How Competitive Workouts Get You in Your Best Shape Ever

From spinning to circuit training, why going head-to-head can make working out fun—and effective.


Competition brings out the best and worst in all of us. It lives at the core of human instinct, so it's no surprise popular fitness routines have capitalized on that feeling to get killer results, encouraging cult-like followings along the way. Whether you are racing against others in spin class or comparing your workouts to a friend's on an app, something about being on a team or neck and neck with an opponent triggers you to perform differently. Why? We turned to fitness experts to get behind the wide benefits of competitive workout environments.

Science is on your side "When you are in a competition, you're getting this external push to give you a sense of excitement, which triggers adrenaline in the brain and endorphins that help you feel good and help you push harder," explains Dr. JoAnn Dahkoetter, a sports psychologist and author of Your Performing Edge. "There's this excitement and energy that creates neurochemicals in the brain. When endorphins and adrenaline get pushed in the brain you get a feeling of satisfaction after the stress with mood elevators and performance you wouldn't have gotten otherwise." She also emphasizes the role of an external reward system after competitions—clapping from fellow exercisers, patting on the back, cheers—that create positive associations with working out.

It builds a community and support system
Swerve, a new cycling studio in New York City, divides each class into color teams that race to the top of the leaderboard. You get emailed stats as well, revealing how you personally ranked against others on your team. This setup may be off-putting to some, but co-founder Chelsea Kocis insists it's all about encouragement. "Competing as a team pushes people to work harder than they might otherwise have if they were working out alone," she says. "While competition can be a great source of motivation, it can also be intimidating—but that's the beauty of the team concept. You have the support of the team to get you through each interval and drill."

It's amazing to put people in a competitive atmosphere. You become part of a team and a vital member, so peer pressure motivates you to get to fitness [levels] you never thought you could achieve.

–Josh Crosby, co-creator of Shockwave

It takes the "work" out of working out Even if you don't take classes and exercise on your own, mobile apps such as Fitocracy allow you to compete in fitness with friends by turning workouts into interactive games with points, teams, levels and challenges. "When you are part of our community, you are never alone," says chief marketing officer Vik Panda. "We see people propping and commenting on each other's workouts all the time. They will often share tips with each other and all of this helps reach new levels of fitness. Internal goals, such as weight loss, are of course important but they can become tedious over time. Doing it with a friend via a competitive aspect really makes working out seem like less of a chore."

It pushes you harder than ever Josh Crosby, a world champion rower and trainer, co-created the Shockwave workout (available at Equinox gyms), which is inspired by his experiences being in college and professional rowing. This team-based workout combines circuit training with the water-powered Indo-Row rowing machine, which uses 80 percent of your muscle mass. A team cannot move on until the designated rowers going head to head finish a fixed distance. "Feeling the support and the acceptance from the team allows people to reach greater heights, and that's what I learned as a collegiate rower—we are stronger together than we are as individuals," says Crosby. "This is competition in the best sense of the word. There's no feeling of getting left behind, it's all a celebration of doing your best today."

How Competitive Workouts Get You In Your Best Shape Ever

It gives you more incentive to keep up your routine Flywheel, a popular indoor cycling studio in cities nationwide, operates with a "torqboard" or a flatscreen showing class leader's names alongside performance stats to encourage increased speed. "Competition holds you accountable for your workout," says master instructor Alison Cohen. "All riders have the option to compete and many riders have said that when they chose to be on the torqboard they ended up working twice as hard—myself included. I see heads turning around the room to find the bike with the ridiculously high power score."

But be smart about how you compete! 
Celebrity trainer Ashley Borden, who has worked with Reese Witherspoon, Christina Aguilera and Mandy Moore, told us that her supportive experience with Crossfit left her with a positive outlook on competitive workout environments, but noted that it is not for everyone. "If you're a highly competitive person and you can regulate yourself it is good," she says. "If you're competitive but can't self regulate, thinking you can lift heavier than someone else, you can hurt yourself. You are operating for your ego. Don't go from what your head is saying over your body, because it can be dangerous." If you do want to try a workout like crossfit or spinning, Borden suggests trying classes at least three times before making a decision about it.

Never compete because you are driven to win or lose. Do it knowing that you are doing the best you can at something you’re passionate about, and feel proud of yourself for trying no matter what the outcome may be.

–Alison Cohen, Flywheel Master Instructor

Former Associate Editor at StyleBistro. Willing to try any workout trend. Green beauty junkie. Fan of overdressing. Proud member of the cult of Beyoncé. Twitter/Insta: @kristinarodulfo Follow me: Google