When it comes to exercise, there are a ton of options, methods, and classes to choose from when it comes to trying to reach your personal health and fitness goals.
Some are good.
Some are not.
So in an attempt to help weigh out the good and the bad, I will lay out the pros and cons to all of the more popular fitness and exercise options available to the general public. I will try my best to remain as unbiased as possible… but no promises.
For all of the following options, I’m speaking in generalities and as if each option is your PRIMARY means for exercise. Of course there will be some exceptions to the pros/cons I list, so try not to crucify me if I make your favorite option seem less amazing than you perceive it to be.
- Good sense of community and/or culture
- Increased accountability
- Typically very schedule friendly
- High movement pattern/exercise variability due to classes usually being different every time
- “Strength training”
- Good aerobic workout
- Usually on the cheaper side
- High calorie burn
- Potential for overcrowding
- Form and technique correction might not be the best, especially if crowded
- Might be too advanced for where you’re starting off
- Typically no progression
- “Strength training”
- Quality of instructors
Group fitness classes and bootcamps are usually a solid option for getting a good workout in 30-60 minutes. And because these classes typically run very often, they can be very schedule friendly for busy parents, career driven individuals, etc. These classes are usually high tempo with constant movement which will give you a great aerobic workout.
Plus, working out with a group of other like minded individuals can help keep motivation and accountability pretty high.
Many of these classes often lack heavy enough weights to challenge participants to actually stimulate adaptations in muscular strength. For this same reason, it’s quite challenging to progress the intensity of the exercises or movements beyond a certain point. This is a big problem because the basis for any exercise regimen is progressive overload, meaning you aim to do just a little bit more than what you did the previous session.
If you can’t increase the intensity with heavier weights, it makes it really hard to see continued results.
Plus, it’s not uncommon for individuals (as eager and well intentioned as they may be) to take classes where they perform movements or exercises that are way too advanced for them. This can be discouraging which can hurt their chances of coming back regularly.
THE VERDICT: great for beginners or those looking to simply stay active, however, there’s a strong possibility you’ll hit a ‘wall’ or plateau when it comes to seeing continual results
- Great aerobic workout
- High calorie burn
- Good sense of community and culture
- Schedule friendly
- Class size
- Upbeat atmosphere
- Even though there’s an instructor, you can usually self pace yourself
- Budget friendly
- Very anterior chain dominant (muscles on the front side of your body)
- Very movement pattern restricted
- Feeds into (potentially existing) bad posture or movement patterns
Now at first glance you might say, “Oh, more pros than cons. Guess we’re done here!”
Not so fast. Those are BIG cons, particularly if you spend a large portion of the day hunched over at a computer. Sitting for hours every day causes some less than desirable adaptations (like tight hips, tight thoracic spine, or weak glutes and upper back). These changes can cause compensatory movement patterns throughout the body which can lead to nagging injuries.
When you sit all day and then exercise in the exact same position (like cycling does), you’re only feeding into these issues and possibly making them even worse.
THE VERDICT: a tremendous aerobic workout which burns a sh*tload of calories, but probably not the best option for desk jockeys or anyone who spends all day sitting (unless its combined with appropriate strength training)
- Increased mobility
- Increased flexibility
- Increased strength (to a point)
- Parasympathetic shift in your nervous system
- Decreased stress
- Good culture and sense of community
- Not a tremendous calorie burn compared to other options
- Strength gains plateau quickly
- Potential for overcrowding
- If so, incorrect form and technique might go uncorrected
- “Too much of a good thing”
Yoga is incredible for the overworked, stressed out, and immobile individual who needs to relax and incorporate some mobility work into their routine. Since yoga can be calming and even therapeutic, it can cause a parasympathetic shift in your nervous system, which is basically a fancy way of saying your body shifts into a ‘rest and digest’ state.
This shift decreases muscle tone, lowers your heart rate and blood pressure, decreases stress, improves joint mobility, and helps you relax. These are all incredibly beneficial to your overall health and well being.
Plus, yogi’s have a pretty awesome culture and community going on. Yogi’s are dedicated, so accountability and consistency are usually always high amongst participants.
“DON’T YOU DARE SAY ANYTHING BAD ABOUT MY YOGA YOU SON OF A BITCH.” – someone somewhere, probably
If burning calories and/or increasing muscular strength is your goal, yoga doesn’t quite match up to some other options on this list.
Beginners can absolutely see some strength increases, but again going back to progressive overload, at some point down the road you’ll hit a strength plateau because the only load you’re working with is your bodyweight, which never dramatically changes (hopefully). Unless you take a class with a weight vest, it’s pretty hard to increase the external load necessary to see continual strength increases.
However, I think the biggest potential con with yoga is that LOTS of its participants get too much of a good thing in terms of mobility and flexibility. Lots of people who enjoy yoga enjoy it because they’re really good at it. They’re genetically predisposed to be flexible and mobile, so getting into these pretzel like poses isn’t necessarily the hardest thing for them. And it’s completely normal to enjoy what you’re really good at.
But striving for more mobility isn’t always necessarily a good thing, especially if you’ve already got some lax (loose) joints to begin with. Trying to introduce more mobility and stretch something that’s already stretched to begin with is a great way to increase your risk for compensatory tightness or injury.
So for example, if you claim to have ‘tight hamstrings’, but can easily put your palms to the floor, I’ve got news for you.
You don’t have tight hamstrings.
You’ve got some kind of protective or compensatory pattern going on, and stretching will do nothing for you. It might even been borderline harmful.
So if you fall into the category as the example above, just be cautious about going banana sandwiches with your yoga participation.
THE VERDICT: tremendous way to increase mobility, decrease stress, stay active, and feel good overall, but takes a backseat to other options if weight loss and/or strength gains are your primary goal
- increased core strength
- increased mobility and flexibility
- strength gains hit eventual plateau compared to other options
- Cost (potentially)
God’s honest truth, I have very limited exposure to Pilates, so I can’t dive into intricate detail about it’s pros and cons. I know, I’m a failure.
Although with the little bit of Pilates I have been exposed to, I’ve noticed it’s very centered around core strengthening. This is great because lets be honest, everyone and their momma needs more of that. But I feel like other general strength movements don’t get appropriately challenged. I apologize to all my Pilates lovers out there, but you’ll never convince me a reformer can strengthen my glutes just as well as hip thrusts or RDL’s can.
THE VERDICT: a solid option for those with low back pain or for anyone looking specifically for core strengthening
- Amazing culture and community, borderline cult-like following (believe it or not, I mean that as a compliment)
- Strong emphasis on increasing overall strength
- Focuses on ‘functional’ movements centered around using free weights
- Many participants have an accompanying diet plan (Paleo)
- Emphasis on mobility quality to perform the complex movements required during the WOD’s, or ‘workout of the day’
WHERE DO I START?! (I’m kidding)
- Too much, too hard, too often
- Placing PR’s (personal records) above everything else
- Too advanced for many participants
- High injury rate
- Cost (potentially)
If there’s any option on the list that will stir up a heated debate amongst fitness enthusiasts, it’s Crossfit.
Over the last 10-15 years, Crossfit has done more good for fitness than any other option on this list. It got people focused on getting strong as hell, got them focusing on using barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells instead of machines, and cultivated one hell of a following of people looking to push their bodies to their fullest potential. People who participate in Crossfit LOOOOOVE talking about Crossfit. And that’s great!
For this, I extend the highest of high fives.
But for all the incredibly good things it has done, it has done some equally bad things.
I googled “Crossfit mascot”, and these were literally the first two images that popped up.
The first one “Pukie the Clown” is fairly self explanatory.
The second one might need some explanation.
Rhado is short for rhabdomyolysis, which is a condition that results from the death of muscle fibers and the subsequent release of their contents into the bloodstream. This can lead to serious complications such as renal (kidney) failure.
As your trainer, if I told you I was going to put you through a session that would result in F*CKING KIDNEY FAILURE, you would laugh in my face and probably never speak to me again, let alone pay me to train you.
But oddly enough, Crossfit seemingly glorifies these types of workouts.
More is better! Heavier is better! COME ON, SET A PR TODAY!!
Now, don’t get me wrong, setting PR’s is great. It’s what you should always be striving for. But not at the expense of form breaking down, technique going out the window, and putting yourself at risk for injury… whiiiiiich unfortunately Crossfit has a reputation for.
I used to work hand in hand with physical therapists who would joke that Crossfitters kept them in business because they were always hurt and in need of ‘fixing’.
Crossfit strongly emphasizes Olympic lifts and compound barbells movements. These can be fairly advanced movements that require a baseline of mobility, strength, and movement quality. So when someone who doesn’t have those baseline prerequisites tries to set a snatch PR, you can bet your bottom dollar they’re gonna more than likely run into injury.
Now I’ll check myself before I wreck myself, because there are definitely some quality Crossfit ‘boxes’ and coaches who program correctly, progress and regress when necessary, and have corresponding levels to their workouts. Unfortunately over the years, this has been the exception and not the standard.
THE VERDICT: excellent for burning a ton of calories and getting stronger than ever, but do your homework and make sure your ‘box’ has quality coaches who didn’t get their ‘certification’ from a 12 hour course over the weekend
Semi-Private/Small Group Training
- Increased individual attention
- Increased motivation and accountability
- Some customization to training sessions based on needs/abilities
- Usually centered around increasing strength (ideally)
- Are you working with a quality trainer?
- Do you enjoy working with the people in your group?
Semi-private or small group training can have you training with anywhere from 3-6 people usually, so it’s a bit more intimate than bootcamps or Crossfit. This is beneficial if you think you’d benefit from more individual attention because you’re a newbie or you’ve got some restrictions you’re trying to work through.
Plus, depending on who you work with, it’s totally possible to even get a fully customized program catered to you and your needs since the group is smaller.
However, you better hope you like the people you train with, or that hour is gonna drag on. Sign up with some friends and this is a small issue though.
Additionally, you’ve got to make sure you do your homework on who you’re hiring as your trainer. Any trainer can make you tired, but good trainers make you better. Since it’s a smaller group, there’s a solid chance you’ll be paying more than the cost of your average bootcamp, so make sure you’re getting your moneys worth.
THE VERDICT: a quality option regardless of your goal as you should be able to receive enough individual attention to regress, progress, or modify as needed so you can reach your goals efficiently
Private Training (1-1)
- Fully individualized program catered to your needs and goals
- Appropriate and timely regressions, progressions, and modifications
- 100% attention to form and technique
- It’s all about you!
- Quality trainer?
- No group or community to associate with
Ok, so right off the bat, the ‘pros’ are only ‘pros’ if you’ve got a quality trainer. Just like I mentioned with the small group and semi-private training, any trainer can make you tired, but quality trainers make you better. Don’t be afraid to ask your trainer questions during a session and make them earn their paycheck. If they don’t know the ‘why’ behind the exercises they’re making you do and how it’s specifically helping you reach your goals, find a new trainer.
Plus, depending on if you’re an introvert or extrovert, you better hope your personality meshes well with your trainer. There’s nothing worse than spending an hour with someone who you really don’t like, unless awkward silences are your thing. Then by all means, go for it!
THE VERDICT: probably the best option in terms of helping you efficiently reach your goals, but more than likely will be the most expensive option out of everything on this list
- Great aerobic workout
- Parasympathetic shift in nervous system
- High calorie burn
- Improved heart health
- Cost (it’s free, duh)
- High risk for overuse injuries
- Decreased muscular strength
- Decreased muscular power
- Decreased muscle mass
- Time consuming
Ok, I’m gonna put it right out there: I am personally not a fan of long, slow, distance running (ex: 5 miles at a time). Statistically, close to 80% of people who take up running as their primary exercise option will sustain some sort of injury. That is mind boggling to me and clearly points out that maybe we weren’t meant to do it.
I use the analogy of your car tires when explaining running to clients. If you were to take the same route to work every single day and NEVER deviate from that route, your tires would probably wear down in a specific pattern based on what turns you take and what speeds you go. And I’m sure you’re aware its recommended to rotate your tires every now and then to make sure your tires don’t wear unevenly. When you do this, the lifespan of your tires increases dramatically.
Jogging is the equivalent of taking the same route to work every single day but NEVER rotating your tires, because, well… you can’t. Your tires (feet and legs) are stuck on either side of you.
The only way to ‘rotate’ your ‘tires’ and offset the potentially negative consequences of running is to appropriately strength train, which in my 9 years training clients is an unfortunately rare occurrence in most dedicated runners.
THE VERDICT: an amazing calorie burning option which will most definitely improve your heart health, but just be prepared to run into a lot of nagging injuries down the road
- Amazing aerobic workout
- Can be an amazing anaerobic workout as well
- Extremely joint friendly
- High calorie burn
- Can be relaxing and borderline therapeutic
- Higher risk for shoulder injuries
- You kinda need to know how to swim
- You need access to a pool
I love swimming as an option for a lot of people because it’s extremely joint friendly due to the fact that you’re damn near weightless in a pool. So for anyone looking to stay active and avoid excessive pounding on already cranky joints, swimming just might be for you.
And unlike jogging, there are different strokes you can perform to switch things up every now and then so you’re not constantly going through the same repetitive motion over and over again.
Swimming can put you at risk for shoulder injuries because even though different strokes can be performed, most of them involve an overhead motion. Repeatedly bringing your arm over your head to swim is equivalent to performing hundreds of overhead presses or lat pulldowns in the weight room. This in and of itself can lead to issues, but it can definitely cause issues if you’ve got crap shoulder mobility to begin with.
THE VERDICT: an excellent, joint friendly choice for your aerobic work, but make sure it’s balanced out with appropriate strength training
Workout On Your Own
Look at this guy, why don’t you put some weight on that bar?! AM I RIGHT?
- No cost (minus any equipment you choose to buy or gym memberships)
- Do it whenever
- Do it wherever
- Catered to you and your needs
- Decreased accountability and motivation
- Form and technique might go uncorrected
- Base level of knowledge needed
Working out on your own is a terrific way to save some money and shape your workout schedule 100% to your life. You are in charge of where you do it, how you do it, and when you do it. The autonomy is palpable.
However, you probably should know what you’re doing, at least to an extent. This is one of the reasons many people avoid strength training altogether, simply because they have no idea what to do. Randomly performing heavy squats and elaborate deadlift variations without knowing the basics is a good way to hurt yourself and make sure you struggle to reach your goals.
And if you’re someone who struggles with personal accountability… this might not be your best option. There is literally no one to try and change your mind if laziness gets the better of you prior to a training session. That’s a slippery slope, especially if your self discipline and will power sucks a big one.
THE VERDICT: a solid option if you’re self motivated and have a good idea of what you need to do and how to effectively do it
But at the end of the day….
- You absolutely need to strength train in some way shape or form. There’s no way around it. Getting stronger should be the foundation of what your exercise program is centered around. It will help you achieve your goals ten times more effectively.
- There is nothing wrong with any of the options on this list. It only becomes an issue when you do too much of one of them and neglect beneficial complementary/supplemental exercise (ex: only running every single day without strength training)
- Do whatever you can be CONSISTENT with. Consistency is probably the most influential factor when it comes to reaching your goals.
- If you’re not sure what you’re doing is working… ask someone!