Group Classes – Are you doing them wrong?
It’s January, and as usual, your local gym will be receiving a great influx of people, like it had become the last boat leaving an island of undead Christmas turkeys. Most, with the goal of losing any excess wobble they’ve gained over the holiday season. In my seven years as an exercise professional, I’ve seen that this surge of new members never lasts very long, and in less that two months most have already stopped turning up or moon walked out after cancelling their memberships – the reasons for which I can only make educated guesses at. In my time working within the health and fitness industry, I’ve trained a multitude of clients and interacted with an even greater number of gym members, leading me to this current standpoint. Before I continue, I can’t overlook the fact that these rogue members may have just achieved their goals and decided that there is no longer a reason to keep coming. Which I can tell you from my knowledge and experience is a mistake, however I understand that train of thought.
So, my current stand point, although not peer-reviewed, is based on honest conversations, analytical observations, and scientific knowledge of strength and conditioning. It’s as follows; whether your goal is to pacify those judgmental scales via weight loss, toning up, increasing strength, or achieving all three at once and or in only specific parts of your body, the way in which most people use gym classes to achieve them is flawed, and counter productive. I am not trying to make fun of or patronize anyone, as I can respect the drive and mental strength it takes to undertake any four to six weeklong training routine. In addition, most often, this is no fault of their own and is just the result of the incomplete knowledge of training fundamentals expected of your average Joe, Jane, or Dr Strange.
Let me explain what I mean by how most people use gym classes. I have noticed that the majority tend to go to as many classes as their time and mental fortitude allows. Which in the great post-Christmas gusto era can be a lot, I find members will attend on average two 30-45 minute cardio & strength endurance (high reps, low weight) classes a day, sometimes back to back, four to five times a week. With others, even opting to do some additional free weight/body weight exercises after said classes. For extra clarity I’ll give examples of classes that fit this description; Body pump, Grit, Insanity, HIIT, FIT, and Spin. (this is not an exhaustive list) I will explain the problem with this based on the training goals I mentioned earlier, however if this type of group class participation and training structure doesn’t apply to you, then feel free to feel smug and simply read on for the banter.
You want to lose weight: Firstly, is the weight you want to lose just body fat? Secondly, if you are doing this type of high volume training, are you considering how much rest you need post workout for your muscles to rebuild stronger? Do you know what the scientific research suggests is the ideal amount of reps and sets to bring about increases in muscular endurance? What manner of strength (weight training/bodyweight) training burns more fat short and long-term? How to properly fuel your body pre and post workout? If not, I’ll keep it concise – there is a very good chance that you are overtraining. Which, although will lose you weight, that weight loss may also be from muscle being burned off and not just fat. This is a problem because muscle is one of the things that give your body and limbs shape, firmness, and tone. Furthermore, this overtraining will leave you always feeling fatigued instead of stronger and fitter session after session, week after week. In short, overtraining will make you look like Christian Bale in the Machinist and feel like you need spiritual Viagra.
You want to tone up: Now, everyone’s definition of toning up is different, for the sake of continuing the narrative smoothly I will assume that this means having less visible fat, and more visible muscle. Did you know that the best way to do this is to develop and condition fast twitch muscle fibers while reducing body fat? The excessive group training regime will cut the body fat, however as mentioned, will not necessarily develop muscle. What you should do instead, is try to combine heavy strength training sessions i.e. lower reps heavier weight, with the group classes in a way that complements each other. For example, one ‘lower body’ strength session (back squat, split squat and dead lift) and then two or three group classes all appropriately spaced out over 7 days. The heavy strength sessions will develop the fast twitch muscle fibers, which are predominantly on the outer portion of the whole muscle. Imagine slicing one of your quadricep muscles in half, the slower twitch fibers (the ones mainly used in group classes) would be closer to the center of the muscle, and the faster twitch ones closer to the surface of the muscle. Meaning, that to look more toned, it would make sense if you worked on the muscle fibers closer to skins surface, instead of predominantly focusing on those deep at the center. Again, less like the Machinist and more like Batman, or Cat women. Less straight lines and more curves. Not to mention that having more fast twitch muscle fibers will help you burn more fat in each workout and also afterwards on your rest days via increasing your metabolic rate. Imagine, spending less time exercising yet still achieving more! I get giddy just thinking about such delicious paradigms.
You want to increase strength: The reasons for this physical quality’s obtainment being negatively affected, is down to the fact that most group classes are not designed to predominantly focus on strength. Which is fine, and not a criticism of them, however if that is one of your primary goals, you should keep in mind that you might be better served doing at least one session a week that focus on gains in strength. The fast twitch fiber stimulating exercises mentioned in the previous paragraph applies here too. Although the explosive power worked on in a Grit class, and muscular endurance in a HIIT class are both types of strength – if your defining the strength you seek as being able to push, pull or lift heavier loads (weights), doing these types of classes 3-5 times a week is not the best way of achieving this. Let alone adding even more volume to your workload, through training the same muscles AGAIN in your individual light weight lifting workout straight after the class. Reason being (without getting too science-y), that your, within set repetition count will be far too high, the weight lifted far too light and the rest allowed between workouts too brief to get the adaptations required in your fast twitch muscle fibers (the best ones for strong and or high-speed muscular contractions). In short – the difference between Conan O’Brian and Conan the Barbarian, with the happy middle most of you are aiming for requiring a more precise structuring of you weekly regime than you might be currently employing.
The last piece of information I want to finesse your brains with is the potential for injury. All forms of training, no matter how well structured come with a risk of injury – such are the ups and downs of a vigorous life. However, overtraining your body in this relentless group class attending festival of pain, is a definite way to exponentially increase your chances of injury in the long-term. Complaints such as back pain, sore knees/ankles, muscle cramps/spasms/twinges, and perpetual fatigue will become synced to your vocabulary like a new catch phrase. Was actually speaking to my Osteopath about this exact topic, and she remarked on how many patients were coming in this month with overuse injuries from group classes.
To conclude – stand up tall and face the sun, let it’s rays warm you, and as you bask in it’s glow – be proud of the hard work and dedication you’ve put into becoming a better version of yourself. Just be sure to seek some professional advise about how best to channel your efforts, so as to insure the most effective and safe use of your time. It’s the difference between becoming the gym superhero of your story or the mediocre sidekick.
By Alpha Maurice Cidade Cauwenbergh
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