Which is better: exercising by myself or joining group classes?

Two Quick Announcements!

1. The free month of CrossFit Kids classes is coming to an end on 3/31/2015. We still have some spots left in our Kids Founders Club (unlimited kids classes for $40/month and the kids get a cool t-shirt!), but they are selling like hot cakes! Check it out here: http://www.crossfitcatonsville.com/crossfit-kids/

2. This weekend we are doing a group lunch at Umami Global Bistro, owned by Catonsvillian Rehan Khan. Meet at the bistro around 2:15 PM ready to eat. Reply to this email or join our Facebook event so we know how many people to warn them about! They have wonderful Mediterranean food, and you can check them out here: http://www.umamibistro.com/index.html

And now, to the article!


It’s the age old fitness question that every trainer hears at some point: should I be doing individual exercises at home/the gym, or join group classes? The truth is, with the right decision making process either of these options can work for you. As long as you take into account the efforts, benefits, and drawbacks inherent to each approach, you’ll be able to find the workout environment that’s best for you. We’re going to review the Pro’s and Con’s of each, to help you in the process.

Solo Training

Training by yourself includes anything where you’re not in a group setting and you’re not being directed by a personal trainer. This is, essentially, you at home or at the gym working out with little to no human interaction that assists you in your workouts. For those of you doing P90X or a similar program at home, you fall into this category because the television can’t give you live feedback and support. Likewise, being at the gym with other people present, does not mean you are working out in a group; only interaction creates a group dynamic. We’ll cover more of that below, but for now I’m sure you get the idea.

Now, lets break this style of training down into parts. In “The Good” we’ll make a point about why Solo Training is a good choice, and then in “The Bad” we’ll make a counterpoint to the points we just made. This isn’t contradictory; it’s simply an objective way of looking at the issue. Lastly, in “What You Need to Do” we’ll talk about what you need, as a person, to make this training style work for you.

The Good

Point 1: Training by yourself allows you to build your own schedule that is independent of other people. You don’t need to wait for a class to start/end and other people being late doesn’t (generally) hinder your routine.

Point 2: Most classes follow specific programming, which may or may not meet your specific goals. As a solo-exerciser you are free to create your own custom tailored training program, and no one gets to complain about how much you love Back Squats.

Point 3: There are programs available online and in print that can alleviate the need to program for yourself, so your practical programming knowledge doesn’t have to be as in depth as a personal trainer.

Point 4: You are (pretty much) free to motivate yourself during workouts however you want, including yelling like a crazy person and listening to hard-core heavy metal, if so inclined.

The Bad

Counterpoint 1: If you are using a gym or other fitness facility, you may need to adhere to their hours of operation in order to get your workout done. This can be alleviated by using a 24-hour facility, but not everyone has that available.

Counterpoint 2: Classes provide the programming, all you need is the sweat. This means that working on your own requires more functional, practical fitness knowledge than just how to do the movements. You need to know how to program basic workouts for yourself, or you’ll just be spinning your wheels.

Counterpoint 3: The programming you find online and in magazines will generally only take you so far, and will not be tailored to what you want to achieve. They are closed systems, in that they provide a single routine and don’t adapt to your developing abilities.

Counterpoint 4: You need to motivate yourself to workout day to day, week to week, and year to year. It can be easy to slip out of the groove if you don’t have a good support structure.

What You Need to Do

Build a schedule that you can stick to. Set reminders and make working out part of your daily routine. Remember that you need to sleep, so even if you have access to a 24-hour gym, that doesn’t mean 11:00 PM is your best time!

Start with the beginner routines provided by reputable sources like Men’s/Women’s Health Magazines or “Starting Strength” that are pretty closely related to your goal. If you want to lift heavy weights, look for a strength program; if you want to run marathons look for a running program.

From there, you need to educate yourself about what you’re doing and why, so that once you’re done the basic, generic program you can begin creating your own plan. Don’t expect the generic stuff to work for you for more than 9 months or so, as your body starts adapting as soon as you start training.

Find quotes, pictures, articles, or people that motivate you to be more than a couch warmer. You need to have a regular, reliable stream of reasons/motivations why you’re working out. Want six pack abs? Put a picture of a fitness model with those abs on your bathroom mirror. Need to lose 10 lbs of fat? Write your current and goal body fat percentage on a miniature whiteboard in your kitchen, right next to the snack drawer. The more you remind yourself of your goals and what needs to be done to get there, the more likely you are to keep working towards them.

Lastly, remember that slow progress is still progress. Nothing comes for free and with health the only things that happen fast, are the bad things. Good changes take time; months to years. Be prepared.

Group Classes

In contrast to the Solo Training, Group Classes are those where a small to large group of people are completing the same workout together in, generally, the same place. There may or may not be a team building element, like working together to complete a specific task. In all cases, one or more trainers are leading the class in the same movements and exercise session. These typically last 30-90 minutes and many classes encourage you to be actively engaged with the other people around you in some way (conversation, etc).

The Good

Point 1: You can usually find a class you like that works within your schedule that happens regularly. Examples might be boot camp, CrossFit, Zumba, or Yoga. With the increase in fitness facilities world-wide in the last 15 years, it’s almost impossible to find a city that doesn’t have these kinds of classes.

Point 2: Classes provide structure and routine to your workouts, so that all you need to do is show up and put in the effort to finish the class. Other than knowing how to do the moves, your level of practical knowledge can usually remain lower than if you were programming for yourself. If you have a lot on your plate, researching extra to workout might be too time consuming for you.

Point 3: Classes are great for beginners to develop a baseline of fitness before exploring more specialized options, like sports. Classes may also exist for more seasoned athletes who are beyond the beginner level but don’t have the time to program for themselves.

Point 4: Classes come with built in motivation from the coach and other participants. It can get you really jazzed up to have 30 people all working out together and calling encouragement in the same room!

The Bad

Counterpoint 1: Even though they are common, you might not be able to find the class you really want within a decent distance of your home or office. Maybe you really want to get into a dance-fitness class, but the nearest one if 45 minutes away, or maybe you have an injury that needs to be tended to but none of the local classes can quite accommodate you.

Counterpoint 2: Most classes tend to provide a limited structure and routine because they have to be available to the largest segment of the population. You may miss some of the more advanced concepts if you stick to the same classes over weeks, months, or years.

Counterpoint 3: If you are already beyond beginner level (9+ months of training) then many classes may be too remedial for you, allowing you to maintain your fitness but not advance very far. Specialty classes can be found, but are usually less available than the general classes.

Counterpoint 4: Classes come with other people, and sometimes other people are also annoying. You need to be open to the social aspect of the classes you attend every day, as well as be prepared for the flux that comes with new members, people leaving, and time passing.

What You Need to Do

Start by thinking about your goals, and whether or not you know of a class already that will help you get to those goals. If you want better cardiovascular endurance and some light strengthening exercise, but don’t know how to create a workout yourself, look for classes like boot camps that provide whole body work. Your goals need to fuel your selection.

Next look at your schedule and think about where you could realistically put a class 2-3 times per week, on a regular basis, with as few missed classes as possible. Many classes run on an “every other day” schedule like Mon/Wed/Fri or Tue/Thu. If you know for a fact that you can’t get to a gym during normal hours Monday through Friday for whatever reason, then you need to reconsider solo training. At the same time, once you find that gap in your schedule (and most people have one, to be sure) it’s time to fill it with a class that works for what you want.

Be prepared to pay a bit more for classes than you do for a gym membership. Classes are led by a coach/instructor who has spent time and effort specializing in what they do, so they can help you (and the other participants) do it safely and effectively. While a big gym can get by offering memberships for $20/month (since 75% of their members don’t show up or cancel), the coach for your class probably needs to charge $5-20 per person, per class just to make a livable wage. Considering their expertise, this doesn’t seem too unfair.

Finally, be prepared to deal with other people, and sometimes those other people may annoy you. It happens. Most of your interactions will be good and will help you through the classes each day, but there’s always “that person” who doesn’t always fit the vibe. Do your best to stay positive, because the last thing you want is to realize that you’ve become “that person” when you weren’t expecting it.