Are group fitness classes the best way to exercise?

Yesterday, Dr. Kathy Dooley posted a blog called “When Your Group Class Fails You.” You can read it here, but the general idea was that while group fitness classes are fun, they’re a poor idea for most people.

Dooley argues that group fitness can’t account for individual needs and there isn’t enough time to correct people. She also says that they’re self-selecting, so people are only going to take classes that are geared towards their strengths. For example, hyper flexible people will only take yoga and people who are already strong will lift weights, but avoid classes that emphasize stretching.

Since private training is expensive and many people like the group environment, Dooley offers small group training as a solution. It’s a more customized experience at a lesser cost. She concludes her post with “It’s time to stop taking random classes and get focused on getting results.”

Here’s the thing. I typically like Dr. Dooley and I understand what she’s saying. After all, many people end up seeing me, because they hurt themselves taking group fitness classes and they don’t want to get hurt again. However, I don’t think we can place all the blame on group fitness, when there are bigger underlying problems.

Truly poorly designed classes aside, most group fitness classes have reasonable programming, but lots of people still end up walking away with injuries several months in. Why?

It’s because of how these classes and movements are being applied. The majority of group ex classes are designed with the idea that the people taking them already know how to do basic movements like squats and push-ups. It is also assumed that the participants have good stability, which means their smaller stabilizing muscles are able to come online and hold their joints in a relatively ideal position under load.

The problem is that this is not the average human in a modern world. We don’t have a manual on how to move and most of us move poorly. By the time we walk into a gym, we’ve usually crapped out our stabilizers from sitting at a desk with poor posture for hours a day. We’re barely equipped to sit on the floor instead of a couch, so forget safely busting out dozens of push-ups, squats, lunges and sprints over the course of an hour.

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It’s hard to go from A to B in an instant. You body needs time to adapt and build up to new loads.

That’s exactly what happens though and it’s not just in group fitness.

I see it just as often in private and small group training. Most fitness professionals aren’t taught how to see instability and they progress people to bigger, harder movements too quickly.

I know some of you reading this are fit and in pain. You might wonder how you fit into this equation. Assuming you aren’t over trained, it’s quite possibly for the same reason. At one point, you too were a beginner exerciser and you never learned how to properly stabilize your shoulders, hips or spine. Even though you’re strong in your global muscles, you lack stability, just like a sedentary person.

I hate to say it, but in fitness, we’re doing it backwards.

The irony is that stability exercises, which should be the foundation of any exercise program, are seen as physical therapy exercises. Many people learn them, but only after they have become an “advanced” exerciser and hurt themselves.

Before we throw heavy objects over our heads, jump on boxes and dance with dumbbells, we need to learn where the heck our joints belong in space. I realize this is hard to hear. Training your rotator cuff and finding good hip extension under low load doesn’t burn many calories and walking lacks the sexy “afterburn” associated with high impact work.

Hear me out though. You don’t have to work like this forever. In fact, if you haven’t done anything too crazy to yourself, you might not need to work this slowly for very long. However, taking the time to be educated on how to do foundational movements and progressing slowly to more challenging workouts will set you up to be fit for the long term, without pain or injury.

The problem isn’t that we’re taking group fitness classes. It’s that the fitness industry has been built on hard, fast, exciting exercises and extrinsic results. Even if the fitness professional can see that their clients are in need of better foundational training, many clients value sweat over a good foundation and will leave their trainer if they feel they aren’t being challenged enough.

We can do better.

The fitness industry needs to do a better job of teaching professionals how to progress and regress exercises and how to evaluate if clients are ready to move to something bigger. We also need to do a better job of educating the public on what a balanced fitness program looks like.

In group fitness classes, we need to remind people that if they’re new to exercise, they should progress slowly and have the option of taking part of class, rather than going for a full hour.

At facilities, we really should be screening people. We should be having conversations about how to get started and offering plans that do more than “blast fat.” Our programs should be teaching people how to move more in and outside of the gym and how to move better.

However, the responsibility also lies with the exercise participant. It is up to them to use common sense and take more than one type of class. It is up to them to invest in themselves and seek out more individualized training if they realize that they have questions about the exercises or they are battling injuries. It is also up to the participant to set their ego aside, opt out of inappropriate exercises and select necessary modifications, assuming the instructor offers them.

Movement is so important. If your choices are move or don’t move, I will always vote for movement, within reason. If the only way someone would ever move was to take a group fitness class, I certainly wouldn’t discourage it, but remember that movement is more than gym time and fitness is more than getting ripped and sweating bullets.

Take your group fitness classes. Enjoy the sweat, the music and the people. Just know that exercise has a purpose beyond burning calories. If you want to have access to pain free movement and mobility over a lifetime, you’re going to need to put a little bit of thought into how you incorporate movement and exercise into your life.

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