You walk into a group fitness class and never see the instructor’s face. Her back is to attendees as she checks herself out in the mirror. Another class turns into the most tedious workout ever because the instructor counts and counts—for a solid hour. These and other teaching flubs are common. And while newbies are most susceptible, even veterans fall into bad habits. Refine your subtle teaching skills and create an optimal experience that will keep students coming back. The following tips from veteran instructors help make a good instructor great.

Set the Mood

The fitness studio is your students’ oasis from the pressures of their lives. People come for the mental benefits as much as the physical. So start with the right vibe. Instead of having students enter an echoey space filled with uncomfortable silence, “play welcoming music before class,” recommends Amy Dixon, group fitness manager of Equinox in Santa Monica, California. Rev them up with tunes that make them want to move, or with soothing sounds for mind-body classes.

Act as if you were the host of a party. “Consider all the elements that set mood—such as lighting,” says Lisa Wheeler, creative manager for Equinox, who is based in New York City. Do you need all the fluorescent lights on? Would a candle improve the ambiance of a stretch class? “Arrive early to greet your guests, and make newcomers feel extra welcome, because they probably feel as if they stick out like a sore thumb,” says Wheeler.

Face Your Class

Perhaps nothing distinguishes a pro instructor more than the ability to teach “mirror-image”—facing students, so they mirror your moves. Turning away from your class creates an invisible wall that can dampen rapport. “Connecting eye to eye also gives you a better view to make corrections or show modifications,” says Dixon.

Of course, some dance or step choreography is simply too complex to mirror, and giving students a butt-eye view can make it easier to follow. Even so, it’s a good idea to face front some of the time. You can do a quick turnaround during simple moves like jogging, grapevines or jacks.

It goes without saying that you also need to master “mirror-speak”—cuing backward from your students’ perspective. (If you’re doing a row with your left arm, direct your students to lift their right arm.) “If you’ve never taught mirror-image, you’ll probably mess up at first,” says Gin Miller, 1991 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year, based in Canton, Georgia. “Laugh it off—your students will understand.”

Whisper Sweet Somethings

Participants who gravitate to the front rows tend to be the most confident and the most skilled. However, students in the far corners may need you more. If they’re tucked away because they’re insecure, empower them with your individual attention: “Excellent posture!” or “You are looking strong!” “It feels special and motivating when an authority figure notices you and gives you personal words of encouragement,” says Jay Blahnik, 1996 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year, based in Laguna Beach, California.

Roaming the room always helps you connect with students, but moving about is crucial if you ask your class to face different sides. People in the back usually don’t want to be in the spotlight. “If you hustle to each side of the room when you have the class turn, you’ll eliminate the pressure [participants] might feel when they suddenly become the leaders, with the class following them rather than you,” says Kari Anderson, 1994 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year and owner of the ProRobics Conditioning Clubs in Seattle.

Tread Gently

There’s a fine line you must be careful not to cross when getting personal. How specific—and close—can you be without humiliating someone? It’s not always an easy call. Achieving perfect form may be secondary to boosting someone’s ego, since a student who feels good about herself is more likely to return. For hands-on fixes, always ask quietly if the student minds being touched.

“Sometimes you’re better off leaving someone alone,” says Fred Hoffman, MEd, 2007 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year, based in Paris. “In one class I took, I was making little mistakes but trying to figure out the steps. The instructor was so overzealous with corrections that I felt even more self-conscious. Feeling like I was being watched like a hawk made it more stressful.”

Some instructors believe it’s their duty to push participants. “It is empowering to remind students that they are stronger than they think and to help them out of their comfort zone into their rock-your-world zone,” says Molly Fox, a yoga, Pilates and Nia® instructor who lives in Palo Alto, California. But be ready to back off: a student may have his own agenda (including protecting vulnerable joints you may not know about). Go easy with the army-sergeant persona; motivating through anger or yelling works on very few.

Consider a softer approach: encourage students to push when they feel ready, and return back to their norm if it feels uncomfortable. If a student’s bad form needs correcting, make eye contact as you provide specific cues, directing them at the whole class. Demonstrating the wrong way to execute a move and exaggerating the problematic aspect (e.g., showing a squat with knees collapsing inward) can also help students self-correct.

Keep It Simple (and Repeat)

Perhaps the main reason one of the hottest workouts of the 1990s—step—has dwindling numbers of participants in some areas of the country is that classes evolved into complex patterns that only seasoned steppers could follow. The irony is that when step first emerged, it required no coordination. Intensity was high, but complexity was low. Some instructors added fancy moves, making the workout inaccessible for many. “Too often, teachers get bored, and much sooner than their students do,” says Fox. “Or some instructors throw out their best stuff to wow the class, rather than their simpler moves to woo them.”

If your routine—no matter how masterful—is so confusing that students stumble through it, they’re probably not going to return. “When you lower the complexity, you raise the human connection, and that will be a more rewarding experience,” says Petra Kolber, 2001 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year, based in New Hope, Pennsylvania.

Simplicity plus repetition is the recipe for the most successful formats in group fitness. “Repetition is key in the Zumba® program,” says Tanya Beardsley, an international Zumba education specialist based in New York City. “We do the same steps with slight variations and emphasize teaching with pizzazz—this allows everyone to join in” (see the sidebar “Simplify, Simplify” for tips on keeping class basic but fun).

Focus on Transitions

Some classes feel erratic and unorganized. But a seamless flow enhances the experience. Whether it’s a boot-camp, kickboxing or dance-style routine, eliminate the stumble factor. “Begin your subsequent move where your prior move ends,” says Brick. Practice transitions from one direction to the next, and give verbal or visual cues to change before the next move starts.

Music should flow well, too. Premixed continuous tunes aren’t a must if you have a playlist ready and if you make song switches quickly and smoothly. Avoid letting a song start when you don’t intend to play it, forcing you to switch it off abruptly. If you need to stop a song before it’s over, slowly turn down the volume before you end the tune.

Modulate Your Voice

Some instructors scream. Others barely whisper. And some can be heard, but their voices are so monotone that they sound dull. “A voice needs energy. Alternate between a powerful and a soft voice, using different levels and tones,” recommends Tracy York, an instructor at Equinox in West Hollywood.

Know when not to use your voice, especially during technique-heavy classes such as yoga, Pilates and muscle sculpting, where a potentially endless barrage of alignment cues can be doled out. “Your cuing will have more impact if it’s not overwhelming,” says Blahnik. “With moments of silence, students can absorb what you’ve just said.”

Choose Cues Carefully

“I never give more than two cues at a time,” says Richard Lehman, a kettlebell instructor at SHOCKra in New York City. Beginners are especially susceptible to information overload. “Very little will make sense to a new person, says Dawn MacLear, creator of Evolved Yoga in Alexandria, Virginia. “I wait until they’ve been to several classes before I go into detail.”

Avoid lingo. Grapevine means nothing to many newcomers, and step cues can sound like a foreign language. “Many participants new to step have trouble following when terms like around-the-world or rock step are thrown out,” says Cathy Spencer Browning, training director for Body Training Systems in Atlanta. “It’s more effective to describe moves literally, as if they’ve never seen what you’re about to do.”

Make Messages Meaningful

“Avoid using verbal crutches that are only vaguely meaningful—like ‘C’mon,’ ‘Woo’ or ‘That’s the way to do it,’” warns Lawrence Biscontini, 2004 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year, based in New York City. One student remembers being in a cycling class where the instructor was attempting to coach participants through a tough ride by repeatedly yelling, “C’mon!” “The first ‘C’mon’ was motivating,” recalls the student. “By the 20th ‘C’mon,’ he sounded fake.” Even meaningful cues can lose their impact when an instructor overuses worn-out phrases. “Habitual cues can be demotivating,” says Biscontini.

Old-school fitness training relied on loud group counting. Some teachers still count out every move. “Counting has its time and place,” admits Dixon. “If you’re asking your students to do 50 push-ups, I guarantee they want to know how many they have left.” On the other hand, that doesn’t mean you should count every one. “I took a class and the instructor announced that we were going to do 100 squats and counted them all,” recalls Wheeler. “At 20, the last thing I wanted to hear was that we had 80 more. By 45, I was ready to kill her! If you’re going to pile on the reps, at least distract me by cuing form or talking about the last episode of Glee.”

There are many ways to cue, but all should provide clarity: “Describe the sensations of each move, so that [people] can feel their bodies in space,” suggests Fox. “Direct them to feel the ground beneath their heels in a squat.” Expand your vocabulary to create an image of the movement for a member to achieve. “For workouts that require calmness, use words that mean something more than just ‘harder,’” says Anderson. “For ballet-based or mind-body workouts, I use words like regal, elastic and extension. For energetic cardio, I’ll use get down, fly, soar or command your space.

Assess Yourself

In the corporate world, employees get regular evaluations. In the fitness-teaching industry, this doesn’t happen as much as it probably should. Take matters into your own hands and videotape yourself teaching. “This can be eye-opening,” says Spencer Browning. “Watch without sound. Then listen without watching. Finally, watch as normal and identify five skills (or annoying mannerisms!) to improve.”

© 2011 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

Simplify, Simplify

So how do you simplify a routine but keep it interesting? “If you break patterns down, your students will feel like they succeeded and will walk away believing your class was an awesome experience,” says Lynne Brick, 1990 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year, based in Baltimore. Brick suggests building on a basic move, one element at a time. Begin with a lower-body move (like stepping side to side). Repeat, and then add an upper-body move. Repeat. Then add additional elements gradually—changing direction, intensity or rhythm. Then add a new lower-body base move. Repeat and add arms. Then join the two moves, repeating the pattern before you progress.

We Want to Hear From You

Have your own teaching skills evolved over the course of your career? What are some key areas that have improved as your confidence grew roots and you gained experience? Drop us a line and share your insight. Send an e-mail, a letter or a fax detailing the class. We’ll be publishing your ideas in upcoming issues.

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Martica Heaner, MA, PhD

Martica Heaner, PhD, MA, MEd, has a weekly column on and is the author of several books. She has a doctorate in behavioral nutrition and physical activity and holds two masterÔÇÖs degrees in nutrition and applied exercise physiology from Columbia University in New York City.

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