How to look out for yourself in a group fitness environment?
I often feel that the vision of someone walking into a fitness class for the first time should be turned into a cartoon. The newbie enters through the door, wearing jogging pants, an old t-shirt, hair pulled back in a pony tail, clutching the bottle of water they were told they should bring. She glances up from the ground and is smacked in the face by a visual cacophony of motley crue individuals: the spaghetti woman, bending and twisting in her flexible glory, the shiny, unicorn woman, covered head-to-toe in sparkly lycra, the muscle-bound giant with the small head, quite possibly wearing sunglasses indoors, flexing and posing, intimidating everyone in the room, and the fanatic, with the workout bag beside her, green smoothie waiting in her shaker bottle, already halfway through her own warmup routine because she knows how important it is to warm up before exercising. Don't even get me started on how bizarre the cartoon would get once you start adding in us crazy instructors. Needless to say, this vision, though highly exaggerated, can perhaps get you to reflect on your own reality and remind you to think of yourself when exercising.
I feel very lucky, because our group at E-Fitness does not convey this intimidating, where-do-I-fit-in environment. However, the crazy cartoon does shed light on something we all have to be conscious of in a group exercise environment: every fitness class has a huge variety of individuals, all with different abilities and goals, including different reasons for being at the class. Before you go to class, you should determine three things:
1) Your goals
This thought process often makes people panic because it seems too big. There's nothing that says your goals have to be big or even that it should be typical of the thing for which you're setting the goal (i.e. going to a fitness class means I want to lose weight). Your goal sets the tone for how you approach the activity.
These goals could be big things like increased mobility, improved flexibility, tone muscles, lose weight, lift heavier weights, build endurance etc. or, it could simply be a day-by-day thing, like "I need this class today to relieve stress", "I need this class to release the tension in my back from gardening yesterday", or "I need this class to wake me up!" Your goal may also simply be "to have fun", and it's important to know that. Set your goal and you create your mindset for the class.
2) Your restrictions
If you know you have a severe restriction do not push through it. Past injuries sometimes just need to be left alone. It's best to talk to a physiotherapist when it comes to injuries. Sometimes gentle exercise is beneficial, sometimes rest is what the doctor ordered, but almost all of the time you can tell yourself if an exercise is right or wrong for you.
Restrictions can also come in the form of your comfort zone. Not physical comfort but mental comfort. If an exercise makes you feel awkward or clumsy or silly, there's no need to do it. Most of the time simply toning it down in size will fix how you feel. I'm very much a believer of "what happens in the gym, stays in the gym" and that "anything goes". But that's me and we're all individuals, so, do what makes you comfortable.
3) Your areas of confidence
This is the fun one. These are the exercises you know you can challenge yourself on because you're strong in that area. If you know you've got stamina, turn that jog into a sprint. If you know you're strong, turn that 8lb into a 10lb or higher. If you can tell that your core is getting stronger, don't keep your head down when exercising the lower abdominals, work the upper abdominals as well by lifting your head and shoulders and get a tougher workout.
Once you know your goals and have figured out how your body will either help or hinder that process, you're now able to remind yourself how important it is to be yourself in a group exercise class and continue to be yourself. Don't look at what Spagetti Lady is doing and try to achieve it. Don't glance at the size of weights Muscle Woman is lifting and attempt to do it. Listen to your trainer and work with what you can and want to achieve. Here are some things to keep in mind to keep you on track for what you want in the class:
This applies to cardio more than weight lifting (in weight training slow = harder). If your heart is racing, you're feeling dizzy, or simply if you feel lethargic, ignore the beat of the music. Keep moving, but do the movement at your own pace. You can stay that way for the rest of the set, or if you feel you've managed to get your breathing under control you can get back into it and pick up the pace.
This can apply to both cardio and weights. You might have a Rockstar set of lungs and super strong heart, and cardio doesn't phase you, but, add in a quick, full squat and now you need a lot of strength to get into the squat and out of it, in time to the music without hurting yourself. So, don't do it. Do a mini squat and keep rockin' that cardio.
Similarly, the class is doing a run on the spot sprint, but you're not feeling it? Turn it into a mini run. Little steps, still moving, but not making you feel like you want to pass out.
Can't do that full bicep curl? Do a partial. You'll work your way up to the full but don't sweat it if it's not there right now.
Heavy is "heavy" if it's heavy to you
A lot of people think weight training means they need to lug around the double-digit weights. Not at all. Light and heavy are all relative. If you're having a hard time lifting it, it's heavy and therefore that's the weight you use. A good guideline is that you should be able to manage about 70-80% of the repetitions in a set, the last few should be challenging. If you can go through the entire set with no problem, that's an indication that you need to bump up the weight. Keep in mind that when it comes to tears, rotator problems, past surgeries etc. it's not advisable to challenge the muscle (unless said so by a doctor). If you have a tear that's recovering, or a joint that's likely to pop-out or get highly irritated when put under strain, don't challenge it. Remember, just lifting an arm or a leg without weights is still using muscles.
Pain is NOT okay
This is where you need to listen to your body. We can usually tell when our body is being stressed and, generally, if you've got control of that stress (i.e. the thighs are burning but you know you've got this) that's okay. The second there's a sharp pain, an awkward pull, a jab like sensation, STOP. Dull sensations in the body are generally okay, sharp sensations are not. Sometimes it might be a case of releasing the muscles out of the exercise, giving them a shake and going back into it with better form, but most times it's a sign that you're doing something your body doesn't like, can't handle, or both and that pain is a sign to stop. Listen to it
We all have good days and bad days
Did you ever go to a class and just not feel into it? Your legs are like lead weights, every cardio move is a chore, and you just can't seem to find a rhythm to your breathing? Even in a stretch class, you're simply not bending as much as you were last week? This is your body protesting, saying that it needs a break. It might be because you're getting a cold or fighting a cold, or it could just be part of the physical training cycle. Every 4-6 weeks the body needs roughly a week of easier exercise. This is particularly the case with runners but has been noticed in all types of training. Depending on the level of intensity that you're working you may or may not feel this, but if you do have a "down" week, there's a good chance it's this phase in the body that needs rest. It doesn't mean you don't exercise for a week, but it does mean you need to go easier on your body that week. Pushing through it often leads to poorer performance the following week and can sometimes lead to completely running down your body and getting sick.
When you're "not feeling it", give yourself roughly 5-10 minutes to see if you can shake it out of your system, but if it's not working, allow your body to go at an easier pace. Rest does wonders for muscle repair and growth.
Now that you're armed with things to keep in mind in your next group fitness class, go and have fun. Challenge yourself, but listen to your body. See where you can improve, but pay attention to your restrictions. Love your body and revel in what you can accomplish each and every day.