Vail Daily column: How to navigate the pitfalls of group fitness training |

Vail Daily column: How to navigate the pitfalls of group fitness training

It has been a record turnout this fall for ski conditioning at the Sonnenalp Golf Club. The eager group shows up two days per week to fulfill their fitness yearnings to alleviate the frustration of being out of shape on the mountain. There is nothing worse than getting beat up by Mother Nature, especially considering fitness acquisition is completely in our control, disabilities and injuries notwithstanding.

Juan Carlos, owner of IHP, has stated, “Bleed in the gym so you don’t bleed on the field.” This is an appropriate comment as winter approaches. As my patrons have sharpened their movement skills and increased conditioning, a common problem has arisen; it’s an appropriate time to discuss the pitfalls of group exercise programs and how to navigate these roadblocks.


Individuals have fitness limitations that can’t be addressed in a group setting. Worse, these limitations are largely the reason people get injured in recreational group fitness settings.

Group fitness is a wonderful advantage for the fitness consumer. It promotes camaraderie, accountability and encourages harder personal effort because of the positive peer pressure. Group fitness is largely successful because it offers a great wellness investment for a fraction of the cost of other personalized services.

The volume of participants keeps the cost per attendee down, increasing buy in for individuals who might not consider hiring a coach, which is a costly luxury. Group fitness is arguably the No. 1 growing segment of the market because of Crossfit and other programs that have been hugely successful training multiple trainees at once.


Here is the problem with group training. I am very outspoken about the notion that, contrary to popular fitness belief, individuals have fitness limitations that can’t be addressed in a group setting. Worse, these limitations are largely the reason people get injured in recreational group fitness settings.

When a coach has to explain, correct and encourage 15 people who have different fitness backgrounds and tolerances for discomfort, problems tend to arise. Even though people get injured in one-on-one settings as well, it has been my experience that often, people show up for a group class to never be seen again; they couldn’t walk for a week afterwards and blame the class or specific exercises for their newly acquired knee injury.

I want to be clear that I am not trying to use group exercise as an excuse for poor coaching. But blame is often placed on trainers or specific exercises when injuries can’t be entirely avoided due to the nature of group dynamics. Bad exercises don’t exist, and poor mobility isn’t considered a medical problem.


Here’s a practical example. The most popular exercise in existence in all gyms across the world is the traditional squat. How many times have you been to an exercise class that didn’t involve squatting? Rarely if ever.

Thanks to your parents, you are either born with shallow or deep hip sockets. If you have deep hip sockets, your thigh bone sits further into the hip joint. When someone with deep hip sockets squats down with a large hip angle, the thigh bone contributes more leverage to the hip causing rotation of the sacrum in the opposite direction of the spine.

This is not a good scenario at all under external loads. So again, a trainee with a shallow hip socket will flourish with squats, while the individual with deep hip sockets may ache for days with sacroiliac joint pain for example.

The only way to really know how your hip operates is through imaging or through the eye of a judicious coach. This is hard for even a skilled coach to address in a group setting.


How should you navigate group fitness to avoid these issues? First, use common sense and understand your own limitations. If something hurts, then don’t do it.

If you continue to participate in group settings and have joint aches and pains, see a clinician to get evaluated.

Next, it is worthwhile to be assessed by a trainer to further evaluate movement quality and weaknesses to learn what movements are beneficial and which are potentially harmful. At the end of the day, you’re responsible for your own health; understanding your own limitations is the key to working out in a group setting.


Group fitness will always be something that I encourage and practice in my career. The benefits far outweigh the risks involved offering a great value.

Keep up the good work these next few weeks and have fun on the slopes this winter!

Ryan Richards has a B.S. from Ohio University and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the personal trainer at the Sonnenalp Golf Club and the owner of R2HP, an athlete consulting and personal training company. Richards’ passion comes from overcoming childhood obesity and a T1-L3 spinal fusion. Contact him at or 970-401-0720.

Support Local Journalism