Group exercise started with high-impact aerobic classes. It seems like the goal of those classes were to go as hard as you could as long as you could. We soon found out that more members were getting injured instead of getting in shape. Next low impact aerobics were developed. This was designed to address a larger population and to create safety in the classes. Many members felt they couldn’t get enough of a workout from low impact and started to plateau. For these diehards, step classes were born. The step allowed us to work harder but not have your body be subject to as much of a beating. But soon members were again hitting a plateau as they did in the low impact classes because they continued to do the same routine. Many members kept trying different classes often up to ten times to get over their plateau and lose weight, but ended up burning themselves out instead. This burnout was not only felt by the members, but also by instructors.
As fitness centers grew through these changes there was always one problem with aerobic classes—getting and continuing to get results. Members would lose weight when they first started but most hit a plateau after a few months and remained there. Change was thought to be the answer. Adding new group exercise classes like indoor cycling, kickboxing, or dumbbell workouts that kept the members trying something new as they enter a plateau. This worked at first by keeping the member motivated with change. Usually the first few workouts of a new style of class is always difficult because the body hasn’t adjusted to the new routine. Indeed changing routines like this will work for a while, but it doesn’t address the problem. Different class formats help create variety but many classes (no matter what the modality) maintain relatively the same intensity level. For members to continually achieve and improve on their fitness goals, they must be challenged—then completely recover—then challenged again. Changing the class format from High to Low to Step and then to Indoor Cycling is not the only answer. The real answer is to control the intensity of the classes, no matter what the exercise method.
To get over plateaus and to truly see results, the client needs to work in three different heart rate zones throughout a week. Here is an explain of the three zones and the goals of each:
An average 150 pound person training 65 percent (recovery zone) of their max heart rate will burn around 82 calories during a 30-minute bike ride, with half of those calories able to come from fat. This is a good workout to use fat as a fuel but more important is to let the body recover. As this same person bikes at a harder rate, or does aerobic class for the same period of time, they will raise their heart rate to around 80 to 85 percent of max (anaerobic threshold zone) and burn up to 152 calories. Only a small percentage might come from fat but they are working around their anaerobic threshold and will improve their endurance while burning more calories. These two workouts are important but by themselves they have created the plateau most clients see.
The most effective workout is one that involves "interval training." This means starting at 65 percent of your max heart rate then slowly working your way through anaerobic threshold until you hit “peak zone” or about 90 percent of your max. In this workout, the exerciser ends up burning more calories and possibly more fat calories. The same 150 pound person doing intervals would then burn 173, and a possible increase in the amount of fat calories burned to 50. But more important they will increase their metabolism and cardiovascular strength.
It is important to note that you cannot do high interval training every day. You should rotate the classes or cardio workouts that you have a day at 65 percent of max, 85 percent of max then intervals going up to 90 percent of max (peak zone) for 30 to 60 seconds. Doing high intervals every day will cause the same effect as the high impact aerobic we started with years ago—injuries, plateaus and burnout.
As a trainer the first step is to create classes so members can fit these three levels into their weekly schedules.
And we need to truly control the classes. There are three ways to control classes. First is done by workload. We need to measure how hard the member is working. This is very difficult based on the way we conduct our classes. In aerobic dance classes there is no way to measure how fast each client is going. In group cycling classes we could do it if we could measure watts, but most bikes at this time do not measure watts. The closest we can currently come to measuring workload are with group treadmill classes, which measure speed and incline. But as this is a very small percentage of the type of group exercise classes conducted, it is safe to say that workload is not a practical solution.
Another way to measure control is through VO2 testing. The most reliable measurement for cardio fitness is indirect gas exchange. This is becoming more popular in the fitness centers with units now as low as $4,000 compare to the $30,000 units only eight years ago. These test are a great for getting a base line and heart rate training zones but it is not realistic for members to wear a VO2 mask during every workout. So VO2 measures are also not practical to monitor intensity during group exercise classes.
This leaves us with only one way to control the intensity of classes: h eart rate . You can still use VO2 testing to determine fitness levels, cardiovascular strength, anaerobic threshold but what the test will be most useful for would be to determine heart rate training zones. There have been many references lately to heart rate formulas having a large margin of error. VO2 testing is the best way to get reliable heart rate training zones. Then, by wearing a simple heart rate monitor, each member can observe his or her heart rate throughout the workout. Also, there are new heart rates monitoring systems out that can monitor on a computer screen twenty-four members at once, so the instructor can give direct feedback to the individual members on how hard to work. The system will let the instructor know if his or her class is productive and gives the instructor a more personalized and practical touch to his approach with the members.
Now that we have determined that heart rate monitoring is the best way to control the class, we need to discuss how to design the class. Changing the heart rates through out the class is very important. Using the zones discussed above you can design classes based on the members’ work and intensity levels. Below is an example of a three-day per week schedule. In these three classes we will us a low intensity, medium intensity and high intensity day.
Low Intensity Classes
Low intensity classes need to occur once a week. This day has two benefits. The first is recovery. The reason most members don’t get over their plateau is because they don’t truly recover between workouts. If the member is coming in everyday and doing the same intensity each time they are not giving their bodies enough time to recover and build. Putting in a day each week that keeps them at 65% of their max heart rate for most of the class will allow them to recovery. Of course a lot of members don’t want to come into a class and do all low intensity exercise. This is where an instructor has to add their own personality to get the members motivated. In these classes you can still use some of the peak zone- up to 90 to 92% of max – for very short sprints to change up the tempo – as long as they spend less than three percent of the total class time in the peak zone. The other benefit of this type of class is that the member is aerobic for most of the class – meaning they could be using fat as a fuel. This is why some might call it a “fat burning” day. But always remember the main concern is recovery.
Medium Intensity Classes
The medium intensity class is designed more around anaerobic threshold (AT), or 80 to 85% of max heart rate. This class helps improve endurance, cardio strength, and can burn a lot of calories. Even though most of the class will be in the AT heart rate zone you can design intervals or sprints to take the member to their peak zone. In a medium intensity class the peak heart rate zone can be used usually five to eight percent of the time. When using the peak heart rate make sure the client returns to the recovery zone between intervals. A lot of classes use this type of intensity changing now. The problem is the class is designed this way, but without monitoring the heart rate how do you know if the member is getting to the right zones for the right amount of time. If the members stay just in the AT zone they will hit the plateau and not be able to get out of it. This is the most common mistake of all group exercise classes. Members feel they are working hard but they are not truly getting to peak.
High Intensity Classes
The third class is true peak training. In these classes the member will overload in order to break through the plateau. These days, most members don’t get this one in each week. They should spend 10 to 13 percent of the class at peak. These high intensity days will give the members five benefits:
- Increase the calories expended during class
- Possibility increase fat calories burned while using the recovery zone between each interval
- Increase cardio endurance by overloading
- Increase motivation by changing the intensity every minute using all three-heart arte zones.
- Increase metabolism so the member is burning more calories after the workout. Again the only way to make sure the member is getting these benefits is by monitoring the heart rate.
Once you have the intensity of each class designed and know how you will use them throughout the week in order to give members the benefits of recovery and overloading, then you can start designing the classes by certain goals using heart rate. Using more of the AT zone will help increase the members endurance. While overloading the cardiovascular system (by pushing the heart rate to the peak zone) and maintaining it by reducing the workload slowing, will increase cardio conditioning. By doing the opposite type of training – slowly increasing the workload until they member hits their peak heart – will help increase leg strength. The element of “watts” is hard to measure, but an underlying goal is to increase watts each week.
One misunderstood benefit is using increase in speed during intervals. There is no VO2 improvements or more calories burned by this type of training. Speed training increases speed, which is not really most member’s goal on a stationary bike.
As you are designing your group exercise class remember to determine how you are getting results for the member, by controlling the intensity of their workouts. Design classes to have a goal: First, what are you trying to improve for that member? And then what is the intensity needed to achieve that goal? These will help you make group exercise more individually appealing and beneficial and ultimately bring your members more results!