group exercise; small group classes; new to exercise; beginner

How to Survive Your First Group Class

For the first time in a long time I joined a group class at a gym. Nikki and I joined this gym earlier this week, which may seem weird since we work at a personal training studio. Why would we need to join a gym and hire a trainer?

But, the not-so-secret truth about personal trainers is that we are just like you. We need accountability. We need someone to push us--to challenge us. We need someone to help keep us safe. To switch things up.

I have a particular kind of workout I like to do, and Nikki does as well. There's nothing wrong with that. But, in order to keep getting stronger and to keep seeing and feeling the results we want, we have to do different things. And sometimes--oftentimes--it's hard to do that for yourself, no matter how much exercise knowledge you have. 

Hiring a trainer or taking a class also renews my excitement about exercise. When I'm feeling bored or not motivated to work out, the solution is often to do something new. Which is what I did today. 

Anyway, since it's been a while since I was new to a class or modality of exercise, I decided to pay attention to the parts of that experience that were kind of intimidating and tell you how I managed my nerves/insecurities.

I don't know where to stand or which equipment I need. Help! This is the first challenge when you're new, right? You feel awkward and unsure and tempted to turn around and leave. The solution is to find the instructor, introduce yourself and ask for guidance. Often they want you in a spot in the room where they can easily keep an eye on you until you get familiar with the exercises and the format of the class. Trust me, you aren't bothering them if you ask questions. Just make sure you arrive a little bit early, so you aren't cutting into class time. Especially at a bigger gym, an instructor won't necessarily know you're new. They have lots of students and multiple instructors teach the same class at different times. Even if they don't recognize you, they may assume you've taken the class before with someone else. So, be sure to let them know you haven't.

Oh my goodness, what in the world is she doing?! This totally happened to me today--many times. When you're in a group class, you aren't going to get the same kind of cueing you'd get from a personal trainer. The instructor, if he or she is a good one, will incorporate some cues into their instruction. But, it's likely that they'll name the exercise, start doing it and then provide subtler cues about form and effectiveness as you move through the exercise. And you might be panicking, not knowing what you're supposed to do. That's how I felt, anyway. It's okay to watch a few repetitions before you actually start moving. You don't need to feel pressure to jump right in. Take the time you need to understand the basics of the movement and then attempt it yourself. If it's an exercise where your arms and legs are moving at the same time, feel free to just do the arms or just do the legs and add in the other piece of the movement when you feel ready. 

They're going so fast! Again, had this experience today. Fortunately the instructor told us all to go at our own pace several times, but if your instructor doesn't say that to you, consider this your permission to do so. Slow the movement down as much as you need to in order to learn it, to feel safe and for the exercise to be effective. Who cares what everyone else is doing? Swinging your limbs all over the place to keep pace with someone else in class is not a great plan. It puts the bulk of the work in your joints and gives momentum a much bigger role than your muscles. That isn't good. 

What am I supposed to be feeling? And where? Okay, so my opinion is that if you are brand new to exercise that having a few sessions with a personal trainer is a great gift to give yourself. There are ways to do an exercise incorrectly that won't hurt you, but also won't be effective. That's not great, but it's also not terrible. Then there are ways to do an exercise incorrectly that is likely to cause injury and isn't effective. That scenario is very bad. Establishing a strong sense of your body in space, enhancing the connection between your mind and your body, and learning the basics of good form are the foundation of exercising safely for the rest of your life. Those things are very difficult to learn in a group class because you aren't getting one-on-one attention and feedback from your instructor. But, if you're new and are committed to group classes, here's my advice. For almost every exercise, engaging your core muscles is a good idea. Here's a post I wrote about what that means. Secondly, understand which muscle(s) the exercise is supposed to be working. Ask your instructor during class or after. Research it online, or ask me in the Comments section on this blog. I'm happy to answer! Thirdly, the key to communicating with the muscle you want to work is to think about it. Sounds simplistic, but it's true. Think about that muscle contracting and doing what it is you want it to do. And it will do it. Swear. 

Do I look silly? I am incredibly uncoordinated and prone to clumsiness. It's one of the things I would totally change about myself if I could. But I can't wave a magic wand and sprinkle myself with graceful dust, so I've kind of accepted it. And mostly it doesn't bother me. Being new in a group class though is ripe with opportunities to compare my level of grace with other people's, and ultimately find myself lacking. Here's how I combat that. When I'm in a class, I am so focused on what I'm doing that I can't pay attention to anyone else. I assume other people are in the same boat. And I break down complicated or new exercises into manageable pieces. I figure out what the most important part of the movement is and I just focus on doing that correctly, then I add in the extraneous stuff (arm movements, for example) when I'm ready. 

What do you find to be the most intimidating part of joining an exercise class for the first time? How do you manage the fear? Share below.