Virtual Workouts Vs IRL: Which Way To Exercise Is More Effective?

A woman working out in a gym setting wearing a face mask. She's doing squats, while another patron is doing seated curls.

I walked up the steps to Toronto’s Afterglow Studio excited. It’d been awhile since I had taken a fitness class. But I was working out six days a week at home on my Peloton for cardio and weights and doing Lagree virtual Pilates classes. The world was opening up, and so was my schedule. I was ready to hiit the gym – boom, tish, sah.

I booked the high-intensity interval training (HIIT) fusion class and a restorative yoga class right after. The Flow + HIIT class was pretty much what I expected. My mind was solid throughout…. But my heart rate, my red-blasted face, my breathing had other plans.

Despite not wearing a heart rate monitor like I do at home, I knew I was above my max. I stopped at the end of the second round of HIIT moves, just before the class went into a yoga flow, and headed to the bathroom. My face wasn’t even red – it was purple. I ran the cold water and splashed my face until it was more pink than aubergine. My ego was bruised but I didn’t want my face to be.

When I opened the door, I saw another class attendee, catching her breath, waiting to use the bathroom just like I did. I felt a bit better.

I finished the class, missing the yoga flow, just in time to start the next HIIT. The instructor didn’t even blink an eye. I just assumed my spot on my yoga mat. The other woman didn’t return until the final flow. 

How could this be? I’ve done HIIT before. And, while it always kicked my butt, I hadn’t had to leave a class since I first started working out. Am I out of shape? Are my six-days-a-week workouts all for naught? Was I wasting my time?

My review of the Peloton Bike Bootcamp class.

Are at-home workouts effective?

“There is a definite difference between practicing at home vs online,” says Canfitpro personal trainer Julie Watson, who is also a co-owner of Afterglow Studio, when I sheepishly admit to her that my workout review has turned into more of a WTF story about my own fitness levels. I had to ask her if she’d noticed a difference with her own clients. Watson created virtual classes to keep training with her own clients. 

Motivation-wise, the convenience makes at-home workouts effective. There’s no waiting for a spot to open up. There’s no hassle of trying to squeeze a class into your calendar based on a gym’s schedule. But Watson says it can be easy to “go soft” on your at-home workouts, in ways that won’t cut it in an in-person session. Like not having your screen on in a Zoom class.

“Being in a class with an instructor present, motivating you to breathe or move a certain way – or if it’s a power or fitness class, to do that last push-up – increases your chances of achieving your goals, whether it’s to breathe more, or get stronger. At home we tend to give up sooner.” 

She’s also noted improvements in clients who’ve returned to the studio, after training for months online. “Not just [with] physical strength, but [for an] emotional release,” she says. “The energy of a class in person provides a sense of community which we know releases endorphins and increases serotonin in the brain to improve mood. We are not meant to be isolated as humans. We are meant to connect. All of this improves mood and helps us to feel joy, which at the end of the day is the big goal.”

Lagreeing At Home: What the classes really are like.

At-home workouts vs the gym: What science says

Are at home workouts less effective than training at a gym? The research behind this might as well be about the effects of coffee. “The results are mixed, frankly,” says exercise physiologist Scott Powers, PhD, health sciences professor at Stetson University.

“They’ve looked at every aspect you can think of. Some are preclinical studies about patients and osteoporosis. Some are about coronary heart disease.” But, it’s not exactly a research beat that begs for large subject groups or even long-term results.

For our conversation, he advises that looking the individual rather than a definitive study result. There are people who can motivate themselves to follow a program at home, just like they would under supervision, he says. And there are others of us who bask in the supervision and encouragement.

The bottom line: “The response [to at-home vs gym workouts] for people is always based on the intensity and duration of the exercise. If you’re willing to do the same intensity and duration at home, of course you can get the same results as you’d get in the gym. It’s just that not everyone is willing to do that.”

Powers adds that pressure from the class and the trainer can also come into play. And, I’ve always said to myself in a class that I don’t have to be the most fit, but I don’t want to be the least fit. 

Put your heart into it

The tool for measuring if you’re working out hard enough: A heart rate monitor. Powers says, typically, heart rate monitors use “an infrared system to monitor the pulse of the radial artery like the wrist.” And there’s a “standard of error” of 10 to 20 beats a minute. 

But I always train to my max heart rate!

Powers also points to research from McMaster University, namely under Martin Gibala, professor of kinesiology, comparing high-intensity long exercise and high-intensity short exercises. 

A lightbulb turns on for me. I was spinning, doing weights and Pilates. And even some barre. But no jumping jacks, squat jumps or jump bounds. Is it that I’m in shape, but not in shape for HIIT?

Powers explains a possible reason for my elevated heart rate: “We have a cardio respiratory control centre right here in our brainstem. It gets information from the higher brain centre, that is the primary drive. Information comes back to the brain from the working muscles about how hard they’re being exercised: Whether or not they are in a homeostatic state or are working at high intensity and producing a lot of metabolites. That stimulates the body to increase our heart rate.”

He says: “So, anytime you do an exercise you’re unaccustomed to, using muscles that aren’t trained, you’re going to have a higher heart rate than training muscles that you’re accustomed to.”

My at-home workouts conditioned me for… my at-home workouts with a low ceiling, which included spinning and Pilates. Not the jumps I did at Afterglow.

“It could very well be that you were using a lot of muscle groups in this HIIT workout that you aren’t using at home.”

The one thing my fitness level is really missing rn.

How to have effective workouts at home

Be more aware of how you’re making your workouts easier at home, says Nadia Clarke Cordick, trainer, nutritional coach and owner of Repetitions Fitness. “Our mind’s are naturally predisposed to taking the path of least resistance, so we often encourage ourselves, sometimes unknowingly, to take the easy way out for many things, but especially when it comes to physical activity.”

That means, asking yourself are you jumping high enough, following proper form, choosing the low-impact version (um, hello!), taking longer breaks in between moves or choosing shorter workouts.

Also, she adds, you can choose heavier weights, set goals – do 30 pushups, then aim for 40 the next time – use a fitness tracking app, change up your workouts, follow your heart rate and use zone training to track the intensity of your workouts.

Getting FIIT

To get that in-person effectiveness with an at-home gym, she recommends scheduling workouts with friends, even if you’re not in the same space, hiring a fitness coach, signing up for live online classes, joining a Facebook group to hold each other accountable and signing up for a fitness program.

She also points to the FITT principle:

  • frequency
  • intensity
  • time
  • type

It’s clear to me now. That last one is what I was forgetting – to vary the types of workouts. (It could also explain why Peloton has massively expanded the types of workouts it offers, too.) 

“Adding in a variety of workouts can definitely help with increasing intensity,” says Clarke Cordick. “If the workouts are varied, with a mixture of intensity levels, time – timed reps or counted reps – and type or workouts your body will definitely get more out of it. That’s the whole idea behind the FITT principle.”

As for my lack of head room for jumps, she says there are still ways to jump. I have to get outside of my at-home gym. That means a park, the garage, wherever. 

And she gives me this list of fitness styles to do to ensure that I vary my workouts – and my muscle groups.

  • mobility
  • Pilates
  • yoga
  • resistance
  • HIIT
  • cardio
  • plyometrics
  • circuit training 
  • intervals 

The fix for wrist pain when exercising is easier than you’d think.

Is any workout better than no workout at all?

I already know the answer to this – and likely you do, too. But, my recent HIIT class had of feeling out of shape had me questioning this, until I spoke with Powers. 

“Certainly, if your ultimate goal is health-related benefits from exercise, there’s undeniable evidence to show that regular exercise decreases all-cause mortality, reduces your risk of heart disease, reduces your risk of type-two diabetes, reduces your risk of 13 different cancers,” he says. “It’s amazing the evidence of the negative health effects of sitting, alone. And I’ve spent my life, writing books, writing grants and sitting. Even though I exercise daily, I am now beginning to worry that 45 to 50 minutes of vigorous activity may not be enough to counteract 12 hours of sitting.”

Back to the gym (at home or in person), I go…