I’ve been a personal trainer for over a decade now, and a group fitness instructor for just as long. I’ve coached hundreds of classes, and group fitness is very different from 1-1 training. If you’re a personal trainer, or a group fitness instructor looking to provide a fabulous fitness experience, read on.
Many people begin their lifetime journey of health and fitness by taking a group fitness class. You might be the front line, the first impression they get to see, so it’s important you create a fun, safe, and welcoming class experience.
In large commercial gyms, group fitness classes are attractive to newcomers because large gym/weight room floors can be intimidating to some people. In group fitness classes, there’s minimal equipment to worry about and someone will lead you through a fun workout.
Even better, you’re not alone so group classes can bring tremendous comfort in numbers. If someone wants to hang in the back of the room, they can. It’s a safe place for most people to “test the waters,” so to speak. Plenty of people will begin here, in your group fitness class and learn many basic exercises (squats, lunges, pushups, crunches, etc).
Make sure you coach them effectively and safely, because they might later hire you to coach them for 1-1 personal training or nutrition coaching, depending on your certifications. Group fitness can be a great way to get you more clients, so the onus is on you to provide a fabulous first time impression, and keep them coming back for more.
Here are some things people have said about my group fitness instruction style:
“I have been taking group fitness classes for over 20 years, and Sumi is far and above the most enthusiastic instructor I’ve ever had! She takes the time to learn the names of those in the class, and even while teaching a packed room, she will come over to you and push you individually to work harder. Just when you think you’ve pushed yourself to the limit, Sumi will be there inspiring you to go a little further. It’s a rare talent to be able to keep a whole class going while also providing individual attention. Her enthusiasm is infectious and the energy in her classes is great.” – M. Hackman
“You kept encouraging me, we were always working for Sumi to give us a “shout out” when you would single us out by name. Always killing us with a smile on your face as you went through the routine with heavier weights it seemed like you didn’t even sweat! I remember thinking this chick is evil and I like it! I continued to come back for more.” -S. Silva
So, how did I do it, and how can you, too?
1. Check your problems at the door. Yes, you have a life, and problems of your own. But you’re a professional, and your job as a group fitness instructor is to provide your class with a positive, welcoming, motivating atmosphere. No one is there to hear about your poor nights’ rest, your relationship woes, your hangover, or your car problems. Everyone has their own stuff to worry about. You’re there to make them feel good, have fun, break out a sweat, and let loose.
2. Treat your time slot with respect. Your time slot to teach the class is yours, so do your best to avoid having substitutes come in. People will generally come to a class for YOU and not necessarily what’s being offered. For instance you might teach a generic bootcamp style class, but many people are showing up at 5:30 AM because they want to see your shining, happy face and not someone else’s. That’s why they don’t take the class at 8:30 AM or 6 PM. Even if there’s the exact same class at a different time, it’s you they want. If you keep shifting your schedule around, you’ll be viewed as unreliable.
3. Learn the names of your students, even if they vary from week to week. If you teach a consistent group of students as a trainer, not only should you know their names, but also go out of your way to know something more about them. Their hobbies, kid’s names, favorite food, sports team, etc. Connect with each of them in a unique way. Stay after class for a few minutes if you can and make it a point to get to know them.
If you teach at a location where the group rotates constantly, do your best to remember as many names as possible. It makes people feel so much more welcome and comfortable. For instance, if you teach at a hotel or resort, your fantastic class might be the reason a traveler chooses to return to that hotel/spa/resort again. Stuff like that will get noticed by management, and you never know when that might serve you well.
If you teach extremely large groups where reciting names just isn’t realistic, give shout outs to the left side of the room, the right, the back, the front, to the people wearing hats, to the people in blank tank tops. You get the idea. Connect on some level.
4. Smile and be welcoming. Along with checking the problems at the door, there’s nothing like flashing a motivating smile when trying to get your clients through a difficult exercise set. If you can’t do that, look them in the eyes and meaningfully connect. It’s a lot better than yelling or demeaning, which was somehow popularized as a motivation tactic in a “reality” weight loss show.
Always introduce yourself with a smile. First impressions last.
5. Vary the playlist. Depending on the class format, your class might be one that requires you know and play current music and choreography. When I taught Les Mills classes, the choreography changed every few months in time with whatever was popular on the radio. It was fun for people to get hooked into the lyrics and music, sing along, and forget what their problems for just a little while.
6. Vary the theme (birthdays, holidays). If you teach a class format where the exercise format may not chance a whole lot (yoga, strict bodyweight cardio), try to change up the theme to keep things fresh. For instance, on the 4th of July, come up with Red (hard exercises), Blue (medium difficulty) and White (easy, I surrender!) exercises. On Halloween, you can do doomsday themes and play Thriller, on Friday the 13th, do 13 exercises for 13 reps, 13 times over (or whatever). On birthdays, you could do 39 exercises if the client is turning 39, or 39 reps of the client’s favorite exercise. Personalize it, and have FUN!
7. Modify, modify, modify! Remember that group fitness is not about you. Nobody cares about your 7:30 mi/min pace, how high you can jump, or your record bench press. You have to cater to both the fittest and most beginner of all clients. Show modifications, from the easiest to the hardest. No class member should feel like they’re not fully 100% engaged. Whether they’re doing a wall pushup or a decline pushup off a step, it’s your job to know and safely demonstrate all the modifications.
8. Communicate with clear instructions. Unlike 1-1 personal training, you won’t have the opportunity to be wordy or descriptive when you’re panting and sweating along with your group. Use clear cues, like “chest up,” “chin up,” “eyes forward,” and “lower slowly,” versus cues that will take more explaining, like “retract your shoulder blades down and into V,” or even “brace your core” (that still takes some explaining as it doesn’t always come intuitively to people), or “balance on your sits bones,” as most people don’t know what that means (and I’ve heard this one a few times).
9. Know when to motivate and when to zip it. You can’t be 100% chatty throughout your class. There will be times to speak with a louder voice (pushing through a difficult set or a peak aerobic track); an endearing, encouraging voice (when you’re sympathizing with the group to finish the last few minutes of class before you get to the cooldown), and a calmer, gentler tone (warmups and cooldown). When you notice people singing along during a track, don’t talk over them, when they’re closing their eyes during a cooldown, keep your mouth shut, too.
10. Congratulate. Sometimes, your class will be so tough that your participants end up a sweaty, sexy mess like my client below. It’s all good! Sweat is a good thing, and it’s my preferred “detox” method for sure. Take the time to give high fives or fish bumps to your class if you can. Walk around the room, congratulate as many people as you can individually, smile, be sincere and thank them for their time. They came to see you, and they’ll keep coming to see you if you make them feel welcome from the moment they walk in the door, and until they leave.