If you’re an all-barbells-all-the-time lifter — otherwise known as a “what’s a warmup?” or “whomst is cardio?” lifter — you might well never have stepped foot into a group fitness class.
But then the pandemic hit, and even if you have the most wide-ranging array of bodyweight exercises to program for yourself… sometimes working out at home just doesn’t cut it. It’s not the same psychological space or physical distance from your house, and even if your programming is on point, your motivation to work out at home might just not be there.
Enter online group fitness classes, YouTube yoga, and the wide world of kickboxing videos and bodyweight training programs. You might not be telling other lifters about your new love affair with Nike Training Club programs, Daily Burn mobility workouts, or your local gym’s new Zoom classes, but chances are you’ve been doing them.
If you’re keeping your cardio-strength classes to yourself, now is as good a time as any to check in with yourself about why. What’s the harm in online fitness classes for lifters?
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Lifters’ Discomfort With Online Workout Classes
Too often, strength athletes barely warm up or cool down as consistently as we should, and side-to-side movements (in the frontal plane)? Never heard of them. When we’ve got the comfort of our regular gym, squat rack, and barbells, it’s all too tempting to slide a couple of plates on the bar and go. It’s rare to hear about a powerlifter taking a Pilates class — maybe because we don’t like to talk about that stuff in public.
Strength Athletes And Group Fitness
It’s just like how many pro football players practice ballet to improve their game, make themselves less susceptible to injury, and also to straight-up enjoy dancing — strength athletes should be taking a variety of fitness classes to boost their lifts. But, just like many pro footballers, lifters often just don’t “admit” to taking anything that might be put in the same category as our moms’ aerobics videos from the 80s.
Some of this is benign: we’re strength athletes because we love strength training. Just like you might love sprinting down the basketball court during a fast break but hate running sprinting drills in practice, sometimes we just… don’t like the kinds of mobility, cardio, or endurance work that are often emphasized in online (or IRL) fitness classes. Fair enough. But great basketball players still run their drills. And great footballers still dance ballet.
Seeing Group Fitness As “Too Girly”
The less benign reasons strength athletes don’t take (or at least, don’t talk about taking) Zumba classes are also aplenty. Macho gym culture is one of them: the image of group fitness in U.S. culture is so strongly associated with skinny white women with big hair and spandex that we’ve come to associate it with femininity, something “girls” do. And my “first things first” question is: What the hell is wrong with that?
Because first things first: even if group fitness were the least masculine thing out there, that would in no way make it less powerful. It would not make it weak or less strong. Have you tried to do the handstands that a tiny yoga instructor can hold for minutes on end? When was the last time you did minutes on minutes on minutes of leg lifts and circles (pro tip: it’ll burn like hell now and benefit the heck out of your squat later)?
If you’ve been taking online workout classes during the pandemic — maybe because you don’t have the motivation to work out with little or no equipment at home, or maybe because you finally wanted to try cardio kickboxing with no one watching you — you have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Haters can kick their prejudices to the curb, because you’re going to be the less injury-prone, more well-rounded athlete.
Benefits of Group Fitness For Powerlifters
Getting comfortable taking workout classes — either online or IRL (or both) — will benefit your physical fitness journey, too.
One of the major causes of injury across the athletic board is sport specialization. Even for very young athletes, the more specialized you are with your sport (powerlifting or strongman, for example), the more likely you are to get injured. This is largely because the closer to competition you get, the more well-rounded functional fitness training goes to the wayside.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should be tearing it up on the Zumba floor the week before your next powerlifting meet. But the typical online workout class’s emphasis on core training, unilateral movements like single-leg squats and lunges, and plyometric movements that emphasize soft landings (think of all those squat jumps in so many online fitness classes) all contribute to injury-prevention training.
According to a 2019 study published in the Journal of Athletic Training, three-dimensional training like the kind you’ll likely get in quality fitness classes (from yoga to kickboxing) helps improve movement biomechanics and prevent injury.
Increase Your Range Of Motion
Making a habit out of taking online or IRL yoga classes might not seem like it’ll be good for your squat — but it will be.
The increased mobility you’ll develop in your thoracic spine will help you get your hands closer together on the bar, which will help form a tighter shelf for the bar. The boost of hip mobility that yoga classes can give you will help you get into the bottom of your squat without needing to good morning the bar back up.
And it’s not just yoga classes — even most quality (if non-descript) cardio-based classes will have you moving and reaching in directions you forgot existed. You’ll be able to generate more force because you’ll leak less of it through poor movement patterns. Greasing the grooves of moving in multiple planes of motion won’t just help prevent injury — it’ll also just straight-up make you a stronger lifter.
Improve Your Cardio
If you’re a powerlifter, a set of eight reps probably feels like cardio to you. But try to take a good 40-minute cardio kickboxing class online, and see if you can keep up without pausing it because you need to catch your breath. (And please, do pause your videos every time you need to — no shame in that!)
Bodyweight work might feel easier than getting under a 300-pound barbell at first, but even the steady-state pace of so many group fitness classes will teach your heart how to beat more efficiently — and breathing easier is only going to help you when you get back under your barbells.
[Related: 5 Powerlifting Rules You Should Break]
Reduce Your Strength Imbalances
Is one of your triceps fine with locking out your bench press, but your other is just screaming at your spotter to take the damn bar? Or maybe you have the classic tilt to one side or the other during your squat, or always hit the ground unevenly at the bottom of your deadlift. Wherever your strength imbalances lie, fitness classes can help you find them.
Working unilaterally is a big part of that, as is moving through different planes of motion — you’ll have no choice but to notice when lateral lunges to your left side feel great, but you can barely get through them on your right side. Being consistent with group fitness classes means you’ll focus on yourself and your body more than you’ll be focused on the bar and what weight is on it. That makes you much more likely to build your body back up in a balanced way.
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Expand Your Horizons And Boost Your Joy
If you’ve never done an online workout class or an IRL group fitness class, you’re going to learn a lot from them, both about your body and your mindset. You might even find that you enjoy yoga once you quiet down your internal “this is for weak girls” monologue enough to actually let yourself sink into Warrior II.
You might find that you can laugh at yourself when you can’t tell your left from right in a cardio dance class. And if you discover those new ways to move your body, you’ll become a much better overall athlete — and, I would argue, a fuller person for having stepped (or lateral lunged) out of your comfort zone.
If the pandemic has gotten you in the habit of taking workout classes online or through apps, don’t be so quick to ditch the pattern just because your gym might be opening back up. No one is trying to keep you from your barbells, but take what you’ve learned about your body, your warmups, your cooldowns, and apply it to your back-to-gym programming.
Lifting isn’t the only thing that’s going to make you a better lifter: ditch the shame and graduate from online workouts to IRL group fitness classes. It doesn’t have to be more than once or twice a week, and you can slip it into an active recovery day or as a cardio finisher on lifting day (depending on your class of choice). Just don’t let preconceived notions of which bodies should do which workouts keep you from performing at your best.
Featured image via Flamingo Images/Shutterstock