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Finding Your Anchor

Jay Blahnik discusses industry growth, the Internet, multilevel classes and how to succeed by finding what you do best.

1996 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year Jay Blahnik always knows how to lighten a mood or brighten a room. His accessible, down-to-earth teaching style is renowned, and he is a leading crusader in the campaign to Inspire the World to Fitness. His dedication to growing the fitness industry is contagious; read on to catch the fever.

What have been the biggest changes in the fitness industry since you won the IDEA award?

The industry has grown in many positive ways since 1996. First, the popularity of more mindful exercises—like stretching, tai chi, yoga and Pilates—has risen remarkably. Back then, these modalities were just starting to gain momentum. Today you hear more about them than almost any other workouts.

The second thing I’ve noticed is the trend toward shorter, more efficient workouts. In 1996 it was still common to find 90-minute high-low and step classes. Today, many clubs offer 15- and 30-minute classes in an effort to get people in and out of the gym faster and to provide an easier starting point for beginners.

Finally, I’ve seen tremendous growth in coaching rather than just demonstrating. Instructors have had to learn good coaching skills, not just choreography breakdown skills. These changes are fantastic for our industry and a great sign that we are continuing to grow in a positive direction.

What sources do you tap for new ideas?

The Internet has exploded since 1996 and is a fantastic tool for helping instructors grow. I teach many athletic-based classes, such as cycling and treadmill training. I “Google” these sports and find great new training ideas to incorporate into my classes. I might discover a new terrain from real races, a training technique used by the pros, or great new research that helps make my students stronger, faster or less prone to injury. The Internet is truly the best source of new ideas for planning and creating workouts.

I also like to speak with my students as often as possible to find out what their personal goals are, where they might lack motivation, what inspires them and how their interests grow and change (as these relate to their workouts and schedules). This keeps me in tune with students’ needs and demands.

What suggestions do you have for teaching a multilevel class?

Remember that more advanced students want to be acknowledged and continue to get better, whereas beginners want to feel successful, not intimidated. Although these needs seem miles apart, they actually complement each other. By connecting a new student with a more advanced one (introducing them before class, having the advanced student set up the beginner on his bike, etc.), they both get a little bit of what they need. The advanced student feels important, and the beginner feels included.

Offer modifications and lots of options for everyone. You’ll find that you can accommodate a wide variety of participants in the same workout. The key lies in not pretending you can teach the perfect class for every individual (because that’s really tricky). Rather, provide inspiration for everyone so that each person feels acknowledged and believes she can be successful. The personal touch is what keeps people coming back, whether they’re advanced students or beginners.

What was the smartest thing you did to grow your career?

I am a firm believer that we’re all given gifts from God and it’s our responsibility to use them the best way we can. Early in my career, I identified that my greatest gift was not being the best teacher, the best speaker or the most innovative fitness professional, but rather being someone with a knack for making complicated things a little easier to understand. I have stuck by that as the anchor for everything I do. Whenever I’ve been developing a workshop, writing a book, creating a presentation, releasing a video, launching a program or promoting a new product, I’ve identified how to make the complicated aspects a little bit easier to understand, teach, remember or use. Sticking by this principle has helped grow my career. It has given me and the people I am blessed to work with something to count on. It’s a guiding principle I use to decide which projects to pursue. If I’m not able to make a contribution using this gift, then I either pass or find another professional who is better suited for the project.

Who is your most inspiring class participant?

I work with a group of people who have been taking my classes for 12 years. They inspire me because they continue to stick to their program, and for whatever reason they’ve managed not to get sick of me! Because they keep coming back and have remained loyal, I feel a great responsibility to continue to provide good workouts that educate and motivate them. It’s easier to become lazy when you teach new people all the time, because they don’t expect as much. Seasoned students require special handling because both parties have to work on keeping the relationship strong and interesting.

What advice do you have for new instructors?

The most important things an instructor does are educate, motivate and inspire. Many new instructors get too stuck on thinking that class content is most important. They focus so much on choreography, music, cuing and technique that they forget these things aren’t the reason students keep coming back. While all of these elements are important, none of them are as important as making students feel that they get more out of their workout with you than they would on their own. I’d much rather take a class from an instructor who is smiling, having a great time, paying attention to me and helping me “soar,” than to take a class from someone who is technically perfect, is great at communicating and has perfect choreography, but doesn’t even know I exist.

What can group fitness instructors do on a daily basis to further the positive growth of the industry?

Each week, try to do something mental, physical or spiritual that requires a bit of bravery and makes you a little nervous. It will help put you in the shoes of new exercisers—the ones who are afraid, intimidated and worried about looking stupid. Whenever I do something that puts me outside my comfort zone, it reminds me of the folks who come to my class for the first time and are just as afraid as I am when I climb the face of a 30-foot rock wall! It keeps me in touch with the most important market, the people who are just starting.

How do you avoid injuries?

By mixing it up. That’s the only way to have a long-term career as an instructor. The surest way to get hurt over time is to stick to only one workout style. I have always tried to teach or do something different every day, and that includes with my strength training workouts. This approach has allowed me to last a lot longer than I would have otherwise.

I also believe that teaching your workouts without doing every single move is vital. It not only makes you a good instructor but also protects your body from injuries. And try to surf if you can. I started a few years ago, and I think it’s the best sport ever! It requires mindfulness, flexibility, strength, balance, agility and a bit of bravery. Not a great suggestion for those of you in Minnesota, but perfect for my fellow instructors in California!

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