Pedaling through spin class, plié-ing at barre, swinging kettlebells as part of a circuit series — no matter what your training method of choice, group fitness classes can help you get in shape. Everything from the energetic atmosphere and instructor motivation to the personal accountability and boredom-busting routines make it easy to get hooked on the sweat. But how can you take it to the next level to really boost the muscle-building, cardio-enhancing results? We gathered secrets from scientific studies and top instructors to uncover what amplifies success in the studio. Incorporate these strategies into your next class for an even fitter you.
1. Invest in higher tech gear.
Before heading to the gym, make a simple swap: Ditch the cotton duds and slip into a poly blend that wicks moisture and helps regulate your body temp. Research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that women who wore a more functional polyester fabric when exercising improved their athletic performance, compared to when they worked out in cotton clothes.
2. Rank form over speed.
Speed and reps don’t necessarily equal a better outcome. “The key to building muscles and avoiding injury is making sure every body part is in the right place,” says Jackie Dragone, director of barre at New York City’s Flex Studios. Instructors often explain when foot or arm placement is off and give modifications, but it’s important to ask questions if you’re unsure. If speaking up during class isn’t your style, Dragone suggests staying afterward so the teacher can show you precise alignment for your next visit.
3. Practice good posture during cardio.
Being mindful of your body from head to toe isn’t just important for strength moves, but cardio too. While rowing, you don’t want to go as fast as possible, using only your arms as leverage. “Rowing is a power motion, where 60 percent comes from your legs, 20 percent from your core and 20 percent from the upper body,” says Cliff Randall, head coach of Orangetheory in NYC.
As for trendy treadmill classes, Randall says you want to shorten your stride on inclines and relax your hands and shoulders to conserve the energy needed to push you through your intervals. Plus leaning slightly forward at the hips takes some pressure off your ankles and knees, according to a study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, which can also cut injury risk.
4. Stand up in spin.
Whether you’re solely a SoulCycler, a FlyWheel fanatic or you prefer Peloton, you’ll want to get your butt out of the saddle whenever you have the option. When participants of a small study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research were in the running position or standing climbing, they had higher cardiorespiratory responses (in other words, they reaped better endurance benefits), compared to sitting down. This was true even if they felt like they weren’t working at their highest effort. So keep it up even if you’re feeling tired.
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5. HIIT your target heart rate.
Want to really get the most from your session? Strap on a heart rate monitor and crunch the numbers in real time. For an extremely efficient workout, you’ll want to spend the majority of your time in the aerobic zone (70 to 80 percent of your max heart rate) and the remainder in the anaerobic zone (84 percent or higher of your max heart rate), says Randall. Spending 12 to 20 minutes of an hour-long workout in this higher range can help you burn more calories after you’ve stopped moving, which is known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption or EPOC (the concept behind Orangetheory’s butt-kicking fitness classes).
6. Lift a heavier load.
If you still believe heavier weights create a bulky body, it’s time to wake up and smell the protein shake. “This is simply not true,” Randall explains. “To get toned, there are only two things you can do: lose fat or build muscle, and while you can’t target fat loss in specific areas of the body, you can buildmuscle in specific spots.”
“You have a body that can push you through this…This is why you came. This is what you wanted.”
Having more muscle means increased strength and you can burn more calories. If an exercise still feels easy by the last few reps, it’s time to pick up a heavier set of dumbbells. (Yes, that might mean trading out those instructor-recommended five-pound weights, but if you’re ready, go for it!)
7. Go for the plyometric option.
Mixing strength training and cardio ups your fitness level and sculpts sleek muscles in less time, Dragone says. If that last round of bodyweight squats wasn’t challenging enough, add a jump to your squats, or try speedy split squats instead of regular lunges. “It’s a great way to get more bang for your buck because it increases your heart rate, which leads to a higher calorie burn,” she explains. Plus, alternating full range of motion exercises and smaller isometric ones (often done in barre), works major muscle groups as well as the tiny, harder-to-reach fibers so you get toned all over.
8. Squeeze out the final reps.
You know those last few moves you do to complete a sequence? The ones that leave you shaking or feeling like your arms are jelly? Those are the reps that change your body. Instead of giving up, take a cue from Dragone’s positivity and talk yourself through it. “I often remind my classes to be grateful,” she says. “You have a body that can push you through this and, unless you have an injury or feel that something is wrong, you’re benefiting from it. This is why you came. This is what you wanted.” Keep repeating that when your muscles scream for rest.
9. Have a blast!
Dreading exercise means it’ll probably fall off your to-do list and lead to zero results. Find something you enjoy so you continue to go back, says Randall. In fact, two 2014 studies from the Cornell Food & Brand Lab found that picturing your workout as fun or a deserved break resulted in eating less later, whereas thinking of it as hard work often led to food splurges afterward. Carry your commitment to fitness beyond those four studio walls and you’ll see big pay-offs in other areas of your life as well.