How to Become a Group Exercise Instructor

by Fred Hoffman, MEd on Apr 04, 2011

Use education as a springboard to launch your passion for teaching movement to others.

When I began my career as a group exercise instructor 30 years ago, I couldn’t have imagined the industry would be where it is today—an evolving, dynamic profession with boundless potential. Group exercise is diverse and offers unlimited options. However, finding the right job or deciding which direction to take can be overwhelming. This article takes you step by step through how to navigate a career in group exercise.

Passion Leads to Education

In the early days of group fitness (known then as “aerobics”), many instructors (myself included) went from being avid beginners to front-row students, assistants and then teachers. This transition almost always sprang from a passion for high-energy exercise and a desire to share this activity with others. At the time, formal training courses and schools were rare, and instructors learned as they went along. With this passion came a demand for professional education, which led to the establishment of the International Dance Exercise Association (now known as IDEA Health & Fitness Association) and the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA). These educational bodies were precursors to the hundreds of schools, organizations and companies that now offer training and specialty courses. University-based programs that offer group exercise instruction curricula have also emerged over the years.

As we move into the next decade, it’s necessary to pursue industry-specific education to guarantee success. Instructors must learn the basics of anatomy and physiology, biomechanics, nutrition and injury prevention. They must possess the basic teaching skills necessary for working with adults (or children) in a group setting. Being qualified to teach group fitness no longer means just being able to move well and motivate people. Although those are important qualities, having them will not guarantee a long career and neither will education alone. You must have passion for the industry and a “fire in your belly” that will drive you to be the best that you can be.

If you’ve got that passion, the first step to a rewarding career is to become a certified group exercise instructor.

Certifications

Professionals in every industry recognize the need for obtaining nationally (or internationally) recognized credentials and keeping them up to date. The fitness industry is no exception. Having a reputable basic group exercise certification is now considered essential.

In 2008, the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) recommended that club owners hire only fitness professionals holding certifications from agencies accredited through the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), or an equivalent. IHRSA regards the NCCA accreditation as the standard, and hopes that it will help raise industry standards by distinguishing NCCA-certified professionals from others. According to the American Council on Exercise, a certifying organization, there are more than 300 certification programs offered (in the United States). Currently there are only a small number of NCCA-accredited certifying agencies. As this appears to be the direction the industry is headed, take NCCA-accredited programs and certification into consideration when choosing: Group Fitness Certification/Training Organizations.

In addition, competency in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and automated external defibrillators (AED) is required for eligibility in most certification programs. Learn more at www.redcross.org and www.americanheart.org.

Products, Programs and Possibilities

A basic certification will provide you with the tools necessary to teach group exercise classes; however, the next step is to explore the different activities and training programs required to teach them.

When group exercise first became popular, most classes were movement-based and used a minimum amount of equipment. Since the late 1980s there has been a huge increase in the number of equipment-based programs, thanks in part to the success of Step Reebok. In recent years, a number of prechoreographed branded programs have also emerged and gained in popularity. Mind-body programs such as yoga, tai chi and Pilates have created yet another area to explore. As education and creativity evolve and thrive, new ideas pop up frequently. Currently there are many popular areas to consider, such as group strength training, circuit training and boot camp formats, movement and dance-based, step, indoor cycling, water fitness, yoga and associated disciplines and Pilates, just to name a few. Learn more about current and future industry trends by reading the 2010 IDEA Fitness Industry Compensation Trends Report.

If you want to determine which activities and specialty programs interest you, stay informed. Start by experiencing as many different classes, formats and instructors as possible. Visit other fitness facilities and take classes not offered at your own club. This will give you a better idea of all the different classes, which ones you enjoy and if you’d like to learn how to teach a particular option.

Check out YouTube and other video streaming websites to see instructors and programs in action. If something piques your interest, visit the company’s website to view its video library and get more information about certification or training. For more information about group exercise industry certifications and resources, visit Group Fitness Certification/Training Organizations

A versatile teaching repertoire makes you more marketable, so plan on getting trained and certified in several programs. This doesn’t mean you must have 25 specialties under your belt, or that you must do this right away, but it will help you find a job and make your experience more exciting and rewarding. If you’re confused about which workshops and training to pursue, talk to facility managers and directors to learn which certifications they recognize as the best. When attending conventions and conferences, talk to other instructors about specialty certifications and speak to presenters for their opinions. Another good strategy is to search the Web for open forums that discuss certifications. This is a great way to get frank, consumer-generated opinions.

The bottom line: It’s essential that the basic certification and the specialty certifications you hold are reputable and recognizable.

Continuing Education

Your newly acquired certification is just the starting point. It is imperative to refresh your knowledge on an ongoing basis. In order to maintain your certification and for renewal, you have an obligation to obtain a certain number of continuing education hours. Although easily accomplished, this will take time and is a financial investment on your part. Attending industry conferences and conventions allows you to participate in full-day training, workshops, lectures and activity sessions. These events introduce you to experts in the field and provide an opportunity to meet and network with other fitness professionals, exchange ideas and discover what others are doing professionally.

One great way to stay abreast of educational opportunities is to become a member of a professional organization such as IDEA. Not only will you have access to several award-winning publications and a website providing numerous valuable resources, but you can also obtain your continuing education credits (CECs).

It’s essential to stay current with health and fitness developments if you want to remain credible and relevant. Certification is just your ticket in—continuing education is the secret to keeping your career on a winning track. If you want to find out more about the many benefits of lifelong learning, read Staying in the Fitness Game.

Career Opportunities Today and Tomorrow

Is it possible to earn a living as a full-time group exercise instructor? Yes, although currently that is the exception to the rule. According to the 2010 IDEA Fitness Industry Compensation Survey, almost no instructors are salaried (1% group fitness; 6% specialty instructors). Many in the industry teach classes on a part-time basis. There are instructors who hold full-time positions at fitness facilities, but most often, group exercise instruction is only one part of their responsibilities. Another possibility is to work full time by teaching classes at several facilities. However, physically, this may be difficult to maintain on a long-term basis.

A growing number of group exercise instructors are pursuing the “hybrid” option, which appears to be the direction the industry is headed. The “hybrid” instructor works full-time, but in several different capacities. She may work as a group exercise instructor as well as a personal trainer or possibly in another position such as front desk staff, wellness coach, or even in membership sales! This choice allows the luxury of doing what you enjoy foremost, while diversifying your activities and enjoying the benefits (health care, etc.) of a full-time job. Read Hybrid Fitness Professionals—The Best of All Worlds? for more insight on hybrid instructors.

The amount of money you can earn as a group exercise instructor varies from region to region, country to country and according to market demands. Urban areas tend to pay more; education and certifications play a big role, and your value increases when you bring something unique to the table. To learn more about the ins and outs of getting paid for doing what you love, read the 2010 IDEA Fitness Industry Compensation Trends Report.

Finding a Job

There are several career tools you need when starting out. Even in this electronic era, I still recommend carrying business cards with you at all times. A simple card will do, but what is most important is that it clearly identifies who you are and what you do. Put only the most pertinent information on it, along with contact information. This may include your phone number, email address or a link to a social networking site such as Facebook or LinkedIn. Many college students can create inexpensive cards (sometimes financed by the school) stating the university name and the degree they’re pursuing. Include a website and a link to your resumé if possible, and keep the information current.

When it comes to finding a job, networking is one of the most important skills you can have. Networking opportunities abound and occur in the most unexpected places. You never know when talking to friends, colleagues, family, new acquaintances and even total strangers (that person sitting next to you on a plane) may present you with a possible job prospect.

Attend industry conventions and conferences, local job fairs and community events to network and discover employment opportunities as well as the latest industry trends and developments. IDEA offers several conventions per year www.ideafit.com/fitness-conferences], and as an IDEA member, you receive special pricing for convention registration. Industry events are invaluable and should be considered an essential investment in your career development.

Looking Ahead

For career advancement, it is important to set both short- and long-term goals. Where do you want to be in 1 year, 5 years or 10 years? Goals keep you focused. Positions in management, public speaking, consulting, programming and writing are all future options, but before embarking on a specific path, spend a few years “in the trenches” discovering what you do or don’t like, observing and learning. Some of the best opportunities come from being in the moment and excelling at what you do. It’s comforting to know that many possibilities exist in group exercise.

At the end of the day, the most important advice is to be yourself. Think about some of your favorite teachers from when you were in school, sports, faith-related or extracurricular activities. What was it that made them special? Most likely they were knowledgeable in multiple subjects, flexible in their teaching styles, shared life experiences, and made learning fun. A “cookie-cutter” teacher would not have had the same effect on you. A key to being successful is to be uniquely you. That is what your students and members are looking for and why they keep coming back. You can be influenced by other instructors, and even hope to be just like them, but keep your distinct personality traits alive. You will never be that instructor you admire, but you can certainly use what you have learned from them to be your best.

© 2015 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

Fred Hoffman, MEd

Fred Hoffman, MEd IDEA Author/Presenter

Fred Hoffman, MEd, holds a master’s degree in health education and is the director of Education for Batuka, as well as the Director of international services for the Club Synergy Group. A consultant...