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Group Training Classes
How to Choose What Will Work for You

Would you give your money to a company that promised to injure 73% of its customers? What if that company guaranteed that 7% of the injuries would be so bad, they would need surgical intervention? It seems a little far-fetched, but it's happening right now.

I'm not talking about cigarette companies or businesses that sell alcohol. It's happening in places we go to improve ourselves, fitness centers across the country. The problem isn't the facilities; it's what they're teaching.

Gyms and health clubs have two distinct things they offer. Weight training programs designed primarily to build muscle and bone, plus cardio programs that help strengthen your heart and burn fat. Both are vital for long-term health. But together they require a commitment of at least 3 to 4 hours a week.

In an effort to save time, people started experimenting with programs that combined strength and cardio into a single workout. It's something I call CARDIO WEIGHT SPEED TRAINING or CWST. At first glance it seems like they should blend together perfectly. Similar to what happened when somebody first dipped a chocolate bar into some peanut butter.

But instead of getting the best of both, you end up with the worst.

Doing an exercise like the step up, where you step onto, and then back off a raised platform, is tricky. Doing it with weights makes it challenging and stresses muscles so they grow bigger. But if you force someone to do that exercise quickly, in order for it to have a cardio effect, that person's form falls apart.

There's a reason weight training and cardio programs are done separately. When you're moving weights, you want to be sure the movements are deliberate and controlled. Veering off in the wrong direction can cause injury. You never move too quickly, so your form is always good.

For cardio to work, you MUST move quickly. The goal is to increase your heart rate and rapid movements are the best way to do that. Carrying weights along as you do cardio, simply reduces the effectiveness of the cardio workout and puts unnecessary stress on the joints.

The simplest way to see how damaging CWST workouts are is by looking at the injury rate of facilities that teach it. In a 2013 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, researchers discovered an injury rate for CrossFit participants of 73.5% with 7% of them so severe, they required surgical intervention.

Think about that for a moment. Places that combine cardio and weights together in classes, were injuring 73.5% of their customers! Seven percent were so bad they had to go under a doctors knife. That's not helping, that's maiming for profit.

The speed of the workout isn't the only problem. To maximize revenue, many of these facilities put people in classes and teach everyone the same routine of the day. "If this workout is good for an Olympic athlete it's good for you too!" But there are huge differences between an Olympic athlete and the average person. Giving everyone the same program puts beginners at even greater risk of injury and fails to challenge the most experienced.

If you're looking for a group training option, these are the things you should consider.

  1. Look for places that separate strength training and cardio, for all the reasons discussed above.

  2. At the very least, the cardio classes should have beginner, intermediate and advanced options. Even more detailed breakdowns are a bonus.

  3. If they teach interval training in groups, confirm that the intervals are based on your individual heart rate and not an instructor's stopwatch.

  4. Strength training workouts should be taught only in small groups (no more than 4 to 6) so the instructor can watch your form. If you're moving heavier free weights, there should always be someone spotting you.

  5. Confirm strength-training workouts are customized for the abilities of the group, and not something randomly sent out daily from a far removed corporate office.

  6. Ask if trainers teach different versions of exercises, based on abilities. They're called progressions. A client is taught the basic movement, and then as they learn, the trainer teaches more difficult variations. Strength training classes should be small enough that the instructor can show exercise progressions, based on each participant's abilities.

Group fitness classes are a great way to keep motivated, learn routines and get a fitness instructor while saving a little money. Just make sure the classes are designed to help, not hurt.


UPDATE: The University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry did their own study of Crossfit participants. The study was released April 25, 2014.

They found that over a four month period, approximately 20% of the 486 participants were injured! The most common injury was the shoulder, followed by the low back and then the knee.

Crossfit devotees will respond by saying that ALL fitness activities have a high injury rate, but in fact that's not true. The same study found that, "the injury rate was significantly decreased with trainer involvement."

Researchers went on to say, "The involvement of trainers in coaching participants on their form and guiding them through the workout correlates with a decreased injury rate."

You don't have to risk injury when you exercise, you just have to make sure to choose your workout program carefully. Crossfit, WITHOUT individual coaching is a dangerous proposition.


UPDATE 7/9/2016:

I recently received a letter from a reader that had a very interesting question. He asked, "Why are you attacking programs like CrossFit that combine cardio and weight training? Isn't any form of exercise better than sitting on the couch and watching television?"

I have to answer that question in two parts.

First, I have no issue with CrossFit or any high intensity exercise program, as long as the workouts are designed and taught appropriately. That means no twisting motions with the trunk of your body while moving weights. No speed work while executing heavy lifts. Instructors that show students proper form. Alternative exercises offered for people who aren't fit enough for the generic workout of the day.

You can have a program of high intensity cardio moves, and mix in a few heavy resistance training exercises BETWEEN the cardio parts if you wish. But to simultaneously combine the lifting of heavier weights, with sweat inducing aerobic moves, puts your body at risk of injury.

It's simply too difficult for most people to move fast and lift heavy things AT THE SAME TIME while maintaining proper form.

That leads me to the second part of my answer. In a 2013 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, 73.5% of CrossFit participants were injured while engaging in their exercise program. Remember, the vast majority of people who start an exercise program, do so to improve their fitness.

Even if you could reduce that injury rate by 1/3, that would still mean half of all the people who started a CrossFit program to get healthier, wound up hurting themselves instead. It's especially tragic for the 7% who sustained an injury so severe, they needed surgery to deal with the problem.

With so many safe, low-risk ways to get in better shape, I find it perplexing why anyone would put their body at risk with a CWST (Cardio Weight Speed Training) program.

Now let me try to explain why nobody is addressing the injury problem. Lets look at a typical corporation and how they handle problems in the workplace. I'll use the example of a fake company we'll call MEGA CORP.

MEGA CORP has stores all across the country. They are either owned by the corporation, or franchises that must follow a strict set of rules and report back to the home office.

In MEGA CORP stores, employees are required to lift trays of merchandise weighing 50 pounds each and put them on display shelves. The trays are so wide they're difficult to hold tight, so they're frequently dropped. They're so heavy, employees routinely hurt themselves as they stock the merchandise.

Being a typical corporate structure, all those damaged trays and injured employees are written up in reports and passed back to the home office. As management sees the problem, they design trays that are more rigid so they're easier to handle. They divide the trays up so that none weigh more than 10 pounds, dramatically reducing injuries for people filling the shelves.

Compare that to the structure of CrossFit. Each "Box" is an independent affiliate, run, setup and equipped based on the whims of each individual owner. If someone is injured, there is no reporting structure to get that information back to the corporate office. It's handled (or ignored) by the independent box owner.

CrossFit is setup in such a way, that even if there were widespread injuries (which seems to be the case based on the published research), the CrossFit corporation would have no way of finding out what specific things are causing problems. With no reporting mechanism, not only does the corporation avoid dealing with problems, they can claim they have no evidence a problem even exists!

Until the CrossFit corporation sets up a mechanism to test the effectiveness and safety of their workout programs, the information from the published study on injuries is too worrisome to ignore.

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7/27/2014
Updated 8/2/2014
Updated 7/9/2016