I’ll let you in on a little secret: I think the free classes included in most gym memberships, used correctly, can whip most people into shape just as well as one-on-one training sessions. And, certainly, there’s nothing like a little peer pressure to make you push harder. Knowing how to navigate your gym’s class schedule puts you in control and you still get expert guidance and accountability, even during periods of tight budgets.

If you have been lurking outside a group exercise class, not knowing where to start, you are not alone. Here are some tips.

Pick the Right Mix of Classes for Your Goals Looking to lose weight primarily? You probably want your week to include three days of cardio (like Zumba, TurboKick, Hip Hop or Spinning), two days of strength work (like TRX, Body Pump or anything with “Lift” or “Strength” in the title. Most “Boot Camp”-style classes, while a hybrid, include a lot of strength work) and one day of an “active recovery”-type workout (yoga, Pilates, stretch, steady-state cardio on a machine, etc.)  If you want to put on muscle primarily, do three of strength, two of cardio and one of active recovery. The main thing to keep in mind is that you don’t want to go to the same class every day. Alternate your strength and cardio days to give each system time to recover, and select a mix of classes to create a well-rounded program.

Ask for One-on-One Attention Each class instructor will have a slightly different area of expertise-- work that to your advantage! Introduce yourself and let them know what your goals are and if you have any injuries. During or after class, don’t be afraid to ask the instructor to check your form or provide a modification.

Take Control of Your Progression The reason many people stagnate in classes is that they grab the same weight every class for months or years on end. The benefit of working with a personal trainer is that they will instigate a weight or intensity increase for you at regular intervals, but you can also commit to pushing this kind of progression yourself in a class setting.  If you don’t feel you are progressing, even when upping your intensity at regular intervals, ask the instructor for advanced modifications or check out a different class.

Don’t Forget About Nutrition Remember, if your goal is weight loss, just adding some classes to the mix isn’t likely to be sufficient to get you to your goal. Whenever changing up your fitness regimen, it becomes more important than ever to track calories and confirm that you are running a deficit lest you subconsciously “eat back” all that hard work. A heartrate monitor will tell you how many calories you are burning in a class, and your food journal will give you the other half of the equation.

If you haven’t checked out your gym’s class schedule lately, you could be passing up one of the most valuable benefits of your membership. And, don’t be afraid to shop around—just because one class doesn’t work for you doesn’t mean another type of class, or even the same class taught by a different instructor, won’t totally revolutionize your fitness. Keep in mind, though, that if you are just starting out on your fitness journey or have an injury or specific outside-the-norm fitness goal (like training for a triathlon or landing the cover of Muscle and Fitness Magazine), there’s no replacement for one-on-on expert guidance. Many gyms, however, offer an initial training session that is sufficient to get most newbies familiar with proper form and equipment safety.