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Create a Class From Within

Recent articles have focused on the benefits of teaching new, specialized classes, such as hybrids that combine several complementary elements into one group session. Perhaps you are toying with the idea of creating your own new class but are unsure how to start. How do instructors come up with innovative concepts and titles like “Indoor/Outdoor Intervals,” “Step ’n’ Sculpt” or Yogilates®? What has to happen for
a new class to become a reality?

In some instances, instructors are impelled to create a new format due to personal injury or out of a desire to come up with something new. In other cases, the genesis for a new class is participant request. But regardless of what propels you to create an original format, it is essential that you determine in advance if the format is a good match with your personal strengths, style and teaching preferences. To succeed, your class must also appeal to your participants.

Before designing a new class, you need to look within. What can you design and lead that will excite and motivate you and your participants? For example, do you love to make people laugh? Do you feel best when participants achieve a calm state of mind? Do you see yourself foremost as an educator? Do you shine in the presence of children? Are you outdoorsy? Instead of dwelling on the format, you need to identify the personal qualities you can bring to a class. One way to do that is to creatively use checklists to assess your strengths and weaknesses. You can use a similar process to identify what motivates your participants and assess how they will react to a given class format. The trick is to focus in a concentrated and intentional fashion on who you are and on the potential to attract participants to your new workout.

Identify Your Strengths

So how do you create a class format that maximizes your personal strengths? First, you need to identify those strengths in writing. While you may have many strengths, quickly write down just the first three that come to mind. You do not need to justify what you’ve listed; simply go with your initial self-perception. Next, keeping your list to yourself, ask a few people who know you and are not in your fitness classes to quickly list what they perceive to be your three greatest strengths. Have them answer without looking at anyone else’s choices. The next step, if you’re comfortable with it, is to bring papers and pens to class and ask your participants to do the same. Let them know you plan to use their input to help design a new class. You may be surprised at the attributes people see in you.

By including both participants and nonparticipants in your assessment process, you will get some insight into how you’re perceived in different environments. Even if you disagree with some of the strengths others see in you, the information will be valuable as you shape your new class. For example, if you write “I’m good at ad libbing
on the spot,” and your participants write “She’s very organized and well-prepared,” you’ll know your off-the-cuff style works well for you in class. And you can stop feeling guilty about being a bluffer, too! Or if you put “I try to keep up on research because science isn’t my area of expertise,” and they write “He truly understands the relationship between exercise and health,” you’ll realize your hard work has instilled trust in your participants.

Armed with these lists of your strengths, you’re ready to move on to assessing your personal preferences and style. Completing the checklist shown here, called “Personal Style and Preferences,” will focus and guide you through this step and help you create an original class that is comfortable and motivating for you.

Identify Your Preferred Teaching Structure

After you have identified your personal style and preferences, it’s time to think about the structure of your new class. What needs to happen within a group setting for you to be comfortable and successful? Without taking anything
for granted, begin picturing yourself in various locations. If you were indoors, what would you need to have at your disposal? What would you like to have? Now change the setting. Picture yourself outdoors, in a pool, on a cruise ship, on a rooftop, at a playground or anywhere else your imagination conjures up. The setting for your new class can be so much more than just the typical club studio. Instructors around the world have proven very inventive when it comes to creating innovative fitness settings.

After considering a variety of possible locations and setups, concentrate on those that are realistic and/or appealing to you. Make a list of the top five to 10 factors that must exist in order for you to teach; examples might include music and step platforms. Then jot down five to 10 factors you’d like to have present but could do without if you had to; examples might include small classes and participants who understand the mind-body connection.

By putting down information about your style and preferences in black and white, it becomes easier to point yourself in a direction that makes sense to you. Say, for example, you look at your lists and realize, “Hmm, I just hate being indoors all the time, and I want to spend more time with my kids. I don’t have to make a lot of money as long as I feel I’m contributing to society. I like lots of interaction with my participants, but I can get intimidated by technical questions. Noise doesn’t bother me, and I can do several things at once. I like current music, even some rap, but I don’t have much money for buying new tapes.” Put all this together, and you have the perfect recipe for creating a kids’ circuit class as a volunteer at your child’s school. The children can even bring their favorite music for you to use!

Identify Why You Want to Create a Class

Knowing what you want to teach is important, but so is knowing why. Are you creating your new class based on participant interest, personal interest or personal need? All three are valid reasons, and all three can inspire wonderful bouts of creativity. Let’s look at three instructors, each of whom was motivated by one of these factors. These role models all came up with successful classes that positively reflect their own personalities.

Driven by Participant Interest

Let’s say your self-assessment revealed that you like to work with older adults; prefer smaller, consistent groups; love to bake; and enjoy show tunes, swing and disco music. Even though you’re a bit shy at first, you have a dry sense of humor once you are relaxed in your surroundings. You function best when you get a chance to plan and practice in advance, and you get satisfaction from helping others. You prefer to teach to a regular, core group that trusts you.

Pam Rotty of Rochester, Minnesota, is such a person. She was already teaching water-based classes when she began looking for ways to add some weight-bearing and flexibility activities to her group’s regimen. From the start, Rotty knew which people she intended to reach with her new class. And her motivation to design it came as a response to a need perceived within her group, not a need of her own.

“Normally, I’m hesitant to put myself forward, but I could see that these people really had a willingness and need to add something land based,” says Rotty. “My number-one goal is for my participants to enjoy their hour in class. The second goal is for them to get some physical benefit. When I was figuring out what to create, I tried to put myself in their shoes. Most of my participants are older than 45 and concerned about osteoporosis, joint mobility and stability. A lot of them had never lifted 2- or 3-pound weights, so the thought of joining one of the club’s standard toning and strengthening classes was too intimidating for them.”

Rotty’s solution was to add a hybrid class she calls “Stretch-and-Tone Lite.” She set it up so the participants first work out in the studio, then change into their swimsuits for the pool component. “They needed a place where they could feel comfortable trying new moves. You can’t believe how exciting it is for me to see a 55-year-old who has never done a push-up come in and do one on a body ball. My participants came in to stretch and tone as a group, and they had success as a group. One of my identified strengths is that I pay attention to my participants. So I brought them the strength and flexibility they needed in a format that was comfortable for me and them.”

Rotty’s style shows through in her new hybrid class. During “Stretch-and-Tone Lite,” the participants sing along to her music! They share funny stories and other anecdotes about their lives. She bakes snacks for them, making use of her home economics degree. She has also discovered an extra bonus to creating a social arena within the stretch-and-tone portion of the class: By the time her participants get into the water, they’ve socialized enough to be able to listen. Now she’s not shouting to get their attention.

Driven by Personal Interest

Lawrence Biscontini, MA, of Puerto Rico, spent his childhood in and out of hospitals. In addition to being sickly, he was, in his words, “overfat.” After battling and surviving an eating disorder, he decided to write a book promoting the balance he’d found in his life. And balance is a key word friends and participants use when describing Biscontini. In addition to writing a book, he has designed several Yo-Chi classes, which fuse elements of yoga and t’ai chi. “[Each] class is an allegory of my life,” says Biscontini. “Yo-Chi is a great example of balance: working hard through the yoga and then relaxing through the t’ai chi.”

As an extrovert who loves music, food, travel and relaxation, Biscontini expresses these preferences in his Yo-Chi classes. “I commissioned the music especially from a friend who blends Chinese and yogic music. My love for food is expressed in that I show people how to nourish the spirit. Travel [comes into play] because we use our minds to leave our physical bodies, going to various parts of the world through meditation.”

After years of using what he considers a more traditional teaching approach, Biscontini found himself wanting to incorporate some “flowing, lactate-releasing t’ai chi between intense, isometric yogic asanas. Similarly, when teaching t’ai chi, I’d see some of my participants yawn, and I’d think about adding some more intense muscle work from yoga. So I fused the two disciplines. I’m never unfaithful to either discipline; we are just drawing from more than one mind-body influence.”

This concept may have sprung from Biscontini’s personal interests, but it resonates well with participants. In designing Yo-Chi, he kept his clients’ needs in mind. “By creating a fusion class, I am able to make some yoga postures and moving, meditational chi forms available to people in 45 to 60 minutes who may not otherwise have the opportunity to practice both disciplines. I have specific goals for my participants. They gain an overview of the purposes of yoga and t’ai chi and find their outer boundaries for both flexibility and strength. They also experience the joy in having the whole class move as one breath of energy. I want participants to leave class feeling that they didn’t tell their bodies what to do, but instead listened to their bodies talking to them. Rather than a workout, I wanted to create a workin.” Again, this emphasis on listening to one’s body reflects Biscontini’s personal journey. In other words, he found the happy balance between self-expression and participant satisfaction once he validated what drove him!

Driven by Personal Need

Everyone in the group fitness industry has heard of step, but did you know that its origins can be traced to the rehabilitation needs of one its pioneers? Gin Miller, Reebok University master trainer, of Canton, Georgia, was told by her doctor to step up and down on a milk crate to strengthen her leg muscles after a knee injury. Rather than stick with the crate, Miller actually used her front porch stairs. Because she was a fitness instructor, she was used to exercising to music so did her prescribed step-ups accompanied by motivating tunes. It didn’t take her long to realize that her rehab exercises were also an excellent cardiovascular workout, so she had a continuous platform built around the perimeter of the aerobics room where she taught and essentially did her knee rehab while leading her classes.

That worked until the classes got too full. So she cut the platform into sections and positioned the sections around the room. From there, she began varying the movements. And you know the rest of the story. . . . Or do you? Miller’s ingenuity, determination and problem-solving skills led to the creation of step training, but other aspects of her personality contributed to its becoming a worldwide phenomenon. “I am a risk-taker and I’m persistent, which helped a lot,” Miller acknowledges. “In the early days of pitching the step concept to the industry movers and shakers, I faced a lot of naysayers. One executive even told me that people would never step up and down on a box.” Obviously, she didn’t give up after that meeting.

Another trait that helped her was her forward thinking. “I don’t let a fear of failure prevent me from trying,” Miller says. “I’ve had many ideas that didn’t work, but I move on from there without dwelling on my mistakes. I just use those mistakes as blocks to build a foundation for my next idea.” It’s clear that Miller’s success is directly related to her personal strengths, preferences and style. Before the rest of the industry recognized her as a successful innovator, she had enough internal drive to keep her going until she achieved her goal of sharing her discovery. And her knee recovered, too!

Test Your Wings

Three different teachers; three different motivators; three different classes. And the one you create will also be unique. Whatever your motivation is, look within for your guiding light. One caveat, however. If your new format is so personality driven that only you can teach it, your program director will most likely be concerned about finding substitutes when you are absent. This doesn’t mean you can’t forge ahead with your idea, but it may mean you have to offer your original workout on a limited basis or as a one-time event. So take the leap and see what happens. Look within and you will discover the future of fitness.

Here are some examples of the types of mandatory and preferred factors listed by two very different instructors:

Kate’s Mandatory Criteria

  • working stereo and music
  • working microphone
  • minimum of two participants
  • equipment (steps, weights, bikes, etc.)
  • mirrors and suspended floor

Kate’s Preferred Criteria

  • 30 or more participants
  • opportunities to be creative
  • participants who say class is fun
  • participants who laugh at my jokes
  • chance to be spontaneous

Diane’s Mandatory Criteria

  • quiet setting
  • warm, well-lit room
  • payment for teaching the class
  • freedom to promote personal training business
  • commitment to injury-free exercises

Diane’s Preferred Criteria

  • no more than 30 participants
  • a regular core group
  • repetition and familiar movements
  • participants who understand the mind-body connection
  • participants who are interested in improving form

Alexandra Williams, MA

Alexandra Williams has taught fitness for 17 years and has a master’s degree in agency counseling, with an emphasis on marriage and family. Her professional training has forced her to scrutinize her own value system, especially as she attempts to raise ethical children. The author wishes to thank Jack Raglin and Jim Gavin for their helpful insights and suggestions.

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