When Teaching "Failure" Leads to Success
Programs: Use a range of options and techniques when leading a multilevel group strength class.
Every experienced instructor knows the multitasking involved when teaching to multiple levels in one class. Teaching resistance training to a class requires the skill of several personal trainers all wrap-ped into one instructor. Within a year or two, I predict, we will see “leveled” group strength training classes just as we have “beginning, intermediate and advanced” classes for other workout modes. But until then we have to deal with a wide range of abilities, strengths and goals—and what a challenge that can be!
It is possible to be time efficient, address individual needs and help participants improve their strength and form even when faced with a disparate group. If you know your options and a few teaching tricks, you are on your way to becoming an even more effective group strength teacher. The ultimate goal is to have participants choose the right level for each and every exercise.
To properly handle a multilevel class, you must be aware of the many resistance training modifications and variables. Just as with cardio classes, you must examine the criteria you use to determine “level” in the first place. If you offer options 1, 2 and 3—increasing difficulty as you go—what are the qualifiers for moving from option 1 to option 3? Good form? A heavier load? Less grunting? More grunting? (See “Factors to Consider When Determining Level” below for more details.)
If you make the criteria clear to participants, they can accurately self-select. For example, here are some cues you might use for different criteria:
- For “form,” say: “When you can maintain spinal alignment throughout the exercise, you are ready to try option 2.”
- For “resistance load,” say: “If you got to rep 15 and could have done 3 more, please pick up additional weight next time.”
- For “lever length,” say: “Once you are comfortable with the knees bent, try extending the legs.”
Maybe you choose one set of criteria for an exercise. Take lever length, for example. For a push-up, option 1: on hands and knees with hip flexion; option 2: on the knees with neutral hip alignment; option 3: from the toes. Then, for another move, you choose a different set of criteria—say, base of support. For a supine hamstring curl, option 1: heels on the stability ball with hands wide on the floor; option 2: hands next to the body on the floor; option 3: arms crossed over the chest.
Be clear in your own mind what your criteria are, and communicate them to the group. The more you share your evaluation strategies, the better your participants can self-monitor. For instance, if you consider form the primary distinction between options 1 and 3, then state that and offer various form cues:
“As we perform the lunges together, decide your level by checking form. If your lower leg is staying vertical, you are on target.”
“Are your shoulders level throughout the lunge? Is the chest open and lifted? If not, then adjust accordingly and resume.”
If number of reps and resistance load are paramount, give parameters so people can self-modify. “For those of you just starting out, aim for 15 reps with no weight. Those of you who have been training for a while, grab more weight and try to fatigue in 10 reps.” As you may have already figured out, the criteria, or tools, usually come in combinations (reps plus form plus experience, for example).
The real trick to teaching effective multilevel resistance classes is simply acquiring and using more tools. Avoid the trap of using only reps, sets, resistance, load and duration to evaluate level and progress. If you rely on increased load and additional sets to move from weak to strong, you limit the class. The teacher who addresses varying needs solely by suggesting more/fewer reps or more/less time ends up with half the class waiting around while the other half finishes up. However, you can appropriately challenge all participants and make them eager for more when you expand your toolbox.
Here’s a sample cue using an “expanded toolbox”: “Are you maxed out on the amount of weight you can carry for the biceps curl? Try spending 80% of each rep in the lowering phase, . . . then lift one leg off the ground . . . while sitting on the stability ball . . . with your eyes closed . . . as you slow down each curl by 50%.”
Suddenly you have 40 variations of a biceps curl, with each person selecting successful twists on the biceps theme. You offered options for each level, using—in order—load, rhythm, balance and speed. Of course, prior to this you demonstrated proper form.
Another aspect of handling many resistance trainers at once is having a clear and efficient exercise setup. Exercisers, regardless of level, want to get the most action for their invested class time. No one likes to stand around waiting to start as the teacher drones on with 4 minutes of premove cuing. Have you ever found yourself in that dilemma where you want to offer enough options to cover everyone’s needs, yet spend more time explaining the move than doing it? At the same time, exercisers of all abilities do need some sense of what to expect. You don’t want to rush them. And, of course, you’re always concerned about injury. The solution is to offer a quick yet complete setup before each and every exercise. Keep each setup under 30 seconds and strive for 100% participation. Offer only those cues needed to get everyone rolling.
Instead of reciting a litany of cues that elicit perfect form and cover all modifications, cut to the essentials. What do exercisers need to know to prevent acute injury? What about likely chronic injury? For instance, when setting up a parallel squat, follow the “Six-Step Setup Checklist” on this page. For step 5, touch solely on knee position or the knee-to-toe relationship. Of course spinal alignment, hip position and muscular engagement are all important. Cover those cues and more once the group is performing the squats. But at least get them moving, remembering to “first, do no harm.”
Once the group is training, follow up with additional options, alignment cues and modifications. The beauty of the six-step checklist is that once you have set up the group, you can come offstage to offer even more individual attention. The class has heard, seen and felt the baseline move and can proceed.
You’ve set them up well. As they exercise, you continue to tell and show modifications that come from a broad list to address as many needs as possible. You hop offstage and offer one-on-one attention. Now, how do you know when to stop? The mistake is to equate more time with more advanced capability. Again, you have a range of choices (see “How to Determine the Stopping Point of Each Exercise” on page 78). Mix and match. Change the endpoint criteria as appropriate for the exercise and the group.
It is a powerful feeling to teach a multilevel group, seeing individual improvement within the class and over time. It’s great fun to be able to say with accuracy, “Failure is success! When your targeted muscle fails to complete one more good rep, you have succeeded in increasing your strength.” So let’s all aim to fail with as many different levels as possible. I’ll lift to that!
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Setting up well allows participants to know exactly when to start. They also need to hear when to stop. How do you (and they) determine that a set is complete? The more choices you offer, the better chances you have to address individual needs in your multilevel strength class. Here are some guidelines:
DURATION: “We’re going to spend 4 seconds lifting and 6 seconds lowering.”
NUMBER OF REPS, INDIVIDUALLY PACED: “When you finish 12 reps at your own pace, stop.”
NUMBER OF REPS, GROUP PACED: “Let’s count down and perform our 12 reps together. Ready, 12, 11, 10, . . . .”
TO FATIGUE: “Keep going until you can no longer execute.”
UNTIL FORM FAILURE: “As soon as you or I notice your back arching, come out of the exercise.”
CERTAIN NUMBER OF 8-COUNTS: This is usually a silent cue that the instructor marks mentally by musical phrase. For example, “32 counts at 125 beats per minute feels about right.”
PERCENTAGE OF CLASS COMPLIANCE/COMPLETION: This is also a silent decision made by the instructor. My personal cutoff point is 80%–85%. When I use this method and observe that 80%–85% of the participants have finished a set (duration or number of reps), I cue the exercise as over and set up for the next one. If more than 20% are sacrificing form, I stop the group. If fatigue is the reason, I move on. If it’s lack of awareness, I stop and restart with different cues and a new visual demonstration.
How do you distinguish between “advanced” and “beginning” participants? It’s about more than just the number of reps and sets they can do—level is determined by a combination of factors. Consider the following when designing, cuing, teaching and modifying a group strength class:
FORM. The better the form, the more your participants can integrate the modifications and other factors listed below.
COORDINATION. Does seeing, understanding and translating the move into action the first time make someone advanced?
QUALITY OF REPETITION. Remind the group to check that the stabilizers stay stable. Does the move initiate with the mobilizers? Without this self-awareness, is a person advanced?
CONSISTENCY OF REPETITIONS. The first rep and the last must have the same range, plane and quality with no form degradation, regardless of level.
MUSCULAR BALANCE. This allows experienced exercisers to refine and continue to challenge themselves. Cue participants to train for strength left to right, top to bottom and front to back.
BALANCE ABILITY (RIGHTING). Does ability to balance or to narrow the base of support make a person more advanced?
EXPERIENCE. Does more logged time equal more ability? Is there a difference between a 2-year regular and a newcomer?
RESISTANCE LOAD. Does being able to lift more weight make someone more advanced? What if the other components are in place? Do you, like many, make load the primary factor?
LEVER LENGTH. Keep in mind the realities of biomechanics and physics. Generally, the longer the lever, the more challenging the move if the lever is unsupported and displaced away from the axis point. Shorter levers are usually easier to control.
SPEED. This could go either way. Are speed and power with control the exclusive domain of the advanced exerciser? Does ability to complete a rep very slowly mean someone is more advanced?
RHYTHM. Change the rhythm and ratio of time spent in the lifting and lowering phase. These are two of the most effective yet least-used tools for a group strength leader.
BASE OF SUPPORT. Look for opportunities to improve stability by widening the base of support. Conversely, challenge others by narrowing their hand or foot position.
STABILITY FACTOR. Do the more advanced participants perform on the core board, while the others are on the floor? Do the firm, inflated stability balls go to the advanced people, while the others use the softer, deflated ones?
Set up yourself and your group for success and maximum exercise time by offering a clear, concise exercise setup. Ideally you will complete each setup in 30 seconds or less. Perform the following steps in order, and you will easily remember them.
1. NAME THE EQUIPMENT NEEDED: “Please pick up your long elastic tube.” “Step behind your BOSU®.”
2. NAME THE MOVE: “You will be doing a triceps extension.” “You’ll be trying a standing one-leg balance move.”
3. NAME AND POINT TO THE GOAL OR TARGET MUSCLE(S): “You should feel this exercise in your triceps, right here, on the back side of the upper arm.” “Your goal is to hold the position at least 10 seconds, noting whether you are on your happy or happier balance side.”
4. DEMONSTRATE ONE COMPLETE REPETITION OF EACH EXERCISE (PERHAPS FROM TWO CRITICAL POSITIONS): “Watch me once from the side . . . and now from the front . . . before launching.” “Watch where I place my foot— in the center, or target circle."
5. COMBINE VERBAL WITH VISUAL CUES, GIVING ONLY THOSE THAT PREVENT INJURY AND ARE MOST CRITICAL FOR JOINT INTEGRITY: “Notice that my spine is long, my shoulder is steady, and my tube is in the same plane as my elbow joint.” “Watch how my knee stays soft and my chest lifted as I hold the balance move.”
6. CUE THE GROUP TO START: “You’re ready to place the tube under your left foot. And start with me now.” “Find your balance point. Ready, set, 10, 9, 8, . . . .”
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