If you’ve been teaching group fitness classes for any length of time, you’ve likely experienced the dreaded student walkout. It’s the end of class—and time to stretch—and a portion of the class members start putting away equipment and heading for the door. Participants in certain classes are guiltier than others (cycling instructors, are you nodding in agreement?).
Although your program director knows this happens all the time, frequency does not make it okay.
If participants want to stay until the end, that means they see value in the whole class, and this is important—whether the session is paid or free. Beyond recognizing value, attendees are bound to receive more value when they stay, since the most concentrated flexibility segment happens at the tail end, even when some stretching is interspersed throughout the class.
One significant way yoga differs from other group fitness classes is in the tendency of yoga practitioners to stay until the end. A reason for this is that yoga students perceive value in all stages of a yoga session. Yoga instructors place just as much importance on the final pose as they do on the first few postures and on those in the middle of class. In other formats, the cooldown and stretch can seem disconnected from the middle and, therefore, the final stretch often comes off as an afterthought and unnecessary to many.
You can make a few adjustments to your class sequence by implementing teaching approaches that keep yoga practitioners interested. Include these concepts in your nonyoga group fitness classes and see how attendees benefit by staying until the very end.
1. Blend Flexibility and Strength
Rather than saving all of the stretches for the end, yoga instructors offer stretches throughout class. You don’t want to turn your nonyoga class into yoga, but you can offer flexibility options here and there when appropriate, being sure to choose wisely between dynamic and static stretches. Mini stretch breaks throughout class combat boredom and allow students to work harder and longer overall; people will find they do as much work (or more) without feeling exhausted. They’ll also feel that they’re challenging themselves and having an amazing workout without destroying their bodies, since they continually have a chance to refresh.
With this approach, students get more stretching overall, and even people who leave early do some flexibility work. A recent Columbia University study found that yoga improves flexibility more effectively than standard stretching. Why? Because the mechanical act of stretching and strengthening at the same time leads to a chemical reaction that increases muscle elasticity in a way that stretching alone does not (Alegre-Cebollada, et al. 2014).
2. Soften Your Transitions
In a typical yoga flow or vinyasa class, instructors move students from seated positions to standing to other movements before returning to seated. For example, one vinyasa flow usually includes some variation of standing to plank, upward-facing dog, downward-facing dog and back to standing again. After this, the instructor leads students back to the floor for prone-based work, then seated poses. Supine postures are saved for the end of class. This order is intentional because standing postures—and the constant up and down of vinyasa flows and backbends—build heat, so they are most appropriate earlier in a yoga sequence. Many seated and supine poses are cooling and calming and feel best at the end of a class.
No one expects a circuit training class to move quite as smoothly and seamlessly as yoga, but you can consider reducing the number of times your students have to make significant position changes. Moving from lying on the floor to standing can seem unnecessary and even annoying to some attendees. And if it takes participants a long time to make these transitions, you could be wasting valuable class time.
Because you want your participants to be able to move from the floor to standing and back easily in their daily lives, it is wise to practice these moves during exercise. However, there is a time and place for this. Think of burpees (squat thrusts) and other exercises that require extreme or quick position changes as your “vinyasa flow,” and include them early in the class or midway through it.
When you move seamlessly from one exercise to another, you take class planning to the next level. Apply a natural rhythm to your format and you’ll appear more professional, your class will move more smoothly, and your participants will perceive fewer moments of choppiness or disconnection.
3. Master Multitask Moves
We often kill two birds with one stone in our strength work (think biceps curls with squats in circuit training or relevés with triceps extensions in barre), but we can also multitask while we stretch. Performing two movements at once will add flexibility work without taking away from other exercises or using up extra time. For example, you can combine a triceps stretch with a lunge or include a chest stretch and shoulder opener during a standing quad stretch (instruct students to externally rotate their arm and hold their ankle from the inside). In yoga, this approach is common; it encourages the concept of “moving meditation,” where students focus their minds on the various stages of a pose—and on the breath—so that worries, plans and thoughts of to-do lists are easy to avoid. Even if your class doesn’t provide a meditation-style setting, it can still be a chance for participants to escape their busy lives for an hour. This is one more way to facilitate an enjoyable and productive atmosphere.
4. Introduce a Little Yoga
Examine your current flexibility routine. Do any of the stretches you already offer have a yoga counterpart? For example, a standing quad stretch could also be called “dancer’s pose.” Also, as a qualified group fitness instructor, you can safely teach a few basic yoga poses (e.g., downward-facing dog is a classic go-to pose).
Yoga is a premium class on most group fitness schedules, so a little bit of yoga in your nonyoga (and likely lower-cost) classes can add value for your participants. Just be sure you only sprinkle (and don’t overdo) yoga content in your classes.
5. Weave Core Work Into Your Cooldown
A simple way to get students to remain in class and sneak in extra flexibility is to intertwine core work with the final stretch. Offer a few core exercises and then break away with a stretch. As you progress toward the end of class, offer more stretches and fewer core exercises until the last few moves are purely stretches or range-of-motion exercises. Finish your core segment with a few rounds of cat-cow pose to stretch the abdominal muscles and back while articulating motion throughout the spine.
More Class Time Means More Flexibility
It’s great for our egos, as instructors, when students stay the course. More importantly, it’s better for our students if they stay in class for the stretches. Although recent research suggests that stretching doesn’t necessarily prevent injury directly (i.e., there may not be a cause-and-effect relationship), there is evidence that it does so indirectly by reducing inflammation and increasing range of motion (Behm et al. 2015; Bower et al. 2014). Increased flexibility can mean fewer discomforts, ailments and injuries and, therefore, fewer missed classes, which is win-win for everyone.
In addition to providing tangible benefits, these yoga approaches will simply make students feel good. You want them to feel that attending your class is worth their time and that, by choosing to come, they made the correct decision. That feeling isn’t something they can always put their finger on, but it will keep them committed until the end of class and encourage them to return in the future.