Imagine an exercise class at a big, commercial gym. You might imagine people stepping up and down, an energetic instructor, pumped-up music and synchronized bodies breaking a serious sweat. Maybe you see calming music, candles and bodies contorted into graceful poses.|
What you probably don't imagine is men. Gym owners and trainers have long found that male participation in exercise classes pales when compared to female attendance. There's not a ton of research on all class types, but one survey conducted by Yoga Journal in 2016 found that only 28 percent of yoga practitioners were guys.
But CrossFit, with classes that are roughly half male, may be changing all that—and opening men up to other fitness classes, too.
"It was harder to get men to take classes, but now with the revelation of CrossFit … CrossFit has sort of opened up that whole genre of classes for men," says Elizabeth Burwell, co-owner of High Performance Gym in Greenville, South Carolina. "We say we do classes with powerlifting, Olympic lifting, and when we tell people that, they [now] know [what they're getting into,] because CrossFit has broken through the bounds of even people that don't work out."
While classes used to feel like they were marketed to and designed exclusively for women, Burwell says, CrossFit has made it feel like there are genres of classes where men won't feel like they're doing a workout that's "not for them," and also won't feel like they're behind—which CrossFlowX creator Heidi Kristoffer says is important to a class' male appeal.
"The feedback I've gotten in the past [as a yoga instructor] is that guys can feel a little emasculated [when] there's a 98-pound girl flipping up into a handstand. They don't want to get shown up by a girl," she says. When she developed CrossFlowX, her own class structure, she combined yoga with high-intensity intervals—movements at which guys could excel. Men who take her classes then get those same yoga benefits, but, she says, "it works because it also has more that guys can feel great about."
Jared Meacham, Ph.D., thinks men are also becoming more comfortable doing things that are considered "feminine," which is boosting male class participation at gyms like Sky Fitness & Wellbeing in Oklahoma, where he is the fitness services director.
"The stigma of studio-based classes is kind of gone. Men are open to it more and more all the time," he says. Still, he says, some men say they just don't "do" classes. If they're getting all the activity they need for a healthy life, that's fine. But if there are certain aspects of fitness in which they're lacking—like cardio or flexibility—a class can be a great gap-filler. "We've got guys, including competitive guys who do physique or bodybuilding competitions, who come in and do cycling, and then they do their lift."
Burwell says a class can also be a place to learn new skills or to push beyond your current limits. "If you're not meeting the goals you have for yourself, you can gain a lot by a small group class," she says. That might be a gain in performance from competition, or in injury prevention from the coaching provided in a small group setting. "If you've got back pain or shoulder pain [from lifting], then they're doing something wrong in their technique. They need some help, [and the class setting can provide that.]"
Kristoffer says that, for her, the advantage of a class is not having to decide your next exercise, or even motivate yourself to do your next rep.
"You make decisions all day—I'd rather have someone tell me what to do," she explains. And with other people in the class finishing each part, "you don't have a chance to punk out. You push past what you would do on your own."
If you've been avoiding classes for one reason or the other, now is a great time to open the mind to new challenges. Use these four tips to find a class that will keep you motivated, make your workout more enjoyable and help you meet (and exceed) your fitness goals.
1. Look for a class to fill in the gaps.
Most guys know where their weaknesses—or lack of willpower—lie at the gym. Some men shirk their cardio work because it's boring; others eschew flexibility because they're "not naturally flexible" or skip leg day. Meacham says that if you're not a class enthusiast, this is where they can be most useful.
"You need to be doing something that mobilizes the body, something that strengthens and something that gets your heart rate up" each week as part of your fitness routine, he recommends. If those are all classes, great. If you're currently good with strength, consider a cardio class like boxing, spinning or high-intensity interval training. If you need flexibility, try to find a yoga class that you like. Choosing a class for something on which you'd normally slack can help you progress toward the fitness goals you're less self-motivated to pursue.
You may not even need it permanently, either. Some class-goers at High Performance Gym aren't there to stay in classes forever, but are rather using the time to learn to master lifts, Burwell says, so they can perform them with proper form later on their own.
"We want people to be educated so they can go out and do it on their own," she says. Some people do learn and leave, while others find they enjoy the class atmosphere. "People wind up staying because they love the community."
2. If you're looking for a yoga class, pay attention to the title.
One reason Burwell thinks classes used to turn men off was terminology.
"The names of the classes try to be catchy, but men don't want to take something called 'Booty Lift'—though they may want to work on glute and leg strength," she says.
But as male attendance in classes has risen, gyms have started to develop classes that have broader appeal, and their titles may provide clues to what you'll get. For yoga or other flexibility-driven classes, Kristoffer says this can be useful information.
"If you're looking at a yoga studio, look for words like 'athletic' or 'power'" when perusing the class menu, she says. "If it's just a full flexibility class, you may not enjoy it as much because men are generally less flexible than women." But in a "power" class, there may be elements where you can excel while getting flexibility benefits to round out your overall fitness goals.
3. Ask about the class breakdown to make sure it fits your goals.
If you're after something very specific from a class—like, for example, lifting heavy weights for your legs, learning to perform an Olympic lift or opening up your hips with dynamic stretches—don't stop at just the title, Burwell says. Don't just ask the gym staff if the class will accomplish what you're after, either. Her suggestion: Get granular before you sign up.
"How much of this class, time-wise, is linked toward strict strength training, and how much is dedicated to cardio or metabolic conditioning?" she suggests asking if you're specifically interested in strength. Many classes have a focus on metabolic conditioning, giving people "bang for your buck" high-intensity cardio/strength circuits. "Guys who don't want to lose weight aren't going to want this as much. [If that's the case] ask what the class structure is like—if there's a heavy strength training component with a little met-con at the end," it could fit that man's goals.
4. Create your own class with small-group training.
If the normal classes at your gym don't fit your schedule or needs, small-group training—with groups ranging between three and 10—can provide the hands-on coaching benefits of a personal trainer with the social and accountability aspects of a class. Burwell, who teaches small groups, especially likes it for the type of "learn the lift" instruction she mentioned above.
"You're not going to get the same individual coaching in a large group class [that you will in a small group]," she says. The individual attention can help with the technique for lifts and skills so you can stave off injury—even if you use those lifts later in a larger group.
Meacham also likes small groups for guys who are used to lifting on their own, because they'll provide new training stimuli and methods.
"Small groups used to veer to what the trainer was interested in [teaching]. But with the expansion of continuing education, trainers are grabbing on to different things," he says. The trainers' knowledge is more comprehensive, so there are more ways the trainer can help you reach your goals. And even if you can't bring friends to form your own group, the gym should be able to help you get set up. "They'll tell you there are a number of potential groups you might be interested in, find one that matches your goals, and plug you in."
As with most things in life, you shouldn't knock fitness classes until you try one. Who knows? They could just be the key to all your fitness dreams.