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Creating a Fitness Class Family

Go beyond rote, scripted formats to build a cohesive community.

Fitness class

A fitness class is only as good as the vibe created by you, the teacher. As group exercise instructors, we can get wrapped up in creating choreography, choosing music, cuing effectively and teaching proper technique. While all these aspects are important, we sometimes lose sight of the overall picture and miss the opportunity to connect with participants.

Think about the reasons why people choose group exercise and what keeps them coming back. While some attend for the sweat and others enjoy the choreography, some may be motivated more by the social support and group interaction. Therefore, use the time before, during and after fitness class to connect with participants, create personal relationships and make everyone feel part of the group “family.”

This article provides several strategies to help you build a supportive and welcoming fitness class community that will motivate participants, promote social engagement, remove exercise barriers, maintain class retention and support your fitness center’s mission and goals.

See also: Building Socialization Into Choreography. 

Before Fitness Class

Arriving early for class is not only essential for preparation; it also gives you an excellent opportunity to get to know your students. This is your chance to make a positive first impression on new participants and a lasting impact on your “regulars.” Attending a fitness class for the first time can be intimidating, so introduce yourself to newcomers, connect them with other participants and explain the format. This first interaction establishes an individual’s perceptions of you and the class and may determine whether the person comes back, so make it count!

Meeting and greeting is only part of the big family picture. Go further, taking time to converse with participants. Learn about their fitness goals, identify their reasons for attending and become aware of any injuries. When you gather information about your students, it shows you have a vested interest in their success, and it can help you tailor your class to meet their needs. Also make an effort to 
remember names—this will foster a positive instructor-student relationship and build a comfortable and inclusive environment. Before class is also a great time to check in with participants who are returning after a hiatus, to welcome them back and offer support. Your acknowledgement of their absence may make them feel they are valued members of the class.

During Fitness Class

Use class time to foster community through instructional techniques and structure. This may be as simple as asking participants to give their neighbor a positive comment or high-five. Try to interact with each person at least once. “Work the room” by moving around, engaging with participants, making eye contact and providing encouraging words throughout class.

Occasionally “flip” the room during a segment of class to give people in the back row a front-row experience, and to let front-row devotees gain a different perspective. This will also allow you to connect with individuals hiding in the back row. Another idea: Give attendees a chance to work together by incorporating partner drills and team activities.

See also: How to Create a Workout Community.

Partner Drills

Partner drills give participants the opportunity to interact, challenge each other, and exchange support and motivation. When designing partner drills, consider the type of interaction you want to create. For example, you may want each pair to complete a specific exercise or challenge, to focus on coaching and motivating each other, or perhaps to engage in friendly competition. Create drills that keep both participants active and engaged. Here are some ideas:

Tag team intervals. Provide each team with two exercises, one that’s high intensity and one that’s low intensity. One partner performs the high-intensity exercise for a period of time while the other performs the low-intensity move, concurrently encouraging the high-intensity partner. Have pairs do this for a set amount of time and then cue them to switch places.

Cooperative partner exercises. Give partners two different exercises to perform simultaneously. For example, one partner squats while holding the other partner’s legs, preparing him or her for decline push-ups.

Coordinated exercises. Have partners work together while performing the same exercise. For example, they hold the handles of two interlaced resistance bands and face each other with arms straight out in front of them. Next, they step away from each other until the “mega” band is taut. Both partners perform a squat while maintaining tension on the band. As they return to a standing position, they do a row.

Mirror image. Use this drill for agility and speed training. One partner performs a movement while his or her partner mimics it.

Team Activities

Team activities integrate cooperation into classes by challenging participants to work in larger groups to accomplish a specific goal. This may help students bond as they support each other and work collectively.

Splitting the room. Divide the room into two teams and have them perform the same exercise simultaneously or one after the other. For example, in
a dance format have teams “battle” for the best dance moves; in a cycling class, cue half of the room to sprint while the other half recovers and cheers the first group on.

One-team challenge. Have the entire class work together to complete a specific challenge or task. For instance, charge the class with doing a set number of push-ups or burpees in a certain amount of time, or with completing an obstacle course or other activity.

Relay. Divide class into several teams and have them race against each other to complete a specific exercise or task in the shortest time.

After Class

If feasible, take a few extra minutes after class to talk with participants and answer questions. Go the extra mile and interact with newbies again to thank them for attending and to offer encouragement. The more positive interactions a new member experiences, the more likely it is that he or she will return. The end of fitness class is also a great time to ask for song requests or suggestions from participants.

Transforming your fitness class into a warm gathering that feels like home away from home may take a little effort and energy on your part, but the payoff in retention and happiness is worth it. Students will know that you care and will feel accountable to others to show up, have fun and get fit.

Updated 11/16/21



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