When everyone's going HAM, you need to know when to keep up and when you're pushing yourself too far

By Alyssa Clough
Updated: April 04, 2016
Corbis Images

There are two huge motivators in group fitness classes: an instructor that pushes you harder than you would if you were working out solo, and a group of like-minded people who motivate you even further. Sometimes, you crush it in group workouts. But other times (and we've all been there), everything feels hard. Whether it's your first time trying a new class, you're tired or sore, or just not feeling it, fighting to keep up doesn't always feel great in a group setting-and can even lead to injury. (Is Competition Legit Workout Motivation?)

We talked to a sports psychologist to find out why we feel that need to constantly keep up, then we tapped instructors who teach some of the most hardcore workout classes at Barry's Bootcamp and YG Studios for the scoop on how to push yourself without breaking good form and risking an injury.

1. Set Realistic Goals

Whenever you step foot in the gym, you're already making the decision to better yourself. Don't ruin your efforts by having unrealistic expectations, which can include trying to keep up with your neighbor. "Nobody needs to be a hero, especially the first time trying a workout," says Kyle Kleiboeker, a trainer at Barry's Bootcamp.

You can't expect to keep up with someone who attends a class multiple times a week, especially when you're just trying it for the first time. Instead, set manageable-but still challenging-short- and long-term goals. It's okay if your short term goal is to simply finish the class or to learn something new (especially at one of the The Toughest Fitness Classes In the Country). And it's totally acceptable to give less than your instructor is asking of you as long as you're trying your absolute hardest and not just being lazy.

"When we start with big lofty goals and don't listen to our bodies, we risk injury and burnout," says NYC-based sports psychologist Leah Lagos. "This is where small goals for each performance become important. You learn to define achievement by how your performance improves across time and to avoid defining performance as a comparison to others."

2. Focus On Your Form

Form is so important when you're working out, but when we get tired, it's the first thing to go. This increases your chance of a strain or injury, which is why when you try to keep up during an exercise and lose form, it's only hurting you. Running at a slower pace or lifting lighter weights and feeling slightly defeated in order to stay strong is better than fighting through your workout with terrible form, risking getting injured and being sidelined completely. (In fact, Cutting Yourself Some Slack Can Lower Your Risk of Injuries.)

"It's not about how much you do, but how well you do it," says Nerijus Bagdonas, a trainer at YG Studios who teaches strength training. "It's irrelevant if the limitation is physical or mental; when someone can no longer keep good form, they should stop."

He also recommends starting with classes that focus on movement quality and form before moving to the super challenging stuff, like HIIT, bootcamps, and Crossfit. There's no shame in starting in beginners' classes and moving up to harder classes at your own pace.

3. Listen to Your Body

All group fitness instructors tell you to "listen to your body," but what does that even mean? How do we know when to keep pushing through something that's uncomfortable versus stopping because something hurts? (Try this Mental Trick to Make Exercise More Comfortable.)

Kleiboeker says, "Pushing yourself too hard, in my opinion, is never a bad thing. People underestimate their own talents and abilities."

True. But on the flip side, Bagdonas reminds us that the key to being successful is to be consistent. "If the class makes you skip workouts because you are excessively sore or just makes you fear or resent exercise, it did more harm than good," he says. "Mental toughness is an important quality, especially if you are a competitive athlete, but it does not get built in one class; it's a process."

Look to your instructors for modifications if you're struggling. Let them know before class begins if you have an injury and ask them to talk you through moves you were struggling with during or after class. And don't be embarrassed to modify! "In group fitness classes, it can be intimidating and easy to get discouraged with so many different levels of athletes in the room. I tell people to not be concerned with what their neighbor is doing but to just focus on being the best at their own skill level. If an instructor gives you a variation of a move that seems too challenging for you at that time-take it!" says Kleiboeker. ( Are You Too Competitive at the Gym?)

Personalizing your workout in a group fitness setting shows you're focused on your health and truly listening to your body.


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