Most commercial gyms have a group fitness class schedule of some sort and a crowd that enjoys exercising with their friends. But how much are you really getting out of those classes? From a strength and conditioning perspective, it really depends on a few important things.

Who’s your instructor?

Sometimes, Crossfit coaches get a bad rap because they can become “certified” after paying a nice chunk of change and spending a weekend learning about it. How much do they really know after that much education? How versed are they in watching someone perform a hip hinge movement, push-up, or squat and being able to adjust it based on the person? Can they help those in their class attempt to safely work around a nagging injury or sore spot?

To me, the knowledge of the instructor is just as important if not more important than how intense they are. If you’re one who enjoys classes but wants more feedback, don’t hesitate to ask for specific feedback on something you’re doing. If the instructor can’t help you, seek help from someone who can!

Pros: Good instructor = fun had by all, safety had by all, learning new methods/exercises had by all, feedback for all.

Cons: Not-so-good instructor = risk of new injury/furthering current injury, no feedback/adjustments, no fun, lack of new exercises/methods.

What’s the pace?

By pace, I’m mainly referring to how quickly you do the exercises, and how quickly you move from one to the next (rest periods). Most classes have a pretty fast pace and have a goal of keeping the class moving continuously, which has its pros and cons.

Pros: You’ll work up a good sweat and maintain a high heart rate throughout the class which is good for cardiovascular training – no running required. You’re probably going to burn more calories than taking time to rest in between sets while doing “conventional” weight lifting in the gym on your own. You’re probably not going to get “huge” from lifting lighter weights quickly with minimal rest periods if that’s something you’re concerned about (see circuit training).

Cons: With a fast-paced class, chances of performing an exercise wrong, or not how the instructor intended (if it’s a big class and they can’t see you), go up, in turn increasing your chance of injury. Similarly, performing an exercise (let’s say a jump squat or push-up, both very common in group classes) for a long period of time or with little rest (or no option to rest) can result in poor form, and again a higher risk of injury. If you’re trying to get stronger, resting muscle groups is important for achieving the training stimulus to get stronger as well as allowing recovery time so your form doesn’t suffer during ensuing sets.

What are your goals?

If you have goals that include some of the following, group fitness classes could be for you (pros):

  • Making friends with like-minded healthy individuals
  • Having fun while exercising
  • Being social
  • Getting a break from your screaming kids
  • Improving muscular endurance
  • Improving core strength
  • Improving cardiovascular endurance
  • Improving flexibility

As you can see, classes can be good for a lot of things (also keeping in mind the instructor and the pace of the class). For certain people, classes are great for a lot of reasons. But they do lack in other areas that may be more conducive to your goals.

Group fitness classes may not be the best choice for you if your goals sound more like the following (cons):

  • Improve muscular strength
  • Increase muscle mass
  • Change the proportions of your body (ex: I want bigger glutes, I want bulging biceps, etc.)
  • Improve sport performance in one way or another
  • Work around a nagging injury
  • Just get into the habit of working out
  • Need to learn how to lift weights and get one on one attention

Are you seeing the progress you wish to see?

Do you want to get stronger, but are continuously using 5lb dumbbells for each exercise because the instructor has you do the exercise for 60 seconds straight?

Do you want stronger legs but are always just jumping around and doing fire hydrants to “build your glutes”?

Does your lower back always hurt from trying to keep up with the she-man or genetic freak next to you?

Depending on your goals, classes may be:

Good for (pros):

  • Do you enjoy exercise more now than you used to?
  • Do you have more positive influences in your life to live a healthy lifestyle?
  • Wanting to exercise more often due to the people you’re around in class
  • Losing weight (far more dependent upon what you’re eating outside of class)
  • Working your entire body
  • “Staying” in shape (based on your consistency)

Bad for (cons):

  • Tracking progress in strength
  • Increasing muscular strength/hypertrophy
  • “Easing” into exercise/weight training
  • Losing weight (again, diet)
  • Learning complex exercises and body movements in a controlled setting so you know you’ve got them down well before ever performing them quickly with little rest

All in all, if you’ve got a good instructor who has helped you stay safe and pushed you outside your comfort zone and you’re moving towards or maintaining your goals, keep it up.

If you’re on the opposite side and aren’t seeing the progress you thought you would, aren’t staying safe, aren’t having fun, and aren’t learning, then consider trying a new method of exercise/training.

Now get out there and do your thing!