If you can set your personal issues aside for a moment, I can give you some guidelines that will help you join those bouncy girls twirling around in time to the beat. What makes me think you could possibly do that? Because I did it myself. And I lived through it and I'm a better, or at least fitter, man for it. So pay attention.
First, the Why: Let's say you're a runner. You run outside in nice weather, on the treadmill in winter. You started in earnest a few months ago and now you're up to about 15 miles a week. You've probably noticed a slight drop in your resting heart rate, you don't get tired as easily as you used to, and maybe you've even shed a few pounds. That's great, but now what?
Your body has become a nice and efficient running machine and that means further gains are going to harder to come by. The advantage you see from upping your mileage another 5-10 miles a week will only be a fraction of what you got from the first fifteen. You need to do something besides running. Something where you can start over almost from the beginning so the big gains continue.
Oh sure, you could bike or hit the Stairmaster for a bit of a change. But I'm pretty sure that after a few sessions you would start to bore. You will find a nice comfortable level of resistance and go on cruise control. You know you will. Kiss the benefits good-bye. Eventually, the tedium will drive you back to Couch Potato City.
Aerobics classes provide you with a much more varied workout. Muscles are engaged and moved in a more complex and challenging fashion. In many ways, it's more similar to competitive sports (basketball, tennis) than a typical workout in that it goes beyond a single simple motion repeated endlessly. It turns out the thing that is so scary about it - the more complicated movements - is also what makes it more beneficial.
Additionally, for most people, just the class format serves as added motivation. Even if you are not the competitive type, you still can't just slack your way through it. You are compelled to at least keep up, if nothing else, for your own sense of dignity.
So let me break down the different types of classes, starting with the simple ones, tell you what you expect from them, and put your mind at ease.
These sorts of classes are usually a good place to start. The movements are deliberate and obvious, and you will often find a higher percentage of men in attendance, which can provide a certain level of comfort.
When many people think of Yoga they think of a class full of new-age, alfalfa-eating, ex-hippies following a short, hirsute Himalayan man in a diaper through a series of awkward poses, after which they declare their souls to be cleansed, their life-forces energized and their spirits balanced. If the class you attend turns out like that, you have my permission to wait for an opportune moment of silence and proclaim "I could sure use a cheeseburger."
Don't fret, most of the yoga taught at gyms and health clubs falls in the realm of something called Power Yoga (occasionally, and perhaps erroneously, called Ashtanga). In fact it's become so prevalent in many places that Power Yoga is called Yoga and the more spiritual versions are called Traditional Yoga.
Power Yoga uses a subset of traditional Yoga poses, but they are performed at a somewhat faster pace and with little proselytizing about the effect they have on your aura. What you end up with is an extended series of drills that focus on flexibility, muscle endurance, and balance.
Think about those three:
- Flexibility - if I was a gambling man, which I am in the existential sense, I would bet your current routine allows for about three minutes of simple stretches at the beginning or end of your workout. And then only if you don't have to rush home to see Malcolm in the Middle.
- Muscle Endurance - this is not doing twelve reps instead of your usual ten. Think of getting ready to do a push-up, then stopping half way down and just holding yourself still for, say, a minute or so. You may be able to bench press a small car but your arms will quiver when you first attempt at this. It requires a fundamentally different sort of strength than free weights or the various machines. It's also the type of muscle activity that you do every day, like carrying bags of groceries up three flights of stairs, where you need to keep your muscles engaged for a longer period of time rather than move a very heavy object a few inches in one short push.
- Balance - don't even pretend you've done any balance training since you walked the curb on your toes when you were nine.
You can see how much a Yoga class or two per week will benefit you and broaden your fitness horizons. (Did I really write that? I must be taking too much yoga or something.)
I have lumped Pilates (pronounced Puh-lah-tees) in with yoga because the movements are slowly paced, but Pilates is more focused on something called "core strength" which effectively means muscle development in your abdominals and lower back - the regions that are key to just about every physical activity you can imagine. Full body movements that require any sort of power invariably originate from your torso, including swinging a golf club, throwing out a runner at home plate, or just standing up straight.
Pilates can be done on a mat or pad on the floor, but there is also a specially designed piece of equipment that looks a bit like a medieval torturer's rack, which is designed to offer resistance and improve your form. Often classes taught on this equipment are costly because of the expense of the equipment.
A Pilates class will make those three sets of crunches you do seem pointless.
As you can guess, these are group weightlifting classes. They can vary widely in practice from stationary dumbbell lifting, to circuit training with weights positioned at different stations around the room, to targeted body parts - invariably butt and abs. Also, expect to do push-ups.
The problem with all these classes is the notion of using lighter weights and endless repetitions to produce "toning"; greater muscle definition without muscle bulk. I'm very skeptical of that. Muscle definition of that sort comes from loss of fat and that suggests that diet would be much more important. Worse, targeted toning has been virtually proven NOT to work. Except in very special circumstances, the first place you will lose weight and gain tone is the last place you gained weight - this is genetically pre-determined and it's pretty much the opposite of what you'd like to happen.
That said, weight training classes like this will probably do no harm, and if you're comfortable working out in this manner: you go.
If you are very lucky, you may run across one of these classes that is dedicated to strength training rather than toning. In that case, what you can expect is a typical weight-training regime of three sets of 12 repetitions working all the major muscle groups over the course of the class. The idea is to work until your muscles reach "failure". If you make it through all three sets of twelve with relative ease, you need to increase the weight so that your muscles give out towards the end. The work is done at a steady pace with only about twenty or thirty seconds in between sets - much less time than you would give yourself during a typical weight room workout. The result is that even though you may be a veritable Schwarzenegger, an hour-long workout with 12-15 lb. weights completely fatigues your muscles. If you find one of these classes, stick with it, it will pay off.
These classes are generally free form, using callisthenic and plyometric drills, various props such as jump ropes, medicine balls and weights, and old-fashioned running around in circles to create a potentially very intense workout. The intent here is to enhance the raw physical capacities you need for other sports or activities.
The best of these classes will get two things you don't get in a typical workout.
- Plyometrics - think of this as building explosive power. A push-up builds upper body strength. A push-up with a clap adds in explosive power. Leaping drills such as jump squats are typical lower body plyometric exercises. The intent of plyometrics is to provide you with better acceleration and jumping ability. Strength * Speed = Power.
- Anaerobics - think of this as pushing yourself to the point where you cannot suck air fast enough to get the oxygen you need to keep going. That's what gives you that nauseous feeling. (Note: In most health clubs, it's considered bad form to push yourself until you throw up in the water fountain. Trust me on this.) An anaerobic state is typically achieved by doing wind sprints - repetitively sprinting for a short duration with a brief rest in between. The goal is to increase your ability to 'turn it on' for brief burst when needed in other activities, like chasing down your opponent on a fast break or making a mad dash to reach a cross-court volley.
Like the rest, these classes vary from place to place and instructor to instructor. I participate in one of these every week in which the instructor's goal is, quite clearly and unselfconsciously, to make me keep pushing until I throw up. I'll leave it to you to speculate on the reason I keep going back. On the other hand, I have attended a Boot Camp class where I barely broke a sweat.
One thing to watch out for in these classes is an instructor who takes the military metaphor a little too seriously. You can generally spot these types because they tend to wear camouflage pants and heavy black boots and they appear to harbor the belief that most of their students are partially deaf, which turns out to be bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy when you consider all the yelling.
Boot Camp can be a good intro to aerobics classes for guys because of the near complete lack of choreography. This is almost like gym class from junior high, but with more intensity, and less dodge ball.
This is where things start to get really scary for the regular guy. Things seem to be moving awfully fast and everybody is synchronized and serious looking.
Bah! Here's a closely guarded secret about this stuff: It's just punching and kicking. I don't know about you, but I've been punching and kicking since I was a little kid, usually against larger boys who failed to appreciate my insouciant sense of humor.
Cardio-Kickboxing classes have been going on in excess of fifteen years, mostly in California for the first ten or so. Then, a few years ago, a guy named Billy Blanks trademarked the name Tae BoTM and plastered himself all over every media outlet he could find and suddenly cardio-kickboxing became hot. Classes sprang up at gyms and health clubs and spas. Even traditional martial arts dojos started offering these classes. Variations such as cardio-boxing (for those who don't like to kick) and Tae Funk (kickboxing combined with hip-hop dance moves) appeared. But here's the thing: it's still just punching and kicking.
There are four basic punches (jab, cross, hook, uppercut), and three basic kicks (front, side, roundhouse). Occasionally more exotic stuff such as hitch-kicks (hop up on one leg, kick with the other) are mixed in; often knee thrusts are used in combination with the kicks, but it's pretty standard stuff.
That's not to say you can walk in and master everything within the first five minutes, but you will pick this up quickly. In your first couple of classes you'll hang toward the back and not try to kick way up over your head and hit every transition perfectly. You'll move tentatively, trying to catch the rhythm and get a feel for the sequencing of the movements. By your third or fourth class, you'll start noticing that you're moving in sync with everyone else and you'll get disappointed with yourself when you make a misstep.
Cardio-kickboxing provides the standard cardio-vascular benefits of any aerobic activity, but there are aspects of the workout that you don't find much of elsewhere.
First, there are distinctive components of flexibility, balance and strength to the kicking. Kick height comes from flexibility, obviously. Equally obvious is that balance is required for kicking since, ipso facto, you will be on one leg for a time. What isn't so obvious is that there is a good deal of leg and hip strength required to perform these kicks with good form. While it may seem like a kick is just throwing your leg in the air, a well-formed kick is actually a series of specific motions - raise your leg, push out against your target, pull back, lower your leg - done in a rapid sequence. This requires an element of control at speed and that takes leg and hip strength.
Second, punching and kicking in this manner make use of what are known as fast-twitch muscle fibers. There are two types muscle fibers, fast-twitch and (yeah, you guessed it) slow-twitch. Slow-twitch muscle fibers are the ones that keep you going through that marathon you ran last week and take Lance Armstrong around the French countryside. Fast-twitch muscle fibers are used for explosive actions, such as blasting through the offensive line and leaving the quarterback with a concussion. Punching is all about fast-twitch. The faster your punch travels, while maintaining good form, the harder it will land. The faster you pull your hand back in to protect your face, the safer you are from your opponent's fast-twitch muscle fibers.
Ironically, it is these unique attributes of cardio-kickboxing that lead to its greatest problem: There are not many good cardio-kickboxing instructors. I have taken aerobic kickboxing classes from dozens of instructors and I bet I could count the really good ones on one hand. Most cardio-kickboxing instructors come from other forms of aerobics and harbor the mistaken idea that the key to a good cardio-kickboxing workout is to keep punching and kicking faster so that your heart rate increases. That is not only wrong, it is dangerous. If not done carefully and with good form, the complex kicking movements can cause injury, especially to the knees. To make a kickboxing workout more challenging requires an increase in intensity while maintaining good form. Be wary of bad instructors, but if you find a good one, stick with it.
You are about to enter an alien world. A world where people communicate through a strange combination of telepathy and random vocabulary. A world of near-constant angular motion within a three-square foot environment. A world where your survival is dependent on traversing a shallow obstacle in as many different ways as possible. A world where time exists only as an electronic backbeat. A world that is under the complete control of sweaty, but cheerful, women in spandex. You are about to enter the world of Step aerobics.
Guys, you might as well be on Mars.
Step Aerobics is all about coordination. Can you imagine being the only guy in a room full of super-fit, super-coordinated girls and trying to keep in step with them? You know that dream you have about giving a speech and suddenly realizing you're naked? That's about what it's like. Why would you ever want to do that?
Because coordination, like any other capacity, is only acquired through doing. (I know, I sound like your high school counselor.) I don't want to sugar coat anything. Unlike all the other classes I've described so far, this one is going to take effort just to be passable.
There is not a non-trivial movement in Step class, despite the fact that broken down to the basics, the actual steps in Step aerobics are almost like baby steps; step up - step down - turn this way - turn that way - hop - knee. Except these things are strung together in rhythmic and syncopated sequences that are performed so fast that you can't think your way through them, you have to "feel" the sequence. That is almost the definition of coordination.Now that I've sympathized with your anxiety, let me say that you can survive it and conquer it, and when you do you may find you like it a lot more than you thought you would. In fact, I bet you'll be craving more.
I can't give you any tricks that will make you good at Step. It took me about 7 or 8 classes of staggering about like I had head injury before I could make it through without being a total embarrassment to myself. In that process I found out a couple of interesting things.
First, even though it may seem like all eyes are on you, nobody is paying you more than a passing glance. I know this because now that I'm competent enough to not be the sore thumb, I don't look around at those worse than me. I do look at those who are better than me and try to emulate them, so it's the skilled folks are getting looked at.
Second, if anyone is looking, as a guy, you are being graded on a curve. I once asked one of those sweaty, but cheerful, spandex girls if she thought guys looked silly trying to do this. She said she thought it was impressive that a guy would even try it and that, and I quote, "It's OK to be good at it. But not better than me." So you see, in Step Aerobics, as in life, showing up is half the battle.
Here is an accumulation of the Step Aerobics wisdom I have gained, so you don't have to relearn it:
- If at all possible, start in a beginner's class. There are some very basic steps you should know and that instructors will generally assume you know. If you have to learn the basics along with the choreography, it'll be that much harder.
- All instructors are different. They have different vocabularies and different routines. Stick with one until you get it down before moving on. When you move on it'll be easier, but you'll still need a class or two to get in the groove.
- Leave the arms out. One thing you'll notice is that the experienced steppers not only have the steps down right, but the arm movements too. Get the feet right first. When you get the feet down well enough then work on the arms.
- Start low. The things you put under the step to make it higher are called risers. One on each side will do. More risers will make things a lot harder, more so than you realize. Don't be a hard guy.
- Watch and think, then don't. As you are trying to learn a combination of moves think of each successive move relative to the previous or possibly the room itself. For example, if a combination involves step - turn - knee, is the step right or left? does the turn go in the direction of the stepping foot or the opposite? is the knee towards the front of the room or the back? When it comes time to actually do it, you'll need to not think about it and let your body do it from memory. I know that sounds awfully trite and new age, but it's what happens and it's not that hard to do. Think of it this way: you don't have to stop to consider what side you lean towards to get your bike around a corner. You did once.
- Don't worry about being graceful. There is a difference between coordination and grace. Coordination is all you need and it can be learned. If there is a way to learn to be graceful, I haven't found it.
Seriously, suppress your fears and give this a shot. Conquering an alien world is not something you get to do every day.
Floor aerobics are where aerobics started many, many years ago. It's fairly easy to see that they evolved from callisthenic routines, when somebody turned on some funky background music and kept the routine moving to the beat.
Like Step, these classes are coordination centered - only more so. There is a fine line between the movements you will encounter in these sorts of classes and what you might encounter in an actual dance class. One could argue that this is where grown women go when they get jealous of watching their daughters in dance class.
Of course, the natural progression for floor aerobics is to integrate more and more dance into the routine. This has lead to Jazzercise, Dancercise, Urban Funk aerobics, Salsaerobics, and dozens of other variations.
Most of the guidelines I discussed for Step apply here too. That is to say, it will take time. I have taken a couple of these sorts of classes and failed as miserably at them as I did in my early Step classes. But I have seen enough to know that if I worked at it I could get it down. Someday I may.
Master these classes and you'll never have to be self-conscious out on the dance floor of your favorite nightclub ever again.
Watch or Act?
So where does that leave us? I hope I have been able to dispel any mystery around this topic. I also hope that the knowledge that a 40-something geek such as myself can handle this means it's not as hard as it looks.
But there is still the lingering question of what your friends will think. That probably explains why virtually all the men I have run across in aerobics classes are well into their thirties or older. We're old enough not to give a rodent's posterior what other people think.
Look, if you're concerned your friends will think you're a sissy, just talk a lot of hockey and be more open about the audible aspects of your digestive process.
And remember what you were thinking when you were on the outside looking in. They're just as scared as you were.