It seems almost every week I get the same question about a new group fitness craze. Is kickboxing, yoga, Pilates, boxing, p90x, CrossFit, or (insert any group exercise program) good to do? The short answer is maybe and the long answer is it depends.
It is important to remind ourselves that in today’s sedentary culture doing anything physically active is better than doing nothing. With that being said, it’s very challenging to give each individual all the appropriate movements and exercises for their body in a group setting. These days you will rarely find group studios that bio-mechanically assess clients before they start training, modify any exercises that are inappropriate for a client, and incorporate any kind of recovery modality into their programs. This makes consistency very challenging for the average person as participants to these classes tend to get hurt, bored with the lack of progress, or frustrated that the changes they are looking to make aren’t happening right away. Now obviously it isn’t fair to blame all these things on the group exercise advocates, the studios, the Jane Fondas, the Billy Blanks, etc. Mindset, lifestyle, nutrition, stress, etc. all also factor into client needs. However these things usually aren’t discussed or emphasized in the group exercise setting either. Instead many are led to believe that if you do this class 3-6 times a week you’ll get the results you want within a couple months or less.
Now please don’t take these statements as a rant against group exercise. Again doing something these days is going to be better than doing nothing. With that being said, let’s figure out how to get smarter with how we implement group exercise into a complete training program. The three main things we are going to discuss here to do this are: understanding your body’s limitations before you begin taking classes, learning how to modify movements that you know are potentially risky, and finding classes/instructors who support your individual needs. First let’s discuss understanding what your body’s limitations are before you begin taking classes. Who would have thought?!?
Simply put, if you have never had your body assessed at a biomechanical level then that should be your first priority. At the very least find a professional that can teach you how to develop a daily movement routine that takes every joint through it’s pain-free range of motion. That is a great way to start to understand where your limitations are each day, and before you take a class. Regardless this
simple step is probably one of the most overlooked and under appreciated aspects of starting any kind of training program. Many read the statement “consult with a medical professional before attempting any exercise program”, but unfortunately most don’t even do that. To make matters worse I have yet to hear of any traditional medical doctor doing any kind of mechanical assessment in these situations. I’m sure those practitioners exist, but it’s my goal to make this the standard and not the exception. Unfortunately most people I see in my practice have never been exposed to these assessments prior to any training program in their life either. This means that they have basically been going into every training session blind to potential movement limitations, and they don’t understand why they keep getting hurt doing the most “basic” of exercises. This kind of blind training needs to stop. If our dogs can take food sensitivity tests to modify their diet these days than I think it’s a no brainer to have people properly assessed before they want to go vinyasa their way to bliss.
The next step in individualizing a group exercise practice is knowing how to modify any potential risky movements. The catch here is that this is dependent on the first step of knowing your body’s limitations. So assuming that someone has been properly evaluated, it is then important to understand which movements you may be doing in class that could be of high risk. Sometimes these risky movements should be avoided altogether, and switched out with a movement that will help bring the body into better balance. Sometimes it’s just a simple modification and the movement is no longer risky. For example sometimes knee pain during a chair pose in yoga can be completely avoided by rolling up the yoga mat and giving the person a small heel lift. These kinds of modifications can only be easily prescribed after a proper assessment (get the point yet?). Then outside of class the person should also have ways of restoring proper movement and strength so that over time they can resume the normal chair pose without pain. Notice that in the example I just gave the modification was not given to simply avoid pain in class, but as a part of a complete program that will eventually restore ideal movement and strength. Using props for assistance (heard of a MOBOT?), doing a simpler version of the exercise, or doing something completely different that is appropriate for the individual should all be accepted in a group setting. Firing up those glutes and that core on a reformer in pilates should be able to be done in a variety of ways.
The last concept can actually sometimes be the most challenging. Finding instructors and classes that support people’s needs to modify can sometimes be hard to come by. Especially in certain group exercise settings there is no room to do things differently than the rest of class. I have been in multiple classes myself where instructors have come over to me in the far back of the class and asked me to stop doing what I’m doing and follow along with the class, without even one question about how my body is feeling or if I’m dealing with any injuries. These days I typically will go and do research about a studio before I actually take a class and try to figure out how they operate. This includes talking to a couple different instructors and asking their opinion on modifying movements for class. I have been surprised at how in the same studio multiple instructors will have different perspectives. The beauty of this though is that you will create a better report with the instructors who approve of your requests, and in return should have a much more enjoyable and safer class. Kinect with yourself, know your needs, and have fun with others at class!