Is the boutique fitness scene too obsessed with intensity?

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In the New York City boutique fitness scene, there’s an ethos that seems to be spreading: If the workout doesn’t make you feel like you might throw up, leave you painfully sore for days, or at least drown you in a pool of your own sweat, did it really happen?

“There’s definitely been a shift to a mentality that the best workout is one that destroys you,” says Brynn Putnam, the super smart creator of Refine Method. And that, she adds, is a bad thing. “I think that’s a scary and unfortunate shift in the wrong direction.”

Putnam is one of a growing cadre of expert trainers and skilled instructors who worry that classes are getting harder and longer—and that many of the people attending are setting themselves up for, at best, a lack of progress, and, at worst, injury.

How did we get here, and is it really even a problem?

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Photo: Stocksy/Daxiao Productions
Photo: Stocksy/Daxiao Productions

HIIT hits

The shift towards high-intensity sweat sessions started a few years ago, when a body of research started to emerge showing that HIIT (high-intensity interval training) could deliver the benefits of exercise—like heart health and strength gains—with extreme efficiency. CrossFit was picking up steam around the same time, as was evidence for heavy weight training for non-bodybuilders, all in the name of benefits like afterburn.

“I think we saw a nice shift, when the boutique fitness explosion started, away from toning, light-weight workouts towards athletic, functional training workouts that were higher intensity and incorporated weight and intervals,” Putnam says. Naturally, as the realm of boutique fitness expanded, that led to classes that implement those principles in an intelligent way—as well as those that don’t.

Photo: Tim Gibson for Well+Good
Photo: Tim Gibson for Well+Good

Making progress through rest days

What seems to be getting lost the most is that intensity is just one piece of the puzzle. “The basis of all good fitness programs is frequency, intensity, type, and time,” Putnam explains. “You should be progressively adjusting those variables, not doing them all at once.”

Especially since, if you’re applying the “go as hard as you can” ethos of HIIT, it’s impossible to keep that up for long periods of time. An hour of activity at that intensity—all while trying to lift heavy things and, of course, not taking a break—will just result in you not actually working as hard as you can during any of it. That’s because, according to Soho Strength Lab co-founder Albert Matheny, MS, RD, your body will be exhausted.

“Any good coach will tell you that you work at 100 percent when it’s a competition—and you don’t compete every day”

And doing a super-hard workout every day? It will have a similar effect, since you’re not giving your body time to recover in between. (Cue “rest day” talk….) Think about marathon training, he suggests. “You don’t train for a marathon by running marathons all the time. You run shorter distances to vary the intensity of your training.”

That leads to making real progress, something you’re not going to do if you’re simply crushing yourself daily. “You either get hurt or you’re just exhausted,” Matheny says. “Any good coach will tell you that you work at 100 percent when it’s a competition—and you don’t compete every day.”

Plus, even if you’re not looking for major strength gains, overdoing it day after day can actually wreak havoc on your metabolism, which means if weight loss is your goal, you may hit a wall.

Photo: Stocksy/Rob and Julia Campbell
Photo: Stocksy/Rob and Julia Campbell

Do you really want to hurt me?

That’s what I was thinking after a recent hour-long class, consisting of exercises no one in the room could do properly at the intensity suggested, when I left with a pain in my right arm. I watched as women threw their bodies into positions that stressed their lower back and used all of the wrong muscles, with the instructor yelling that breaks for catching our breath and drinking water were not an option.

“You can’t maintain good form if you’re trying to push to your maximum effort for an extended period of time. It doesn’t work,” Matheny says. “If someone’s screaming at you and you feel like you’re going to pass out, are you thinking about where your knees are aligned?”

And while all workouts come with a risk of injury (running may be the worst offender, and no one’s suggesting people stop doing it), bad form accelerates that risk in big ways.

Photo: Stocksy/Bonninstudio
Photo: Stocksy/Bonninstudio

We’re our own worst enemy

Of course, boutique fitness is getting people moving in ways they weren’t before—not to mention the fact that many group workouts include extreme intensity in smart, safe ways. Refine Method, Kira Stokes’ killer classes, and even the oft-feared Tone House, which builds recovery time in during sprints and employs skilled instructors, are great examples.

There’s no excuse for bad, injury-promoting programming, but I can’t help but think we also have ourselves to blame. “It’s not that there is over-training so much as the New York lifestyle causes us to push the needle so hard,” says Dan Giordano, the co-founder of Bespoke Treatments, a physical therapy center that caters to fitness enthusiasts. “We just need to become more aware of recovery—sleep, nutrition, soft tissue mobilization via foam rolling, stretching.”

“It’s not that there is over-training so much as the New York lifestyle causes us to push the needle so hard”

Putnam also cites New Yorkers’ desire to get as much as possible out of every hour and dollar. “I can understand the desire for each workout to feel like you’re maximizing your investment, and the easiest way to do that is soreness, sweating, or failure,” she says. Just think about how we approach alcohol consumption in this city; “bad group fitness is like binge drinking,” Matheny muses. Immediate gratification, the promise of escaping the focused grind for a while…what’s the difference, really, whether you’re struggling up the subway stairs the next morning due to a hangover or hamstring annihilation?

If that’s the case, we have the power to save ourselves and enjoy all of the exciting, muscle-building offerings of boutique fitness. Stop ignoring recovery practices like foam rolling, suggests Giordano, and don’t do things that hurt, Putnam advises. During tough intervals, focus on maintaining good form, not volume, Matheny says. After all, if you’re crushing a class and an instructor tells you to push it to a place that feels dangerous, what’s more New York than telling them to f*ck off while you continue to squat like a boss?

Prepare yourself before hitting an intense class: Take this test to gauge your fitness level, and master proper form for these four common exercises. And if you really are up for the challenge (and are taking your rest days), these are the toughest workouts in New York City.

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