Skills & Drills
Take full advantage of your existing skill set and prepare to grow with the industry.
For group fitness instructors, the future is looking bright! “Employment of fitness trainers and instructors, is expected to grow by 24%” this decade, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Its report goes on to state, “As businesses and insurance organizations continue to recognize the benefits of health and fitness programs for their employees, incentives to join gyms or other fitness facilities will increase the need for workers in these areas.”
Whether you are new to the fitness industry or are a veteran instructor, opportunity is knocking, and you don’t necessarily have to reinvent yourself. Focus on your current talents, strengths and expertise. Leverage your existing qualifications to boost earning potential and, ultimately, advance your career. This article will explore possibilities and help you get started.
Mainstream health clubs aren’t the only players in the game. Smaller markets yearn for programs and qualified instructors. Keep an open mind and think beyond standard fitness facilities. Jennifer Buckley, EdD, director and associate professor in the School of Health and Physical Education at Aurora University, in Aurora, Illinois, encourages her students to consider employment at various establishments. “Boutique facilities, studios, corporations, police and fire departments, active-older-adult communities, and educational settings are all viable options for fitness instructors,” says Buckley.
Buckley points out that the university where she works has “several opportunities for group exercise instructors.” Larger universities often employ fitness professionals for campus recreation programs. The University of Illinois at Chicago’s Campus Recreation, for example, offers classes to students, alumni, faculty, staff and the local community. During prime season, UIC delivers about 90 classes per week. Forty are free to members, and the other 50 are fee-based. The schedule is just as diverse as a full-service heath club’s, with Zumba®, yoga, Pilates, strength training, indoor cycling and even Hawaiian hula.
Lynne Thompson, MS, associate director of programs at UIC, recruits students studying health-related programs to teach the free classes. For all fee-based and specialty programs, however, she hires certified instructors. If you go this route, don’t limit yourself to one department. There may be several job options within the same facility or organization.
Many instructors love the energy of a full class with 30–40 participants, but it can be tough to give personal attention to so many. Working with smaller groups allows you to focus on individuals and develop more intimate connections.
Marirose Meimers, a group exercise and STOTT PILATES®–trained instructor in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, teaches mat-based Pilates classes in a club setting. She also offers smaller-group training in her home studio. “I find that my smaller-group participants are not only interested in a great workout; they are genuinely interested in learning about Pilates,” she says. “They’re willing to work at a slightly slower pace to train proper form, posture, movement patterns and appropriate progression.”
Meimers adds, “Working out of my home gives me the freedom to make my own schedule and fill the time slots between my classes at the club.” Her home studio isn’t fancy—it’s her basement. She started teaching there when a few friends wanted to form a Pilates group while their kids were at school. Over the past 4 years, her side business has grown from friends, to friends of friends, to kids of friends—and it keeps growing. Mind-body formats like Pilates, yoga and tai chi are excellent for smaller groups. If you hold a more general certification, assess what you currently teach and decide if a smaller group makes sense. Do you like teaching boot camp or circuit training? How about a downsized boot camp or circuit challenge? Or why not try a small cardio-boxing class?
When not working at the club, Meimers acts as an independent contractor. She has liability insurance but requires participants to fill out a health history, sign a waiver and bring their own equipment, including mats. This limits her equipment costs and potential liability. Using a space inside her home cuts down on commute and overhead costs; however, she must abide by her community’s Home Occupation Code. This allows her to see only four clients within a 24-hour period; otherwise, her home would need to be zoned for business use. If independent contracting is appealing, do your homework first. You might consider renting space from recreation centers and even churches if your home isn’t an option.
If working as an employee is more desirable, brainstorm a few ideas and take them to your supervisor. Depending on space and availability, you may be able to create your own small-group program. Most facilities like to fill “dead time” with options that offer value to members while potentially producing revenue.
If you’d told me at the beginning of my career as a step instructor that I would one day write an article for IDEA Fitness Journal, I would have thought you were crazy. Yet here I am. My writing career began at a job where I was responsible for submitting monthly “fit tips” for a corporate newsletter. Those tips caught the eye of someone in another department who needed a few Web articles, which eventually led to a gig writing a technical white paper for a trade show. More opportunities developed from there.
Writing is a valuable skill to add to any resumé. It’s also a great marketing tool and an excellent way to supplement income while sharing your passion. People are genuinely interested in—if not obsessed with—fitness information. Much of the published work you see is written, not by fitness professionals, but by people who research a topic and know how to turn the information into a compelling story. You already possess the knowledge. So if you enjoy writing, consider pitching an idea to your facility newsletter, the local paper or even a fitness-related magazine.
Amanda Vogel, MA, group exercise instructor and owner of Active Voice, a writing, editing and consulting service for the fitness industry, offers tips for fitness professionals looking to enter the world of writing on her website, www.activevoice.ca. She addresses exactly what you need to know about getting work published. That being said, breaking into the writing world isn’t easy and rejection is common. In Vogel’s online course “How to Write Winning Queries,” she says, “Whether you want to write health and fitness articles part-time or full-time, persistence is the key to success.”
If writing isn’t for you, but you’re not shy in front of a crowd, consider presenting. Corporations, small businesses, libraries and community groups bring in presenters to speak on a variety of subjects, including fitness. Contact a few organizations, introduce yourself and inquire about their needs. Have a few topics in mind and be ready to sell an idea or two.
Think of your classes as building blocks. One class builds on another, creating variety until you have several options. Start with a basic class you feel comfortable teaching; let’s say strength or sculpt, for example. Then get creative with new variations: cardio-sculpt mixer, strength Tabata intervals, plyo-circuit training, sculpt for active older adults, balance, sculpt and stretch, etc. Although your facility must show a need for the proposed class, managers are always looking for new ideas.
If you specialize in teaching one format, you’ll need to expand your market base. Teach the same class with slight modifications for different groups. Stay-at-home moms, kids, active older adults, teens and even golfers are all realistic niche markets that need tailored programs.
Some options proposed in this article may work for you, while others may not. If you land just one spinoff class or a short column in your facility e-newsletter, however, that’s another bullet point on your resumé. A single opening can lead to many more. Don’t be shy—let people know what you’re doing. Add each new experience, big or small, to your resumé, personal website or LinkedIn page. Be confident, play on your strengths, maximize your opportunities, and watch your career develop and evolve.