Why I’m Not a Fan of (Most) Group Classes

Does this sound familiar at all?

You sign up for the new “it” class, either by yourself or with a couple of friends.

You’re a few weeks in, and making a TON of progress. You’re feeling more energized, getting leaner, and feeling stronger. The workouts are becoming so much easier than they were when you first started. You’re feeling motivated and it’s awesome.

Fast forward a few weeks, months, or even a year… and everything… stalls.

Your progress slows. The motivational talk that fired you up in the first few weeks now just seems repetitive. Your class instructor is more focused on their killer playlist than giving you individual attention.

Frankly, you’re just a little bored.

You start making excuses to skip class and stop going as often. Eventually you either fall off of your fitness habit altogether, or take up the next “it” class, and start the same cycle all over again.

The Never Ending Cycle of Group Classes

The above scenario is something I see happen over and over to the group fitness class junkie.

  • They start out excited and super motivated.
  • They make really good progress for a while (weight loss, strength gains, increased athleticism, etc.).
  • Eventually they either get bored or plateau and stop going. They move onto the next new thing, or worse, stopping working out altogether.

…and the cycle continues.

What’s Missing from Nearly All Group Classes

Here are some of my main issues with the typical group class format:

They prioritize calorie burn. Most group classes make it their main goal to have you walk out of class a sweaty, tired mess having burned as many calories as possible during your workout. This is great at first, and most people will see a lot of progress (usually weight loss or clothes fitting better) in the first few weeks or months of regularly going to a new class.

Unfortunately, this type progress doesn’t last forever. At a certain point your body will get used to burning that many calories during your workout. Unless the instructor helps you find ways to keep making it harder (adding progressions, increasing intensity, etc.), your progress will inevitably stall.

They don’t help you learn correct technique. Most group classes basically throw you into a bootcamp environment without much (or any) instruction beforehand. These classes encourage you to increase your speed and intensity without giving clear direction on correct technique to work out safely. And since many group classes are 30-40 people, it’s unlikely that the instructor will be able to give you any personal attention to improve your form.

They’re based on motivation, not learning. Many popular group classes are based on getting people motivated through a combination of motivational rambling (SoulCycle, I’m looking at you) and loud, bumping playlists. You RARELY focus on learning any new skills or improving your current technique.

Don’t get me wrong, this is great if you’re new-ish to fitness and really need a push to get going. But if you’ve been going for a while, all that motivational talk and loud music is going to get old. And since you’re doing the same thing over and over, you’ll probably get bored at some point and stop going altogether.

There’s no real focus on goal setting. The average fitness class focuses on getting you there in the first place, which is a great initial goal if you’re looking to build a consistent workout habit. But once you’ve got that down, group classes offer little focus on further goal setting. Without setting clear, trackable goals you’re likely to get frustrated at your lack of progress and move on to something new, essentially preventing any real progress from taking place.

There’s rarely any focus on levels or progressions. Because most group fitness classes cater to all levels, teachers generally pick the beginner or intermediate version of an exercise to demonstrate without much added instruction for making it more or less difficult. These exercises are often too hard for true beginners, but not challenging enough for experienced athletes. Very few people get what they actually need—personalized exercises to work toward their goals.

The Exception: Learning-Focused and Skills-Based Classes

There is one type of group class that’s an exception to the never-ending group fitness cycle. When a class focuses on learning something new or picking up a skill, it can be a really helpful way to crush new goals.

Adult gymnastics classes, rock climbing classes, and all sorts of circus, pole, and dance classes are great at this.

These types of classes outline clear goals (for example, to be able to do a 30 second freestanding handstand, work up to a difficult climb, hold a human flag, learn choreography, etc.), then help you understand the methods to get there, usually by breaking down the skills into manageable steps.

Harder skills take more time to learn, but often the excitement of working on something so fun and challenging is often enough to help you stay motivated. Plus, you’ll meet a community of people who can support you to keep going, even when it gets tough.

This is exactly how I got started with handstands five years ago—I went to a single adult gymnastics class and got hooked.

Boxing and martial arts schools or classes also do an amazing job of setting up athletes for success. Boxing has fairly clear goals (learn the basic punches, then advance into drills, footwork techniques, sparring, etc.), and most forms of martial arts have belt ranking systems you use to monitor your progress.

But What if You’re Not Very Self-Motivated?

There are two very important things that group classes do right:

  1. They help motivate people to get to moving in the first place.
  2. They tell them exactly what to do when they get to class.

Some people are incredibly motivated when it comes to their own training, and enjoy creating customized workouts for their goals. Other people just want to be told what to do, and get it over with.

There’s no right or wrong to either approach. Your outlook and motivation may change at different times in your life depending on so many factors.

But if you’re in the less motivated camp right now, here are some ways to get around the trap of the group fitness cycle:

Work with a personal trainer or coach. There’s no better way to continue making progress than to work individually with an experienced trainer or coach. This way you still have to show up when they tell you to (you are paying them, after all), and they’ll tell you exactly what to do once you’re there. They’ll also push you harder than you would have done otherwise, so you’ll get more out of the workouts.

Find goal-oriented small group training. If you enjoy working out with others or don’t have the financial means to work individually with a trainer or coach, try joining a small training group. You can find in person groups in your area, or try an online group like we have in the 12 Minute Athlete Academy.

This gives you several benefits: accountability from the coach, encouragement and support from the other students, and a clear program to follow. Aim to find a goal-oriented group and measure your progress throughout the program.

Join a learning-focused or skills-based class like the ones mentioned above. If you know classes work best for you, that’s totally fine—it’s great that you know that about yourself. Try swapping the regular bootcamp/spin/rah-rah class for one that’s more targeted toward learning a new sport or activity.

Martial arts or boxing classes are often easy to find, but there are so many other options as well. There are classes for adult gymnastics/circus arts (these are so much fun!), rock climbing, surfing, dance, and so much more. If you’re not sure where to start, think about what you enjoyed as a kid, and find an adult version of that. More likely than not, it exists!

Trying a new sport or activity might even help you get more motivated to work out on your own. As you build your skillset in that sport or activity, you’ll become invested in your learning and want to be as strong, fit, and conditioned as possible in order to excel at it.

Keep Setting Goals to Continue Making Progress

Whatever your approach, the key to making continued progress is to have clear, realistic goals.

Goals can start out simple with things like:

  • Doing a HIIT or circuit workout at least three days a week
  • Getting in some form of movement (a long walk, easy hike, bike ride, game of tennis) on non-workout days
  • Working toward your first push up

Once you reach your initial goals, you can start expanding them into things like:

  • Working toward a new pull up/push up/pistol squat personal record (PR)
  • Training for a competition or event (a race, boxing match, dance performance, etc.)
  • Training for a specific goal (climbing a mountain, surfing at a new difficult location, etc.)

As you grow as an athlete, your goals need to grow with you. Keep them slightly out of reach to keep making progress (and avoid boredom).

What are your thoughts about group fitness classes and staying motivated long enough to see progress? Let us know in the comments or hit me up on Instagram.

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2 thoughts on “Why I’m Not a Fan of (Most) Group Classes”

  1. Too bad you feel that way. I’ve been teaching fitness classes for 25 years and at 48 years old I’m healthy, strong, and learning new things every single day.

    A trainer is not “better” than a group fitness instructor. We are different. GFIs put a lot of effort and training into learning new things and helping their participants stay fit and challenged.

    Your blog on group fitness is narrow and devalues the training effect of exercising in a group. Sure, working out on the beach like you do every day seems wonderful! But come to Iowa in November when it’s dark when you go to work and dark when you come home. Try doing your workouts day after day in your basement all by yourself or with three kids running around upstairs. You then might welcome a room full of like minded people who want to blast a workout and let off some steam. Heck, these unfit people who only go to group fitness classes might even become your tribe!

    To be healthy and stay healthy for decades involves changing your workouts continuously. It involves managing your expectations and your limitations as time takes its toll. It involves pushing yourself when no one is there to do it for you. And it involves losing yourself in the music and letting someone else do the pushing.

    I hope you can reconsider your blog as I’m probably not the only person you’ve insulted. You’ve insulted my athleticism and my profession. I’ll be taking a break from 12 minutes to allow my hard feelings to subside.

    In the meantime, I’ll be teaching some kick ass classes in case you’d like to join me!


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