Zumba: Everything to Expect From Your First Class

Guide to Zumba

Getty/Design by Cristina Cianci

Going on a run or doing a bunch of crunches might not be your definition of fun, and I can’t say I blame you. If you’re looking for a workout that doesn’t feel like a workout, Zumba might be right up your alley. This dance-based program gets you moving, sweating, and having actual fun—no dance experience, exercise equipment, or running required. 

“Zumba is a cardio endurance workout incorporating Latin music and dance moves,” says Becca Russo, a Zumba instructor in Chicago. “I describe Zumba as going to a wedding reception, dancing your heart out, and realizing you burned a lot of calories and had fun.”

Keep reading to hear what Zumba teachers have to say about the dance class, its benefits, and if it’s the enjoyable workout you’ve been searching for. 

Meet the Expert

  • Nora Coyle is a licensed Zumba instructor based in Minneapolis, and has taught for over 10 years at gyms across the Midwest.
  • Becca Russo is a Chicago-based fitness instructor who teaches Zumba, spin, barre, HIIT, and treadmill classes at gyms and studios across the city.
  • Michael Glynn, DPT, is a physical therapist in Chicago.

What Is Zumba?

Zumba is a music-driven cardio dance workout taught at studios and fitness centers across the country. It incorporates movements from dance styles worldwide, including Salsa, Reggaeton, Bollywood, Merengue, and more, says Coyle. There’s specific choreography for each song in a class, which combines cardio, muscle conditioning, balance, and flexibility to give you a full-body workout. 

Best For: Building Cardio Endurance and Boosting Mental Health


Zumba choreography combines dance moves with bodyweight exercises to get your heart pumping. “We choose music and choreography that will take students through a journey--one that includes heart rate elevation that gets participants to an anaerobic, or breathless, state, balanced with recovery songs that allow the heart rate to drop,” says Russo. 


Heart rate fluctuation increases cardio endurance by training your heart to pump more efficiently. According to this study in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, it’s also a recipe for burning tons of calories—an average of 9.5 per minute. Dance also requires you to move in all directions, not just forward and backward like walking. That helps condition your muscles and improve balance and flexibility, says Coyle. 

Zumba is also a great way to let loose and have fun, especially if intense cardio workouts aren’t usually your thing, says Russo. “This workout does a lot for the participant mentally as well as physically,” says Glynn. “It’s a great way to relieve stress, burn some calories, and condition all muscles.”

What to Expect During a Zumba Class


As you may have guessed, you can expect a whole lot of dancing at Zumba. Classes are typically 45 minutes to an hour-long and start with a warm-up to get your blood flowing and practice some basic movements like grapevines. Then the fun begins: You’ll spend the bulk of class dancing to an upbeat playlist, and the routines will cover a variety of dance styles and intensities to keep your heart pumping and the fun going, says Coyle. Choreography frequently incorporates bodyweight and muscle-toning exercises like squats, lunges, and presses, says Russo. You’ll finish with a cool down to lower your heart rate and stretch out your muscles. 


Music and choreography depend on where you’re taking Zumba and who’s teaching it. There are also variants of Zumba, says Coyle, like Zumba Toning, which incorporates light weight lifting, and Zumba Sentao, where you use a chair for full-body toning exercises.

Class sizes also vary widely based on where you’re taking Zumba, but you’ll have enough space to move around freely and safely, says Coyle. Just bring your dancing shoes, a water bottle, and maybe a towel for sweat.

Benefits of Zumba

  • Builds cardio endurance: Dancing can get your heart pumping, and over time that can lower your heart rate, decrease blood pressure, and improve your endurance, according to these studies in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness.
  • Improves balance and flexibility: We’re used to forward and backward movements, like walking, climbing stairs, or cycling. According to this study, dancing incorporates rotation and side to side, or lateral, movements, all of which can improve your balance and flexibility.
  • Tones muscle: Zumba is a full-body, multi-directional movement, which works all the muscles in your body--particularly if you take a class centered around strength training, like Zumba Toning. 
  • Develops rhythm: Any class involving choreography and rhythm makes your brain work in new and different ways, says Coyle. And mastering these rhythmic dance patterns could benefit your brain. This research found that regular dancing improved people’s memory of and ability to perform tasks, motor skills, and the brain’s ability to focus and adapt. 
  • Boosts your mental health: There’s plenty of research to show that exercise can improve your mental health, including stress, anxiety, and depression. Zumba is no exception: This study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that women reported better mental health, energy, and feelings of positivity after four months of Zumba. 
  • It’s fun: “Zumba’s tagline is ‘Join the Party,’ for a reason,” says Coyle, “The idea is to immerse yourself in the music and forget how hard you’re working.” 

Safety Considerations

You don’t have to be a dancer to give this a try. Zumba is accessible to people of all experience and fitness levels, and your instructor will walk you through the choreography and demonstrate the moves throughout the class. Coyle also encourages tailoring movements to suit your body. “If choreography calls for moves like jumping or spinning and that doesn’t feel good for you, you can always modify movements to fit where you are physically in the moment,” she says. Russo suggests doing Zumba several times a week, with days off in between to let your body recover.

Glynn advises speaking with your instructor about any limitations you have before class starts. “If you have a balance deficit, I would still highly recommend participating in an exercise program to improve and challenge your balance,” he says, “However, I would make sure that your instructor is aware of this issue and can provide modification such as a chair or countertop in front of you when you perform the exercises.”

As with most cardiovascular exercise, if you have heart problems or uncontrolled blood pressure, consult with your doctor before starting Zumba, says Glynn. If you get the all-clear, he recommends tracking your symptoms during class to keep track of your exertion, staying hydrated, and taking breaks when you need to. Russo also suggests monitoring yourself for pain. “As with any high-energy cardio class, people can have back pain if they don't practice good posture,” says Russo, “People can also experience knee and calf pain if they don't have supportive footwear.” 

At-Home vs. In-Studio


There are tons of online Zumba you can try from home these days, like Coyle’s virtual workouts. Try a class on Zumba’s website or browse online to see if your favorite gym, studio, or teacher has digital offerings—no equipment necessary! 

“If you plan to try Zumba for the first time virtually, I recommend sending a message to the instructor ahead of time to let them know you are a first-timer,” says Coyle, “They may have other helpful tips to share.”

Zumba vs. Aerobic Dance


There’s plenty of other dance fitness out there, from pole dancing to this in-bed dance class to Obé sculpting dance videos. Zumba’s key differentiator is its focus on Latin-style dance moves, so if you’re in the mood for salsa, Zumba is the program for you.

 

What to Wear to Zumba

Pick light, breathable clothing you can move around in, like leggings, a tank top, and maybe a sweatshirt to wear while you warm up, says Russo. You’ll be all over the dance floor, so avoid clothes that restrict your mobility. Most importantly, wear athletic shoes that support your arches and ankles and prevent slipping on gym floors (or even jazz sneakers, if you have them). “Zumba involves a lot of lateral movement, as opposed to exercises like running,” says Russo, “You’ll pivot, tap your toes, get low, and jump around, so supporting your feet and ankles is huge.” 

The Takeaway


Zumba is a Latin dance-inspired cardio workout that melds dance moves and bodyweight exercises into one choreography. It’s beginner-friendly and modifiable to all fitness levels, with tons of class options available online and fitness centers of all kinds. Zumba gets your heart pumping to build cardio endurance and burn lots of calories, with class options that focus specifically on muscle strengthening and toning. It’s cardio-heavy, though, so if you have any heart or blood pressure problems, this may not be the workout for you.


“Zumba is fun! The best classes feel like a party, whether you’re celebrating with others on the dance floor or working out at home knowing that others are doing the same,” says Coyle.  

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