I’ve spent the last few years being an active hiker and yogi, and I even started taking a few dance classes. Which is to say, I’ve got used to pushing myself physically, but mostly in situations where I could choose my own intensity. Then, a few months ago, I joined a gym and learned about a whole other world of pain.
Gone, it seemed, were “regular” yoga classes, replaced with hot flow and added-weight strength training yoga. Then there were bootcamp classes and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) classes (which is just one kind of high-intensity workout), and one class where the teacher swore to add 30 seconds of high knees if she caught any of us slacking.
I left these classes sore and exhausted, which made me proud and also reluctant to perform simple tasks like carrying a five-gallon jug of drinking water inside from the car. A friend asked me how the classes were going. “Like being on the verge of death for an hour,” I told him. “But for fun?”
Within a few weeks of my new hardcore classes, I’d managed to tweak my back and was tired of feeling perpetually sore. So I looked for alternatives. Mostly, I saw more of the same: Not just strength training, but “extreme” training. Boxing classes, battle ropes, and barre cardio classes that make your legs and your lungs quiver. A studio about to open nearby was generating a lot of hype—its offerings included Pilates and bootcamp classes in 95-degree rooms.
I’m not the only one noticing the changing gym class lineups.
Specialty “boutique” fitness classes in general are taking over the market, with the International Health, Racquet, & Sportsclub Association reporting that the number of people belonging to boutique fitness studios has grown 15 percent since 2015. While it’s not clear how many of those boutique classes are touted as extreme or hardcore, The American College of Sports Medicine ranked HIIT as the most popular fitness trend of 2018—so it’s clear that people want these hard workouts. (And I’ve yet to come across a boutique studio that promotes classes for their moderate intensity, though plenty are advertised as intense and promise to utterly destroy me.)
Many boutique studios are dedicated to offering amped-up, extreme versions of standard exercise methods—yet the CDC’s exercise recommendation for substantial health benefits is still just a minimum 20 minutes a day of moderate activity, or even less than that of vigorous activity. So what gives? Why does it seem so hard to find a good workout not designed to destroy you?
Turns out, our chronic busyness plus really good marketing make a pretty compelling combo.
Yuri Feito, Ph.D., associate professor of exercise science at Kennesaw State University and registered clinical exercise physiologist with ACSM, believes that more intense workouts are having a moment right now because of a combination of factors. The first: “People tend to [choose] things that fit into their schedule,” he said. Because intense workouts aim to maximize fitness benefits in a shorter amount of time, people gravitate to them. What’s more, he says, is that moderate-intensity exercise just hasn’t been very exciting for a lot of people.
If moderate-intensity exercise is already feeling dull for people, fitness brands that have mastered the art of packaging and marketing hardcore exercise really well can swoop into the market. As a recent Quartz article pointed out, boutique gyms have mastered the art of marketing exercise as more than just a workout.
Not to say that strategy is all bad, especially if it gets people moving. “Whether we call it Zumba, CrossFit, whatever brand name you want attached to it, the idea is that we want people to be active,” Feito says.
And of course we can’t discount people’s personalities and individual preferences. Some people are runners, some are yogis, and others get their high off burpees and doing cardio until they’re on the verge of collapsing. Some people also may just like intense exercise because feeling wiped and sore makes them feel like they’ve really improved their fitness, though that’s not always true—being more sore the next day doesn’t necessarily mean you got a better workout.
But the best workout isn’t always the most extreme one. The best workout is the one you enjoy.
To be clear, I’m not saying intense workouts are bad. I understand that feeling of accomplishment you get when you crush a tough session, and HIIT, which involves short intervals of high-intensity work followed by timed lower-intensity intervals (active recovery), is a great way fit in a full workout in a short amount of time. It’s quick, efficient, and effective. I’m saying that I don’t want every workout I do to have to be an extreme version—but it’s been seeming like I need to just head to the gym on my own if I want to do something more moderate.
Even if you love intense workouts, experts usually suggest limiting them to every third workout to give your muscles the time they need to recover properly in between sessions. The rest of your workouts should be more moderate.
If you’re new to working out or have been out of the game for a while, you probably won’t be able to perform at the same rate as other people in a high-intensity class, and you shouldn’t try to, Feito says. Listen to your body and take breaks when you need to, no matter what the people next to you are doing.
At the end of the day, you don’t need to buy into the hype of any one type of workout to get the benefits of exercise. “Find the activity that you prefer,” Feito says. “If you like to do yoga, do yoga. If you like to walk, go walk. If you like to do CrossFit, do CrossFit.” It may sound cliche, but it’s true.
As I learned myself, forcing yourself to do something that leaves you utterly exhausted isn’t exactly the best way to get hyped about your next workout. I’d rather do workouts that make me feel strong and energetic—and able to carry my groceries after.