How to Become a Group Exercise Instructor
Inspire others with your passion for movement.
When I began my quest to become a group exercise instructor more than 30 years ago, I couldn’t have imagined the industry would be where it is today—an evolving, dynamic profession with boundless potential. Group exercise is diverse and offers unlimited options. However, finding the right job or deciding which direction to take can be overwhelming. This article takes you step by step through how to navigate a career in group exercise.
Passion Leads to Education
In the early days of group fitness (known then as “aerobics”), many instructors (myself included) went from being avid beginners to front-row students, assistants and then teachers. This transition almost always sprang from a passion for high-energy exercise and a desire to share this activity with others. At the time, formal training courses and schools were rare, and instructors learned as they went along.
With this passion came a demand for professional education, which led to the establishment of the International Dance Exercise Association (now known as IDEA Health & Fitness Association) and the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA). These educational bodies were precursors to the hundreds of schools, organizations and companies that now offer training and specialty courses. University-based programs that offer group exercise instruction curricula have also emerged over the years.
See also: IDEA’s 40th Anniversary Timeline.
As we move into the future, it’s necessary to pursue industry-specific education to guarantee success. Instructors must learn the basics of anatomy and physiology, biomechanics, nutrition, injury prevention, inclusive instruction, positive-based coaching and cuing, as well as modifications for all—including special populations. They must possess the basic teaching skills necessary for working with adults (or children) in a group setting. Being qualified to teach group fitness no longer means just being able to move well and motivate people. Although those are important qualities, having them will not guarantee a long career and neither will education alone. You must have passion for the industry and a “fire in your belly” that will drive you to be the best that you can be.
If you’ve got that passion, the first step to a rewarding career is to become a certified group exercise instructor.
Professionals in every industry recognize the need for obtaining nationally (or internationally) recognized credentials and keeping them up to date. The fitness industry is no exception. Having a reputable basic group exercise certification is now considered essential.
The IHRSA board of directors recognizes the National Commission for Certifying Agencies and the Distance Education Training Council as accrediting organizations. The IHRSA board will also recognize other, equivalent accrediting organizations contingent upon their status as an established accreditation body recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and/or the United States Department of Education for the purposes of providing independent, third-party accreditation.
The American Council on Exercise, a certifying organization, also offers many group exercise certification options.
In addition, competency in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and automated external defibrillators (AED) is required for eligibility in most certification programs. Learn more at redcross.org and americanheart.org. ACE requires certification exam candidates to hold current Adult CPR and AED certificates before sitting for its exam, and proof of CPR/AED certificates at renewal.
Products, Programs and Possibilities
A basic certification will provide you with the tools necessary to teach group exercise classes; however, the next step is to explore the different activities and training programs required to teach them.
When group exercise first became popular, most classes were movement-based and used a minimum equipment. Since the late 1980s there has been a huge increase in the number of equipment-based programs. In recent years, a number of pre-choreographed branded programs have also emerged and gained in popularity. Mind-body programs such as yoga, tai chi and Pilates have created yet another area to explore. As education and creativity evolve and thrive, new ideas pop up frequently. Currently there are many popular areas to consider, such as group strength training, barre, fusion, circuit training and boot camp formats, movement and dance-based, step, indoor cycling, water fitness, yoga and associated disciplines and Pilates, just to name a few. Learn more about current and future industry trends by reading the 2015 IDEA Group Fitness Trend Watch.
If you want to determine which activities and specialty programs interest you, stay informed. Start by experiencing as many different classes, formats and instructors as possible. Visit other fitness facilities and take classes not offered at your own club. This will give you a better idea of all the different classes, which ones you enjoy and if you’d like to learn how to teach a particular option. Check out YouTube and other video streaming websites to see instructors and programs in action. If something piques your interest, visit the company’s website to view its video library and get more information about certification or training.
A versatile teaching repertoire makes you more marketable, so plan on getting trained and certified in several programs. This doesn’t mean you must have 25 specialties under your belt, or that you must do this right away, but it will help you find a job and make your experience more exciting and rewarding. If you’re confused about which workshops and training to pursue, talk to facility managers and directors to learn which certifications they recognize as the best. When attending conventions and conferences, talk to other instructors about specialty certifications and speak to presenters for their opinions. Another good strategy is to search the web for open forums that discuss certifications. Social media options such as Facebook groups and postings on Instagram and Twitter are a great way to get frank, consumer-generated opinions.
The bottom line: It’s essential that the basic certification and the specialty certifications you hold are reputable and recognizable.
Your newly acquired certification is just the starting point. It is imperative to refresh your knowledge on an ongoing basis. In order to maintain your certification and for renewal, you have an obligation to obtain a certain number of continuing education hours. Although easily accomplished, this will take time and is a financial investment on your part. Attending industry conferences and conventions allows you to participate in full-day training, workshops, lectures and activity sessions. These events introduce you to experts in the field and provide an opportunity to meet and network with other fitness professionals, exchange ideas and discover what others are doing professionally.
One great way to stay abreast of educational opportunities is to become a member of a professional organization such as IDEA. Not only will you have access to award-winning publications and a website providing numerous valuable resources, but you can also obtain your continuing education credits (CECs).
It’s essential to stay current with health and fitness developments if you want to remain credible and relevant. Certification is just your ticket in—continuing education is the secret to keeping your career on a winning track. If you want to find out more about the many benefits of lifelong learning, read Staying in the Fitness Game.
Career Opportunities Today and Tomorrow
Is it possible to earn a living as a full-time group exercise instructor? Yes, although currently that is the exception to the rule. According to the 2015 IDEA Fitness Industry Compensation Survey, almost no instructors are salaried (1% group fitness; 2% specialty instructors such as for yoga and Pilates). Many in the industry teach classes on a part-time basis. There are instructors who hold full-time positions at fitness facilities, but most often, group exercise instruction is only one part of their responsibilities. Another possibility is to work full time by teaching classes at several facilities. However, physically, this may be difficult to maintain on a long-term basis.
Today, after all the turmoil and “pivots” of the last few years, it’s still a challenge.
Because of these challenges, a growing number of group exercise instructors are pursuing the “hybrid” option. And it’s not just about virtual versus in person classes. Hybrid instructors may work full-time, but in several different capacities. They may work as a group exercise instructor as well as a personal trainer or possibly in another position such as front desk staff, wellness coach or even in membership sales! This choice allows the luxury of doing what you enjoy foremost, while diversifying your activities and enjoying the benefits (health care, etc.) of a full-time job. Read Hybrid Fitness Professionals—The Best of All Worlds? for more insight on hybrid instructors.
The amount of money you can earn as a group exercise instructor varies from region to region, country to country and according to market demands. Urban areas tend to pay more; education and certifications play a big role, and your value increases when you bring something unique to the table.
Finding a Job
There are several career tools you need when starting out. Even in this digital era, I still recommend carrying business cards with you at all times. A simple card will do, but what is most important is that it clearly identifies who you are and what you do. Put only the most pertinent information on it, along with contact information. This may include your phone number, email address or a link to a social networking site such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or Instagram. Many college students can create inexpensive cards (sometimes financed by the school) stating the university name and the degree they’re pursuing. Include a website and a link to your resumé if possible, and keep the information current.
When it comes to finding a job, networking is one of the most important skills you can have. Networking opportunities abound and occur in the most unexpected places. You never know when talking to friends, colleagues, family, new acquaintances and even total strangers (that person sitting next to you on a plane) may present you with a possible job prospect.
Attend industry conventions and conferences, local job fairs and community events to network and discover employment opportunities as well as the latest industry trends and developments. IDEA offers several conventions per year, and as an IDEA member, you receive special pricing for convention registration. Industry events are invaluable and should be considered an essential investment in your career development.
For career advancement, it is important to set both short- and long-term goals. Where do you want to be in 1 year, 5 years or 10 years? Goals keep you focused. Positions in management, public speaking, consulting, programming and writing are all future options, but before embarking on a specific path, spend a few years “in the trenches” discovering what you do or don’t like, observing and learning. Some of the best opportunities come from being in the moment and excelling at what you do. It’s comforting to know that many possibilities exist in group exercise.
At the end of the day, the most important advice is to be yourself. Think about some of your favorite teachers from when you were in school, sports, faith-related or extracurricular activities. What was it that made them special? Most likely they were knowledgeable in multiple subjects, flexible in their teaching styles, shared life experiences, and made learning fun. A “cookie-cutter” teacher would not have had the same effect on you. A key to being successful is to be uniquely you. That is what your students and members are looking for and why they keep coming back. You can be influenced by other instructors, and even hope to be just like them, but keep your distinct personality traits alive. You will never be that instructor you admire, but you can certainly use what you have learned from them to be your best.
See also: 3 Ways to Boost Fitness Class Participation.
Job Search Resources
The internet makes job searches easy. Job boards and fitness blogs are a great place to start, and you’re sure to find opportunities on the national fitness club chain websites. Here’s a list to help get you started:
Employment Outside the Box
Here are some areas and places where a group exercise instructor may be able to find employment–some of them are nontraditional:
- recreation centers
- religious centers
- water fitness
- physically challenged
- nonprofit organizations
- community centers
- interactive technology and exergames
- hotels and spas
- vacation resorts and cruise ships
- medical fitness
- corporate fitness
- writing and journalism
- conference/convention speaker or presenter
Fred Hoffman, MEd
Fred Hoffman, MEd, is the owner of Fitness Resources consulting services and the author of Going Global: An Expert's Guide to Working Abroad in the International Fitness Industry. The recipient of the 2019 IDEA China Fitness Inspiration Award and the 2007 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year Award, he holds a master's degree in health education from Boston University and has over 35 years of experience in the fitness and health industry. A member of the ACE board of directors, Fred's expertise has taken him to nearly 50 countries on six continents to speak at more than 200 conferences and conventions. In 2001, he was elected to the International Who's Who of Professionals. Certifications: ACE, ACSM
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