Time is a precious commodity, and everyone is looking for the fastest, most effective way to exercise. Between jobs, family, daily errands and the occasional social gathering, people work hard to squeeze group fitness classes into their busy lives. That’s why express classes— high-calorie-burning, energy-packed, condensed workouts—are all the rage.

Christine Cunningham, MS, CSCS, head trainer and sports performance coach at PerformENHANCE in Evanston, Illinois, believes “a 30-minute session is much more palatable to the general fitness seeker.” She continues: “An hourlong training session can eat up 2 hours of the day when you add travel, changing, etc. Our goal as fitness professionals is to make exercise effective and
accessible for everyone, and the science supports express workouts. It makes sense to offer the shorter workouts in order to reach clients who need less time commitment but still want to be in shape.”

How do you help time-crunched participants make the best use of their time with you? Consider the following tips to optimize your express classes.

Increase the Intensity

Boost intensity levels—plain and simple. For years, long and steady aerobic exercise was king. But numerous studies have shown that high-intensity interval training produces better results. The American College of Sports Medicine (2014) reports that HIIT workouts “tend to burn more calories than traditional workouts, especially after the workout,” when excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC, occurs. (The body typically needs about 2 hours to restore itself to pre-workout levels, during which time it uses more energy.) After HIIT workouts—given their “vigorous, contractile nature”—EPOC “tends to be modestly greater, adding about 6%–15% more calories to the overall energy expenditure” (ACSM 2014).

Tabata, interval circuits, HIIT strength with plyometric bouts, and fartlek training are all great HIIT options. Dawn Schramer, group fitness director at HealthTrack Sports Wellness in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, agrees: “People don’t want to waste time at the gym. They want to get in, work hard and get out. Members are demanding results-driven, effective workouts in a shorter amount of time. Therefore, challenge the cardiovascular system and tap into the anaerobic pathways to reap great energy-burning benefits both during and after the workout.”

That being said, Schramer also stresses the need to focus on safety. “Higher-intensity activity can wear on the body, so make sure recovery time is appropriate, stress proper form, and offer lower-impact modifications,” she says. ACSM (2014) highly encourages establishing a foundational level of fitness prior to attempting HIIT training. This can be achieved by engaging in consistent aerobic activity three to five times a week for 20–60 minutes.

Use Active Rest Wisely

With any type of interval training, active rest is essential. Active recovery keeps participants moving and heart rates elevated between more intense bouts of exercise, while giving 15–30 seconds of “rest” to allow everyone to complete the intervals effectively. During Tabata intervals or the like, active recovery time is extremely brief and will most likely consist of a tap, a side step or whatever helps you catch the most breath in 10 seconds. However, when the format allows for longer periods of active recovery, make that time count.

When teaching a HIIT strength class with cardio intervals or a circuit with a recovery station, try incorporating movement-based strength exercises as the recovery. Use uncomplicated movements that don’t require a lot of form cuing; for example, a biceps curl with a tap, or a side-to-side squat. Simplicity allows you to stay on task and use your valuable time more effectively.

Incorporate Compound Movements

A traditional chest press performed on a flat bench or step is a proven way to strengthen the pectorals and triceps in a safe, supported environment. However, is this exercise the best use of limited time? While isolation exercises are beneficial in many situations, an express class is probably not the best place for these moves.

Swap the chest press for a push-up. A push-up not only works the same muscles but also enlists the core, traps, rhomboids, deltoids, gluteals, quads and calf muscles to support the spine and hold the body in proper position. Add straight-leg lifts at the top of the movement, or alternate with squat jumps, for even more active muscle and joint involvement.

And why waste time instructing three sets of shoulder presses and then another three sets of hammer curls later in the class? Combine them, add a squat, and make the exercise more dynamic. Multi-joint, multi-muscle movements allow participants to increase load and
boost intensity without the impact. A series or entire class of such movements is extremely challenging, is functional, adds a cardio component and, best of all, saves time. Be creative. The options are endless.


The body is extremely adaptable. Performing the same workout week after week becomes stale and eventually throws the body into plateau mode. So why promote this approach to your participants? Don’t allow adaptation. To force students to cross-train, diversify your workouts. Each week, concentrate on different exercise principles, muscle groups, movement patterns, planes of motion, equipment choices, and set and repetition combinations. Mix it up to promote continual overload. Your participants will see faster, better results that will keep them coming back for more.

Cross-training also allows rest and recovery of one part of the body while another part is working, thus limiting overuse and preventing injury. If you instruct several classes a day and need consistency for survival, Cunningham suggests preparing a “workout of the day” and adapting it for each class or client. For instance, “for resistance training sessions, have the equipment out and ready, so you don’t use session time searching for something,” she says. “Getting creative gets easier if you have a preset plan. Sure, you’ll be supervising the same workout all day, but each class is only doing it once.”

Create Class Goals

You may be a wiz at using your time effectively, but despite your efforts to challenge your participants fully, they may not be working up to their potential. Make your class more successful by setting a few goals. According to Hofstra University (2014), “Setting goals is one of the most effective ways to increase motivation.”

Create objectives involving intensity, heart rates, time or a defined focus, such as lower-body strength. Let’s use an early-riser, 30-minute, boot camp circuit class as an example. You decide to set up six stations: three plyometric and three strength. Your timing requirements are 1 minute on, 30 seconds off, with 1 minute of rest between circuits. Your goals might be the following:

  1. Maintain 80% of your maximum heart rate (MHR) during all cardio stations.
  2. Have your heart rate decrease to 40%–50% of MHR during active
    recovery periods.
  3. Remain active for the entire minute
    at each strength station. Choose an appropriate weight (use a percentage of 1-RM if fitness testing data is available).
  4. Maintain your intensity level throughout each circuit, using heart rate measurement or the Borg scale.

Goals like these give participants a clear definition of what is required from them, while helping them take full advantage of their time. Make sure you follow the guidelines for SMART goals: They must be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time bound. Goals such
as “Keep your heart rate elevated” or “Challenge yourself” are too vague and leave clients unsure about expectations.

Focus on Quality

Finally, and of utmost importance, always focus on workout quality, not quantity. “Quantity or intensity does not ensure quality,” stresses Cunningham. “Quality is always the primary goal when supervising a workout. Mistakes during resistance training, plyometrics, yoga, etc., such as poor form, limited range of motion, or wrong speed of movement, are all factors that can reduce the effectiveness of training. An intense, balanced and progressive program can produce amazing results. The key is choosing the right specifics for each class.”

The express class is a great concept for today’s hectic lifestyle. When the workout is designed correctly, 30–45 minutes is enough time to get fit. Although HIIT classes are currently dominating the express market, you could also teach a “Pilates on the go” or an “after-work yoga” express class, with a focus on
cross-training, goals and workout quality. Don’t let people who are disbelievers go home without a fight. “Make sure members who are on the fence [about express classes] recognize the value,” Schramer says. “Constantly promote that they are only 30–45 minutes from feeling good for the rest of the day.”

Tabata Sample From ACE Study

If you need more proof that short, intense workouts can lead to great results for your students, look no further than a study conducted by the american Council on exercise, which supports the notion that “full-body Tabata-style workouts can prove powerfulin terms of enhancing health and facilitating weight loss.” The full 20-minute workout protocol is featured below. a set is 20 seconds of work followed by 10 seconds of rest. do two sets of each move, and allow for 1 full minute of rest following each of the four 4-minute rounds.

Round 1: high knees; plank punches; jumping jacks; side skaters.
Round 2: jump rope; high/low boat; line jumps; push-ups.
Round 3: burpees; Russian twists; squats; lunges.
Round 4: mountain climbers; push-ups; split squats; box jumps.

To read the full study, visit www.acefitness.org/acefit/expert-insight-article/47/3591/is-tabata-all-it-s-cracked-up-to-be/.


American College of Sports Medicine. 2014. High intensity interval training. www.acsm.org/docs/brochures/high-intensity-interval-training.pdf; accessed June 8, 2014.
Hofstra University. 2014. Motivation and goal setting. www.hofstra.edu/studentaffairs/advise/asp/asp_motivation.html; accessed June 8, 2014.

Stephanie Vlach, MS

Stephanie Vlach, MS, is a certified fitness professional with 17 years of experience. She has held numerous roles and positions within the industry. Currently, she is a group exercise instructor and freelance writer in the Chicago area. She can be reached at [email protected]

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