hot bod

You Really Do Work Out Harder at the Gym

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

“Hot Bod” is a weekly exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.

A couple years ago, there was nothing that could push me to work harder in a fitness class than showing up late. If I felt like I was making up for lost time, I was on intense fire for the entire session. Now that I’ve returned to in-person classes, I am pedal to the mats, four to the floor. I’m making up for big, lost time. Like a year and a half of it. But also, I sense, part of this perception is that I was just never working that hard in the fitness classes I streamed from home.

“People just don’t have as much endurance during an at-home workout,” says Amanda Freeman, the founder of energetic Pilates-hybrid fitness program SLT. When SLT started online classes by necessity in March 2020, it just transposed its exact program onto Instagram Live. “But six minutes of opening abs at home was just way too brutal,” Freeman tells me. She could see students fleeing, both loyalists and novices. “The beauty of digital is it brought new people to fitness. You don’t want to turn those people off by being too hardcore.” She reduced the opening abs sequence by half. “Most workouts, I don’t want to say they’re dumbed down,” Freeman notes, “but they’re modified.”

“At home, we are definitely using a reduced-movement library,” says 305 founder Sadie Kurzban about her famously bouncy cardio-dance class. “We may do high knees or burpees in a studio, but we’re not going to do that at home, because who wants to do 20 burpees on their rug? Nobody.”

Of course, there’s less equipment in most people’s homes; they have less space; and there were many more intangible factors at work over the past year, reducing people’s capability. There’s a physical weariness to living through an emotionally, socially, and politically exhausting time, Kurzban notes. “And at home, we’ve got distractions,” Kurzban tells me. “It’s boring. It’s not this immersive experience. All the troubles that were plaguing you are still lurking in the space. You go to a studio like 305 and there’s a hundred LED-light show, there are sprung hardwood floors, you’ve got a DJ, you’ve got just this sense of escape. It’s a full nightclub palace.”

Dr. Chloe Carmichael, a psychologist and yoga instructor and author of the book Nervous Energy, confirms the motivating impact of working out in a “nightclub palace.” “In psychology, there is something called ‘situational cues,’” she tells me. “If you study for a math test in a certain room, you’ll perform better on a math test if you take the test in that room. For many people, the exercise studio itself becomes an environmental cue to get your game face on.”

“It takes willpower to overcome distraction,” Dr. Carmichael says. If we maintain more reserves of our willpower, we can channel that energy into the tenth push-up, rather than expending it on just simply remaining in the class. When we’re distracted, it’s way easier to walk off — and also, there’s more stuff to walk off to at home. I don’t have any of my favorite books or my dog at a fitness studio.

In the digital sphere, there are also no witnesses. “I think people work harder during in-person classes,” Triana Brown, senior manager of HIIT studio Solidcore, tells me. She credits the motivational power of “eye contact” from an instructor. The curriculum lead for Barry’s, Chris Hudson, offers a similar theory: “The Barry’s client likes the underlying fun spirit of competitiveness,” he tells me. “Being able to run next to somebody again, you see them take it up one point faster, and you think, I can take it up one point faster.” Always the best student (I’m unbearable), when the teacher and classmates were absent, I felt at sea with only myself as my boring, predictable rival.

This echoes another quality Dr. Carmichael mentioned: the Hawthorne effect. “When we know we’re being observed, our performance will improve — unless it’s a skill we feel poor in. Then our performance will plummet,” Dr. Carmichael tells me. “So someone who isn’t confident will love working out in solitude. But for people who feel at least average, they get that boost from working out while they’re observed.”

And they miss that boost! They’re show-offs like me, maybe, and really craved the ambient presence of other people doing their weights next to them. And so we’re all back, showing off with the heavies!

Now, fitness instructors, who witnessed our low energy over the past year, are prepared for our wild attempts to make up for all this lost time. “One of the things I’m making sure our coaches are aware of,” says Prince Brathwaite, the founder of Trooper Fitness, “is that people may bite off more than they can chew because of what they were doing a year and a half ago.” He has warned his instructors to keep an eye on excitable go-getters. “People will need to build a foundation back up. But yeah, people are absolutely excited. They say it verbally: I’m so happy to be around people. I hear it every day.”

You Really Do Work Out Harder at the Gym