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Group Fitness Must-Haves

Thirty years ago there was really just one option in group fitness: high-impact aerobics. Now, as IDEA Health & Fitness Association turns 30, there are many wonderful choices. It’s impossible to list the current top 30. Here, we review some of the programs that are enticing people into the world of group exercise. From the water to the studio, choreographed to “come as you are,” group fitness is flourishing—which means it’s a great time to enjoy moving and grooving in a group.

Cardio: Danced-Based

The aerobics industry began with dance-based workouts, so it’s exciting to see them again become so popular—and so prolific. There’s a full spectrum of options, from freestyle to fully choreographed, and each has its unique “hook” to draw in participants.

Could you have predicted the international celebrity flair that Louis Van Amstel of Dancing With the Stars, and his Spanish counterpart, Jonatan Cañada, would bring to the jitterbug, jive, paso doble, salsa and tango? Or could you have foreseen that multi-Grammy winner Kike Santander would turn his hit-making attention from J.Lo to QiDance (formerly Batuka)?

Then there are the branded programs that have stormed the globe, particularly Zumba® and Les Mills (SH’BAM™ and BODYJAM™ are their dance programs). Zumba is in more than 125 countries, including Iceland, Papua New Guinea and Afghanistan, and over 12 million people per week take a class. Asked about these impressive numbers, Darren Jacobson, vice president of instructor programming for Zumba, in Miami, commented, “I believe it unlocks the dance passion of years gone by for many people and is a recipe for a dance party that feels more like being out with a group of friends rather than grinding away in a gym.”

Kari Anderson, ACE-certified fitness instructor, frequent presenter, video star and owner of The SeattleGYM has been teaching for about 33 years. She has seen the ebb and flow of dance-based fitness, so her take on it is quite interesting. “Dance has been making a huge comeback—maybe as a response to the popularity of . . . all the dance-based television shows. It’s not so much that [dance] has returned; it has evolved to better fit in with current popular trends.”

Whether it’s hip-hop, disco, dance pop, cardio ballet, funk, MTV-inspired dance, line dancing, low impact or even the “original” high-impact aerobics, any group exercise class with a dance component is a winner in 2012!

Cardio: Non-Dance-Based

Who could have known 30 years ago that there would be classes called metabolic conditioning, Drums Alive®, TurboFire®, BODYATTACK™, stomp fx, P90X®, step, outdoor circuits, boot camp, Tabata and high-intensity interval training (HIIT)?

Some of these popular programs are branded; others are styles or formats. What makes all of them “must-haves” is their worldwide and generation-spanning appeal. Richard Beddie, chief executive officer (CEO) of Fitness New Zealand, in Christchurch, finds that “by far the most popular classes are prechoreographed programs in the traditional group exercise space, such as step. Small-group training is still growing strongly as the range and variety continue to evolve.” He credits this growth to the fact that participants get “a greater level of personal attention than [in] many forms of group exercise, but at a price point that makes it accessible to a larger market. At the same time, the interaction between participants enables bonds to form, which assists in [building] regular attendance and retention.”

Tamer Farag, founder and CEO of FACTS Academy, in Cairo, also gives a nod to the social aspects of group fitness. “The fitness industry was booming in the Middle East and North Africa until the revolutions that occurred in many of these countries. [After the turbulent events of the Arab Spring,] people gathered and socialized once again [in the clubs], but this time in order to feel secure.”

Tamara Grand, a trainer and instructor in Port Moody, British Columbia, is a huge fan of Tabata training, and her comments reflect the opinions of many. “I love it for a number of reasons: it’s quick, efficient, intense and whole-body. Regardless of your fitness level, you can always push yourself out of your comfort zone for 20 seconds at a time. And as an instructor, I can teach an exercise once and only have to offer minor form cues as we progress through the intervals.”

What is it that makes boot camp, circuit and interval training so popular? Paris-based Fred Hoffman, MEd, 2007 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year, ACE-certified fitness professional and author of Going Global: An Expert’s Guide to Working Abroad in the International Fitness Industry (Healthy Learning 2011), travels the world teaching. Here’s what he sees: “The group dynamic is one reason [people like these classes so much]. This feeling of belonging has really contributed to their success. Also, the music is motivating, and people are getting a good workout and seeing positive changes in their bodies and health.” Asked what makes these formats appealing to him as an instructor, Hoffman mentions his love of circuit: “I’m able to use a variety of equipment, the participants are enjoying themselves, and the time goes by quickly, which helps their focus and energy.”

Hoffman is also a huge fan of step, which is still on group fitness schedules worldwide. “For me, it remains fun and a great cardiovascular workout,” he says. Those two reasons help explain step’s longevity and continued popularity.

Water-based training is another established format that’s still in style. With all kinds of options available—in shallow water or deep, with equipment or without, energetic or calming, population-specific (e.g., arthritis) or fusion—water classes have evolved. Once perceived as “easy” and only for older populations, they are now recognized as no less diverse or multifaceted than land-based courses.

Strength Training: Prechoreographed

Caitlin Croswell is a graduate student in Glastonbury, Connecticut, and she loves prechoreographed programs. “I like workouts that have directed ‘moves’—Group Power®, for example. Music is a huge part of the workout for me and can really make or break it.” Croswell names the program that’s offered at her gym, but around the globe, there are quite a few similar strength-based programs, including BODYPUMP™ and RIP Group Rx. Chances are strong that one of these programs is available at your facility.

Programs like CXWORX™, BODYVIVE™ and Zumba Toning are also prechoreographed, although they use equipment other than dumbbells, plates and bars. And the new kid on the “trend” block is QiForze, which is a body weight class—another “new” trend that’s been around for a long time, yet has recently gained more traction. 2011 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year Leigh Crews of Cedar Bluff, Alabama, is the education director for Qignition and speaks of her motivation in developing QiForze. “I designed it to train the body the way it’s made to move: with integrated movement patterns and no equipment.”

Strength Training: Freestyle

This category has a remarkable number of programs and equipment choices that have just exploded in the past few years: kettlebells, metabolic conditioning, R.I.P.P.E.D.™, ViPR™, sandbags, heavy ropes, pole fitness, TRX® and CrossFit™ all fit this definition.

But what exactly are some of these intriguing-sounding programs?

  • Metabolic conditioning could easily fall into both cardio and strength training, as it refers to exercises intended to increase the storage and delivery of energy for any activity. This type of workout concurrently conditions the cardiovascular system and the muscles. P90X, CrossFit and Tabata fall into this category. The principal method of metabolic conditioning is HIIT, and the intervals tend to be counted in seconds, not minutes.
  • ViPR (Vitality, Performance & Reconditioning) refers to a training tool that aims to “fuse the functionality of seven tools: barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, stability ball, medicine ball, balance devices and speed ladders.” It’s not a format, but a program built around a specific piece of equipment. According to dedicated enthusiast Scott Thomson of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, ViPR has “over 13,000 different variations of moves, which keeps your workout and body from becoming stale.”
  • TRX is a body weight exercise system that uses suspension equipment to build total-body stability and strength (Suspension Trainer™) as well as spinal stability, explosive power and rotational movements (Rip™ Trainer). The equipment is recognizable by its yellow straps.

Other options for leveraging body weight with equipment include Lifeline® Jungle Gym, the CrossCore® Rotational Bodyweight Training™ system, gymnastic rings, Fly Gym Aerial Fitness™, the SBT™ Extreme, Gravity® by efi, fitness pole dancing and aerial forms of Pilates and yoga.

  • Workouts that use sandbags, kettlebells, the Steelbell® and water bells are based on using instability and resistance to increase strength and stability, especially in the core. Handgrip is a featured element in these workouts, which are routinely referred to as “old-school” training.
  • Other equipment-based options that have been around long enough to become staples use stability balls and the BOSU® Balance Trainer.

If women are turning up in droves to fill dance-based classes, those numbers are more than balanced out by men now taking the group programs mentioned above. And these days, of course, it’s not unusual to see women going head-to-head, or more accurately, plate-to-plate with men in some of these classes!

One of those women is Faith Levine of Charlottesville, Virginia, a personal trainer and fitness instructor. “I’m attracted to the full-body, functional movement aspect of kettlebells. You must focus on form and function of every single body part in order to accomplish the movement efficiently and effectively. It’s changed the way I see strength training, Now I’m less interested in isolating specific muscles groups, and I focus instead on challenging my muscles through their range of motion and to fatigue.”

Training to fatigue is a common aspect of a number of these formats, so for group fitness directors it’s worth contemplating whether classes that have participants “competing” against themselves in a tug between mind and body are going to need a lot more room on class schedules heading into 2013.

One program that incorporates this “conflict” between mind and body is rest-based training, developed by Metabolic Effect (ME™). The creator, Jade Teta, ND, CSCS, uses motivational psychology to spur adherents to focus on the rest intervals, not the work intervals. Reverse psychology comes to the group fitness room!

A brand-new concept coming from Italy is Queenax, a modular training system that’s based on swinging, hanging, suspension and functional training. Its main draw? The focal point is the ceiling!

Cardio Training: Machine-Based

Thirty years ago, machines for cardio-based classes did not even exist. Now you can enjoy indoor cycling, Indo-Row®, Kranking®, stroller-based classes, personal trampolines and even a water rower! One machine that’s coming on strong is the BallBike®, a combination stability ball and stationary bike with upper-body resistance.

It’s common to find men in group exercise classes today, but 30 years ago that was a rarity. Indoor cycling is credited with enticing men into the group setting (see “Culture, Community and Commitment” at www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/culture-community-and-commitment for more information about the history of men in group fitness). Schwinn®, Keiser®, RealRyder®, Spinning® and many others offer popular programs in this category.


Although yoga may be the first concept you think of under the mind-body heading, meditation, tai chi, fusion and many other classes that emphasize the link between the brain and the body also belong in this category.

Yoga itself has been around for thousands of years, so it can’t really be called a trend, although it certainly qualifies as a “must-have.” Some people love it for its gentle treatment of aging bodies, others appreciate its emphasis on the connection between mind and body, while still others find it reduces their stress levels. Some participants love the power or heat they get from yoga! One new program just out this year is inversion yoga, in which participants go into poses while hanging from a hammock. From vinyasa to Iyengar, the choices are almost limitless.

Tambra Prince has been a group fitness leader for 32 years, 15 of them as an owner and instructor of yoga courses, and she’s very knowledgeable about the yoga community in Austin, Texas. “Currently the trend is toward yoga with heat, whether it’s Bikram or a power yoga format. Outdoor yoga is also very popular because the weather here is generally mild. [This is a college town,] and students flock to the free or ‘pay what you can’ classes. Austin is also a progressive area, so fusion classes do well here too, because of the creative climate.”

Ever since Pilates “hit big,” fitness professionals have been debating its longevity. Its popularity and evolution continue, with millions taking mat, barre, tower, chair, reformer, small-ball, tube, large-ball, ring, barrel, box and Cadillac classes from companies such as STOTT PILATES®, Peak Pilates® and Balanced Body®, to name a few.

PJ O’Clair, owner of clubXcel/Northeast Pilates in Manchester by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, has been teaching Pilates for many years and does not see it as a fad or a trend. She feels it will continue to be relevant and popular as long as the focus remains on the “integrity of the work.” What’s her explanation for the method’s ongoing and deep popularity? Customer results! “Pilates is a discipline, not a trend. Through the principles and layers of progression, clients see lasting results; they feel better; they improve their posture and ability to live their lives more effortlessly and do the physical things they want to do.”

There are numerous mind-body offerings to choose from—some fusion, others uniquely pure. Certain programs, such as Nia®, focus on integrated, sensory-driven movement. Others, like the M.E.L.T. Method® and SMRT-CORE, focus on self-care and body restoration. Several martial arts–based mind-body programs have blazed their own trails. And Merrithew Health & Fitness™ focuses on providing “mindful movement” options, with choices including ZENGA™ and CORE Athletic Conditioning & Performance Training.

Barre workouts are getting a lot of buzz. Tracey Mallett of Pasadena, California, is the creator of The Booty Barre®, which she defines as a combination of dance, Pilates and yoga done at a ballet barre. “People are always looking for innovative ways to exercise, and fusion workouts have the best of [several disciplines]. In a good workout, I look for a blend of strength, cardio and flexibility, but without the ‘dread’ factor.” Mallett has seen mostly women in her barre classes, yet recently there has been an influx of men (especially cyclists and athletes) who want to improve their lower-body strength and flexibility.

Evolving Directions

Two big areas that have not yet begun to plateau, and are going to get even bigger (I predict), are small-group training and interest in the brain-exercise relationship.

For many years, personal training and group fitness were parallel yet generally separate universes. As more fitness professionals became both trainers and instructors, and with economic constraints being an issue for many participants, these two lines of work have now melded quite a bit, and the popularity of small-group training definitely makes this something for instructors to consider as part of their must-have teaching repertoire.

In 2011, Daniel Amen, MD, spoke at the IDEA World Fitness Convention™ about research linking brain activity with exercise and nutrition, and the room was packed. Maybe it’s because new research is emerging; maybe it’s because Baby Boomers want to continue to lead healthy lifestyles. Whatever the driving factor, interest in movement and brainpower is strong. Carrie Ekins, MA, founder and executive director of Drums Alive, is currently working on her doctorate and looking at this very link. Referring in particular to drumming and movement, Ekins sees broad applications for increasing brainpower. “I see [this combination] playing a larger role in schools by offering children an alternative approach to learning, while providing teachers a means of integrating music, rhythm and movement with math, science and language. I also see it playing a larger role in therapeutic settings.”

Thirty years ago it would have been a difficult task to make a list of the top 30 “must-haves” for group fitness; now it’s impossible to narrow the list down to “merely” 30. Whether you’re new to the industry or have been around since 1982, you can always find further information on the many types of group fitness programming by consulting the Career Guide on www.ideafit.com. The guide lists every major training and certification available—110 options! You should also be sure to read the Buzz column in IDEA Fitness Journal.

One thing that hasn’t changed in the 30 years that IDEA has been helping fitness professionals deliver “knowledge, credibility, inspiration, marketability, and personal and professional growth” is its position at the forefront of industry trends. What programs do you think will exist at the 60th anniversary?

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