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Your guide to choosing the right gym class

Joining a gym for the first time can be overwhelming and intimidating. After signing up, you may be left wondering where to start. Many gyms offer the expertise of a personal trainer as part of the membership package, giving you an opportunity to have a tailor-made fitness program written for you. Depending on your specific goals, you may find yourself lifting weights, doing aerobic activities or a combination of the two.

Lifting weights has the ability to strengthen and tone your body, speed up your metabolism and increase power, muscle size or endurance, depending on the volume and intensity of your training. Aerobic activities such as walking, running, cycling, swimming, rowing and using the stepping machine or cross-trainer can lead to an increase in cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance and can allow you to increase your calorie expenditure to assist weight loss.

Group fitness classes are an option that can be used in place of, or in conjunction with, weight training and aerobic exercise. There is an array of group fitness classes on offer in gyms and fitness studios across the country. Les Mills is a company that offers a variety of popular fitness classes. They are well known and ensure that every class follows a specific structure and meets certain standards. These classes are great because you know what to expect and won’t get any less, but it is important to realise that many independent classes offer the same benefits — just without the Les Mills name.

The best advice is to try different classes, take note of particular instructors you like and mix it up constantly. Although most classes are suitable for all fitness levels (as you’re able to go at your own pace), those with injuries should talk to a doctor before training and be sure to let the class instructor know before the class.

The use of colourful posters and advertisements featuring “buzzword” class names can be confusing, so let’s take a look at some of the most popular classes and what they involve.

Les Mills classes

There is a variety of Les Mills classes that offer an equal array of challenges and benefits. Given their prevalence in gyms, it’s worth considering what the Les Mills classes are about.

BODYATTACKA high-intensity interval training class that combines strength, aerobics and core stabilisation with an upbeat soundtrack. A killer workout that will get the heart racing but those with lower body joint injuries should be cautious.

BODYBALANCE A holistic workout aimed at stretching, strengthening and toning the body through the use of gentle poses and controlled breathing. Although not the best choice for weight loss, if you’re after stability, balance and relaxation, this class is for you.

BODYCOMBAT A martial arts-inspired class that borrows moves from karate, boxing, taekwondo, tai chi and muay thai. You will definitely work up a sweat!

BODYJAM A fun dance-based class that is best done with friends. A good way to distract yourself from the fact that you are exercising.

BODYPUMP A full-body, high-repetition, endurance-based weight training class that will trim and tone in all the right places. You choose the amount of weight you use and progress at your own pace.

BODYSTEP A great cardio workout using a height-adjustable step that also offers shaping and toning moves.

BODYVIVE A low-impact, whole-body workout that uses a weighted ball and resistance band. An ideal class for beginners and intermediate exercisers but probably not challenging enough for higher fitness levels.

RPM The class is spent on a stationary cycle, with the instructor taking you over hills and flats and throwing in sprints and intervals. This one will have you dripping with sweat — not for the faint-hearted!

SH’BAM A fun dance class featuring simple movements. A great way to socialise while being active, and slightly easier to follow than BODYJAM™.

CX30 A core-tightening class that aims at increasing strength and stability of the mid-section, back and bottom. A great workout but, if it’s a tough cardiovascular session you’re after, stick to BODYATTACK™, BODYCOMBAT™ or RPM™.

Group classes

There are many more group classes available to you as you begin or continue your gym experience.

Circuit A dynamic workout that involves moving from one station to another, completing a series of aerobic and resistance exercises. Usually based on time, you are motivated to complete as many repetitions as you can before the instructor yells “change stations”.

Spin Exactly the same principle as RPM™. You will find this at gyms that do not offer Les Mills classes.

A.B.T. A challenging class that focuses on the common “problem” areas: abs, bum and thighs.

Boxing A fantastic workout that combines boxing with aerobics and bodyweight exercises. You will usually be paired up with fellow class members throughout, so it’s also a great way to meet people but you may find that variation in size, strength and fitness level make some areas difficult.

Aerobics The non-Les Mills version of BODYATTACK™.

Step The non-Les Mills version of BODYSTEP™.

Zumba An upbeat, Latin-inspired dance class that is designed to be as much fun as it is exercise. (For more detail on Zumba see the article on Dance elsewhere in this issue.)

Yoga The Sanskrit word for “union”, yoga aims to unify the mind, body and spirit through controlled breathing, meditation and specific poses. Decide whether you’re after a slow, meditation-based session or a dynamic and intense workout and ask the instructor what the class will involve before taking part. (For more detail on yoga see the article devoted to it elsewhere in this issue.)

Pilates Either using a special Pilates apparatus or your body alone, this class will help lengthen, stretch and tone your muscles. (For more detail on Pilates see the article elsewhere in this issue.)

 

Lucia is a Les Mills group fitness instructor who teaches classes at various gyms around Sydney’s inner west. Here are her answers to a few commonly asked questions.

If someone is new to fitness and would like to try group fitness, where should they start? Are there some classes that are more suitable for beginners?

As a Les Mills BODYATTACK™ and BODYPUMP™ instructor, I recommend these classes as they provide low-impact options as well as high-impact options for all fitness levels. By being able to choose the intensity of the workout, all participants can work within their fitness level and everyone is able to complete the class and feel the sense of achievement. The classes are pre-choreographed, so the instructor is able to focus on participants’ technique and provide cues while presenting the class. Some gyms also run BODYPUMP™ Technique class 15 minutes before the class, which is a great way to introduce the class to new members and provide pointers for beginners. A.B.T is also a great class for beginners. I don’t see any class as unsuitable for beginners so long as the instructor is aware that there are new participants in the class and demonstrates suitable options for all.

How should someone “maintain their body” while doing classes? Should they supplement with other training?

To maintain the body you must vary the routines. Depending on your training goals, adding extra cardio or weights sessions, cycle classes and sessions with a personal trainer can help get you there. It is also very important to educate the participants on the value of stretching.

What are the pros and cons of taking group fitness classes compared to training on your own or with a personal trainer?

Participating in group fitness classes is very motivational and fun. You work as a team towards the same goal and constantly receive encouragement and support from the instructor. Participants are less likely to skip their workout compared with training alone, particularly once they’ve made friends in the class. Music also plays a big part in any fitness class; a good beat makes members want to work harder.

A downside is that the classes are at set times that don’t suit everyone. This can make it challenging to get to the class. Unlike having a one-on-one session with a personal trainer, participants do not get individual attention, as the class must flow and finish on time. All pointers and cues are given while the class is running to ensure participant safety. With long-term participation, classes could be boring and monotonous and results may plateau.

What do you like about group fitness classes?

I love bringing people of all fitness levels together and motivating them along their journey to the next fitness level. I also enjoy knowing that people come back because they like my class, making them smile even while they’re in “pain”, and watching them leave with a feeling of achievement.

 

To group or not to group

Now that you know a little more about the wide selection of group fitness classes available and can make a choice based on your interests and goals, it’s time to consider the pros and cons of group fitness classes.

Group fitness is a great way to enjoy exercising in a social environment, often for a fraction of the cost associated with a one-on-one personal training session. You will experience a motivating atmosphere of social support and will be encouraged to attend regularly by those around you. If you are a reasonable self-motivator, you will find that, as you push yourself to improve with each class, you will achieve noticeable results. This is only if you push the boundaries.

The downside is that many individuals fall into the habit of attending a regular class, but simply go through the motions, failing to make continuous improvements. You may also find that, as the class is aimed at the greater majority, it fails to be tailored to your needs the way a personal training session would be. Popular classes often become crowded and it’s difficult for even the best instructors to keep an eye on every participant’s technique at all times. This may result in injury and I often see clients with minor injuries from fitness classes. Classes that feature complex moves can be intimidating and hard to learn for those of us who struggle with co-ordination; and lack of self-confidence in your ability may result in restriction of movement or avoidance of the class altogether.

Looking after your body

To prevent injury and maximise results, you must consider frequency, rest, intensity and technique. After exercising, the same muscles should not be worked again for 48 hours. This allows adequate time for the muscles to repair and grow and will reduce the risk of injury.

For instance, if you were to take a weights-based class on a Monday morning, it would be best to avoid doing the same class on the Tuesday. You could try a yoga or Pilates class on the Tuesday and would be ready for another weights session on Wednesday.

It’s also advisable to have a day off from training each week. This doesn’t mean you have to sit on the couch and shouldn’t move a muscle, but rather this should be considered a time for “active recovery”. During active rest days you may like to go for a light jog, a long walk or a gentle swim; or do a low-intensity yoga, Pilates or dance class.

Appropriate intensity is the most important factor in getting the results you desire. If you don’t push the boundaries of your fitness abilities, you will fail to make improvements. You may still feel like you have had a good workout if you stay in your comfort zone but you won’t get any fitter or stronger. If you push yourself too hard, your technique will suffer, you may over-train and will likely end up injured and worn out. If you are concerned about your technique during a class, come to the next class 10 minutes early and let the instructor know you’re struggling with some of the exercises and ask them to check your technique.

Try the group fitness classes that appeal to you and decide whether you would like to include additional weight training, aerobic exercise or personal training sessions in your fitness routine. Make friends, ask the instructor questions and, most of all, have fun!

Stretching the truth

Flexibility refers to the range of motion at any joint and is dictated by tightness or lax in muscle, tendons and ligaments and by the anatomical structure of the joint itself. It is an important component of any exercise program and some degree of flexibility is valuable for everyday life. Stretching is used to increase flexibility and, over recent years, numerous studies and conflicting information have made it difficult to know when you should stretch, how you should stretch and if you should even be stretching at all.

Until recently, stretching was considered an essential part of any fitness regime. It was believed to help reduce post-exercise muscle soreness, prevent injury and enhance athletic performance. The common view was that stretching before exercise would increase range of movement by improving flexibility; and that this would allow superior athletic performance and reduce injury.

Post-exercise stretching was thought to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which is experienced by professional athletes and recreational exercisers alike, and in doing so, would also allow for improved future performance. There are various types of stretching (see box) that are used in different circumstances and the type of exercise should be considered when choosing the mode of stretching.

 

Types of stretch

Static stretching Completed by holding a stationary position for 10–60 seconds in order to passively stretch a muscle. This is usually done after a workout, for the muscles used during the workout.

Active stretching Involves using the opposing muscles to stretch another muscle. For example, contracting the quadriceps to stretch the hamstrings. This is also usually completed at the end of a workout.

Dynamic stretching Often used as a warm-up before exercise, dynamic stretching uses controlled movement to stretch and warm up muscles and joints. Lunges, arm rotations and swinging the legs at the hip joint are all forms of dynamic stretching.

PNF stretching Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) combines passive stretching (using the assistance of a partner) with contraction and relaxation of antagonist and agonist muscles. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) suggests a six-second contraction followed by a 10– to 30-second assisted stretch. An example of this would be lying down while a partner stretches your hamstrings, contracting your quadriceps to resist the movement for six seconds, then relaxing while they stretch the hamstrings further.

 

The stretching guidelines offered by professionals in the health and fitness industry vary but usually bear some similarities. It’s still generally accepted that some form of “warm-up” or dynamic stretching should be done before exercise to increase mobility at the joints, stretch the muscles and increase body temperature. Static stretching, active stretching and PNF stretching are usually prescribed for post-exercise stretching. Stretches should be suitable for the type of exercise, warming up the muscles and joints that will be used before training, and stretching and lengthening them after.

More recently, studies have suggested that stretching may only reduce muscle soreness by 2 per cent, aid in injury prevention by less than 5 per cent and have little to no effect on athletic performance. It is also noteworthy that excessive flexibility at the start of a workout could perhaps increase the incidence of injury due to compromised joint integrity. Stretching may be beneficial in helping maintain functional flexibility as we age and for individuals with postural and muscular imbalances but, considering recent findings, it’s questionable whether stretching is as necessary as it was once believed to be.

Although stretching may not have a huge effect on delayed muscle soreness, injury prevention or athletic performance, any improvement in flexibility that may reduce joint pain or discomfort, make movement less restricted and increase quality of life makes it worthwhile. Every person and every body is different and some will find stretching more beneficial than others.

As mentioned, individuals who suffer from muscular or postural imbalances may see noticeable benefits from stretching. For example, someone who has hip dysplasia, a condition that involves slight to severe dislocation of the hip, will experience additional pain and clicking of the hip joint when the muscles surrounding the joint are tight. Regular stretching can reduce this and make exercise (and life in general) more comfortable and enjoyable.

As we age, our muscles and joints become tighter and sometimes stiff, particularly if we don’t exercise or move around much. Regular stretching, or participation in yoga or Pilates classes that include stretching, can help maintain functional range of movement at the joints.

An adequate warm-up before exercise, lasting a minimum of three minutes, involving dynamic movements over most joints, using major muscles, would be helpful for most people. An exercise session should be followed by static or PNF stretching for areas that often become tight or restricted and for the muscles used in the workout. This will allow them to recover in their lengthened state, maintaining flexibility and range of movement. If you do a heavy legs session and two days later you can hardly walk let alone sit down, perhaps stretching to increase movement is worthwhile, even if it won’t directly reduce the soreness. Listen to your body and do what works for you!

 References available on request.

 

Felicity Daley is a personal trainer at Gfitness Drummoyne who seeks to give her clients the knowledge, skills, motivation and support to achieve their goals and to reach their full potential. T: 0424 989 077

Felicity Daley

Felicity Daley

As a personal trainer, Felicity's philosophy is to take a balanced approach. Health is multifaceted and fitness means something different to every individual. A combination of muscular strength, physical endurance, agility and coordination, stability, nutrition, rest and mental and emotional wellbeing is essential in a well-rounded lifestyle. Felicity's aim is help you to achieve your goals in these areas by offering the support, motivation and information needed to do so!

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