Some exercisers are lone wolves, preferring to do their own thing in the gym. Others have more of a pack mentality, feeling more comfortable getting their sweat on in class setting.
Most people — even trainers — are a little bit of both. “I definitely love the energy of being in a group, but other times my brain needs quiet and solace,” says Jill Brown, a certified functional strength and nutrition coach and a group fitness trainer at Equinox. How can you tell which camp you fall into? “You’ll know a class is right for you if it pushes you to do more than you would on your own,” Brown says. “If you find you would actually work out harder by yourself, then you may be more of a lone wolf.”
Determining if classes or solo workouts are better for you is also highly dependent on your goal, says Caley Crawford, a certified personal trainer and director of education for Row House. “If your goal is to compete in a physique competition, you’ll be better off using personalized programming on your own or with a trainer,” she points out. “If your goal is to improve your heart health, overall fitness and quality of life, I think classes can be a really great option and pathway for success.”
Here, the full rundown on workout classes straight from fitness pros, including benefits and drawbacks, how to balance your class schedule, and ways to make the most of your group workouts.
The pros and cons of workout classes
THE PROS OF GROUP FITNESS
YOU DON’T HAVE TO HAVE A PLAN
One of the best parts of taking a class is the routine is predetermined. “You show up and the instructor has the program all planned out,” Brown points out. That’s a major plus if you’re short on time or not sure what moves to do.
YOU’LL LEARN NEW EXERCISES
It’s great for your mental game to switch things up, but there are physical benefits, too. “When you do the same workout routine over and over, your body becomes efficient at it and knows what to expect,” Brown says. “You can burn more calories and work muscles differently when doing something new.”
IT’S A SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT
Many people find the community aspect of workout classes encouraging and motivating. “Classes can be a social environment where people not only come to move together, but look forward to doing it as a group,” says Jessica Cifelli, a certified personal trainer and senior master instructor for CycleBar.
THE CONS OF GROUP FITNESS
YOU HAVE TO SHOW UP ON TIME
If you want flexibility on timing, classes might not be right for you. “When you work out alone, you can show up 10 or 15 minutes later than you planned,” Brown notes. “While some classes will let you walk in late, you may miss the all-important warmup or key instructions.” Many classes also shut their doors 10–15 minutes after starting to avoid disruptions.
NOT ALL INSTRUCTORS ARE CREATED EQUAL
“When an instructor has many years of experience, it shows in all areas, particularly safety and cueing,” Brown says. “It can be dangerous to take a class from a novice who doesn’t correct form properly, goes too fast or doesn’t cue well.” You can minimize this potential drawback by checking out instructor reviews online before attending a class, and listening to your body. If an instructor cues you to do something that doesn’t feel right, remember you’re in control and you can always skip an exercise.
YOU MAY NOT GET INDIVIDUALIZED ATTENTION
This mainly applies to larger classes. “If there are more than 20 people in a workout class, you may get lost in the crowd,” explains Cary Williams, an Olympic-level coach and CEO of Boxing and Barbells. “Unfortunately, the trainer cannot watch everyone at the same time in a large group, form gets lost, and injuries may occur.” You can combat this by choosing to take smaller classes when you’re a beginner or just being extra careful not to push past your limits.
If you want to take fitness classes regularly, it’s important to make sure your schedule is varied enough for you to keep making progress. “The three pillars of fitness are strength, flexibility and cardiovascular endurance,” says Jeanette DePatie, a certified personal trainer. “The best fitness routine will contain all three of these elements.”
In other words, you don’t want to take only classes that focus on one element alone. For example, spin classes mostly work on cardiovascular endurance, so if you take them frequently, you’ll also want to mix it up with some strength and mobility work.
Some classes combine all three elements. “For example, a kickboxing class is weight-bearing, which builds some strength, and also builds cardiovascular abilities,” DePatie says. “A dance fitness class may work cardiovascular abilities and also have a significant stretching or flexibility segment.”
Many people combine classes with solo workouts to strike the right balance. “For example, you could hit the weight circuit at the gym for 30 minutes, then take a cardio class afterward,” DePatie suggests. “You could also take a spin class, then do stretching or yoga independently afterward.”
With so many options, it can be tough to evaluate which workout classes are the right fit. Here’s how fit pros recommend narrowing it down:
Consider competitiveness. “Some people love those ‘killer classes’ where everybody is working at peak capacity, and an instructor is encouraging you to go for the burn,” DePatie says. But that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. “Others might prefer a less competitive environment where the focus is on going at your own pace, having a great time, and doing your own thing.”
Get ideas from your friends. Crowdsourcing is a solid option if you’re looking for a new class to test. “If you have friends that have found something they love, give it a try,” Cifelli says. “It’s more fun to plan workouts together anyway. Plus, having an accountability partner lends itself to more success.”
Observe the class first. If you’re really not sure if a class will be right for you, stop by and watch it before signing up. “If after watching for a bit you feel like it’s a perfect fit, jump on in,” DePatie says. “If after 10 minutes of observation you feel like no way, then you can just quietly leave, no harm, no foul.”
Pick a class you can commit to. “What I’ve learned over the last decade in this industry and trying new things is that almost everything works, you just have to commit,” Crawford says. “No workout is going to change your body tomorrow. You have to give it time, which could be six plus months, to see real results.”
Arrive 15 minutes early for your first class. “This gives you time to get yourself situated and even chat with the instructor,” Cifelli explains. Part of an instructor’s job is to put you at ease, show you how to get set up, and explain how the class works—but they can only do that if you arrive ahead of time.
Have the right gear. “The appropriate footwear makes a huge difference,” Brown says. “Some footwear is specifically made for forward motion, like most running shoes, so it’s not great for running side to side or pivoting, like in a dance class.” And if it’s a class you’ll be sweating in, you’ll want to wear technical, sweat-wicking fabrics. What you wear might not seem like a big deal, but you want to be as comfortable as possible, especially when the workout is new to you, Brown emphasizes. “For example, wearing loose-fitting cotton yoga pants can be a disaster on a spin bike.”
If you need modifications, talk to the instructor. Whether you have an injury or are just concerned about the difficulty of the class, it’s a good idea to talk to the teacher about modifications. Whether or not you feel able to might also be a good indicator of how good of a fit the class itself is, DePatie says: “You should feel able to talk to this person freely.”
Check out “Workout Routines” in the MyFitnessPal app to discover and log workouts or build your own with exercises that fit your goals.