If you are fresh out of instructing ideas, see it as a wake-up call. Lack of inspiration can be an occupational hazard for a fitness instructor. If your students are starting to find your routines humdrum, it’s time for a class makeover. The good news: Making a conscious effort to implement creative ideas—regardless of the format—doesn’t have to be a huge undertaking. It may be just the refresher you and your students need. After all, a change can be as good as a break. Adding a piece of equipment, reconfiguring the studio layout or partnering students may get the creative juices flowing again. Implement one or more of the following ideas and get yourself back on the road to interesting and inspirational classes.
A hip and happening beat may be just the energy injection a lackluster workout needs. If your students have been working out to the same CD for ages, chances are they are overdue for a musical pick-me-up. Creativity starts with variety. Don’t limit your music choice to one style—there are many different genres! Make a point of selecting songs from three or more categories. For example, give your athletic step class a boost with a country music warm-up, a jazz-infused strength section and a classical-themed cool-down. Be experimental. Have fun with music, and take full advantage of its ability to motivate.
Encourage interaction. Invite students to sing the chorus of a memorable number, karaoke-style. You may be pleasantly surprised to learn that you have a class full of future “American Idols.”
You may also want to experiment with volume. For example, turn the music down low and gradually increase the volume during an intense 60-second interval set. Or create a physical and mental rush for students by slowly raising the volume during a physically challenging move.
Being creative in classes doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel, just tweaking it slightly. Kymberly Williams-Evans, MA, academic advisor and fitness instruction coordinator in the department of exercise and sport studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, looks outside of fitness for unique ideas. “Recently I noticed that a lot of students were revisiting themes from their childhood, like riding pink bicycles, putting their hair in ponytails and going to movies like Dodge Ball,” says Williams-Evans. To build on the trend, she created a “Cardio Chaos” class that used small, lightweight plastic balls for soccer drills and recess games. She organized the class so that it worked well within the contained studio space and taught the moves with safety and variety in mind. The result: a regular fitness class that became a fun, childhood-inspired workout. “My participants loved it,” she says. They even received “penalties,” like a lap around the studio, for having their ball knocked away or for being tagged.
Regardless of where you get the ideas, trend spotting is a perfect tie-in to current cultural events in participants’ lives. For example, take a popular reality show like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and create a class called “Extreme Makeover: Fitness Style,” where the focus is on challenging, or “extreme,” exercises. This type of pop-culture spin creates an in-the-now experience for everyone.
Do you have a “toolbox” filled with interesting, unique props? This is indispensable for creative class design. Props don’t need to be complicated or costly. Marjorie O’Connor, owner of Fit International in Edmonton, Alberta, loves to use props to enhance her workouts. O’Connor chooses from a wide range of equipment, including Hula-Hoops, ladders, pylons, hurdles, agility balls, yoga blocks, tubing, foam rollers, towels, medicine balls, stretch straps, balance disks and Gliding™ disks. “I really am a kid at heart, and I like to give others the experience of fun and freedom through movement,” she says. “Laughing with Hula-Hoops around our midsections can be very liberating.”
O’Connor recommends that the props do not become the main teaching tool. “I have a lesson plan for each class, so I know where to fit in a prop for challenge or fun,” she says. Build each workout on a foundation of effective progression. For example, once students have mastered a basic plank move, introduce a ball one week and a foam roller the next. This improves core stability and adds variety. “My participants are always on their toes expecting something wild, fun and challenging,” says O’Connor. “It keeps me excited about teaching because I get to play and see changes in people as the class progresses.”
One caveat: Avoid using too many pieces at once. Choose two or three, and keep them safely tucked away but close enough for efficient class flow. If the goal is to use a number of props, set up the class circuit-style. For example, arrange the steps in the middle of the room and the other props along the perimeter. Regardless of what you use or do, says O’Connor, “be open, excited and a bit adventurous—the results will be contagious!”
Thematic classes are another way to go. Draw from seasonal dates, like St. Patrick’s Day, or specific music styles. A retro-inspired class that incorporates ’80s music and leg warmers is a great way to add festivity. Sherri McMillan, co-owner of Northwest Personal Training and Fitness Education Studios in Vancouver, Washington, and Portland, Oregon, likes to incorporate events that are fun, effective and easy to organize. “In October we marketed a dress-up day for Halloween, and we’ve done a ‘Sweetheart Stretch’ on Valentine’s Day,” she says. To stick with the romantic theme, McMillan played soft music, lit candles, used aromatherapy and focused the workout on partner stretches. “It’s always a lovely event,” she says. “We usually get about 15 couples, and it’s a nice way to spend Valentine’s Day.”
Themes don’t have to be limited to holidays or music. A fitness class structured around a particular sporting activity also lends itself to imaginative workouts. First choose the theme and then pick exercises that can be adapted to match the activity. For example, a winter conditioning–inspired class might use moves like squats to mimic ski tucks; reverse planks for the luge; and triceps push-ups on the floor to prepare a new snowboarder for the rigors of pushing up off the snow from sitting to standing.
If you have the luxury of nice weather, empty facility spaces and comprehensive insurance that covers students in outside areas, move your class around. The outdoors can be an inspiring place to teach a session—or even a small part of it, like the strength or stretch component. O’Connor recommends that you look around your facility for interesting places to try new techniques. “One facility where I teach has a long iron fence outside,” she says. “When the sun shines we head outdoors, and I instruct a series of resistance exercises with the bands hooked onto the fence.”
If leaving the studio space seems unrealistic, a simple reconfiguration may do the trick. For example, ask your students to face the back of the room, or set up steps in a V-formation. In one of the most popular classes at The Fitness Group in Vancouver, British Columbia, the stage was moved to the center of the studio. “Cuing required a new skill set, and instructors had to come up with inventive moves that matched the room setup,” says former fitness director, Chantal Laurin. “Participants loved the variety and enjoyed being sideways to and not facing the mirrors.” A fresh view or location generates renewed energy and a creative environment.
If you’re bored with step or uninspired by core training, alter your approach and use the same equipment in different ways. Add a medicine ball to your stability ball training. Introduce a new dimension to balance exercises by standing on a half-folded mat. Teach similar moves on two pieces of equipment to double your fun. Williams-Evans did this in “Step Action,” another class she created herself. The concept was built around the step, but the instructor had free range to mix things up by using two steps or by incorporating other pieces of equipment. For example, Williams-Evans combined the step with a core board and taught intense, low-complexity moves that stayed within the proper applications for both pieces of equipment. “I first checked in with my students to see if they were game to try something new,” she says. “Then I taught a 45-minute cardio class that incorporated 2-minute interval sets using each piece. We had so much fun, and the workout flew by.”
As the saying goes, two heads are often better than one. Set aside a couple of hours each month to buddy up with a fellow instructor and brainstorm new choreography. Host an internal workshop day—an opportunity for you and a few other instructors to present to each other. By sharing patterns, you will increase your repertoire and stimulate your creative juices.
Co-instructing is also a fabulous way to add oomph to a workout. While one instructor leads, the other works the room making one-on-one contact and generating energy. Prior to class, decide who will teach which sections. Participants will pick up on the duo-team vibe and so will you. Don’t forget to also pair up participants. Creative partner drills encourage teamwork and lighthearted competition.
Be adventurous while you challenge yourself and stretch your imagination. Even if your idea doesn’t fly, the attempt at variety will keep your classes fresh. Your students will be inspired to attend your next class and you will be motivated to teach it—a winning combination for everyone.
Attend a Class. Make it a priority to attend another instructor’s class at least once a month, preferably outside of your regular teaching facility. Participate with an open mind, and make it your goal to come away from the workout with three to five new ideas.
Sign Up for a Workshop. Re-educating yourself is always inspiring. A 2-hour workshop or a weekend conference can do wonders for your instructing skills and energy. Plan to attend one large conference and/or several smaller workshops throughout the year.
Host a Contest. Put together a simple contest. This is a great way to involve your students in class. Feature a quiz with general exercise or anatomy questions. Whenever possible, give away inexpensive prizes donated by your club.
Feature Special Guests. Not a dancer, but one of your students is? Ask if he or she would like to teach a 5- to 10-minute dance routine at the end of class. Your students will love the variety, and your volunteer dance teacher will be flattered by your request. Invite other special guests to showcase their talents. You may want to have a vocalist sing carols at the end of a December holiday class or ask a musician to play during a stretch-inspired workout.
Inspire While Stretching. If your students aren’t staying to stretch because they’re bored, it’s time for a change. Read an inspirational poem or segments of a short story during the stretch component. Your students will stick around from week to week to hear the end of the tale.
Swap Classes. With permission from your manager, swap one or two classes with another instructor.
Engage in Retail Therapy. What you wear and how you look can often transcend how you feel. It may cost a bit, but a new workout outfit is a wonderful pick-me-up.
Chocolate Anyone? If all else fails, follow Marjorie O’Connor’s lead and bring some dark chocolate to class. “It enhances the learning experience and increases phytoestrogens,” she says. “Plus, it keeps my students happy!”