Group fitness classes are present at most successful commercial gyms, and as they can prove to be very popular – they can often make-or-break the gym in terms of its member retention and therefore its financial success. Clubs often spend hundreds, or even thousands of pounds a year on group fitness classes alone to give their members motivation and their club ‘the edge’ over local rival clubs.
While classes are attended by thousands each year, the purpose of this article is to highlight the overall costs and benefits of attending various classes – and addressing the part they play in the fitness program of an individual.
1. Increased motivation via music, concentration and atmosphere.
Anyone who has been to more than 6 or 7 classes with a competent instructor must have witnessed a special ‘atmosphere’ at some point during the session. Good instructors should be able to create good moods, encourage hard work and almost produce a sense of ‘euphoria’ in their participants. Also, good music that people can enjoy and get excited about can bring about more effort, and bring better results than if they were to do the same movements on their own without enjoyable music or instructors.
This desire to exercise in a positive environment is positive in itself as it will increase exercise adherence – which is extremely important. Exercise adherence is one of the hardest things to maintain as many people basically do not want to exercise for the fun of it – and will give up unless there is someone to tell them what to do and when to stop. Results often, if not always increase exercise adherence, and unless people see results in the short term (i.e 6-8 weeks) they are likely to stop exercising. That is unless they have a reason to continue exercising (a class).
2. Social factor
Friends can meet up and take part. This is why training partners often have better results than if someone were to exercise on their own. It can take a tough mentality to push oneself to their limits without encouragement, and often a friend being there will reduce feelings of embarrassment and increase reward satisfaction when success occurs. Win-Win situation!
“I go where he goes”
3. Competition factor
This relates to the social factor in that competition improves effort; which in turn increases exercise intensity; which in turn produces results better than in the effort level had remained at what it was.
Imagine this: You’re a 25 yr-old female with above average strength and fitness. Next to you there is a 58-year-old woman using the same weights (and therefore is working at the same exercise intensity) as yourself. You can bet your last pound that you will increase your exercise intensity to avoid feelings of shame, embarrassment etc.
On the flip side: Same situation but there’s a man at the front who looks about average strength and fitness. If you can keep up with him at the same exercise intensity this will create enormous feelings of achievement and satisfaction. These feelings produce more confidence and you will take more risks knowing that the worst that can happen is you get close to keeping up and you will get closer the next time if not.
4. Time factor
We are a lot busier and a lot more stressed than we were 30 years ago. Many of us believe we barely have a lot of time to commit to the gym. Whether or not this is true is somewhat off the point, but there will be weeks where we only have 2 hours to exercise. Using a class that uses weights as its main component (such as BODYPUMP or body conditioning classes) can combine cardio and weights together, where in the gym you might struggle to combine the two – or you don’t really have the time to plan it all. So, classes incorporating weights and cardio may be of benefit to those who only attend the gym twice a week.
5. Less inhibitive
Some exercises in the gym can look a bit funny. Lateral raises look a little bit like someone is trying to fly! Classes are less inhibitive as everybody is doing the same thing. This, I liken a little bit to the phenomenon of obedience. There was a classic example of this in ‘The Milgram Experiment,’ where civilian volunteers obeyed orders to shock another human until they were dead or unconscious. The receivers of the shock were in another room and so were not really unconscious – nevertheless the volunteers continued to obey orders and this behaviour is multiplied when many people obey aswell. Therefore in a class situation, participants will do exercises they do not like – because everybody is doing it and they are being told to do them. They do not feel ‘silly’ as everybody else is doing it.
6. Sense of belonging
As with the social factors, when groups of people share the same interest (an exercise class) they can feel they are an important part of a social network. This will further encourage exercise adherence, and members of the group are likely to stay in touch outside of the class setting.
1. No significant resistanceOften there is no significant resistance to improve or maintain lean muscle or Fat Free Mass (FFM) on an individual. FFM is the main predictor of resting metabolism – the system which burns the most calories in the long-term. In a nutshell, the more muscle an individual has, the more calories they will burn in the long run.
“I maintain my muscle so I can stay lean easily”
To increase or maintain FFM, there needs to be an intensity threshold that will force your body to hold onto its FFM. This means that you need to lift weights that are heavy enough that you will struggle to complete anywhere between 1 and 20 reps within sets – depending on your training goal. Any more than this will mean that an individual is working at less than 60% of his or her 1-rep max, and is therefore working at a lower intensity. Loosely translated, the focus is now more on the cardiovascular system, and less on the muscular system – meaning more calories burned in the short-term, and less in the long-term.
These really are a waste of timeAlso, overall calories burned is one thing to consider – muscle wastage is another. Weight lost from fat is obviously good, while weight lost from muscle is bad. If the nutrition of an individual is not optimal around a cardio class, there is the possibility that some muscle will be used to support the energy demand of the class. This will ultimately mean that the bodyfat of said individual may actually INCREASE in relation to their body weight.
Classes also tend to neglect men in relation to the weights they can use: The biggest exercises – Deadlifts, Squats, Cleans, Pull ups, Rows and Presses are all neglected as there are often insufficient weights. For example, for approximately 10 reps some above-average strength men will need at least 50-60kg for squatting, and that’s not mentioning deadlifts. Bear in mind that most club studios don’t stock 10kg plates and the most you can get on a standard studio bar is 50kg at a push – that’s not optimal. It’s also only the starting point – you’d expect these individuals to get stronger over time with the training effect.
Heavy Dumbells: Nowhere to be seen
2. Too Cardio orientated
Much linked with the first point, too much focus on the cardiovascular system will burn many calories in the short-term, but decrease the long-term calorie burning potential of the individual. Many cardio classes are aerobic in nature, lasting 45-60 minutes, and rely on little or no rest as the stimulation. High intensity classes can be beneficial, but often intensity levels are either lowered or low intensity options preferred as they ‘fill time’ in the class. In my opinion, high intensity classes should last 20-40 minutes and ample rest periods should be used to generate higher peaks of effort and heart rate. Any longer, and without plenty of rest in-between – it’s an aerobic class.
Another important note is that the cardiovascular system adapts very quickly in relation to the muscular system and therefore plateaus often occur in individuals that participate in an excessive number of cardio classes.
3. Incorrect technique
Movements tend to be performed incorrectly as opposed to as if the exercise was done in a one-to-one situation.
The instructor cannot watch 20 pairs of legs at once, and only has a limited angle to view all participants. (The instructor can walk around the class, but unfortunately this often brings a ‘divide’ between the instructor and participants – making the class seem like an army boot camp situation, with the instructor viewed almost as a hypocrite as they are not working with everyone else). This means that exercises can be done incorrectly, resulting in injury – which will affect your exercise adherence I can tell you! Also, incorrect technique might mean that body parts other than the target muscles are getting worked and therefore some muscle groups get neglected – possibly causing imbalances that over time can affect your posture and quality of life. See Don’t be a hunchback! for more information.
Again, the instructor cannot and will not see everything. Those hoping to ‘just keep up with the rest of the class’ may do exercises with less range of motion, making the overall activity a lot easier. When in a one-to-one situation with a trainer, there is someone telling you that you need to go deeper in your squat or bench press, or that you have to stop flexing your knees to help with shoulder presses etc.
5. Time slots and music timing
First of all, classes do not need to be 1 hour in duration. Clubs and the like make them an hour long as they are easier to fit into schedules, works out nicely for instructor pay, is a nice round number etc. If they need to be 1 hour long, then they are likely to be aerobic in nature and therefore your schedule might need to be reprioritised (see class con number 1.)
Secondly, pop (popular) music songs are 3:30 – 5 minutes in nature due to radio and listeners attention spans etc. They are often only in 4/4 timing and are usually in the following formats:
However irrelevant that seemed (!), Most pop songs are extremely similar in duration and format. Class music is even more comparable as they often only use music with certain beats per minute (bpm)
The main point is that the EXERCISES ARE FITTED AROUND THE MUSIC – not the other way around. Exercise factors such as Rep ranges, rest periods, total reps, and total sets should be monitored and varied so that there is a training response. Therefore, the exercise should have the highest priority, with the music as AN AID – NOT THE PRIORITY.
This also applies with ‘rep-rhythm.’ Participants often go too quickly to keep up with the beat of the music, and often do not get full range or the ‘squeeze’ of the muscle that they should feel. This is also the case with music – it is too high a tempo with the emphasis on speed and excitement rather than on accurate technique.
There is little scope for progression
Seen as though the classes are cardio-orientated, progress is often measured through feelings of tiredness as opposed to concrete numbers. This include total reps, sets, rest periods and these can vary greatly from class to class – even with exactly the same music tracks. When the tracks change, the format may be slightly different – but you’re using roughly the same weight (if there is any!), doing roughly the same number of reps, in roughly the same amount of time. Can you say Stagnation???!!!!
7. Sense of belonging
This is a case of too much of a good thing. As stated in the Pros for classes, members can form social networks and this can significantly increase exercise adherence. The problem here, lies that there becomes almost a kind of addiction to the class, as the participation is for the social aspect MORE than the exercise itself – and many people fall into this trap. A sure sign of this phenomenon is where you stop seeing results for months but yet continue to go to the same classes, week after week, month after month. People allow classes to become the staple of their exercise regime – which from a body composition point of view is sub-optimal.
8. Disruption to your schedule
Classes tend to repeat on a weekly basis, whatever club you look at. Is your program one of the few that runs perfectly over 7 days? If not, whats the chances that a class will throw your entire program out of sync? I’ll give you an example: Say your busy schedule only allows you to get to the gym to train for 40mins per workout – but you can get there 5 times a week. You opt for a body-part split seen as though your goal is to build muscle and you want to keep frequency high but not overtrain certain bodyparts.
“I suppose one spin class can’t hurt.”
Next day: “My lower back is killing (from cycling in a hunched position for 55 minutes) – I think I’l skip the deadlifts today.”
The day after: “I feel better now, shall I do deadlifts? Nah, Its Monday and its Chest day;” Or even worse – ” My weeks all messed up now, I’ll just start over on Monday.”
Point being? You should plan your classes to fit your schedule.
In summary, while certain classes are excellent from an exercise adherence point of view – they should not make up the majority of your training program. If you have a lot of free time to exercise, classes may not make a lot of difference to your goal, but if you only have 3-5 hours a week – you should probably be seriously reprioritizing your exercise program.