Solo workouts vs. group classes: A showdown
Why do group classes over solo workouts, or vice versa? “Should” you mix the two? What are the benefits and drawbacks to each?
I’ve worked out in group settings and on my own for years. I’ve spent long, solitary evenings in the gym training for a powerlifting meet, and I spend every Saturday morning teaching a group indoor cycling class. The energies of these sessions could not be more different.
Since I get a free membership at the gym where I teach cycling and lift on my own, I apply what I would’ve spent there to another, second gym down the street that offers group classes that combine heavy strength training and high-intensity cardio (two gyms for the price of one, you see). I joined the “second gym” during the first summer of the pandemic because it offered outdoor, physically distanced classes and I needed a boost of energy and motivation, I needed accountability, and I needed to see other human beings, even from 20 feet across a sweltering parking lot.
I’ve been asked a few times—why do group classes over solo workouts, or vice versa? “Should” you mix the two? What are the benefits and drawbacks to each?
As is the case with basically everything I write about in this newsletter, so much depends on you, your lifestyle, and what you want and need. But if you don’t quite have a grasp on those last two yet, I can offer my perspective on solo workouts versus group classes based on almost a decade of doing (and teaching) both.
Classes downside: Classes can teach you bad habits
One of the problems with group classes is the lack of personal attention from coaches or instructors. This is less a problem with something like Zumba, but can be devastating for classes involving heavy weights or complex movements. It’s a real bee in my cycling instructor bonnet when first-timers come to my class late, not because I care about punctuality as a virtue (lol, I’m late to almost everything) but because then I can’t help them set up their bikes correctly. Pro-tip: Your butt is going to hurt after the first 1-3 classes, but it will hurt a lot less if your seat is the right height for you. It usually hurts so much because you set it too high. That’s what I’m for.
After I got certified as a fitness instructor and had been working on learning how to lift on my own for years, I’d drop into weights-focused group classes and cringe at what I saw: people picking things up with rounded backs, squatting with their heels flying up off the floor, push-ups with fully collapsed cores—this isn’t a moral judgment or an insult; it takes time and coaching to learn how to do these movements. I cringe not because these folks were making fools of themselves in my eyes, but because I was worried they’d get hurt or get nothing from the movements.
If you only go to group classes where the instructors or coaches are outnumbered 20-to-one, you’re just not going to get the kind of support you need when it comes to the foundations of complex movements, efficiency, or safety.
I don’t know if this will be a popular opinion (it sounds kind of like “you should get ‘in shape’ before you start going to the gym,” something I fully disagree with), but I think you should learn how to lift a bit and/or do complex or compound movements safely before you ever enter a group class where you’ll be doing such movements, unless the class is specifically offering foundational training/coaching for beginners.
You can learn by working with a coach or trainer one-on-one for just a few intro sessions, or with a friend you trust who’s been working out the way you’d like to for a long time, or by doing what I did—watching “how to lift weights” videos on YouTube; starting light and slow; video recording myself doing movements and posting them on “judge my form” Facebook groups and showing them to lifter friends; and asking questions of anyone I could who seemed to know what they were doing.
I’m going to talk about CrossFit now. Brace your core. There’s a point.
My second gym is a CrossFit affiliate (“Boo, hiss! You people look stupid! It’s a cult!” Question: Do you do Peloton? Or Orangetheory? Or CorePower? Lean in close. Ready? Here it is: We all seem like we’re in cults. That’s the goal of fitness brand marketing, to get us down bad for the format, to post our stats on Instagram and buy our little T-shirts and water bottles. We’re all exercise dorks. CrossFit people might be the worst. It’s fine.) I couldn't care less about being the best at CrossFit-specific stuff or competing in CrossFit competitions. I joined because it’s down the street and the workouts I most appreciate are ones that combine heavy strength training with high-intensity cardiovascular training, and that’s what CrossFit-style workouts do.
I also joined because I knew I’d already nailed what I feel are two critical components of maintaining a successful, injury-free workout routine: I knew how to lift weights with good form unlikely to cause me injury, and I knew what movements I wasn’t going to do. (And, further, I did sample classes and stalked my gym’s socials/blog—I appreciated that people of all body types and ages go there, that the coaches have extensive certifications in things other than CrossFit, that they don’t promote restrictive eating or any kind of diet at all, and that they offer “on-ramp” classes, which I’ll get to below.)
Everyone’s roasted the CrossFit style of pull-ups, which are called “kipping” or “butterfly” pull-ups. The whole point is to move faster through the reps while still technically doing a pull-up (because competitive CrossFit is all about scoring and finishing faster or with more reps). But even though good coaches like the ones at my gym will tell you that you should not even attempt these before you can knock out a bunch of good, strict, regular pull-ups, I don’t even bother. I don’t go to that gym to learn how to knock out 30 kipping pull-ups in a row; it has no real application to my life, my shoulders hate it, and I’d rather focus on other functional movements and things I like.
Since I can see what the workouts are on my gym’s app before I go, I’ll often skip or modify workouts where a bunch of reps of Olympic lifts (the clean and the snatch) are programmed, because I suck at these and would rather focus on the fundamentals of learning them slowly and gradually, not doing 15 cleans in a row with shitty form for several rounds during a workout. If a bunch of kipping pull-ups are programmed, I do the modified version of regular pull-ups. I don’t do the shit that has no point for me or is more likely to get me injured. But I had to go into that gym with a lot of knowledge about my own body, abilities, and desires to arrive at these decisions.
Basically—I think a lot of things about CrossFit aren’t for me, but I go to the gym anyway because I know how to get what I want from the workouts safely. With all due respect and love to my second gym friends, I actually would not recommend CrossFit-style programming to people who are entirely new to exercise. It's just too easy in a group setting to slip through the cracks of the coach's attention, to try something too technical or intense because you're carried away by the music and the energy and the competitive spirit, and next thing you know you've dropped a barbell onto your face or pulled your shoulder out of its socket (this could happen to seasoned folks, too, of course. These are the risks we take). I only started doing this kind of class after I’d been lifting and working out seriously for like a year.
I tell you all this because a lot of gyms offer CrossFit-style programming even if they’re not an affiliate or don’t have “CrossFit” in their name (my gym doesn’t, actually). I’ve dropped into like three different classes in which it became clear we were doing CrossFit Lite without the brand tag. You could join this kind of gym and basically be doing CrossFit without really knowing you are. I don’t want people walking into these kinds of spaces unprepared. If there are Olympic lift movements, rope climbs, kipping pull-ups, box jumps, handstand push-ups, SkiErgs, etc., you need really solid coaching, many scaling options, and an educational period.
Now, the caveat: Good gyms will offer an "on-ramp" period of classes where beginners convene over a couple weeks in smaller groups to go over the foundations of Olympic lifting, the movements you'll see in workouts, etc. I'm of the opinion that if any gym incorporating barbell movements into its workouts doesn't offer this on-ramp period, you should sprint in the other direction.
Classes upside: “Class energy” moves mountains
Recently at my second gym, it was a big deadlift day. Everyone was attempting to work up to one heavy or maximal rep. I doubt any of us could explain why, but the energy in the room that day was exquisite—everyone was hyped, everyone was cheering each other on, everyone was hitting personal records. If you’re just on the cusp of pulling the heaviest lift you’ve ever done, it might just take some friendly gym people clapping beside you to get there. Two weeks before that day I’d tried to deadlift 315 pounds at my “solo gym,” and it didn’t budge a millimeter. That exuberant day at my second gym I pulled 325, no sweat. Here’s a cool little video about why that may be, and here’s another about the ~ power of the mind ~ re: exercise.
When I teach my cycling class each weekend, I’m talking, giving commands, and trying to keep the energy flowing all while I spin and sweat along with the participants. It’s hard work, but it feels kind of like autopilot work. It doesn’t feel that hard, likely because I’ve got the adrenaline of it being a kind of performance keeping me going. Plus, some of the regulars woo-hoo their way through, which keeps me going, too. When I walk into the studio alone to get an extra session in or work on class playlists, it sometimes feels like the first time I’ve ever touched a spin bike. It can be such a drag, just me and the bike in the little dungeon of the basement studio. It can feel so much damn harder alone.
If you feel like you need a boost of adrenaline, motivation, energy, or even a little good-natured external pressure, classes can be helpful.
Classes upside: Accountability and community
Recall how I said I joined my second gym because I needed accountability—as much as I love to workout for myriad reasons, during the pandemic I, like so many of us, couldn’t be bothered. I wanted to, but I didn’t want to, you know? So when I found a relatively safe space to get a better workout than my at-home ones that almost killed my cat, I let my wallet pull some of the workload of accountability—I’m paying around $15 a class ahead of time for 13 classes a month, so I better show up. I don’t believe in the idea of rigid, unwavering motivation. It’s just not how humans operate. Motivation wanes, and what we really need to tap into is habit and routine. I don’t have many answers as to how to keep those going, except: make them easy to have. Join the physically closest gym. Pay for class packages ahead of time so you’ll be pissed at yourself if you don’t go. Get a workout buddy and enjoy going to the gym because you like the people there.
Classes make that especially easy, too. I know that getting older means making friends is harder. At the risk of once again sounding like that pain in the ass gym person, I don’t know what else to tell you: Join a gym and go to classes a lot. Why do you think making friends in school is so easy? Proximity and frequency. You see the same people who are around you in classes or dorms all the time so you become friends. Go to the same workout classes at the same time over and over and you’ll make friends, without the weird, desperate pressure of Meetup groups or networking events. I have a fabulous little community of regulars in my spin class each week (one guy even brings me homemade ice cream sometimes) and I have a fabulous little community of friends at my second gym. Working out can feel like a chore. They make it feel like a party.
Solo workout upside: Solo workouts let you be grumpy
Someone asked me once whether I like solo or group classes more, and I said I like solo workouts more when I’m in a bad mood and group classes more when I’m in a good one. My mood will improve regardless of which I do, but for me it’s far easier when I’m pissed off, sad, or feeling antisocial to go into a solo workout than a group one.
There have been times when I’m making my way to group class after a tense meeting, an interpersonal argument, or just a shitty morning. I do feel I have to kind of leave that at the door and put a smile on my face, at least for a second, when I greet my group gym friends. That’s not a bad thing, of course—faking it ‘til you make it can help turn your mood around anyway—but sometimes I just want to stew in my mood, not speak, and take my tension out on some weights without talking to or looking at anyone. If you’re in a kind of “do not perceive me” funk, a solo gym workout during off-peak hours can be just the thing.
Solo workout upside: Solo workouts can be lower pressure
Being new to working out is intimidating any way you slice it. Walking into a busy big-box gym’s weights area is bone-chilling just as walking into a packed fitness dance class can be. I know the feeling of grabbing a spot at the back of a class because I don’t know how to do anything. I hear from people all the time who seem very worried that other people in my cycling class will be watching/judging them (but they won’t, it’s dark in there and everyone’s facing me). If you’re especially introverted when it comes to exercise, solo workouts can be much less anxiety provoking depending on how you set them up.
One of the ways I’m playing “fitness” on Easy Mode is that even before the pandemic, I worked from home, and I live across the street from the gym where I’m employed; I can work out pretty much any time I want. So I go when the gym is basically empty, which is around 1 p.m. Not everyone’s schedules allow for this, of course, but if you can find out when the least-busy times are at your gym (just ask the front desk person!) and go then, you’ll have the freedom to try things out, go at your own pace, record yourself without feeling weird about it, and generally enjoy the physical and mental space to learn what’s what in the gym without feeling like you’re in the way or like there are eyes on you—which is easy to feel at peak gym times on the weight floor or in group classes.
Solo workout upside: Solo workouts can be self-actualizing
I’ve written before about how classes can be helpful when you want to just turn your brain off and have someone else tell you what to do. I stand by that, but also believe that a person could have a much more meaningful relationship to exercise and their own body when they take their workout into their own hands during a solo workout.
This takes more work, of course, but I’ve gained a specific kind of self-esteem from being able to think, “OK, I want to strengthen my back on this day, my glutes on this day,” (or whatever) and then go knowing my exact plan. I make notes on my phone about what I’ll do first, which pieces of equipment or machines I’ll use, and how long everything should take. Again, this comes from experience and experimentation. Now that I’ve been doing this for years, though, I can also walk into the gym not knowing what the hell I want to do (some days it’s just like that), and once I’m there my body will kind of guide me to something. I play by ear. I do a bunch of random things, maybe, but I know enough to know where to go and what to do, what the exercises are doing, and I get into a kind of flow. I let my body call out for what’s next.
If you workout on your own a lot for years, you come to learn a new language that only you and your own body speak.
Solo workout downsides: An assortment
I can’t tie this all up in a tidy bow for you, and will land on that most frustrating dictum: It all depends. The things I’ve said hold true for me might find their inverse in your experience—you might learn bad workout habits from DIY-ing in the gym alone. You might not be able to find yourself able to muster up the fortitude for the gym precisely when you’re in a bad mood, and the gym might not help. Solo workouts might feel like enormous pressure because you don’t have the time to look up the movements or learn about anything. Maybe you got injured on your own before. Maybe your gym is never not crowded when you can get to it. There are a thousand ways things can go wrong or piss you off or make you sad or frustrated when working out alone.
So I leave you with this: Do a mix, and try as much as you can. I tend to advocate spending your coin on “big box” gyms that offer cardio/machines/free weights/barbell rack areas, along with options for classes. Then, you get all the options for one price. I know people don’t always love the Globo Gym feel of these fitness super centers, but I really think of it as a matter of dollars and cents—if you pay $100-plus each month for a boutique cycling studio, you can only do cycling there. That’s cool if you’re a die-hard cyclist and that’s the only thing you want to do. But if you want the best bang for your buck, the most options, the greatest ability for education and experimentation, imagine your $100-plus dollars going toward not only a seat on a bike, but toward squat racks, rowing machines, battle ropes, a dizzying assortment of dumbbells, and maybe a pool if you’re lucky. An embarrassment of riches!
This is the same reason I kind of side-eye people spending money on a Peloton (I’m sorry! I’m not trying to call you out! I do CrossFit for fuck’s sake, feel free to call me out right back!) They cost $1,495: For that you could pay for a $125-per-month gym for a whole year! That price would pay for the gym where I’m employed, and we have everything I mentioned above, including the pool, plus a whole AstroTurf sled-pulling area, two saunas and a hot tub, and a cardio machine movie theater! King in the castle!
But I get it—to make use of all that shit, you have to know what you’re doing. You have to find the motivation and/or discipline. You have to leave your house. I know. It’s not always about dollars and cents. It’s about ease, convenience, and excitement, and installing a flashy new workout sensation steps away from where you work each day is checking those boxes. If it works for you, go with god.
Bottom line: Don’t believe anything anyone (including me) tells you at face value. We’re all on our own journeys. You’ve just got to try stuff out and see what clicks. That might be classes, it might be solo workouts, it might be barefoot running through the woods or hot yoga hula hooping. The cool thing is, if you start dipping your toes into different kinds of workouts, you’ll start getting that sweet sweet positive feedback loop of endorphins, increased energy, a release of mental stress, yadda yadda, and it’ll make you want to try out more and more. You’ll might be excited to do Zumba one day, then Body Bump, then aerial yoga with silks, then randomly decide to become a Spinning instructor, then get a wild hair to compete in a powerlifting competition, then start going to Kazaxe and thinking about trying pole fitness (this might all just be me).
Whatever you end up doing, I just hope you enjoy it. If you don’t, do something else.