5 Ways to Get the Absolute Most Out of Virtual Workouts

If you get your fitness fix from classes, being away from the gym can feel painful, lonely and, sometimes, a little boring. Though Zoom, YouTube and other virtual workout options have exploded during the coronavirus pandemic, a virtual class can be a poor substitute for the real deal for people who thrive in a group class environment. Not only are you limited by space and equipment, but it can be tough to push yourself as hard without the camaraderie and energy of a studio.

Your teachers are feeling it, too: "I take pride in bringing energy to the class. The people that come to my classes are trying to be better people, so I'm always full of energy," says Quianna Camper, a certified personal trainer in New Jersey. But it can be tough to feel it as much at home, because "it's not normal to be in your kitchen or bedroom to get your workout."

Or rather, it wasn't normal. But these virtual classes could be sticking around for a while: As of writing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still recommending that you exercise outdoors when possible, and a survey published by Morning Consult found that only 17 percent of Americans feel it's safe to head back into the gym.

As such, we'd better make the best of it. Use these five tips from four top instructors to make your next virtual class—and the one after that—as effective, fun and energizing as any in-person experience.

1. Act like you're not at home.

"Pretend you're walking into a studio," Heidi Kristoffer, founder of CrossFlow Yoga, recommends. If you were in a studio setting, you wouldn't be able to check your phone or email. Your kids wouldn't be able to interrupt your class. Most importantly, you'd block off the time in your day to really take the class. 

That may sound easier said than done, especially if you've got young kids, as Kristoffer does. But if you can, try to schedule your class time for when your kids are occupied or, if they're old enough, instruct them not to bother you during your class. Close the door to the room where you're working out and make efforts to make the environment as much like a real class as possible. To help signal your mind and enhance the experience, she says, you could light a candle that reminds you of the scent of a studio or pump up some music that reminds you of your favorite coach.

Another way to make things more like a "real" class: Don't leave early! "Stay for the full class. Don't leave halfway through or during the [post-workout] stretch," says Tatiana Lampa, a certified personal trainer in New York and founder of Training with T. Instead of feeling rushed to get back to your other responsibilities, try to really enjoy your class time as a break.

2. If you've been away, start slow.

While you might be eager to jump right back in at full blast, if you've had some time off from your normal class schedule, you could get hurt by picking up where you left off—which could mean even more time away from your fitness routine.

You may want to begin with a more restorative class, says Lisa Lipscomb, vice president of fitness for VIDA Fitness, a series of gyms in the Washington, D.C., area. Or, if choosing your normal class, ease back in. "Starting slowly may allow someone to feel successful today, and then be able to take the next steps to a higher-intensity class in the weeks to come," she explains. Being consistent with a slightly easier effort will yield better results than more sporadic, all-out efforts. "Use a heart rate monitor [if you can], and rest and recover as needed versus just pushing yourself at maximum capacity."

Lampa suggests starting back with classes that use the same movements as high-intensity classes, but do them at a slower pace. "Higher intensity means higher risk of injuries," she says. By starting with a slower paced strength class, clients "can reintroduce their movements, muscles and body awareness. After they feel comfortable and strong, I say join the HIIT class!"

3. Get to class early, and ask for what you want even earlier.

Arriving to the video conference "waiting room" early can help your instructor prepare you for an even better class, Lipscomb says. You can also talk with your instructor. Those extra few minutes will give you a chance to chat with the instructor and grab any special equipment you may need for class instead of scrambling after class has started.

This pre-class socialization can also be a great time to ask a question about an exercise that might have confused you in a previous class, or report an injury or early pregnancy to your teacher so they can adjust options as they would in an in-person setting.

But if you've got a bigger ask, like specific exercises or specific focuses you'd like to see in the class, it's better to ask earlier, Kristoffer says.

"You don't know what the instructor is dealing with to get the class running technologically," she says. Like the rest of us, teachers and trainers can still have occasional technical issues with video chat. Asking for specifics earlier also means that the teacher can prepare a little, working that move or focus you're after into their script for the class instead of trying to add it on the fly. "In the 30 minutes prior to a class, instructors are bombarded with messages about the class. Giving them one to two days' notice" could make your request more likely to be granted.

4. Bring a friend…if it's the right kind of friend.

"It's really important to hold on to your old values and schedules before quarantine happened," Lampa says. "So if that's having a friend in class that pushes you, hold onto that!"

But make sure it's a friend that actually pushes you, Camper cautions. Distractions are amplified in a virtual class, and those distractions can also come from buddying up with the wrong workout partner.

"Is it someone who just want to take selfies and look cute? Or is it someone that wants to push you extra hard?" Camper says. When you're trying to amplify your results in a virtual class, she says, it's important to know your partner and ensure they're someone who will work hard and not let you slack.

5. Document your progress.

Depending on the size of your virtual class, your teacher may not be able to keep track of how you're improving—or not—over time. Knowing if you're getting better by doing more or better reps of each exercise is the key to getting fitter, though, so take that tracking into your own hands.

If you've got a heart rate monitor or another wearable fitness tracker, use it to create your own benchmarks, and push yourself beat your effort from previous classes. If you don't have something you can wear, grab a pen and paper. "During a short break, jot down something you were strong or weak in, [such as] 'it was really hard on the squats' or 'I couldn't use this weight,'" says Camper. The next time you take the same class, you'll know which movement to concentrate on, or what level of resistance to start an exercise with for maximum effort.

Another option is to record the workout—or part of it—with the intention of posting it somewhere, Kristoffer says. "That way, you're not going to slack. You're going to do your best if you know someone is watching you," she says—just like in a real class.

Virtual classes are here to stay, and if you're committed to being your own best motivator, they are an excellent option for anyone exercising at home. Remember to focus on your form while at home and tune in to your body to avoid injury while inching closer to those ultimate fitness goals!