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Small-Group Secrets: One-Size-Fits-All Program Design

by Megan Senger on Sep 24, 2013

Small-Group Training

How to ensure that everyone gets a top-notch small-group training experience.

How can two full-time personal trainers with six part-time colleagues generate annual gross revenues in excess of $850,000?

Just ask studio owner Frank Nash.

Frank Nash Training Systems in Worcester, Massachusetts, is a 5,500-square-foot facility that specializes almost exclusively in small-group training. SGT is a training system that allows up to a dozen clients to work with a personal trainer during a shared workout session. It’s also the subject of an ongoing IDEA Trainer Success series.

For Nash, SGT is the staple of his success. Yet his business model comes with a twist.

Even though he has eight trainers to serve his 300-strong clientele, only one of them actually writes any exercise programs.

Nash’s studio uses a system called centralized exercise design: One senior trainer creates a workout structure for all clients to follow. All other trainers act as floor coaches, helping clients regress and progress the movements of the workout in their by-appointment SGT sessions. Customers are not “assigned” to any one trainer. Rather, each trainee eventually works with everyone on Nash’s staff.

If you are used to meticulously planning individual client programs, this “workout of the day” approach could seem sacrilegious. But for Nash, it’s not. Read further to learn why he and other experts believe that having one trainer write the exercises for an entire facility’s worth of clients is the next big thing in SGT.

What Is Centralized Program Design?

Centralized programming refers to how a fitness business handles new-client intake and the creation of workouts. One senior trainer, often called the director of fitness programming, is at the helm.

With this approach, the house—not any individual trainer—owns the client, remarks 35-year industry veteran Thomas Plummer, now a Cape Cod, Massachusetts–based international business coach and founder of the National Fitness Business Alliance.

At large facilities, typically, three different people might be responsible for business management, new-client intake and the creation of facility workouts, respectively. But at boutique studio Defined Fitness LLC, in Wexford, Pennsylvania (with 150 clients and three trainers in 2,100 square feet), these hats are worn by one person—co-owner Josh Proch.

A new customer’s first consultation should be with the director of fitness programming, say both Proch and Plummer. This meeting takes roughly an hour, and it has three goals:

Assess and assign. The director records the new trainee’s goals, limitations and concerns in a file that floor trainers review preworkout, says Proch. The first visit also includes a modified Functional Movement Screen—an assessment protocol that identifies functional limitations and asymmetries. The director then recommends a training group or time slot for the client, based on the business’s pricing and programming models.

Teach movements. “The director then leads the client through an abbreviated workout to familiarize him with some of the things we do and the equipment we use,” explains Proch. He notes that this is the only time one-on-one training is used at Defined Fitness.

Write exercise programs. In a system based on service layers, the fitness programming director writes a weekly program for the large-group team training and a workout of the day for small-group; the director also evaluates and controls any one-on-one workouts, says Plummer. At Proch’s SGT-focused facility, there’s just one workout, but it changes three times per week.

The Benefits of Centralized Program Design

Centralized exercise design benefits clients, trainers and business owners alike.

For clients. With this system, participants can schedule workouts at their convenience instead of working around a particular trainer’s schedule, confirms Nash, who is also the founder of social media consultancy Fitness Click Social. “And from a customer’s point of view, his or her program is not disrupted if a coach gets fired, quits, gets sick or moves.”

Centralized programming also ensures a well-rounded approach to physical development across workouts. This contrasts with business systems wherein small-group trainers “share” clients from workout to workout, but the trainers design their own programs. In this each-to-his-own method of exercise prescription, some weeks clients might get overloaded with, say, shoulder-oriented workouts, since trainers in a non-centralized SGT system don't always compare notes. Centralized programming resolves this concern.

For trainers. For both studios and independent trainers, centralized program design means focusing on client technique instead of paperwork. “We've found it to be less administrative work now than when we used to do only one-on-ones,” reports Proch.

The system also provides more life-freedom for trainers, who can take shifts rather than work around the schedules of particular clients, notes Nash. And because business owners can predict the regularity of an employee’s hours, trainers may be better able to negotiate a steady salary and benefits package.

For the business owner. Centralized programming allows entrepreneurs a level of workout-related quality control that’s absent in a haphazard hire-a-few-friends-to-work-at-your-gym approach, explains Plummer. “It is your business, your risk—and it should be based upon your training belief system and no one else's.”

A standardized programming system also protects you from a renegade contractor or staff member who threatens to leave your business and “steal” clients away, observes Nash. With centralized workouts, “coaches become easily replaceable, and our customers won't miss a beat if a coach exits.”

Consider also the possible future resale value of your fitness business. Life happens—death, divorce, long-term illness, retirement or simply a change of heart—and you never know when you may want or need to sell your training company or client list.

“Potential buyers don't want to buy a business where one or two [key] people leaving will destroy that business,” Plummer notes. “Buyers want proven business systems that will stand with interchangeable employees.”

The System in Action

Benefits aside, for a centralized system to work, your trainers must consider themselves a cohesive team, not a competing set of “super trainers.” To this end, all of Nash’s staff meet weekly to discuss upcoming exercise plans and client issues.

Also key? Workouts based on regression- and progression-friendly movement patterns instead of set-in-stone exercises. For example, at Proch’s facility almost every workout contains a hip-dominant move, a knee-dominant move, a push, a pull, core work and some single-leg work. The director writes a new program every 2 days based on this formula, and variations due to client limitations are handled by on-the-floor coaches.

Most of the experts interviewed for this article work their small-group clients up to a certain rep range—as opposed to a time limit (“Do as many as you can for 30 seconds!”) or to failure. Also important is having a flexible approach to record keeping that doesn’t rely on tracking the exact weights used by every trainee.

An in-depth discussion on these issues and other exercise-for-small-group how-tos will be featured in the next issue of IDEA Trainer Success.

The Other Side

Centralized design may work for some. But not every business needs to go the standard “workout of the day” route. So says Phil Dozois, owner of Breakthru Fitness, a full-service, 17,500-square-foot fitness center in Pasadena, California, that houses a booming boutique-style personal training department.

Dozois reports that his team experimented with the centralized training model. But the trainers got bored, so he modified the system. Now, all Breakthru trainers follow prescribed workout frameworks not unlike the one used in Josh Proch’s small-group-only studio. But Dozois applies three major changes that he believes work better in a health club setting:

  • A client usually works with the same trainer each session.
  • Small groups are broken down by level (beginner, intermediate and advanced training groups).
  • Each trainer has broad discretion to select the reps, sets and specific exercises for each trainee while working within the Breakthru programming format.

A System for Success

“Any training business that wants to grow in revenue, hold clients for longer periods of time and eventually sell for the highest dollar has to switch away from individual trainers doing their own thing and centralize the way its exercise programs are written,” asserts Plummer.

SGT with a centralized approach to exercise design is real-world fitness for the masses and a great fit for all but the most extraordinary of clients, our experts say. And that’s the new big news in SGT.

IDEA Trainer Success, Volume 10, Issue 5

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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....