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Creative Class Design

You’ve worked hard to become the best instructor you can be. You now have a “following” and, while you no longer feel the need to prove yourself, you sometimes worry about how to keep your classes enticing and effective. It requires great effort and planning—not to mention talent and skill—to be an effective group fitness leader. But don’t let yourself get bogged down in the “administration” aspect, which can zap all the creativity and fun out of the experience.

There’s a trick to staying relevant. Sure, you need to determine participants’ goals and your class objective, and you must make sure your foundation is based on sound exercise science principles. Then you have to create a plan that changes periodically so that students avoid plateaus and continue to reach their fitness goals. Multiply this by numerous classes and formats, and your job can be demanding. Once you’ve developed a basic template for a class, however, it’s not necessary to reinvent the wheel each time you teach. Instead, you can offer simple variations to keep the workout interesting and challenging. Consider the following suggestions to help you evolve your classes over time.

Circuit Training

Circuit training is an effective way to increase intensity, to keep students engaged as they achieve results, and to accomplish more work in less time. If you want to stick with a familiar series of exercises while retaining participants’ interest, offer less rest between sets. The exercises remain the same, but the challenge increases substantially.

Choose four exercises that isolate different muscle groups. Have students perform each move for 1 minute, with no recovery time in between. Allow 1 minute of rest, and repeat with a different series of exercises, for a total of five to 10 circuits. Use exercises that students have already mastered so they’ll need less demonstration and explanation, and the class can keep moving. Your students will appreciate doing familiar moves that also challenge them.

Mixing It Up

Exercise order is an often overlooked variable. If you typically begin your strength training class with lower-body exercises, surprise your students with upper-body work instead. If you often offer a cardio segment before a strength segment during boot camp, try cardio and strength intervals to mix things up. Even a few simple sequencing adjustments can make all the difference in keeping students interested.

Stephanie Thielen, a certified continuing education provider from Omaha, Nebraska, uses fun sequencing strategies in her strength training class to provide an “out of the box” experience. Once the participants have learned some basic exercises, Thielen plays with sequencing to create new challenges using familiar movement patterns.

“The ladder format is one of my favorite ways to change up the choreography,” she says. “The ladder format involves selecting a series of two or more exercises and cycling through them several times, increasing the number of repetitions each set. For example, I have my class complete one push-up and one crunch, then two push-ups and two crunches, all the way up to 10. My participants like this unique approach to the exercises [because] they can see improvement in their strength and endurance within a few ladder sessions.”

New Tools

Changing equipment is another effective way to create a novel experience for students. We all have our “go to” props, but varying one simple element can change the focus of an exercise. Use Gliding™ discs instead of hand weights to boost the intensity of traditional lower-body strength exercises, for example. Placing a disc under the forefoot when stepping back into a rear lunge allows for more resistance during the deceleration phase and increases the range of motion.

Pam Benchley, a national master trainer for BOSU®, out of Buffalo, New York, likes working with the BOSU Balance Trainer. She recommends using it to incorporate balance challenges into familiar exercises. “The push-up, for example, can be adapted to add challenge for more advanced clients. I may have them use the BOSU with the platform side up and perform a push-up with large range of motion, perhaps adding a plank with a tilt on the up phase of the movement, to incorporate more core activation. When students need less intensity, I may have them perform a push-up with the dome side up, with one hand on the dome and one hand on the floor, thus adding stability with the platform side on the floor. The possibilities for progressions and regressions are endless.”

Don’t forget about all the small equipment that lingers in the corners of the studio. Jump ropes, medicine balls, resistance bands and small weighted balls, for example, all offer a plethora of movement design options.

A Different Orientation

If you want to shake up the routine in a simple but surprisingly fun way, change the class orientation. For instance, ask students to form a circle and walk or jog around the periphery of the room to warm up. Then have them face the center of the circle as they do some traditional warm-up exercises, such as planks and squats. Participants will appreciate the new approach and connect with one another.

To continue the community spirit, split your group in half and have them turn toward the center of the room for a segment of class. This facilitates camaraderie, encourages social interaction and allows students to motivate each other.

Novel Cues

Changing up your cuing strategy is another way to keep participants engaged and to adapt the workout. If you want to offer a more calming atmosphere in your cardiovascular conditioning class, for example, speak more softly when cuing. While you may be encouraging strong effort, the atmosphere will be less stressful and demanding. Many students find this approach empowering and motivating. To end class in a calming way, offer a “silent” stretch. Effective teaching often requires a lot of verbal cuing; as they wind down, participants may appreciate simply mimicking your movements and listening to music.

Enlisting Help From Your Team

Annette Stein, owner of SCAN Yoga, in Syracuse, New York, often reaches out to her students to get advice on what they’re looking for. “My favorite strategy for keeping my class evolving is to periodically survey my students to get their honest feedback regarding their class experience,” she says. “This can [lead] to subtle adaptations in instruction that enhance the quality of the experience. A client once stated that she appreciates knowing what to expect before we begin. This allows her to set an intention for her practice and, therefore, helps her to be more focused and present. Based on this feedback, I now offer a more thorough introduction before we begin our yoga practice.”

A New Experience

Class development is a big undertaking; however, small changes can make all the difference. Instead of “starting over” each time you plan your class, think about changing just one element each week. Try some of the strategies presented in this article and see how a few subtle adjustments can keep things interesting for your students and more manageable for you.

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