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Exercise Design Strategies for Small-Group Training

by Megan Senger on Jan 30, 2014

Small-Group Training

Learn practical solutions that will boost clients’ results and optimize your time.

Carrying a clipboard or an e-device around the gym and industriously noting client progress at every exercise stop is fine when you’re training clients one-on-one.

But in small-group training—that is, when you’re coaching three to a dozen customers in the same workout session—your time and attention are at an absolute premium. You won’t have hours to agonize over exercise ideas for every trainee. And that clipboard will stand between you and successful small-group exercise delivery.

What will work? Adopt exercise design strategies that are based on SGT-friendly principles, such as using a framework of movement patterns rather than set-in-stone exercises, mastering effective regressions and progressions, and choosing versatile equipment. Also helpful is giving trainees more autonomy over their own workouts. Industry leaders say these are secrets that allow top one-on-one trainers to seamlessly translate existing skills to small-group exercise.

This article—the latest in the ongoing IDEA Trainer Success series about profitable SGT—discusses the new training paradigms that every fitness professional must know before designing exercise sessions for small groups.

Three Core Strategies of SGT Exercise Design

For the new SGT trainer, one of the biggest challenges is managing a group of people with mixed abilities. Yet this is an industry reality.

“From a monetary and scheduling standpoint, it is very difficult to divide clients by ability, gender, age, interest, sports and so on,” says Dale Huff, the Frontenac, Missouri–based co-owner of fitness centers NutriFormance and Athletic Republic™ St. Louis. “SGT just isn’t equivalent to one-on-one personal training,” he adds.

The solution? Take off your one-on-one hat, and use these strategies instead.

Find a Framework
Many SGT-based facilities use exercise programs that rely on a “signature” formula for their small-group workouts. For example, at Breakthru Fitness in Pasadena, California, the framework is based on foundational movements—including squats, presses, pulls, pushes, spinal flexion, spinal extension and spinal rotation—bracketed by a warm-up and a cool-down, reports owner Phil Dozois.

Exercise frameworks at many SGT-based facilities are created by a head trainer; the other trainers act as floor coaches, tweaking the formula’s moves as needed for individual trainees. For more about this system, see “Small Group Secrets: One-Size-Fits-All Exercise Design” in the October 2013 issue of IDEA Trainer Success.

Master Progression and Regression
As an SGT trainer, you must be able to modify exercise intensity quickly and effectively by tweaking lever length, speed of movement, range of motion, base of stability, plyometric elements and so on—for every exercise you present. “If someone has poor mechanics, an exercise needs to be able to be quickly modified to make it safer for the client,” notes Huff.

Bottom line: Do your progression- and regression-know-how homework. To learn how to cue these changes, check out the article “Small-Group Secrets: Crafting the Client Experience” in the August 2013 issue of IDEA Trainer Success.

Invest in Versatile Equipment
Instead of big weight machines with limited ranges of motion, use portable, highly versatile training toys for your small-group program. Easy-to-adapt pieces of equipment that leverage body weight work well (try the TRX® Suspension Trainer™ or Redcord®), as do machines that accommodate multiple ranges of motion (think cable-based equipment like a Technogym® Kinesis® wall or a FreeMotion® column).

Dozois’s team primarily uses easy-to-move dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls, cables, superbands and some type of step. They supplement these with occasional gym machines or other training tools for variety.

Saving Time, Boosting Results: Client-Directed Exercise

One-on-one sessions are stereotypically associated with some level of client “pampering”: The trainer selects the dumbbells or places the pin on the weight machine, and writes down the trainee’s results. However, time-pressed SGT leaders should encourage client autonomy instead of handholding, say our experts.

In this new workout paradigm, SGT clients retrieve their own equipment from a preset selection, remember what weight or modification they use, and pay attention to their internal signals of muscular fatigue to know when a set is done.

In other words, ditch your clipboard. With SGT you don’t need to (and, from a practical perspective, you can’t easily) write down how much each client lifts for a given exercise. “It’s difficult to record much since you are watching several people’s technique,” observes Huff. “But because most SGT participants have more generalized goals [than] many of our one-on-one clients, records are less of a concern.”

Become Coach and Cheerleader
In this approach, “the trainer becomes a coach, walking around, giving quick tips and cues, making sure participants are moving correctly—almost like a sports coach,” adds Jade Teta, ND, co-owner of Metabolic Effect in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Does that sound strange? Teta says research proves that this kind of “self-determined” exercise environment boosts workout quality, program adherence and results. “Trainers may get worried about giving up this ‘control,’ but ultimately this allows you to be a better coach,” he remarks. “You become the cheerleader and regulator of safety [instead of] an administrator.”

To make it work, have your equipment preorganized in one section (for example, have all kettlebells in one area), and then ask clients to select the weight that will challenge them. Huff encourages clients to err on the side of starting a set “too heavy” as opposed to “too light.”

“They can always drop the weight,” Huff explains. “We would prefer that versus starting too light and finishing the set too easily.”

Bottom line: Focus on giving in-the-moment cues, and note-take only selectively on trainee anomalies (such as recent injuries or modifications used) in individual client files.

Sets Based on Reps, Time or Fatigue?

As an SGT trainer, you’ll need to decide whether to work clients toward a certain rep range ("Do 15 of these!"), for a time limit ("Do as many as you can for 30 seconds!") or “to fatigue” ("Do it until you can’t do anymore!"). Our experts say there are pros and cons to each approach.

Use Reps or Time as the Goal
Most of the SGT trainers interviewed generally instruct trainees to work toward a particular rep range rather than a fixed time limit. Dozois notes, however, that in real-world terms this differentiation may be moot. “Reps are time under tension, so either way it's the same thing. Fifteen reps at a moderate tempo [takes] about 45 seconds. So either approach [reps or time as a goal] works,” he says.

“The nice thing about time is everyone starts and stops together; this way there is no waiting for any one client,” he continues. But the tradeoff is tempo: “If people rush through their reps, with the ‘time approach’ they are forced to continue until the time is up.”

Dozois comments that in a large club without a specific SGT space, a time-based approach can be hard to manage. “If you are all working close together—say, four people on four ‘workout stations’ right in front of you—use time as your goal. But if clients are spread out [throughout the club], use reps as a goal and have people move on after a certain number of reps,” he advises.

Work to Fatigue
Teta has pioneered a different solution to this practical challenge: rest-based training.

Instead of a time or rep goal, he instructs trainees to “push until you can’t; rest until you can.” For example, you might tell SGT clients to do as many push-ups as possible with good form, then take a break to recover, then restart push-ups as soon as possible. You would have clients repeat this process for a certain time period—say, 3 or 4 minutes.

Thus, trainees perform different numbers of push-ups in each work cycle and take breaks of differing lengths, according to their own needs. Teta argues that this delivers an effective and safe workout for all participants in a small-group setting. To learn more about Teta’s protocol, read the article “Rest-Based Training” in the March 2011 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.

A New Paradigm for Success

So what are the most important secrets of successful small-group exercise design? Dozois summarizes it nicely: “For both one-on-one and SGT, the ‘clipboard cowboy’ approach distracts from the trainer’s most important job: teaching proper movements, especially while clients are ‘loaded’ or ‘challenged.’”

The strategy for success? “Keep the groups small, and create a framework for trainers (and clients) to follow that is simple and effective,” he continues. “And get your head out of your clipboard or stopwatch, and just coach clients to do things correctly!”

IDEA Trainer Success, Volume 11, Issue 1

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About the Author

Megan Senger

Megan Senger IDEA Author/Presenter

Megan Senger is a writer, sales consultant, and fitness instructor based in Southern California. Active in the exercise industry since 1995, she holds a bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology and English....