Ushering in the Next Generation

by Joy Keller on Jul 01, 2004

Four experienced program directors share strategies for shaping new group fitness instructors.

As group fitness becomes more specialized, the demand grows for experienced instructors who possess that magic combination of high energy and charisma. Many program directors face staffing shortages and have to find creative ways to recruit talent. Finding a way to please participants—who are more diverse and demanding than ever—only adds to the challenge. How do you find, train and keep quality group fitness instructors? IDEA asked four experienced program directors to share their insights. Their strategies have been successful and may also work for you.

IDEA: What is the current state of group fitness instructor staffing in the industry? Is it easier or harder to find qualified instructors compared to 5–10 years ago?

Julie McNeney: I believe it’s harder to staff now than it was 5 and even 10 years ago. Compensation is a factor. Starting wages for group fitness instructors haven’t changed in years, even though the cost of living has risen dramatically.

In addition, industry standards and requirements have increased over the years. While this is a good thing, it has created some barriers. The up-front time commitment to become a part-time instructor can be as much as 100–125 hours and cost between $500 and $1,000. This is a limiting factor for many.

Kymberly Williams-Evans: I think there is a shortage. More significantly, we have a shortage based on skill level. Nationally we face a lack of both well-trained, incoming instructors and highly experienced instructors. The supply of middle-range teachers seems to be fine.

Highly skilled, diversified and experienced instructors are overloaded with classes and therefore are in short supply. While experienced teachers are staying in the industry into their 40s and 50s, qualified new teachers aren’t coming in at fast enough replacement rates. A huge number of instructors will be easing off in the next 10 years.

Staffing is easier for traditional fitness because I train incoming teachers in an academic setting. In fact, I don’t have enough classes to offer all my graduates. The mind-body classes are easier to staff than they were 3 or 5 years ago because my long-term, experienced staff are branching into these newer, gentler modes. My experienced staff handle more of the specialized classes. My newer, recently trained staff take on the foundation classes (strength training, step, high-low, kickboxing and low-complexity classes).

Helen Vanderburg: It’s easier to get instructors than it was 5 years ago, but not as easy as it was 10 years ago, when I received résumés on a regular basis. Now we are more aggressive in recruiting instructors. More people are interested in the field and are becoming certified. Many instructors are getting specialty certifications in Pilates, yoga and cycling. Traditional high-low and step instructors are harder to find.

Chanda Fetter: It’s harder to staff. There are plenty of “interested” instructors, and there’s a steady flow of applications coming across my desk. However, there are very few qualified instructors I would consider hiring. Certifications are entirely too accessible and affordable. This is good for the instructor, but it usually results in inadequate training. On top of that, because the industry has expanded so much over the past decade, versatile instructors are hard to find.

I am consistently presented with two scenarios. I either get an instructor who is certified in multiple disciplines but isn’t particularly spectacular in any of them, or I get an applicant who has specialized in one area and is spectacular but not affordable. Very rarely are the two scenarios married.

IDEA: How do you recruit new instructors? What do you value as good resources?

McNeney: We recruit instructors from

  • our own courses (We offer four per year.)
  • our classes (A number of our best instructors have come from a staff member going up to a participant and asking if he or she would like to teach.)
  • posters at training events
  • job postings on our website
  • exposure at conferences

Williams-Evans: I rarely recruit. I train instructors myself or help pay for long-term staff to get training. On those occasions when I do need to find someone for a specific mode or slot, I call fitness directors at nearby clubs and ask for leads. Since I send them trained instructors, they are willing to share leads on those rare occasions when I need a teacher. The university schedule essentially restarts every 10 weeks. If I can’t fill a spot, I program a different class for which I do have a teacher. The students/members are so willing to try new classes that, to some degree, I can program according to my staff’s strengths.

Vanderburg: We recruit most of our instructors from our membership and other departments. Most of our personal trainers teach at least one group exercise format. This has been great for both departments.

We also recruit from our basic certification courses. We offer certification courses from the Alberta Fitness Leadership Certification Association within our facility three times per year. From these courses we choose instructors and take them through a more in-depth training process.

Fetter: We primarily recruit from our membership base. We do a lot of in-house training and preparatory classes for certification. This makes for the easiest transition because the member-turned- instructor understands the quality we expect and already has a rapport with our staff. This type of instructor also has a relationship with other members, which ultimately provides a safer atmosphere [for the novice instructor]. Other good resources are dance studios and group fitness programs at local colleges.

IDEA: What strategies do you use to spot good talent or potential?

McNeney: We look for someone who moves well, who has great presence and charisma on the floor and whose values are in line with the company’s. We also look for someone who wants to make a difference in people’s lives and is eager to continue learning and growing with the profession. Often these people are in the front row.

Williams-Evans: I make constant announcements in class. I have 150 new potential teachers every quarter. As the quarter progresses, I watch for participants who exude joy and energy on a consistent basis. I approach them after class and ask if they’ve considered the group fitness instructor minor. I rarely get a lack of interest. Many participants don’t consider themselves eligible, adequate or qualified enough to even consider teaching. Singling them out seems to convert them.

Vanderburg: I look for people who have the basic skills to put a class together. They have to understand music, choreography development, cuing and how to move well. They must also be good role models and be physically fit. Beyond that, we look for energy projection, confidence, a positive demeanor and a great attitude. It’s much more difficult to teach someone how to be energetic and inspiring than it is to teach a person how to put a class together.

Fetter: I stay on-site a lot because I feel it’s essential when trying to spot new talent. Attending other facilities and performances is another good way. You can’t sit behind your desk pushing paperwork and think you’re going to improve your employee list.

IDEA: Does the current generation of group fitness instructors have a particular personality that distinguishes them? How are they different from previous generations and how, specifically, do you work with today’s instructors?

McNeney: The newer generation wants to pass on a message of health and wellness. These instructors are more independent and have a better understanding of the industry. By the time they reach us, many have already participated in high-school or college group fitness classes. This generation is here for the “right” reason; they have a message to pass on. They are also willing to put in the time it takes to become a great instructor.

Williams-Evans: Personalities from 20 years ago and this week seem consistent to me. However, physically the instructors look more diverse today. The current young pups are less apt to “look fit.”

Vanderburg: The current generation has many skills that weren’t as easy to find in the past. Young people today are very confident and self-assured. Most of them feel comfortable speaking in front of a group and are very articulate. These are all great skills to bring into the group exercise environment. However, one of the greatest challenges for this generation is meeting the level of expertise participants have come to expect.

It’s difficult for new instructors to deliver classes similar to those of seasoned veterans who’ve been teaching for 10 years or more. The other challenge is program diversity. It’s overwhelming for most new instructors. We recommend they focus on one class format at a time. For example, if they are most confident with resistance training, we train them only on the group strength and circuit classes. Once they build their confidence and skills in this area, we introduce another format.

Fetter: It seems that personalities are much softer these days, meaning the egos are smaller overall. I’m not sure if this is the trend or if it’s relative to the atmosphere and standards I expect from my staff. I encourage staff to practice two key concepts: consistency and appreciation. Consistency is bred through clear expectations and consequences. Quarterly meetings help create a team that works well together, resulting in accountability not only to me but to each other.

I make a point to acknowledge milestones, good deeds and increased participation whenever appropriate. Building trust and healthy relationships takes time, but the investment comes back to you tenfold and makes all the difference in the program’s success.

IDEA: How do you guide new instructors through your facility’s training program?

McNeney: New group fitness instructors are put through an intensive 8- to 10-week program with the group fitness director. Each week they spend up to 90 minutes going over drills and skills such as cuing, transition and flow. Once they have completed this, we partner them with veteran instructors who work with them for 5–7 weeks. Each week the new instructors teach part of the class and the veterans give them feedback, encouragement and guidance.

After that, they are given a class or two, and within the first couple of weeks they are evaluated. The group fitness director checks in with them on a regular basis to see if they are achieving the company’s goals.

Williams-Evans: Students register for a three-unit class, where they learn to teach group cardio classes. They pursue 20 hours of lecture and 20 hours of lab time and material in this course. Once they’ve finished, they pursue formalized internship placements. Each intern is placed in four classes a week for 10 weeks. Two placements are in regular fitness workouts throughout the community; the other two are in local high schools, where the intern teaches the entire class from week 1. The physical education teacher is always present (for classroom management, roll taking and discipline). The intern leads a 40- to 45-minute low-intensity, low-complexity workout from start to finish.

In the “regular” placements (clubs, college classes, gyms), the intern is assigned to a particular master teacher and regular class. The intern teaches progressive parts of the workout:

  • Week 1: warm-down
  • Week 2: 10 minutes of cardio
  • Week 3: a different 10 minutes of cardio
  • Week 4: warm-up (more technically challenging)
  • Week 5: last 20 minutes

The progression continues until week 9, when the intern teaches the entire class. He or she is videotaped teaching the entire class during week 10. The intern reviews the tape and takes notes following specific criteria. Then I review the tape and take notes. The high-school and master teachers offer feedback for each teaching experience, using specific evaluation performance sheets.

The master teachers deserve credit, as they open up their classes, take on the mentoring role, ride through the trial-and-error phase, and support the interns. Some master teachers really bond with the interns and offer additional time to hone skills.

Vanderburg: We have a multistep new-instructor integration program. We start all applicants with a 10-pass card that lets them try out a variety of classes. The goal is to make them aware of our class styles. We also want them to observe what the membership likes. After this step, they meet with the fitness director and share their observations. At the same time, the director shares company philosophy and expectations. From there, each new instructor enters into a three-step internship process:

  • Step 1: The new instructor is assigned a “buddy” and participates in a number of classes/sessions, as outlined by the fitness director.
  • Step 2: The new instructor leads a class segment for about 10 minutes, under the direction of the fitness director or buddy instructor. This is most advantageous if it is in the class where the new instructor was first introduced.

    Next, the buddy instructor and fitness director share feedback. Plans for step 3 are based on the results of step 2.

  • Step 3: The new instructor leads another small segment, a larger segment or the entire class at the discretion of the director and/or buddy.

The buddy instructor completes a peer evaluation. The fitness director sits down with the new instructor and decides if and when he or she will be added to the schedule.

Fetter: We run an active internship program. First we look at participants from our own classes. We are also aligned with a local university; we take on interns for school credit and hope they materialize into employees. We offer a 20-hour practical, intensive instructor-training course. About 99% of interns who become instructors come from this resource. The nice thing is, because we charge for the training course, it doubles as a revenue source.

Once we’ve invited them, interns are placed with appropriate “master instructors” who guide them through a structured 5-week calendar. The interns teach specific class elements, increasing their time allotment each week until they teach an entire class. I either attend their final sessions and/or they are videotaped for assessment at a later date.

IDEA: How do you orient new instructors to your company’s expectations? Do you have a predetermined list of criteria you use as a “road map”?

McNeney: All new instructors work with the assistant fitness director on a “training responsibilities” checklist. This form includes all training sessions, goals, meeting and class attendance requirements, video reviews and the final evaluation (see “New Group Fitness Instructor Final Evaluation” on page 87). The assistant director helps the new instructor set at least three goals, and together they agree on a date by which each goal will be revisited.

We have a separate training checklist we use that is even more detailed. Each instructor tours the facility. We explain how to use the stereo in each studio, the protocol for entering staff offices, how to use the windows and fans, and where we keep supplies. We also explain how to deal with members and review how to make class announcements. We make sure all new employees understand the many services we offer and specifically what we expect of them.

Williams-Evans: Here is an excerpt from the course outline and syllabus for the class “Methods and Principles of Fitness Instruction” at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB):

Course Objectives

  • to train you to teach safe, effective, motivating group fitness cardiovascular-conditioning classes based on current standards, research and practice
  • to prepare you to successfully enter the fitness profession
  • to alert you to recent changes and current controversies in the field of exercise leadership
  • to help you understand exercisers’ goals, needs and perspectives

Course Requirements

You are expected to accomplish the following:

  • Attend two lectures and two labs per week.
  • Learn and practice relevant segments of step, high- and low-impact, kickboxing and/or circuit classes.
  • Present movement segments to the group and instructor for evaluation and feedback.
  • Attend at least one additional workout per week (varying classes and clubs).
  • Complete guided observation forms on outside workouts.
  • Read assigned material from the textbook, reader and handouts.
  • Complete a class design project that will serve as your final exam.

Vanderburg: All new instructors are given a copy of our philosophy, mission statement and core values. Here are the qualities we look for in a new instructor:

Heavens Fitness Core Values

  • Our greatest strength is in our people—we are a team.
  • Our actions reflect our beliefs—we practice what we preach.
  • Our actions speak louder than our words.
  • We believe everyone deserves to be treated with respect.
  • We always seek to understand; listening is the greatest skill we can have.
  • We practice open-mindedness; we are flexible and adaptable to finding the best outcome.
  • We are committed to continually improving ourselves.
  • Our greatest achievements come from our greatest challenges.
  • We believe in encouraging people through positive and sincere energy.
  • Integrity, fairness, honesty and loyalty are at the core of our business.

Fetter: Instructors need to have the appropriate certifications and level of expertise to fit into our culture. Interns-turned- employees are given a grace period in which to obtain these things, but “experienced” applicants must already have the qualifications (see “Gold’s Gym Group Fitness Instructor Job Qualifications,” page 86). Each applicant signs a job qualification sheet at time of hire.

IDEA: What kind of incentives do you offer, if any, to existing and experienced staff who help train new instructors?

McNeney: We pay them an additional $5 per class.

Williams-Evans: I use a lot of master teachers, both at UCSB and at several facilities around town. I don’t offer any specific incentives. However, I do try to reward my on-campus master teachers by covering some of their CEC training or prioritizing their equipment requests. Many are so wonderful that they help the interns as a way to give back to the industry. I have never had a master teacher ask for an incentive. A few have passed on taking on an intern, though.

Vanderburg: Our existing staff all work with new instructors based on the staff’s availability and schedules. This fosters a strong team atmosphere. As all our instructors have gone through the same process, everyone is happy to assist with training. Most don’t want anything in return, but we do recognize their efforts individually. Each instructor lets us know what she would like in return. For some it is recognition as the trainer, for others it is a gift, and some prefer money for continuing education.

Fetter: We treat our best teachers accordingly. Being considered a “master instructor” is good for the instructor’s ego and has cachet with the new instructor. We pay master instructors for their time. On average they get an additional 1-hour class wage for every two internship experiences. For example, if the master instructor works with the intern five times in 5 weeks, she is paid for an additional 2 1/2 hours of class time. We may also offer other incentives, such as music and apparel.

McNeney: We offer

  • free CECs every year (enough so instructors can stay certified)
  • music (we have an on-site library)
  • ongoing evaluation and training
  • a library of industry magazines, reference books and videos
  • opportunities to attend outside conferences (fully or partially paid for by the company)
  • a free club and yoga membership for each instructor and his or her partner
  • free baby-sitting
  • payment to attend an outside class every 3 months to see what’s happening in the community
  • discounts on personal training and retail items

Williams-Evans: Ironically, I usually don’t get to keep them because they graduate and move on, which is what they should be doing. However, I do snap up those who stay in town. I simply ask them to remember to interview here as well. Most are eager to get classes and already know our program.

Vanderburg: The most important things you can give instructors are the three Rs: respect, recognition and reward. Instructors need to feel they are important and supported. They need individual attention and TLC, as difficult as it is for group exercise directors to provide these with their busy schedules. Rewards don’t have to be monetary. You can give a thank-you card, a phone call, a mention in the newsletter or on the bulletin board, or a small gift.

Fetter: This is the “holy grail” of all questions. Honestly, I try to pick people wisely from the start. I have had to turn away many potentially fantastic instructors because I knew they’d be gone in 6 months. Screening potential instructors is important. I look for versatile people who can commit to a minimum of 2 years. If I see a lot of potential in someone, I may assist with start-up costs (certification) in exchange for exclusivity. This creates a genuine bond of trust and commitment from both parties.

It takes time to establish a good working relationship that creates a sense of belonging and security. I have found that this tends to be enough for most instructors to want to be loyal members of the team. Treat them well and there’s no reason for them to leave!

IDEA Fitness Journal, Volume 1, Issue 2

© 2004 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

Joy Keller

Joy Keller IDEA Author/Presenter

Joy Keller is executive editor of IDEA Fitness Journal and is also a certified personal trainer, indoor cycling instructor, yoga teacher (RYT 200) and Reiki Master.