Do you worship at the altar of Soul or Barry's? Pasternak's about to make you reconsider.

By Harley Pasternak as told to Lauren Mazzo
January 29, 2020

People are lonely. We're all living in our technology, endlessly scrolling on social media, sitting at our computers and in front of our televisions all day and night. There's a real lack of human interaction. So where do we turn for a sense of community, group energy, positivity, a hefty dose of encouragement and a reminder of life's purpose? For many, it's in a red-lit room with a pulpit of dumbbells or at the altar of a spin bike surrounded by citrus-scented candles.

I said it: Boutique fitness is the modern-day church.

Why Boutique Fitness Reigns

The popularity of boutique group fitness classes is at an all-time high. While I agree that any physical activity is better than nothing, I have to argue that there's nothing special about the exercise you're doing in a boutique class, exactly. Rather, it's that it offers a sense of community people are missing in modern-day culture.

If you miss a class, people say, "oh, where were you? are you OK?". There's a leader of the class, but the instructor who doesn't just talk about the exercises you're doing but leads a conversation about motivation, inspiration, positivity, life challenges, overcoming obstacles. It's a spiritual experience (one of the major players is called Soul Cycle after all).

Of course, people do go for the workout, too. There's a sense of expert specificity from niche fitness studios that makes sense. For example, if you're a member of a big-box health club, they may offer yoga, but it might not be the best yoga instructor or there might not be tons of yoga enthusiasts, just random members who are trying it out. If you're going to spend money on fitness, it makes sense that you want to go to the best class with the best equipment and the best instructor. Whether you want to do yoga, CrossFit, anything, you're going to want to go where they're the best at that. It's similar to medicine; If your knee hurts, you don't want to just go to your general practitioner, you want to go to a knee specialist. I think this sense of specificity combined with the community aspect is why boutique fitness has been so incredibly successful.

But just because it's popular doesn't mean it's a good idea.

Why You Should Reconsider Your Dedication

1. You may do your body more harm than good.

People tend to look at their favorite class or fitness modality as the end-all, be-all of exercise. If you only do one type of workout—or just don't balance your plan correctly—you'll likely create muscle imbalances from over-strengthening certain muscle groups and neglecting others. That can cause postural issues and raise your chance of injury. Sticking to just one workout also means you're missing out on training other components of health and physical strength and endurance.

Let's use indoor cycling as an example; if you're spinning all the time, you're not really helping your bone density, because it's not a weight-bearing exercise, per se. You'll tend to be anterior (front) dominant cause you're always doing the same, repetitive forward motion with your quads and calves, and you're not working your glutes, lower back, or rhomboids. Not only can you create severe muscle imbalances and functional imbalances, but you can also create energy-system imbalances. If you only walk for exercise and you don't do anything at a higher intensity, you're neglecting your anaerobic system. On the flip side, if you're only doing wind sprints or HIIT intervals and nothing more prolonged, then you're neglecting your aerobic system. You can practice indoor cycling, but as a part of your overall program, not as your program. I think that's one part of it; people tend to use their boutique experience as the entirety of their fitness plan.

2. You'll be the jack of all trades but the master of none.

Now, you might be thinking, "but I don't just stick to one class, I do all types". While that helps protect you from some of the risks above, it doesn't solve the problem. In fact, it sort of creates a new one: If you were a lumberjack and you took your ax and chopped each tree once, you're not going to make a big enough dent in any one tree to actually down it. You're not going to master anything. You're not going to have a chance to progress at anything. (Related: 10 Things I Learned During My Body Transformation)

Try as they might, boutique classes can't be all things to all people. For example, in boot camp classes, you might be strength training your entire body in one class and doing cardio intervals in between. In reality, you're probably not doing enough with any one body part to significantly strengthen that part. You're also not fully warming up that one body part. You're not progressing to a point to really challenge that one body part with enough resistance. You're increasing your chance of injury. Plus, if you're working, say, eight body parts in a circuit class, do you think you're putting as much energy into body parts five, six, and seven as you did for body parts one, two, and three? In the end, at worse, this could hurt you and, at best, won't give you effective results for the time and money you put in.

3. An instructor doesn't replace a personal trainer.

On that note, I think there's also a lack of individual supervision and progression. You're doing what everyone else in the room is doing, which is not necessarily great for you to progress, not great for your personal injuries, and not great considering body types are different and fitness levels are all different. Not everyone moves the same, not everyone has the same personal exercise history, and you're being taught this one technique using this one piece of equipment, and that can set you up for injury.

Plus, your instructor in a lot of group fitness classes is essentially a cheerleader. And, by the way, not to minimize that, I think that's a great skill to inspire people to want to come back and do it again and again. That's a really important thing—encouraging people to come back and creating a community and environment where people want to be is key to getting people to exercise regularly. Anything that gets you moving and inspires you to be physically active is a positive thing.

But when it's sort of a cult of personality, it comes back to the whole church thing; you have this charismatic individual at the front of the class who's talking to you about all the challenges in their life and overcoming them, etc. At the end of the day, they're teaching a class on how to ride a stationary bike in a room. With all due respect, they're probably not very educated in human physiology and biomechanics and probably doesn't have a university degree in exercise science. If you're on an airplane, that flight attendant knows the most about how your seat works, knows the most about the safety standards of what you should be doing as a passenger, but they don't know how to fly the plane.

You don't need to give up boutique fitness completely.

If yoga is your life or indoor cycling is the best part of your week, I'm not telling you to stop. I'm telling you that Soul Cycle's your hammer. Where's your screwdriver? Where's your wrench? Where's your saw? What are you doing for your posture? What are you doing to strengthen your body? What are you doing for your bone density? What are you doing to round out the rest of your body and your fitness?

You need a plan. Make sure you're doing something that's individualized, personalized, and has progression built-in that addresses your entire body. Then, you can think about how this group fitness experience fits into your overall plan. It should not be the plan; it should be part of the plan.

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