Maybe this is a familiar scenario to you: you walk into your usual 6am or 5:30pm class, fighting your way through people shedding outerwear and changing shoes to carve out a little space for your bags (because let’s face it, it’s almost impossible to get through a full day of life without at least a work bag, lunch bag, and gym bag). During class, you’re constantly looking over your shoulder making sure you’re not smashing anybody with your kettlebell swing or kicking anyone as you drop into a burpee. Sometimes, you’re forced to use a heavier or lighter weight than you’d like because all the 12 lb weights are taken.
You leave your workout feeling a little harried and not totally sure you got the best sweat you could have — but hey, that’s what you get for coming in during a peak time, right?
Well, not necessarily. It’s true that “prime time” classes (think anything from 6am to 8am and 6pm to 8pm) are often more crowded than daytime classes, simply because most people have standard office hours they have to be present for. And yes, crowded classes can be chaotic and even a little nerve-wracking (especially if you’re a newbie to group fitness).
But, with a little pre-planning and know-how, you can make the most out of a crowded group fitness class whether you’re one of 40 or the only one who shows up.
Before class starts
Get your mind right
Paul Rahn, owner of SWEAT fitness studios in Gold Coast and Lincoln Park, believes it’s important to walk in the door of that crowded gym with the right attitude in order to make the most out of your workout.
“Get your mind right! You will obviously observe the classes jam-packed, which means one GOOD thing — it’s a killer class! Open your mind and mentally adjust, knowing that you may have to adjust your normal routine in this class.”
Yoga instructor Sara Pittman, who frequently teaches crowded classes at Studio Three, agrees that mindset is key before getting on your mat.
“It all starts with awareness,” explains Pittman. “This time you have committed to doing something really awesome for your mind and body is also time to get really present with how you move in space.
Pittman acknowledges the internal groan yogis give when the instructor asks you to move your mat over a few inches, but she encourages you to use that as a reminder of moderation, and that you don’t need more than what you have — in this case, just the four corners of your mat.
Explore the studio space
Once you’ve got your mind right, your next move should be to scope out the space you’re sweating in, says Stephanie Rountree, Community Director at Crosstown Fitness and Nike Trainer.
“Notice what equipment is [in the studio], and where it is located. Sometimes classes have a list of the exercises written out already. Read it! Maybe you’ll recognize some of the exercises, and this will prepare you even more when the class actually starts.”
Find a buddy
If you’re early, you might use the extra time to introduce yourself to someone else in the room, or find a familiar face you’ve seen in class before. Not only does that crowded room feel a little more comfortable, but you’ve also just made a built-in buddy to share equipment and space with during the workout.
A buddy can also be helpful in remembering what move you’re supposed to be doing at each station, or, at the very least, you can exchange pained glances when your trainer demands another set of burpees.
“You are in it together!” Rountree reminds us. “Not only do you have the instructor motivating you, but now you have that friendly competition with your new gym buddy.”
Chat up your instructor
And finally, if your instructor is available to chat, Rountree strongly recommends connecting with him or her before class officially starts.
“If the trainer is available, pull them aside to discuss any concerns or disclose any injuries you may have. Or, if you’re a regular, maybe remind them your name and develop a relationship with them.”
That way, she explains, the trainer will be more likely to keep an eye on you during class and help you in any way you need.
When class starts
Listen closely to the instructor
If you’ve been chatting away with your new gym buddy, it comes to a pause when the instructor starts explaining the workout.
“Pay attention, close attention to what the instructor is telling you. Be sure to listen to their direction on where to go, when to transition, and what you should be doing!” emphasizes Rahn. “If you miss something, you might be the cause of a chaotic, disorganized class that would have easily been organized if everyone listened carefully.”
Improvise and ask for what you need
But even if you’ve listened attentively, once that timer starts, you may realize that your preferred weight set is missing, or there’s just not enough room to do skaters with the amount of people around you. What’s your pivot?
“Realize there are a TON of options to get in a killer workout, so if your favorite weight options are missing know a few ways to still get in the same (or better workout),” says Rahn.
Among his go-to substitutions: asking a fellow gym-goer to borrow their weights when they’re not using them, substituting a resistance band for dumbbells, or taking this as a sign from the universe that it’s time for you to progress to the next weight of dumbbells. Rountree agrees, adding that you can also easily substitute kettlebells in for dumbbells.
Be safe with your space
Aside from not having enough equipment to go around, space might also be hard to find in a workout class with 30 or more other humans — a problem Rountree often runs into when leading sellout classes and exclusive Nike workouts. When that happens, she wants her participants to take a second to look around them and decide if they need to adjust a box to the left or take their burpees to the right.
And don’t forget, sometimes the solution to getting more space may be as simple as kindly asking the person next to you to scooch over a few inches. In yoga classes specifically, Pittman recommends being flexible with your space (pun totally intended).
“You can zig zag with your neighbor,” advises Pittman. “That can be with the placement of your mat or the placement of your body from pose to pose.”
When in doubt, flag down the instructor
And if all else fails and you REALLY need the instructor’s help? Don’t be shy about waving to get his or her attention.
“Know that the instructor is probably feeling just as motivated (and potentially overwhelmed with so many faces looking him or her down) as you may feel in this packed class,” encourages Rahn. “That said, if you need their attention, don’t be afraid to wave them down!” Rahn recommends holding a plank or a squat until the instructor can make his or her way over to you.
Take the opportunity to connect with others
Each trainer we spoke to for this piece agreed: part of the fun of working out is doing it with a group of awesome, inspiring human beings.
“Look at this as an opportunity for an added challenge,” Pittman suggests. “One of the most powerful human needs is the one for connection. We all want a sense of belonging and a feeling of community so the next time you’re in a crowded room rather than feel upset, celebrate the togetherness of the unique group of people surrounding you and sharing their practice.”