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How to Really Teach to Beginners

by Shannon Fable on Jan 01, 2010

Group Ex Skills & Drills

A strategy to help you connect authentically with people unfamiliar with movement.

The new year usually brings with it people eager—yet again—to start their yearly quest for health and fitness, after waistlines have expanded and fitness levels have dropped between Thanksgiving and the end of the year. Whether these participants are coming back from weeks (or, in some cases, months or even years) of inactivity, have a tremendous amount of weight to lose or are true beginners, many of them go to the gym to seek the advice of qualified fitness professionals.

We have a huge responsibility to foster the spark that made these people walk through the doors and then to help them—regardless of their ability level—to move toward their goals. Group fitness has an amazing capacity to provide enthusiasm, instruction, camaraderie and fun all in one place. However, as instructors are we fully equipped to handle a beginner’s special needs?

If our mission is to Inspire the World to Fitness®, our teaching must reach beyond the front row and take hold of the impressionable newbie in the back corner. The best equipment, newest music or latest exercise technique is not enough to turn a beginner into a dedicated front-row participant. Now is the perfect time for a tune-up. With a few subtle adjustments, a group fitness class can become a safe haven for even the least experienced participant.

Let’s break down the BEGIN Strategy, consisting of five simple ways to prepare for any participants, whatever their level.

B: Beginner’s Frame of Mind

Let’s face it—most group fitness instructors probably popped out of the womb with a dumbbell in one hand, a microphone in the other and a foot tapping out the 32-count phrase. Okay, maybe that’s not true for all of us. But undoubtedly you demonstrated some aptitude for fitness if you found the courage to put on spandex, stand up in front of your peers and shout out orders! How do you know what beginners need if you’ve never been there? It’s tough to think of that person with two left feet, no rhythm and years of being sedentary looking back at you in the mirror if that’s not your story.

One way to instantly be a better teacher to beginners is to try something new yourself. Find a format you would rather die than teach, and take that class. Go to adult ballet classes if you never wore a tutu in elementary school. Or do what I did . . . take 4 months off and, with the eyes of a beginner, go back to doing something you’ve done for years.

After being in the hospital for 10 weeks on bed rest and then delivering a child via cesarean section (which required lying low for 6 more weeks), I ventured into a beginner yoga class. I don’t necessarily consider myself a beginner at yoga, but after not exercising for such a long time, I knew that this was where I would be most comfortable. Needless to say, I was humbled by how it felt to sit in the back row, completely out of my element. Everything was hard—even the poses the teacher claimed were a “warm-up” felt like torture.

The teacher provided no education, explanation, modifications or demonstration. As I stood there thanking my lucky stars that my knowledge of yoga allowed me to choose my own modifications and follow her verbal cues, I started to look around and was deeply disappointed in our profession. There were 20 eager exercisers ready to embrace what yoga had to offer. They all looked equally stressed, and when they walked out, there was a sense not of calm and accomplishment but of regret and self-doubt. Would they be back? I had my doubts. More important, I began to wonder if I had done this to people in my classes without even knowing it?

Be a beginner again; if you just see class through a beginner’s eyes, you’ll be much less likely to leave your own class feeling lost and confused.

E: Elevate Your Cuing

In the yoga class I attended, one of my most disconcerting observations was the “air of expectancy” created through the cuing. It was as if yoga was a common language you should already know if you chose to show up. We have certainly acquired unique language to explain what we’re doing in our classes, but there is always a way to explain things to make the experience all-inclusive. People follow first by seeing. Begin by showing the move and describing what’s happening (whether it’s a previewed move or the move performed at a slower tempo). Then teach and anchor any specialized terms. For example, when leading a squat, perform the move slowly at first and describe the action: “Sit the hips back and bend the knees.” Next, call the exercise by its proper name, which will give the beginner a chance to perform the move and associate it with the word.

Then take a break from yammering. We talk so much when we cue that a beginner can get completely overwhelmed. While all cues are important, a participant can focus on only so much at a time. Don’t go overboard with beginners, fearing that they will injure themselves. Consider the following way to cue a squat: “Place your feet hip distance apart; flex the ankle, knee and hip joint; keep weight in the heels; make sure you can see your toes; keep your chest up, abs in, back long and eyes on the horizon; and breathe.” The beginner hears the first part and works to do what you’re asking, but as the barrage of verbal input continues, it’s tough to keep up, which can lead a newcomer to feel unsuccessful. Describe key points succinctly to get everyone moving together, and then choose one focus. Perhaps this week you concentrate on placing weight in the heels or on keeping the chest lifted. With one specific focus, the beginner has a better chance of getting it right.

G: Give More Than Options

When a beginner sees everyone doing something, no matter how many other options or modifications there are, they will follow what they see. “Monkey see, monkey do” is very prevalent in group fitness. No one wants to look different and, sometimes, it’s hard to take an option if you can’t see it or can’t follow someone else who’s doing it. Think back to the last time you (or someone you were with) tried to stay with the first layer of a step combination as the instructor continued with the fun stuff. It’s hard to stay at the level you need to when you’re surrounded by go-getters. To help beginners choose appropriate options, avoid simply listing modifications. Instead, fully explain your expectation and provide several ways to meet that goal.

For example, you might say, “We are getting ready to do 15 squats, and I want your legs to be toast by the time you’re done. You can do this (squat), this (squat to calf raise) or this (squat jump). Feel free to mix and match these choices, doing whatever will make your legs not want to do this any more at the end of the 15. Let’s go.” Using this strategy allows all your participants to self-select the best options for them.

I: Investigate and Communicate

Review your personal communication skills. Are you sending the right message to the new folks, or are you spending more time catching up with your front row? Arrive early and stay late, reach out to new faces and help each person feel welcome. Place yourself at a high-traffic entrance or exit at the beginning or end of class and investigate. Invite participants to chat with you. Ask open-ended questions, such as, “What are you looking for in class today? What made you come tonight? How do you want to feel when you’re done? What could I do to make you feel successful today?” Ask any question that might help you dig a little deeper into the psyche of a beginner participant and then tailor your class to meet those needs. If you can, follow up at the conclusion and extend a personal invitation to return.

N: Never Stop Learning

Education is a must in our profession. The fitness world changes continually, and we have a responsibility to stay ahead of the curve. Most of the education we seek revolves around new products, the latest programs or interesting research. Invest some time in learning more about communication, exercise psychology and cuing techniques. Get your educational fix by attending an upcoming conference, ordering a new DVD, taking an online course or finding a workshop in your area. “Soft science” is extremely important and will help you develop the art of teaching multilevel classes.

You will always have fresh faces in your back row. Will this be the year you are equipped to inspire every single one of them to make a life-changing leap? Remember, your regulars will be there no matter what. While it’s important to keep this group stimulated, bear in mind that it’s easier for veterans to make a class challenging than it is for beginners to bring a class down to their level. We have a huge responsibility to strike a balance between empowering die-hards to do what they need to do and keeping beginners coming back and feeling successful. A delicate balance, for sure. Let’s make this our New Year’s resolution.

IDEA Fitness Journal, Volume 7, Issue 1

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About the Author

Shannon Fable

Shannon Fable IDEA Author/Presenter

Shannon Fable, 2009 IDEA Instructor of the Year Finalist and 2006 ACE Group Fitness Instructor of the Year, is the founder and CEO of Sunshine Fitness Resources, a fitness consulting firm experienced ...