“BODYPUMP is the fastest way in the universe to get and stay in shape”
That was a claim from Bryce Hastings, Head of Research for Les Mills International. Now that’s a pretty bold statement to make for any type of exercise! Let’s find out together how BODYPUMP stands up to its claims with the research available.
Firstly, a disclaimer before the hordes of BODYPUMP lovers descend on me without reading the full article. My ultimate goal as a coach is to empower people to make good decisions with regards to training and nutrition. I do this by providing them with information and knowledge gleaned from my years studying Sports Science, working in the Fitness Industry and looking up at available research. I am NOT here to tell you what to do. In fact, everyone is free to do whatever they want in life.
This article is meant to provide a breakdown of the claims made by BODYPUMP with the available research and to find out how exactly does BODYPUMP help us with our fitness goals. If you disagree with any of the findings below, do let me why what you think with the relevant research backing it. Proper and healthy discussion is highly encouraged for us to grow.
That being said, I acknowledge that BODYPUMP and the Les Mills organization as a whole have helped hundreds of thousands of people. They have helped many to enjoy training and grow a passion for improving their health and fitness. However, that doesn’t mean that they are immune to mistakes or should be given free rein to make over the top claims.
Also, doing something (like BODYPUMP) is much better than doing nothing. If you enjoy the workout and are happy with the results, more power to you! This article can then help you by showing you any inadequacies of the workout. Then, you’ll be able to adjust your overall training program to suit your goals better.
WHAT IS BODYPUMP?
BODYPUMP is a creation of the wildly popular New Zealand fitness company, Les Mills. According to the Les Mills official website, BODYPUMP is
“THE ORIGINAL BARBELL CLASS™, the ideal workout for anyone looking to get lean, toned, and fit – fast.”
BODYPUMP uses light to moderate weights and utilizes high repetitions in a total body workout. The class usually focuses on major muscle groups such as the chest, quadricep, and glute muscles. Classes are usually 55, 43, or 30 minutes long. Les Mills claims to be able to burn up to 400 kcal in a 55-minute class.
According to Les Mills, a typical BODYPUMP class has you going through anywhere from 800 – 1000 repetitions which is four times the amount of repetitions a normal gym-goer would achieve. This leads to what they call The Rep Effect which is supposed to help you achieve more meaningful results.
BODYPUMP’s SECRET SAUCE
According to Bryce Hastings, The Rep Effect is the reason why BODYPUMP is so effective. Les Mills claims that research has confirmed that BODYPUMP has strong calorie and fat-burning effects and it improves aerobic fitness, muscular strength, and muscular endurance.
Searching through their website didn’t yield me any results to what this Rep Effect was. I could not find any links to the research that the article was talking about. However, after some digging, I found:
This was the only literature I could find on the so-called Rep Effect. The main results of this study claims that lifting lighter weights at a faster tempo burns the most calories. This is in comparison to other combinations of load and tempo (with the total work done being the same).
Debunking The Rep Effect
If this study is indeed detailing what the Rep Effect is, there are many contradictions to their claims.
#1. The study was based on tempo and not repetitions
“The results from this study indicate that a resistance training program utilising lighter loads with a faster movement speed will yield
the highest PAEE”
The study theorized that if the total amount of work done was the same, the physics activity energy expenditure, PAEE, should be the same. However, as the <5kg x 120> group utilized faster movement speeds/increased muscle contraction rates, they burnt more calories.
However, BodyPump claims that the “Rep Effect” which produces more “meaningful results” is because it “exhausts muscles using light weights, while performing high repetitions.” This is misrepresentation of what the study claims, which is that faster tempos burn more calories.
#2 BODYPUMP does not strictly follow a faster tempo
The results of the study showed that slower tempos (with total work being equal) burn lesser calories.
To summaries, the numeral represents the load (20 = 20kg). The lighter the weight, the faster the tempo of each repetition. For example, the 20kg load utilized a 4-4 tempo for the squat. The 15kg load utilized a 3-3 tempo and so on. There was an average of 10% increase in caloric burn for each condition with a lighter load. So for the Rep Effect to be fully effective and be the “Ultimate Calorie Burning” resistance training workout that it claims to be, the tempos should be fast (1-1) to maximize muscle contraction.
However, BodyPump itself utilizes many different tempos including the ones it claims are not as effective in energy expenditure. In the following video, you can see that Bodypump does not strictly follow their “fast” tempo. They include many other variations such as 2-2 or 3-3 tempos too.
#3 This study also has its limitations
This study has many limitations too. Firstly and most strikingly, Les Mills themselves are part of the research team which leads to a conflict of interest.
Secondly, the study did not take into account the 1RM of each participant. Participants who are physically fitter and stronger would have a higher 1RM than another participant. They would then burn lesser calories than others regardless of tempo as the weight is kept consistent depending on each group/condition. In layman’s terms, the guy who can squat 100kg would find any of this easy and burn fewer calories compared to the lady who can only squat 30kg. What should be used instead for a % of the 1RM for each individual to provide a more accurate picture of PAEE.
TAKING A LOOK AT THEIR OTHER CLAIMS
Fine! Maybe this particular study and the Rep Effect is a little dubious. But BODYPUMP still does what it claims to do! Does it? Let’s see what the research says.
“Using The Rep Effect, BODYPUMP classes give you sculpted shoulders, defined biceps and triceps, strong lean legs, firm glutes, and a tight core. Choreography in each of these areas is specifically targeted so you’ll burn fat, burn more calories, and achieve more meaningful fat loss and muscle fatigue. The end result is that you build strength without building bulk.”
As stated above, BODYPUMP is the utilization of light weights and high repetitions to exhaust the muscle. Les Mills claims that BODYPUMP can help us:
- Achieve meaningful Fat Loss
- Burn more Calories
- Improve Aerobic Fitness
- Build Strength without building bulk
As an acknowledgment, results can be subjective to the individual. Also, most modes of exercise are able to burn fat, burn calories, and build strength (but to different extents). So in order to gauge the effectiveness of its claims, it is best to do so by comparing BODYPUMP to other modes of exercise.
So how does BODYPUMP stack up against the competition in achieving caloric burn, fat loss, and building strength?
#1 Caloric Burn & Fat Loss
A 2007 study commissioned by Les Mills compared 60 minutes of cycling to a 57 minutes BODYPUMP class while keeping both at a similar Heart Rate zone.
The study found that cycling was superior to BodyPump in both caloric burn and fat loss when the intensity level was matched. A BODYPUMP session utilized an average of 411 calories compared to 623 calories on the cycle ergometer. The cycle session also consumed a greater proportion of fat than the BODYPUMP session (27.3% compared to 16.7%).
So the results show that BODYPUMP is not superior to cycling at producing more meaningful fat loss or caloric burn. But this is great news for spin class lovers!
#2a Developing Aerobic Fitness
The same study also showed that BODYPUMP only provided a low to moderate stimulus to improve aerobic fitness. This means that if you are already fit, BODYPUMP might only useful for maintaining aerobic fitness as it does not provide enough stimulus to improve it. The study even recommends 2 – 3 days a week of higher intensity aerobic exercises to improve aerobic fitness for fitter people.
In comparison, the cycling session was more intense on average and participants spent much more time above 50 and 70% VO2 max. This shows us that cycling would be a much better way of developing aerobic fitness as compared to BODYPUMP.
#2b Developing Aerobic Fitness
In another study, it was found that in each BODYPUMP session, the aerobic intensity generated was less than the 50–85% of VO2max that is recommended by the ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) which is needed to improve aerobic capacity.
The same study also compared BODYPUMP to several different types of circuit weight training (CWT) sessions and found that again the VO2max during BODYPUMP was less than those achieved during the CWT sessions. This strongly suggests that CWT is like cycling, superior to BODYPUMP in developing aerobic capacity.
#3 Developing Strength without Bulk
In this 2013 research study, a comparison was done between low load (to failure) and high load bench pressing. While strength increased for both protocols, the increase in strength was significantly lower for those utilizing low loads.
In fact, both protocols showed similar increases in muscle hypertrophy. So BODYPUMP might instead help to put on (muscle) bulk without much strength gains.
Do note that in this study, workloads were not matched and the low load protocol was done to failure. This suggests that if workloads were matched, higher loads might come up even further on top for improving strength and hypertrophy.
Bonus: Even More Claims?
I managed to find an old Youtube Video on Bryce and Les Mills Program Director, Glen, detailing the Rep Effect. In this video, they explain in more detail what the Rep Effect can do for you.
“In a nutshell, the Rep Effect allows us to get all the benefits of resistance training without lifting heavyweights”
Let’s go through some of these claims from the video and see if they check out. According to them, BODYPUMP is:
“Is the fastest way in the universe to get and stay in shape” (1:52)”
It is pretty clear that BODYPUMP is far from the best exercise modality to get and stay in shape (even on Earth). While the phrase “stay in shape” is very subjective, we would imagine any combination of strength, aerobic fitness, fat loss, and caloric burn to be part of that package.
Resistance training at higher intensities would be better at building strength (as detailed in the above-mentioned study). Also, aerobic exercises such as cycling have been proven to burn more calories, fat, and develop more aerobic fitness than a BODYPUMP class.
“Uses the effect of high repetition with much less weight to fatigue the muscles. (And) Its muscle fatigue and not muscle load that tones and strengthens.” (1:57)
Muscle fatigue is indeed one factor when it comes to “toning” and strengthening muscles. However, claiming that muscle load doesn’t has any effect is grossly inaccurate. As mentioned in the above study which compared low to high load protocols for bench pressing, higher loads are superior to lower loads in building strength.
*Toning is a misnomer. Toning is merely a product of reducing body fat while building some muscle mass. When body fat is reduced enough, you will be able to see the ‘tone’ of your muscles (provided you have developed them enough).
“High Rep Training Produces more protein synthesis in muscle than traditional heavy weight training.” (2:19)
Unfortunately, this is just not true. According to a 2012 study, it was found that “increases in muscle protein synthesis (MPS) are negligible with loads at 20–40% but maximal at 70–90% of one-repetition maximum when the workload is matched (according to load × repetition number).” This translates to less MPS when you use lighter weights as compared to heavier weights.
There is another study that found that working at a lighter load (30% 1RM) actually produced comparable MPS to working at a 90% 1RM load. However, this was only possible when the lighter load was done till failure and workload was not matched. As you can see from the table below, the workload of the 90FAIL group was only about 66% of the 30FAIL group. It would be logical to conclude that should the workloads be matched, the heavier weight training would produce more MPS.
“Take bottom halves where you’re sitting at the bottom of the squat…They build pressure at the bottom of the movement… This is called occlusion training…” (3:38)
What Bryce is describing refers to isometric training and not occlusion training.
MY TAKE ON THIS
The research has shown that there are many other modes of exercise that are superior to BODYPUMP in terms of developing strength, hypertrophy/building muscle, aerobic fitness, and fat loss. If you are someone like me who wants to maximize their time in the gym, I would use a combination of resistance training with moderate to high loads and an aerobic exercise like running or cycling to get fitter, stronger and leaner.
Anecdotally, many of my trainees who used to attend BODYPUMP complained of some sort of chronic scapular impingement injury. I theorized that this was due to the improper technique being utilized in certain movements such as the upright row and the rotator cuff raise. After we stopped performing those movements or stopped going for BODYPUMP classes and performed other strength training movements, these injuries slowly recovered. These are also some exercises which I do not use for the majority of my trainees. Or I’ll use a different variation of them which places less stress on the rotator cuff muscles (such as with bands/cables). Some reasons why I don’t like Upright Rows can be found in this STACK Article.
If you’ll like to improve your overall training experience while still going for BODYPUMP, that is highly possible. Here are some of my suggestions:
- BODYPUMP would be great in helping you develop muscular endurance in static barbell movements. So if that is your goal, go for it! It is a perfect fit. However, this muscular endurance is not directly transferable to the endurance needed for endurance activities such as running, swimming, or cycling. This is due to the Principle of Specificity and that BODYPUMP is not great for aerobic fitness in the first place.
- Use BODYPUMP with the purpose of a “caloric burn session” even though it does not provide the best caloric burn return for time. Do not use it as a workout to help you build strength or aerobic fitness. Utilize that concurrently with a good resistance training program meant for strength and some more intense aerobic activity and you would most probably see better results in your overall fitness.
- It is difficult for an instructor to go around during class to correct the technique. So take your fitness into your own hands and practice some of the common exercises used in class. Performing your own resistance training sessions outside of class gives you an opportunity to improve your technique and make your BODYPUMP experience much more productive and more injury-free.
- Some people join BODYPUMP because they enjoy barbell training but are afraid of trying it out on their own. If this is you, there are many online resources that I can point you to which can help you learn. Or consider hiring a professional to assist you.
“A fun way for beginners to learn basic barbell movements and get fit”
Calling itself “the fastest way in the universe to get and stay in shape” might be a stretch. Perhaps “a fun way for beginners to learn basic barbell movements and get fit” would be a better slogan.
Undoubtedly, BODYPUMP can be a fun way to get fit. Its social aspect can lead to improved adherence to a fitness routine. However, it is important for any gym-goer to understand the purpose of any exercise routine/class and how it helps with their fitness goals. If not, they might get frustrated or fail to achieve their goals due to utilizing an inefficient way to achieve certain results. This might, in turn, reduce adherence or even make them give up on their fitness goals.
Don’t always fall for the marketing Hype
Thanks for taking the time to read this article and I hope it has provided you with enough research-based information about BODYPUMP and its claims. This article was not written to bash BODYPUMP but to empower people to achieve their fitness goals better. That being said, if you like it, keep on doing it! But take charge of your own fitness and perhaps find some combinations of exercise modalities to help you achieve your goals more effectively.
If you disagree with the points and research I’ve raised or have any questions, feel free to reach out to clarify or provide your own sound and research-based argument for a discussion!