Group Exercise: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

I started teaching my first group exercise class about 5 or 6 months after getting certified as a personal trainer. I was at a Gold’s Gym with mostly Les Mills classes and decided to go through the new Grit training. This was right up my alley. As a new trainer, the harder the workout for my clients the better. What better way to add to my knowledge than to teach a 30 minute HIIT (high intensity interval training) class. Now, I’ve been teaching group exercise classes for about 4.5 years ranging from HIIT to bootcamp and kickboxing/boxing classes with groups as small as 3 up to about 30 people. My feelings, especially as a personal trainer, have certainly changed about group exercise, so I wanted to share a little bit of everything on group exercise classes. I do want to note, my overall philosophy is some movement is better than no movement. However, here’s a look at what I really think about group exercise! 

The Good 

  1. Provides a sense of community 

One of the best things that group exercise classes do is provide a sense of community. That is also one of the reasons why people stick with classes a lot longer than individual routines. Whether it’s a big box gym, small boutique, or one of the many franchised classes that are so popular now, people develop a sense of loyalty to the facility, instructors, and each other. I have seen some of the most consistent people be those who attend group classes. I think that is amazing. Accountability is really hard for people to do one their own, and group exercise classes really help with this. This is my favorite thing about group classes. 

  1. Something is better than nothing 

Like I said in my note in the intro, movement is better than no movement. If group exercise classes get people moving in any way, that’s far better than sitting on the couch watching Netflix. It could be yoga, Pilates, cardio, strength, etc., it’s something.  

The Bad 

  1. Long term success, or lack thereof 

One of the biggest problems with group exercise is people do the same thing over and over again, oftentimes for years. Now, if you are just looking to maintain wherever you are or you use group exercise to compliment another routine (I.e. doing Yin yoga 1-2 times a week to get extra stretching), it totally works. However, most of the time I see people start with something like an Orange Theory, lose 15 lbs (yay!), and continue it forever, never seeing any other results. Here’s the thing, anytime you add a new stimulus to your routine, you should see changes. That’s why kids or people who have never worked out before can astounding changes when they start working out. Our bodies are really smart though and will adapt in as little as about a month. More often than not, I see the same people in the same classes for years still working towards a specific goal,whether that’s a weight or aesthetic goal. Sorry to say, if you do the same thing and still expect change and results, it’s not going to happen even if the class changes slightly (quarterly for Les Mills, each week for Orange Theory, etc.). It’s still the same format.  

  1. Group exercise instructors 

I started taking group classes back in high school. Throughout college I got into cardio kickboxing and then a variety of others in my early 20s. I really looked up to a lot of the instructors thinking they knew all about the body and how to lose weight/look good. I remember the first time I realized this was completely false. I was a brand new instructor and still a baby trainer getting ready for “launch” (Les Mills quarterly came out with new classes, and there was a big party to celebrate). I was teaching with a very seasoned group exercise instructor. She taught an average of 6 classes each week (usually closer to 10) mostly cardio based, worked as a realtor, and had a couple kids. She was a very busy person and always on the go. She was talking to me before class about a weight loss challenge she was participating in over the next few weeks. Her goal was to eat about 1200 calories per day, if not a little less to try to lose the most weight and win. Even as a newer trainer, I was blown away by this. She was going to starve her already overworked body to force a change and promote more stress on the body. She was not a super thin person and, even at that time, I knew she was under eating and not recovering from everything she was doing. That’s when it clicked. I started looking around and talking to more instructors (mostly female and only certified group exercise instructors) and none of them knew a thing about nutrition, progressing the body, and recovery. Now this is not the case with all instructors (particularly those with a personal training, physical therapy, or nutrition background), but group exercise instructors (especially ones who teach a ton of classes) are some of the unhealthiest people I know to date and are unaware of it. A lot of them teach and fully participate in the majority of their classes (sometimes 2+ classes 4 or 5 days each week), their own workouts, and work other jobs and/or manage families. Be mindful of this. 

The Ugly 

  1. Hello injuries 

Two of the most popular types of group exercise classes I see exploding right now are CrossFit (not quite as much as it used to be) and Orange Theory. I have taken these classes and done a lot of research about their fitness philosophy. The instruction on safety, form, and mobility is not there by and large. I have seen more injuries and people who have gotten hurt from these types of classes than any other type of group exercise class out there. As a group instructor myself, I know you cannot watch everyone and take the time to perfect everyone’s form. It’s impossible. Even training 2 people at once, it becomes much harder to do the work each person needs individually to have 100% perfect form and movement patterns. People are more likely to get injured, especially in the more intense classes that have strength training involved. This is across the board from the previously mentioned formats to bootcamp classes and BodyPump.

  1. All about the HIIT 

High intensity interval training (HIIT) is not for everyone, especially on a consistent, regular basis. Sorry to pick on them, but CrossFit and Orange Theory are once again huge contributors to this problem of people thinking HIIT is the best way to workout. Why do people love these types of group exercise classes so much? It’s short and overstressed people (especially women) love cortisol spikes. Working out is a stressor on the body. A good one but still a stressor. When you take someone who is already overworked, overstressed, not properly fueling their body, and poor sleep, and add in a HUGE stressor on the body, you’re asking for an injury, burnout, and lack of consistency. Personally, I cannot do HIIT still because my body is not in a place to take that kind of stressor even though I focus on quality food to fuel my body, meditate, sleep 7+ hours each night, take supplements for any deficiencies, hydrate, and make stress management a top priority. HIIT can be great when used appropriately with the right person, but it’s a very dangerous thing to add to someone’s routine who is not in the proper place to do so. 

I do want to make another note about everything. Coaching matters immensely. A great coach can get people a whole lot further than a bad one. Good coaching and solid programming can make all the difference. The issue: I don’t see a ton a great group exercise coaches in the industry, and a lot of the really good ones are oftentimes limited by the facility or format where they teach. 

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