It claims to be the world’s most popular barbell workout, yet most people conquer it without ever lifting more than 35 pounds.
While “group fitness class” can conjure visions of Zumba or Step Aerobics, BODYPUMP promises something different—strength training. With a barbell.
After tackling my first BODYPUMP class, I can confidently say it was unlike any workout I’d done previously, despite the fact I’ve consistently trained with free weights for the past 15 years.
But just because something’s different doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better. Here’s what you should know about BODYPUMP.
What is BODYPUMP?
BODYPUMP is a group exercise class developed by Les Mills International (henceforth referred to as Les Mills). Over 20,000 gyms license fitness programs from the company, and BODYPUMP’s their most popular.
Les Mills’ website describes BODYPUMP as “the ideal workout for anyone looking to get lean, toned and fit—fast.”
In practice, BODYPUMP classes are 30, 45 or 55-minute workouts that center around barbell-based exercises performed with very light weight for very high reps.
The latter begets the former—the sheer number of reps squeezed into a BODYPUMP class makes light weight a necessity if you want to keep up.
In the 55-minute class I endured, which had upwards of 20 participants, few people ever loaded their barbell with greater than 30 pounds. While a standard barbell weighs 45 pounds, Les Mills’ “SMARTBAR” (retail price: $210) weighs just 5.72 pounds. Most gyms that offer BODYPUMP have SMARTBARs or similar equivalents.
In this video from a BODYPUMP class, the participants perform over 130 Squat reps in one continuous set. It takes less than six minutes. This type of pacing is common in BODYPUMP.
Les Mills regularly releases new workout “tracks” so instructors have options to customize their classes, but the general methodology remains largely unchanged.
Participants may quickly change from a Bench Press to a Push-Up and back, or perform a complex that jumps between moves like a Bent-Over Row, a Hang Clean and a Military Press, but the exercises are almost always done quickly and for very high reps.
In a full-length BODYPUMP class, participants can expect 800-1,000 total reps.
Compared to a traditional strength training workout, that’s absurdly high.
“If I have somebody do a full-body workout where they start off with a hinge or a squat, then they’re doing a row and a push, then maybe some isolation exercises if they specifically want to work on their glutes or their biceps or whatever, all told, 100 to 150 total repetitions would be a decent ballpark,” says Tony Gentilcore, CSCS and owner of CORE training studio in Brookline, Massachusetts. He notes that by performing roughly a ninth of the reps of a BODYPUMP class in the same amount of time, clients are able to use significantly heavier weights.
As another point of context, Mark Rippetoe’s popular Starting Strength program, which is marketed as a great entry into barbell training for beginners, features many workouts that call for three sets of five reps on Squats—or 15 total reps.
For a class that purports to “build strength”, the number of reps in a BODYPUMP class is very high and the loads lifted quite low. But can it still build strength?
Does BODYPUMP Make You Stronger?
While rep schemes far beyond the typical 3×10 configuration have been found to build muscle, they seem to have a limited impact on strength, particularly for trained individuals.
In this article, strength is defined as the max amount of weight a person can lift for one to five continuous repetitions.
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research randomized 18 young men with experience in resistance training into one of two groups. The first group performed 8-12 reps per set per exercise. The second group perform 25-35 reps per set per exercise. Both groups performed three sets of seven different exercises during each workout, and worked out three times a week for eight straight weeks. A key factor was that both groups used weights that caused them to train to “failure,” meaning the set only ended when they could not perform an additional rep. This is perhaps why the high-rep group had a wider range of possible reps per set, as it’s more difficult to estimate an exact point of failure the more reps you perform. Due to this “to failure” stipulation, the low-rep group used significantly heavier weight than the high-rep group.
At the end of the study, both groups had achieved similar improvements in muscle growth, but the low-rep, high-weight group saw far superior increases in max strength.
While few studies have used rep protocols as high as you’ll see in a typical BODYPUMP class, what’s out there leads me to believe the following:
- A BODYPUMP class can burn a substantial amount of calories—likely much more than one would achieve by walking on a treadmill for an equivalent amount of time. BODYPUMP will also help you burn more calories after you stop working out.
- BODYPUMP can help those who are new to resistance training make modest gains in strength, but over the long haul, those gains pale in comparison to those achievable through lower-rep, higher-weight methods.
- BODYPUMP can increase muscle endurance, or the ability of a muscle to repeatedly exert force against relatively light resistance. However, so can activities like running, cycling, hiking or swimming. Increasing strength is also one of the best ways to enhance your muscular endurance, but the opposite isn’t true. As for functional applications of this muscle endurance, what task outside BODYPUMP requires you to lift 20-3o pounds 120 times in five minutes?
- BODYPUMP can help build muscle, particularly for those new to strength training, and more muscle mass means increased calorie burning. However, one can likely produce similar or superior gains in muscle mass using significantly fewer total reps than what’s found in BODYPUMP, provided they also use heavier loads.
Before we unpack these points a little further, let’s hit on some reasons why BODYPUMP has become so popular.
Why Some People Love BODYPUMP
You may have stumbled upon this article after hearing a friend or family member rave about BODYPUMP. Why do people like it so much?
If you go from being sedentary or mostly sedentary to regularly attending BODYPUMP, you’ll probably see significant results. You’ll likely shed some fat, gain some muscle, see an increase in muscle endurance (and to a lesser extent, strength), and experience positive changes in cognition and mental wellbeing.
Exercising in a group can be addicting, potentially leading people to train more regularly and more intensely than they would on their own. BODYPUMP also adds energetic music to the equation. Working out with others and listening to upbeat music as you train have been repeatedly shown to reduce a person’s rating of perceived exertion, or how hard they feel like they’re working. Many people dread working out, so anything that makes it more fun is a gigantic positive.
BODYPUMP has put a barbell in the hands of many who’d never touched one previously, and any form of strength training generally beats no form of strength training. The workouts feature mostly multi-joint exercises, such as Squats, Cleans and Deadlifts, which we know are generally more effective than single-joint exercises.
BODYPUMP can also be a highly challenging workout. I know my muscles were screaming at several points throughout the class. Completing such grueling sessions usually builds confidence and self-esteem. This is a big reason so many people love CrossFit.
If your usual workout consists of trotting on the treadmill for 30 minutes before half-heartedly hitting a couple machines, switching to BODYPUMP classes will likely do you better.
BODYPUMP is absolutely capable of helping people look and feel better, and its popularity is proof that people enjoy it. However, the idea it’s the “ideal workout” for anyone trying to get fit, as Les Mills’ advertises, is worth challenging.
BODYPUMP and the “Rep Effect”
Les Mills contends the sky-high number of reps in BODYPUMP is crucial to its benefits.
“This program is based on The Rep Effect, a proven formula that exhausts muscles using light weights, while performing high repetitions—this is the secret to developing lean, athletic muscle,” the company writes on their website.
“(BODYPUMP will) tone and shape your entire body, without adding bulky muscles.”
This idea of getting “lean and toned” as opposed to bulky is key to BODYPUMP’s branding.
“They use very popular words that play into people’s emotions. When you’re hearing words like lean and tone and lengthen, those of course are words that will inspire certain people to work out,” says Gentilcore.
But when you add a pound of muscle, the body doesn’t decide whether it’s a pound of “lean” muscle or a pound of “bulky” muscle. It’s just muscle.
RELATED: How Lifting Weights Changes the Female Body
Gaining muscle is a very gradual process. It depends on factors like a consistent caloric surplus and training that’s conducive to muscle growth. It takes a lot of hard work, particularly for females, as they naturally boast lower levels of testosterone than men. Few people end up gaining too much muscle on accident.
The idea traditional strength training can turn your average person into a Ronnie Coleman clone overnight is pure absurdity, but a more likely scenario of getting “bulky” occurs when someone carrying a lot of excess body fat begins to add on muscle.
If that muscle is being packed on yet their body fat remains more or less stagnant, the result can be more “bulky” than “toned.” To get “toned”, they simply need to reduce body fat so their muscle becomes more visible. But again, they’re not bulky because they built the “wrong” kind of muscle.
“Muscle is what gives shape and contour to the body. Fat is bulkiness. People say they don’t want to get bulky, they don’t want to be fat,” says Gentilcore. “Your muscle has its origin and its insertion. You can’t really make a muscle longer without making a bone longer.”
BODYPUMP classes seem to consist mainly of women and middle-aged adults. For years, these populations were told to steer clear of heavy lifting, either because it’d make them “bulky” or because it was too unsafe. These myths have been busted.
Just look at trainer Ben Bruno and the workouts he uses with clients like Kate Upton, Jessica Biel and Chelsea Handler:
None of those woman could do anything approaching 100 consecutive reps with those weights for those exercises, and do they look bulky?
“I would like to go on the record and say that I am smaller than I have ever been while lifting the most weight I have ever lifted,” Handler commented on the above video.
There are endless examples of women who’ve found that getting seriously strong helped produce pleasing aesthetic results.
If you think you’re too old to lift any heavier than what’s found in BODYPUMP, think again. Building strength is one of the best weapons at your disposal to combat the physical and cognitive decline naturally associated with aging.
Due to a process called sarcopenia, men and women can naturally lose anywhere between 30-50% of their muscle strength between the ages of 30 and 80. We’re also wired to naturally lose muscle mass, as well, but the rate of decline in muscle strength is “2-5 times greater than declines in muscle size.” A loss of muscle strength makes almost any activity more difficult—whether it’s riding a bike or climbing a set of stairs.
Getting stronger helps us combat these processes and maintain a high quality of life. A 2013 study published in the journal Age found that even people over the age of 90 can see serious benefit from strength training, while a 2016 analysis from the Penn State College of Medicine found that adults over 65 who strength trained at least twice a week had “46 percent lower odds of death for any reason than those who did not.”
While BODYPUMP can get you stronger, particularly during that first month or two if you’re totally new to strength training, there are much more efficient ways to increase strength.
Is BODYPUMP Dangerous?
To become a licensed BODYPUMP instructor, a person must complete a two-day “Initial Training” course (standard fee: $299). Within the following 60 days, they must film themselves teaching a “safe and effective” class and submit the video for review. If the video’s deemed satisfactory, they receive certification.
For participants, newcomers are encouraged to take a short introduction class to familiarize themselves with the movements, though this is not mandatory. Les Mills recommends beginners start with “really light weights or even just a bar” and perform several short sessions before trying to do a full-length workout. They also advise against taking more than three BODYPUMP classes a week and recommend at least one day off between classes.
However, the inherent design of BODYPUMP raises a few potential red flags.
BODYPUMP participants need to be in near-constant movement to keep up with the instructor, as a full-length class demands roughly 16 reps a minute. That much volume that quickly is good for making folks sore and tired, but not so good for ensuring they’re executing reps with proper form.
Additionally, every rep is performed in concert to thumping music. No one wants to be the one “off beat,” so there’s tremendous pressure to keep up with the instructor and the rest of the class. Myself being 6-foot-6, it’s fair to assume a full Squat for me would normally take longer than that of your average gym-goer. But BODYPUMP incentivizes everyone to move the same, and to do so at a pace that’s often blistering.
Since the instructor is usually performing each rep so the class can “mirror” their tempo, they cannot go around the room correcting form.
Eve Fleck, lead author of a study on BODYPUMP commissioned by SHAPE, told the site that, “even after eight weeks (of BODYPUMP classes), all our subjects used poor wrist, back, elbow, shoulder and knee alignment.”
Doing lots of reps under fatigue with no one monitoring your form—and also being told how quickly to perform those reps—is a recipe for wear-and-tear on the body.
Gentilcore does much of his training in small groups of 2-4 people, where his clients can get the benefit of a group atmosphere but also receive plenty of individualized attention and coaching. I’d reckon such a setting is significantly safer than a BODYPUMP class, even though the loads being lifted are usually far heavier.
“Any good coach or personal trainer is going to take your ability level, your injury history, your anatomy—they’re going to take all that into account. Then they’ll design an exercise regimen that fits that. When you’re doing a group exercise class and there’s one instructor and 20, 30, 50 participants, there’s probably very little coaching being done aside from what you hear blaring over the speaker. They’re just saying, ‘Do this, at this pace,’” says Gentilcore.
“With my clients, I’m making a concerted effort to make sure they’re in the proper position where they’re not going to hurt the joints and that the muscles we want to be exercised are actually being exercised. I’m not interested in having them lift under fatigue.”
One study found that 27 weeks of BODYPUMP did increase bone mineral density in sedentary adults, particularly among post-menopausal women and those with osteopenia. However, heavier loads will produce more robust improvements in bone health over time.
BODYPUMP Makes Me Really Sore—Isn’t That Good?
With its high volume approach, BODYPUMP is great at making folks sore.
A Twitter search on the topic reveals hundreds of BODYPUMP participants half-lamenting and half-celebrating their extreme soreness. Because if a workout makes you really sore, it’s gotta be good, right?
This mentality is common nowadays, but it’s a warped view of fitness.
“That conversation inevitably comes up with just about every client. They say, ‘Well, I wasn’t sore from our last workout.’ That’s fine. There are many workouts I do where I don’t get sore, either, but I’m getting stronger and I look good and I feel good and I’m recovering well and I’m able to keep training. It’s very easy to make people sore, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re getting better,” says Gentilcore.
Should I Do BODYPUMP?
That’s a question only you can answer.
BODYPUMP has helped many people get more fit. The group atmosphere, the music, the instructor demonstrating all the moves—it all makes it an attractive option for those curious about strength training but who are unsure where to start. The best workout is the one you’ll actually do, and if for you, that’s BODYPUMP, that’s perfectly OK.
However, the design of the class does raise some concerns over safety, and after someone advances beyond the “beginner” stage, it’s hard to estimate how much of an impact BODYPUMP will have on their overall fitness.
Progressive overload is the key to training adaptations. To get stronger, you must put increasing amounts of stress on your muscles to force them to adapt. But since the reps/sets/rest periods in BODYPUMP remain largely static, adding more weight is really the only way to achieve progressive overload. But that’s tough to do when an exercise might call for 80-120 reps or more.
Think about it—if you go from lifting 15 pounds for 100 reps to 20 pounds for 100 reps, you just added 500 pounds to your volume load. A 5-pound jump for a set of 10 reps would add just 50 pounds to your volume load, however. It’s a lot more difficult to estimate where your “failure” point will be when you’re doing 100 reps rather than 10 or 12, and since BODYPUMP participants want to make it through every rep, they might be less inclined to progress in weight. And who can blame them?
Mixing in more traditional strength training—and perhaps some high-intensity interval training featuring sprints of 5-15 seconds of all-out effort—with your BODYPUMP classes can make for a routine that’s both safer and more effective.
“I always tell my clients that the main course is what you do with me. If you’re doing that three days a week, we’re doing a traditional strength and conditioning program, then all the superfluous stuff you want to do—BODYPUMP, Barry’s Bootcamp, spin class—if you enjoy doing it, do it. But that’s a supplement to what we’re doing. And I think that’s a healthy compromise. I don’t want to discourage people from doing something they want to be doing,” Gentilcore says.
“And honestly, through traditional strength training, they learn how to squat well, they learn what a hip hinge feels like, they learn how to do a Push-Up correctly, so when they go to a BODYPUMP-type class, they’re probably going to do it better. They’ll have a better idea of what their body’s doing in space and they’ll try to stay in those good positions.”
Photo Credit: Bojan89/iStock, MaxRiesgo/iStock, sturti/iStock, Merpics/iStock, Goldfaery/iStock, kzenon/iStock (photos not depictions of official BodyPump classes)