose and their value. Learn what you can, ignore the rest, and have some fun.

Alec BlenisComment