Industry experts share insider information about programs, equipment and trends that are breaking the mold and shaping the future of group exercise.
Group fitness arouses nostalgia and feels like “home” for many exercisers, both avid and novice. As the backbone of the fitness industry, it has ebbed and flowed over the past three decades (and counting). People love exercising to music and sharing endorphins. In fact, fitness facility members are thriving on creative class options, demanding more varied opportunities and driving the industry forward. What can you, as a group fitness professional, do to meet the needs of a growing market? What programs, equipment and trends are making people of all ages and abilities jump, stretch, lift and smile?
We interviewed and surveyed 15 high-profile group fitness experts who have vast insider knowledge of programming, budgets, marketing, equipment, creative class design, education, skill sets, music and more to find out where the industry “hot spots” are right now. Read on to find out how their insights will support and strengthen your class experiences.
Top Group Fitness Programs
Group fitness programming—which includes class design, instruction and sound exercise science—is the “magic sauce” for any thriving health club. According to our informal survey, the average membership demographic is approximately 25–60 years old, with some locational variances. Program directors reported that they schedule an average of 65 classes per week. Attendance varies widely based on season, attrition rates and other factors.
While lineups and schedules differ depending on locale and demographics, we found some common threads in program and class popularity, detailed below (in alphabetical order, not in order of popularity).
Core-themed classes. Programs that focus on strengthening the core continue to be a big draw, thanks to the fitness industry’s education on this topic over the past decade in particular. The rise of Pilates, which shares the message of injury prevention through strengthening the powerhouse, has also fueled this growth. Fitness pros have learned a lot about connections and interactions among core muscles, fascial lines and movement, and the general population is benefiting from this knowledge.
Amy Nestor, educational ambassador for EMPOWER! Fitness Conferences, has noticed that Pilates principles have penetrated other formats, and people are becoming more aware of core stabilization and “moving with core control in every modality.” Linda Webster, owner of Guru Fitness® LLC, says that core-focused classes help participants “light up, connect to the variety of movement and realize that the core is much more than ‘ab work.’”
High-intensity interval training. Members are still demanding intensity-oriented options, whether it’s Tabata, boot camp, circuit training or strict high-intensity interval training. These classes are popular partly because of claims they offer better metabolic conditioning and fat loss and partly because they take less time to complete than traditional classes. Abbie Appel, group fitness manager for Equinox, says HIIT is “hugely popular,” and cites “positive physiological results, including improved fitness level at every level . . . and the fast changes in body composition” as contributing factors.
Fred Hoffman, MEd, owner of Fitness Resources Consulting Services, agrees that HIIT is popular but says it’s not for everyone. “I feel that the people who like HIIT and have embraced it generally [already] like to work out, and work out hard. It’s the ‘preaching to the choir’ phenomenon. But in my opinion, this type of training is most likely not appealing to the majority of the population who are not working out and who have difficulty even getting started. If people don’t like to work out, a high-intensity training program or class is not going to be attractive to them. With time, that could change, but first fitness professionals have to help get these people started and provide them the means to enjoy fitness and stay motivated. HIIT may not be the right approach to take; however, it can be adapted for different populations.”
Indoor cycling. Indoor cycling continues to be a popular option among fitness facility members, and experts point to many reasons for its sustained position in the spotlight. “I think people see it as great motivation, and they can still have some control over their workout,” says Webster. Kimberly Spreen-Glick, senior director of group fitness, yoga and indoor cycling for Life Time Fitness—The Healthy Way of Life Companysm, attributes indoor cycling’s endurance in part to specialty studios that reignited an interest. “Indoor cycling received a breath of fresh air with the opening of all the boutiques, and we love it,” she says. Grace DeSimone, national group fitness director for Optum, says she believes members enjoy indoor cycling because the bikes are “easy to use, offer a great workout and require a small learning curve.”
Strength training–specific classes. Sustained cardio classes have been getting a bit of a bad rap from fitness professionals who promote “pure” metabolic exercise. Strength training classes have benefited from the fallout. This is in stark contrast to 10–15 years ago, when instructors had to strongly encourage attendees to get the recommended dose of resistance training each week.
The strength training category includes much more than programs that incorporate the standby dumbbells. Participants are also using kettlebells, sandbags/sand bells, barbells, suspension exercise systems and, of course, body weight. “I believe kettlebell training has become more popular due to the recent media buzz, integration of kettlebells into circuit training programs and CrossFit®-type workouts,” says celebrity trainer Alex Isaly. He goes on to note that a barbell class is also popular at his facility. “[Participants] like it because it’s a pure strength training class,” he says. “It’s great to integrate into their regimens because most classes are heavily cardio focused.”
Yoga and barre. The programs and classes mentioned above represent a “yang”—or more outward, assertive—approach to fitness, while yoga and barre represent a more “yin,” or inward, approach. Isaly says he’s seen a “huge increase in member participation in mind-body classes,” which include yoga. “I believe more people are seeing the benefits of these types of classes from increased strength, flexibility and recovery,” he says.
“Yoga has become a staple on all group fitness schedules,” says Amy Dixon, national group fitness creative director for Equinox. Spreen-Glick echoes this thought: “Yoga is big for us,” she says. “You see many members walking around with yoga mats at our clubs all day.”
Shannon Fable, director of exercise programming for Anytime Fitness Corporate, says participants enjoy barre because “it’s new and different and employs unique movements. It’s also a natural extension of the mind-body, yoga and Pilates movements. Also, a lot of people did ballet when they were young, so much of what happens in a typical barre class is familiar.”
For additional insights into what classes and programs are popular around the country, see the sidebar “11 Growth Points: Past 3 Years.”
Group Fitness Studio Equipment: Too Much of a Good Thing?
It’s perhaps not surprising that respondents’ lists of top equipment choices fall in line with popular programs and classes. Indoor cycles, barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, suspension exercise systems and a variety of smaller pieces of equipment, such as medicine balls and resistance bands, all made a hearty appearance on these lists. The popularity of functional training has also created a demand for tools that support sports conditioning, warding patterns and muliplanar movement. Several respondents mentioned the ViPR™ as a favorite for many members, as well as battle ropes and sand bells.
Donna Cyrus, senior vice president of programming at Crunch Fitness, says she is seeing a trend away from using larger pieces of equipment. “Small pieces of equipment that are reasonably priced are the wave of the future,” she says. Isaly notes that his clients love having options, both large and small. Webster sees the issue as being less about the type of equipment and more about the instructor’s level of knowledge. “Instructors seem to be looking for new exercises [to do] with old equipment they already have,” she says. “Instead, they should spend time educating [themselves] on biomechanics and how to best utilize body position [with] equipment in order to be effective.”
Lashaun Dale, vice president of group X at 24 Hour Fitness®, appreciates dumbbells, barbells, sand bells and yoga props for their return on investment and their versatility, saying she can leverage them for use in “four or more programs.” “ROI can be measured in so many ways—financial requirements, time investment, member engagement, team member engagement, promotional positioning, partnerships, and strategic positioning for future programs,” says Dale. “With each programming consideration it’s critical to evaluate the full matrix, deliberate on the story of the program and spend time understanding how the new class adds value and meaning to the total [group exercise] program offering and, ultimately, to the member and team member experience and the company overall.”
DeSimone says many participants enjoy suspension exercise (TRX®, etc.) because it’s “fun, versatile and expeditious.” Many other experts mentioned scalability and results-oriented simplicity as factors in this program’s popularity.
What’s missing from the group exercise studio inventory? Not much, according to our respondents, some of whom cited budgeting constraints that sometimes prevent them from creating the kind of comprehensive programming they’d prefer to offer members. “I see a lot of great new equipment ideas; but the truth is that for any new equipment to be considered, it would need to take the place of something we already have in our studios—there’s just too much stuff in there,” says Spreen-Glick. However, Dixon does have something special on her wish list that she thinks might tackle the poor posture instructors say is rampant among attendees. “I think there’s a lack of pulling-type exercises that you can do in a class,” she says. “I’d like to see more equipment that will allow for these types of exercises [and] that won’t take up that much space.”
Forecasting, Challenges, Solutions
For group fitness to continue its evolution as a mainstay in the hearts and minds of participants, it’s important to look at where the industry is and what it can do as a collective force to address ongoing challenges.
“Group fitness still remains an important aspect of the life of health clubs and fitness centers, but its form is changing,” says Hoffman, who cites CrossFit, outdoor activities such as boot camps, virtual offerings and big players in the “prechoreographed sector” as factors that impact creative growth.
Spreen-Glick thinks one thing that is missing is a more personal connection. “Instructors [need to learn] how to create an experience versus just lead a workout,” she says. “Too many instructors are coming in new to the industry and just memorizing a format and teaching it. They miss the opportunity to make emotional connections, which is what really changes our students’ lives.”
What else does the industry need to do in order to stay relevant?
Revamp instructor education and professionalism. Almost every expert stated lack of education and/or professionalism as a problem. Fable adds lack of industry standards and a strong career path to the mix. “[We need to] redefine what group fitness is and change the face [of it] ,” she says. “It’s considered a ‘consolation’ prize for many, and sold as such; therefore, less emphasis is put on this cost center. With less money to hire good leaders (not just managers) and less money to retain quality instructors, we simply aren’t attracting the right people to this profession.”
Appel says she has a hard time “finding talented instructors [who have] no attitude. Specifically, we struggle with finding main-studio (group strength, cardio) and cycling instructors. Years ago, main-studio and cycle instructors were everywhere, and everyone wanted to teach those formats. Today, we rarely find a good indoor cycling instructor who can motivate and coach.”
“There aren’t enough new instructors coming into the industry,” says Krista Popowych, 2014 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year. “And there’s a lack of versatility and skill [among] the ones who do come. They are no longer getting the training they need. The basics are not there (musicality, phrasing, how to instruct). Many new instructors only want to teach cycling and boot camp. And they aren’t willing to put the time in (for free) to get better.”
“The biggest issue is a lack of education and training,” agrees Nestor. “Instructors [aren’t being taught] the basics of musicality, technique or cuing, or basic anatomy and kinesiology. We need more instructor-training programs that teach these essentials and a return to the importance of group fitness certifications. So many facilities do not require it anymore; they just require a ‘certification’ in the format the instructor is teaching.”
Teach to the people who really need it. Many veteran instructors agree that teaching beginners is more difficult than teaching more experienced fitness enthusiasts. If education and professionalism are waning, this could potentially affect the industry’s drive to recruit, serve and convert true beginners. In addition, many classes are geared to more sophisticated clientele. “As an industry, we aim for the conditioned market and fail the deconditioned market, year after year,” says DeSimone. “We need to offer more basic and simple programs to attract the less-conditioned market and continue to engage those newcomers until physical activity becomes a lifestyle.”
“The expectation for our clubs to have every type of class in a variety of time slots, combined with the maturation of the . . . participants, has left us programming for folks who are already serviced,” says Fable. “We are making classes harder rather than more inclusive. There has been a renewed emphasis on ‘atmosphere’ to the detriment of substance.”
Provide resources for instructors’ health. IDEA Health & Fitness Association was initially formed in part as a way to educate instructors about injury prevention and best practices. Julz Arney, of Team Arney Fitness Consultants, says the industry has lost touch with the importance of instructors’ self-care regarding vocal health, hearing damage and chronic overtraining.
“We have gone completely backwards in this area—to where the majority of instructors are teaching without a proper microphone, with distorted sound systems played incredibly loudly, and teaching dozens of classes per week without proper care or rest,” she says. “This impacts the member experience, as it makes for substandard classes and a high rate of burnout for good instructors. If one high-profile club chain would take the lead on this and create a new standard for the instructor work environment, and tie this to member satisfaction and retention, the industry would be forced to follow.”
Ramp up and encourage creativity. “I think group fitness is on the tail end of it, but I believe the industry got a little stagnant with programming,” says Isaly. “There were no new programs disrupting the industry for a while, but I think that’s changing. I’ve also seen a lot of facilities starting to create exclusive programs that can’t be available at competing facilities. I think the industry needs to encourage instructors to use their creative skills and showcase their programs.”
Open the doors wider to men and older adults. Although the “evidence” is purely anecdotal, women have been the primary participants in the group fitness experience. Our experts have seen an increase in interest among men, thanks in part to classes that focus on athletic conditioning. Older adults, a separate concern, continue to need specialized attention and have different needs. It will be important for the industry to refine its approach to both audiences in order to maximize interest and results.
Whatever the challenges, there are two things that group fitness is known for that will help everyone co-create any shifts that need to happen: positive energy and a dedication to inspiring the world to fitness.
—Edited by Joy Keller from a 2016 IDEA Personal Trainer East panel discussion.