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The Group Fitness Coach

Learn how to go beyond performing to connect one-on-one with participants.

The fitness industry has come a long way since the dance exercise craze that spurred a generation of Baby Boomers to move more than 20 years ago. Even though the leg warmers, thongs and fast-paced music are long gone, the fitness craze has not died; in fact, it has flourished.

During this growth, the “aerobics dance teacher” evolved into the “group fitness instructor.” As the trend continues, it’s likely that the latest transition will be from “group fitness instructor” to “group fitness coach.” Instructors must keep up with the ever-changing needs and demands of today’s exercise enthusiasts. Clients are savvier. They demand more variety, and they want to find new ways to overcome boredom, plateaus and overuse injuries.

To meet these needs, group classes are becoming highly specific. For example, a typical program schedule might list the following types of classes: sport-specific, senior, preteen, high-intensity training, group strength, martial arts, yoga fusion and Pilates. Instructors need to be more educated and better able to communicate with all participants. They must offer guidance, positive feedback, and modifications that emphasize safety and proper alignment. With enhanced training, instructors communicate more skillfully. They watch with keener eyes and are able to teach several levels at once—they want to make the group experience positive for everyone.

The “group fitness coach” approach takes the focus off the instructor and places it on the participants—where it needs to be! Students no longer feel pressured to mimic or play follow the leader.

A Good Foundation

It used to be fairly common for some people to become fitness instructors simply because they enjoyed taking the classes and wanted to teach. They often had little, if any, fitness experience or knowledge beyond the basic choreography. They were happy to teach in exchange for club memberships. Today, people are pursuing degrees in exercise science, physiology and kinesiology. These degreed professionals are making fitness a full-time career as opposed to a part-time job or hobby.

It wasn’t until I began leading workshops for other fitness instructors that I discovered how the techniques used to teach Pilates might be applied to any type of group exercise class. These techniques include a personable, hands-on approach, similar to that used in personal training, and more visualization cues. When applied, such skills encourage a noncompetitive atmosphere, which allows all participants to have a positive experience. If the techniques work in a Pilates class, why wouldn’t they work in a muscle-sculpting, cycling or other type of group fitness class?

Focus on Success

Instructors must ensure that every participant has a safe and effective workout regardless of fitness level. Being a group fitness coach allows you to use your knowledge to integrate all student levels. Labeling classes as “beginner,” “intermediate” and “advanced” doesn’t always work. When you coach each person in the group separately, there is no need to have class levels.

Imagine a scenario where a mother and daughter come to a step class. They want to improve their health and spend time together. The mother is a beginner, and the daughter is intermediate. However, if a group fitness coach presents the class, both mother and daughter can benefit from it. Each receives specific modifications that fit her current exercise level. The mother, who is not accustomed to exercise, performs within her means. She receives personal attention when the instructor offers a custom modification; for example, “Walk around the step instead of doing the hop-turn.” Empowering comments—such as “Alice is showing a fantastic modification; feel free to follow her”—encourage her to do her best.

Conversely, the daughter also benefits. She gets the attention she needs when the instructor gives her positive feedback on a flawless combination: “Way to go, Sabrina—you’re ready to add on to that move!” She also feels confident enough to mirror some of the basic steps for the beginners, including her mother. This atmosphere allows everyone to feel successful—no one is intimidated. Participants are more apt to return to a class in which they feel welcome and part of the team. Their consistency will allow them to reap the benefits of exercise.

Participants also benefit from visual and verbal communication. A member recently thanked me for the experience she had in one of my classes. She said it was completely different from her experience at another club, where she had arrived late and was forced to go to the back of the room. She couldn’t see the instructor, who cued and performed from the floor. She was frustrated and confused. Was she doing the exercises correctly? Did the instructor even care that she was there or that she was new and struggling? A group fitness coach would have been aware of a latecomer, because the coach’s attention would have been on the class itself and not the exercise. She therefore would have been able to address the participant directly and effectively.

My class was different. The member felt comfortable and welcome because I

  • took the time to explain the exercises, making her aware of proper alignment and breathing;
  • went over the benefits of the exercises;
  • incorporated visual cues that were easy to relate to and helped everyone do the exercises properly (e.g., “Imagine your hips as the strong foundation of a building, your vertebrae as building blocks and your head as a roof”); and
  • provided plenty of positive reassurance and eye contact.

Even though she shared the class with many other people, she felt she was being personally trained. She left the class feeling upbeat and, more important, not defeated. This type of coaching shows participants that you are focused on their success.

Naturally, the smaller the class, the easier it is to connect with each person individually and fully demonstrate the coaching method. But it is not impossible in larger classes (30–35 people). You’ll be spread a little thin, but most people are happy to receive some type of attention, even if it is brief. In cases like this, be sure to make an extra effort prior to and at the beginning of class. Offer a warm welcome and encourage fresh faces to relax and enjoy the workout. Let newcomers become the priority. Veterans will recognize that the “newbies” may need more guidance from you and, therefore, the focus won’t be on them.

More Coach Tips

Group fitness coaching employs the same techniques used in one-on-one training, except that they’re applied to a group of people simultaneously.

Interact With the Crowd. As exercises become more advanced, you must keep a more watchful eye on students. When teaching a cycling class it’s completely acceptable to get off the bike to assist and motivate attendees. The same principle holds true for a step or cardio class. Walk away from the front of the room and mingle with the students.

If the class needs a visual aid, point out one of the frontline exercisers as you circle the room assisting with technique. Encourage people to work at their own level and not to feel pressured into doing what their neighbor is doing. Give each participant specific modifications for his or her current abilities. For example, if you see someone swinging or arching her back during a biceps curl, give her lighter weights and explain how this modification will help her better isolate the correct muscle and take stress off the back. This assures the entire class that everyone will get an efficient workout with minimal likelihood of injury.

Add a Personal Touch. Take time to learn members’ names and use them in class. Ask about any health issues participants may have, and address their concerns to the best of your ability (while staying within your scope of practice). Acknowledge their personal, professional and fitness accomplishments. Arrive early and stay a few minutes late to answer questions. Remember that members rely on instructors to give them a good, safe workout. You are responsible for each individual who enters your class. Reach out to everyone, not just the front row.

Accentuate the Positive. Don’t overcorrect or nitpick a participant to death. Don’t expect perfection. Instead, work together toward improvement. Singling out one individual and bombarding him with corrections can create a negative vibe. This will only make him feel like a failure or embarrass and alienate him in front of his peers. Pepper criticism with plenty of positive feedback. Smile and let him know that he’s improving. Point out something else he does well and let everyone know that he “owns” that particular exercise. Give everyone an equal time to shine. Participants will walk away feeling good about themselves, their experience and you. In turn, they’ll tell others about the great class they attended.

A Level Beyond

A group fitness coach is a hot commodity. He or she plays a leading role in a club’s success and, more important, in the success of its clientele. A coach belongs to a new generation of instructors, who bring a higher level of professionalism to teaching and are well respected by peers, management and members. Instructing is no longer about performing, but about educating, motivating and communicating.

Big Picture Benefits

Group fitness coaches are a boon to business for numerous reasons:

  • They’re service oriented and can improve member retention.
  • Their cachet makes new programs easier to market.
  • They tend to have a loyal following and can direct members to other club offerings, including fee-based services.
  • They’re more in tune with clients’ concerns and abilities.
  • They’re personable and more compassionate.
  • They adapt to a variety of clientele.

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