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Beware: the group fitness crutch

Working out with others can be a tool in building a fit body—but only if done correctly.

The misery of sets, reps, hill repeats and all-out sprints loves company—hence the explosion of group fitness.

And pushing yourself through exercise alongside others has its strengths. “People are generally more motivated in a group setting than in an individual setting,” says Jon-Erik Kawamoto, C.S.C.S., owner of JKConditioningin St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada.

The problem: It’s easy to hide out in the back row, let your effort slip, and check exercise off your to-do list, says Michele Olson, Ph.D., a professor of exercise physiology at Auburn University Montgomery. In a class of 15 people, Olson estimates only about five ace the class. The rest push themselves hard, but only complete parts of certain exercises, stop, allow their form to weaken, or don’t self-correct appropriately, she says.

What you wind up with: a half-baked workout. The key is to strike the balance of reaping motivation from the groupand pushing yourself to get stronger and faster, individually. Below, the pros advise:


set an individual goal, independent of the group

Kawamoto, who works with many clients in small groups, says that while motivation can be great in a larger group setting, it’s individual goals that keep you tuned into your body and progress. To keep effort levels high, think about what brought you to class in the first place—or focus one move you’re trying to perfect.

position yourself well

“Put yourself next to someone who is really motivated and who doesn’t quit,” suggests Olson. “Look at them out of the corner of your eye to mark how hard you’re working.” Where you should be in the room varies depending on personality, but Kawamoto says that somewhere in the middle of the pack will keep you from slacking off at the back, but won’t make you self-conscious if you’re not comfortable being in front of everyone else.

chart (and implement) your personal progress

After 6 to 8 weeks of the same class, you should be able to handle more weight, says Olson. So if the teacher says to grab 3- and 5-pound dumbbells, take it upon yourself to pick up 7- and 8-pound weights, or a weight that challenges you by the last rep.

when in doubt, go harder

Both experts agree that small group training offers unique benefits you may lose in a large group setting. “The second you start to have poor form or lose momentum in a small group, it’s just you, two other people, and a trainer. You can catch it and get back on track quickly,” says Olson.

Without a coach, we’re more likely to choose the lighter weight, start in a modified form, or take more resistance off the bike than we put on, notes Kawamoto. That’s why he urges people to start with a heavier weight or the non-modified version of an exercise (assuming you can maintain proper form). You can always drop down. “You need to be the one to decide to push harder,” he says. “It needs to be an appropriate push, but not enough to wear you out completely.”

keep competition friendly

There’s a fine line between motivation and discouragement. “Friendly competition is awesome between clients who are doing similar things,” says Kawamoto. So make sure to compete with people at your level or a little bit above your level. If you strive to out-compete the A student, you could start to slip—feeling more down about yourself than eager to keep going.

track your data

An instructor is there to give you real-time feedback, but using tech can keep you honest about your effort, as well. In a group fitness class that mixes sculpting with cardio, you should be exercising at a heart rate that’s about 80 percent of your maximum to see lasting changes, says Olson. To find your max use this equation: 206.9 – (0.67 x your age).
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