Strategies to help make your gym’s group classes work for you

Any regular of group classes understands the attraction; working in unison with others trying to accomplish the same goal creates an energy unlike any you’ll find on the gym floor. Group classes deliver an addicting mix of structure and creativity above and beyond what you might be capable of emulating on your own. While the vast array of group ex classes available is advantageous on so many levels, the choices can be overwhelming and they can also work against you if you don’t know how to leverage them properly. It’s easy to book your calendar with classes simply because they’re offered at convenient time slots, and not necessarily because they’re best suited for you. Or perhaps they once served a purpose for you, but no longer do. At which point you plateau, and continue to attend out of sheer habit and convenience. It’s important to be able to recognize if your training is being dictated by the group exercise schedule and not by what is actually best for YOUR body. Just because a class is trendy and floods the studio’s schedule doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for everyone. Here are some tips to help recognize which classes are best for you, and to make the ones that are, work even better:

Know why you’re there in the first place.

This seems like a no brainer, yet so many class-goers don’t have a concise answer to that question. “Getting in shape” is not specific enough, and when you have a “meh” goal, you’re going to get a “meh” result.

There is no wrong answer. If you’ve signed up because you want to maintain a decent level of fitness by moving your body and clearing your head for an hour a few times each week, then you’re golden. You are actually in an awesome position because you can take your pick of just about any class on the schedule and enjoy.

However, if you have a specific goal, whether it be to lose those last 5 lbs or train for an adventure race, not every class will give you the best bang for your buck. Getting very clear about what you want to happen by a certain date will automatically give you better direction about how you spend your precious gym time. You’ll be able to ask yourself, “does this class help me accomplish this goal?” If you aren’t sure of the answer, this next one might help you:

Track each session and diligently record your results.

There are plenty of activity tracker options on the market, but a heart rate monitor that documents calories is a good place to start. Wear it during each class, as well as all of your other activities outside the group ex room, whether you’re on the treadmill, playing golf or walking your dog. Take note of the following:

  • your perceived exertion during each activity, and constantly check your heart rate. Make mental notes about where your heart rate is at various points: when you feel like you’re coasting, when you’re working somewhat hard, and when you’re so taxed you feel moments away from barfing.
  • take note which workouts burn the most calories per hour. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are “better” workouts; ultra intense workouts might register a lower caloric burn during the actual training session but leave you with an elevated metabolism for hours after you remove the tracking device. journal how you feel later that day as well as the next day. Note energy levels, soreness, appetite.

All of the above data will help teach you to intuitively understand the connection between what types of training affect you in what ways. This will help you better determine which classes work best for your body. Wearing the device during class also serves as a good reminder – a visual scoreboard – to adjust intensity in the moment if need be.

Regularly monitor progress outside of the group ex studio.

With some exceptions, group classes are designed to accommodate varying levels of fitness in one room, with new people dropping in on a regular basis. They are not innately progressive programs, which means there is no beginning and no end; therefore no easy way to judge your improvement over time. This means you are responsible for monitoring your own improvement. However, many people don’t.  Instead, they perpetually attend classes with no evidence they are actually progressing.

Structured programs that follow the same format each session, such as the Les Mills® programs, make it easier to monitor progression over time. By maintaining consistency in their sequencing, these classes allow you to better gauge your weight selection each time, or notice how much further you can get into class before getting fatigued. “Freestyle” classes – those designed by individual instructors and not part of a trademarked program- typically have more variables in sequencing, equipment, reps, you name it. While the unpredictability ensures your muscles and your mind will never get bored, the lack of consistency makes it harder to gauge what is happening with your overall level of fitness over time.

Your best bet is to set up a baseline assessment test for yourself. You can design it yourself, hire a trainer, or use one from a home workout DVD, but it should be a combination of cardio, strength, and flexibility drills that you complete either for time or for volume (see how long it takes you to complete a set number of drills or see how many reps you can complete in a set amount of time.) Do this test on a regular basis (every 1-3 months,) recording your results each time. If you notice yourself not making any progress, it is a sign you should adjust either the amount of classes, types of classes, or your intensity within each class. You can find an example of a baseline assessment here, and a corresponding PDF here: fitness assessment template.

Hire a personal trainer to attend classes with you.

You might never have thought about this, and quite frankly, not every trainer will be a good enough sport to do it. However, if you’re looking to train for a specific event or goal, you’ll need to make sure the classes you attend compliment each other, and also compliment the training you’re doing outside of the group studio as well. Having a trainer who understands what each of the classes entail, and who has experienced them first hand will be able to better tailor an overall training schedule for you. This is most applicable for strength training or interval classes that involve bodyweight exercises, free weights, bands, etc.

While group instructors give cues for form and technique, it is not always possible to give individual attention to every person in the room. Having a trainer with you in the room who is observing your technique and weight selection can be a huge asset and save you lots of wasted time in future classes. (Whatever you do, don’t talk to your trainer during class! That’s definitely an etiquette no-no. He/she should take discreet notes that you discuss afterward. You might even want to run this by the instructor first, as a courtesy) You might also consider having the trainer review the data you collected (see #2 above.)  Having a few weeks of detailed info about your responses to various physical activities will help him/her tailor a class plan for you.

Take a hiatus from a class, even your favorite.

Like any form of self-development, your aim should be for constant growth. As much fun/satisfying/convenient a certain class is, sometimes taking a break from it can give you the time to explore something new you might not have otherwise done. Don’t misunderstand; this doesn’t mean you’ve outgrown the class or that there is anything wrong with the class. In fact, any instructor or trainer who is truly looking out for your best interest will encourage you to stretch your wings and step out of your comfort zone even if that means they’ll lose you for a bit. And when you do come back, it’ll be a breath of fresh air, and your body will respond as such.

Have you ever struggled with determining the right classes for you? Would you use any of the above strategies?  If you know anyone who might benefit from this, send it to ’em!

About Kristin Dowell

Kristin is a group fitness instructor and personal trainer with certifications from ACE and AFAA, is qualified to coach over a dozen specialty programs, and is the creator of 3 exercise DVDs. From creating physical training programs for fire academies, to teaching preschool dance, (and just about everything in between)...
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