Thoughts on Group Exercise

Most ‘fitness centers’ and ‘gyms’ offer some basic sets of equipment for people to chose from.  There is usually  a bank of cardiovascular equipment for the folks that like the distraction of a television while they exercise; most places have treadmills, ellipticals, stepmills, a variety of bikes.  I’d be willing to get that 99% of facilities face these at some TV’s, or they each have their own TV.  After those machines, you’ll have a series of selectorized strength training machines, aimed at those who understand that strength training is important, but aren’t willing to spend the time learning some basic movements to use, either out of a physical or mental inability.  You might find an open area to allow people to stretch, use exercise bands, or move to when the place gets crowded.   Most of the time, you’ll also have a group exercise studio.  What do you think of when you hear group exercise? I’d like to summarize three basic responses:

  • Group exercise is awesome!  (These people go to group exercise classes.)
  • Group exercise?  Not a chance I’ll go, unless there are cute girls.  (This is usually guys that lift.  I’m not sure how many girls would think a guy in a group exercise class is attractive.  Am I right, ladies?!)
  • Meh, that looks dumb. (People who don’t go to the gym.  So 90% of the U.S. population.)

That was a great summary, right?!  Sure, I’m kidding with that second answer, but I think it’s safe to say that most people either love their group exercise class, or they’re not really sure how to feel about it.  Let’s say this is a stereotypical shot from a group exercise class:

Swiss balls and paper weights

I haven’t taken a group exercise class where this was being taught, but if i was going to teach one, I’d call this the Swiss ball butt and weight shake, and I might even use Shake Weight’s to up the intensity.  In all seriousness though, the training in this picture, and training throughout the history of group exercise, isn’t going to be all that difficult for you.  Here’s a quick historical synopsis I’ve put together via 3 Fat Chicks and Wikipedia:

  • In 1968, Dr. Cooper published his first book called Aerobics. This book became a bestseller and includes many exercise programs and incorporated running programs, walking, swimming and bicycling programs. This book was the beginning of what we know today to be aerobic programs.
  • After his first book was published, a woman named Jackie Sorenson took what she learned in that book and developed dance routines that incorporated the principles from the book. These dance routines came to be known as aerobic dance and was done to improve cardiovascular health.
  • In the 1970s Judi Sheppard Missett helped create the market for commercial aerobics with her Jazzercise program
  • In the 1980s Richard Simmonds hosted an aerobic exercise show on television, and also released a series of exercise videos
  • In 1989, a college competitive gymnast named Gin Miller had sustained an injury due to overuse during high-impact aerobics. During physical therapy, her rehabilitation was to step up and down on a milk box. She would do this over and over and she would even do this at home. While at home, she would use her front porch step and over time this became repetitive and boring. To break up the boredom and the silence, she starting doing this with upbeat music playing.  This lead to what is known today as step aerobics.
  • In the 1990s Billy Blanks’s Tae Bo helped popularize cardio-boxing workouts that incorporated martial arts movements.

Most of these programs have continued to evolve, and today we’ll see a wide variety of classes being offered.  Most gyms will offer Spinning, Pilates, Kick-boxing, Zumba, a variety of yoga classes, and a collection of classes using some arangement of the words “Cardio”, “Sculpt”, “Dance”, “Tone”, and “Blast”.  The adventurous classes will be named after body parts, like ‘Ab Attack’, ‘Buns and Guns’, or ‘Gut and Butt’.  (If I were to teach a class, I’d name it “Multifidis and Masseter”, and we’d spend the whole time talking about spinal stabilization.)

Group exercise DOES have a benefit that you can’t get in most settings; it’s social.  Most of the people that go would be exercise anyway, but they enjoy feeling like they’re going to a group of friends, a clan or community where they’re free to sweat and smile together.  To me, that’s more powerful than any physical benefits that exercise can offer you, across the board.  Yes, that’s a serious statement.  The training side of group exercise is lacking, but the environment is the key.  So how can we make the training better?

Demand better classes.

Your local fitness facility won’t begin to offer better classes unless there is a demand for it.  If people aren’t speaking up about the lackluster results of their Swiss ball butt weight shakes, they’ll just be offered the same things.  Let me show you two videos of what your group exercise classes could look like.  One of them is from a TRX group exercise video, and the other is a kettlebell group class from a local trainer.

Doesn’t that look fun?!

Group training doesn’t have to be a compromise between great training and a great social experience, even if it typically is a trade off between one or the other.  When done well, group exercise can offer great training and a wonderful social experience.  I’ll cheese it up and say “FUNctional training!”  The bottom line is what you’re asking for as a client; demand educated passionate trainers, and ask for an equipment upgrade that let’s you do move as much as you can.

I discussed the the training circuits I experienced at The Perform Better One-Day last week, and that Todd Durkin’s was one of the busiest.  Todd mentioned that many of the exercises and equipment we were using were examples of what he uses in the bootcamp classes that he teaches at his facility, and he edited and uploaded a video of the event from last weekend.  That video works out great for this post.  Check out Todd’s clip, and think about how much more fun group exercise classes would be if you were doing that each time you went into class.  Bonus points if you can spot me in my neon green shirt at the 1:00 and 1:13 marks:

Group exercise training is going to be fun, that’s the nature of the environment.  Unfortunately, most of the time the quality of training becomes compromised,  and the social experience becomes much more important.  When you lose the quality of training all together, then all you’ve got is the social experience!  Don’t accept that!  Ask for some higher quality training, damnit!  You deserve it!

Woah, I got amped up on you there.  When it comes down to it, there are a LOT of good things you can do in a group exercise setting, it’s just not all that common.  Due to this, I wouldn’t recommend using grop exercise training as a large part of your training routine.  Rather, it might be a nice ‘fill-in’ day if you’d like to add some extra exercise to your training schedule.  You know, throw in a “Multifidus and Masseter” class as a recovery day between your days of strength training and metabolic conditioning.  Of course, that’s unless you have some kick-ass courses offered at your gym; then by all means, group exercise away.

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3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Group Exercise

  1. Great post 🙂 I like group exercise for yoga, pilates, etc. I find DVDs very boring (especially if you do them over and over and over!) It’s something fun to do with friends, too 🙂 I think I am going to an anti-gravity yoga class soon!

    1. Meg, I just watched an anti-gravity yoga clip from The View on YouTube…I hate to admit it, but it does look kind of fun! I think that’s the inherent benefit of group exercise; most people enjoy a social situation far more than they enjoy solitary exercise, and they end up reaping more benefits as far as their emotional and mental health is concerned. In this sense, i think that group training has a leg up on individual training or one-on-one personal training, I just wish that the quality of group exercise classes would improve as far as the strength training and functional training side of things was going.

      Let me know how your yoga class goes!

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