Not So Fast: Questions to Ask Before You Accept That Fitness Class
If you want to teach group fitness as a career, take the hiring process seriously.
Too often, yoga and group fitness instructors are so eager to teach that they say yes to any class they can squeeze into their schedule. Tatiana Kolovou, MBA, owner of Ethos Cycling in Bloomington, Indiana, is among those who believe you shouldn’t undervalue your skills in order to do something you love. “There are many jobs that have strong purpose, and the individuals who do them have passion, and many of them make a lot of money,” Kolovou says.
If fitness is your career and not just a hobby, you should treat the hiring process the same way you would if you were applying for a full-time job. While most instructors leave training programs knowing how to teach a fitness class, you rarely get much (if any) education on how to procure a fitness class on your schedule and how to decide if you even want that class. Since many instructors are part of the growing “gig economy” and are likely to go through the hiring process many times over the years, beginners and veterans alike can use some direction. The questions you ask a potential employer will not only help you decide if the fitness class is the right fit; it may also reveal how much you’ll actually make from the teaching opportunity after accounting for travel and other costs.
Getting a fair wage for your effort is important not just for paying your bills. It might mean you can afford to teach fewer classes and focus on quality over quantity. “You love fitness and think you can teach it all. However, this is not just physically taxing; it’s mentally taxing as well, and then you’re setting yourself up for burnout,” says Traci Bartee, owner of Fly Fitness in Kirkland, Washington. “If you’re burned out, the clients notice, and it will reflect in your classes.”
Of course, knowing exactly how much will be in your paycheck can also reduce your financial stress level, which is closely tied to physical and mental stress (Hojman, Miranda & Ruiz-Tagle 2016).
Adults who experience financial stress even report delaying medical treatment (Patel et al. 2016), which can result in higher future medical bills and more missed classes—in a job that rarely includes paid sick leave.
But save the pay discussion for later in the hiring process. Waiting on this will let your potential employer know that your interest in the job extends beyond dollar signs. “Hearing pay questions right off the bat is a little jarring to me,” says Bartee. “It can come up in the initial conversation, but it shouldn’t be the first question.” Bartee says your offer might actually increase once the manager or owner gets to know you.
And pay, while important, is just one factor to consider when you’re deciding whether to teach a new class. “Don’t underestimate what teaching does for you. This is the training ground for bigger, better things,” Kolovou says. “If you can be a good fitness instructor, you can be on the TED stage. There are so many skills that transfer over.”
Ensuring a Good Fit
The fact is, the hiring process for group fitness instructors varies widely and can be much more casual than it is for other careers. That can result in unanswered questions, unexplained job expectations, unhappy instructors and dissatisfied management. But if you do some legwork before you put on the headset for a new class, you can avoid the guesswork. Not only will you appreciate it in the long run; your manager will, too.
“I absolutely feel that both the studio and the instructor should feel that it is a good fit,” says Ashly Bjorn, instructor manager at Upcycle in Boise, Idaho. “As a manager, I want my instructors to feel like they belong at the studio and that they thrive there.”
As you navigate your way through the application and audition process, turn on your inquisitive side. There is power in just asking questions. The list below is quite comprehensive, and these questions will likely spark others that will further clarify your new opportunity and set you up for success. All the owners and managers interviewed said the most important factor in their hiring decision was how well an instructor fits into the culture of their facility—something that might take time to reveal.
Questions to Ask Your Hiring Manager
Set yourself up for success by asking the following questions during your next interview:
HOW WILL I BEST GET TO KNOW THE STUDENTS AND THE OTHER INSTRUCTORS?
“I love this question because this shows that instructors have put their heart into the studio,” says Bjorn. “They aren’t just there to walk in, teach and walk out. It is more than a job to them. They want to change people’s lives and hearts. It shows in every aspect of their teaching!”
ARE THERE OPPORTUNITIES TO EARN CECS?
An interest in continuing education courses means that you have a desire to keep learning and improving your classes, that you place value on keeping your certifications current and that you’re willing to show up at the club outside of your regularly scheduled class.
WILL I BE EXPECTED TO ATTEND MEETINGS OR EVENTS?
Meetings and events are great opportunities to interact with fellow instructors and/or students. If you’re looking for more camaraderie in a career that is often missing the “water cooler” effect, this can be a positive—rather than yet another task—so be sure to convey that the question is meant to reflect your willingness to participate. On the other hand, if this doesn’t appeal to you, it’s good information for you to have in advance.
WHO ATTENDS THIS CLASS?
“Depending on the gym or studio, the crowd can vary quite a bit at different times of day,” says Bartee. You want to know as much as you can about a class to determine if it’s a fit and then to plan for the class. Different demographics can mean a different class plan, intensity level and playlist and can affect how well you connect with the class.
HOW LONG IS THE CLASS?
Class lengths can vary from 30 to 90 minutes—and may be longer for special events. Make sure your pay rate reflects how long you’re expected to teach. Beyond pay, make sure the class length makes sense for the rest of your schedule. A 30-minute class might not be worth a long trip. A 90-minute hot yoga class might not make sense if you won’t have time to shower before you head to another class or commitment.
WILL I BE EXPECTED TO WEAR A UNIFORM?
Typically, gyms will provide clothing if they have a specific uniform. If they do have a uniform, it will usually extend beyond clothing to shoes, accessories and even hairstyles. Get all the details ahead of time so you can comply from day one. If you’ll dread wearing a facility’s uniform, perhaps that job isn’t the best fit.
WHAT ARE THE EXPECTED PRE- AND POSTCLASS TASKS?
Finding out more about the logistical side of teaching can help you visualize the job and whether you see yourself in that picture. If you’re expected to check students in, you’ll want your pay to reflect the extra effort. You’ll also want to get very familiar with the check-in system ahead of time.
Your manager will likely set up time for you to learn the system. Put yourself in your students’ shoes while learning, and try to think of all of the scenarios and questions that might arise, so you’re prepared (and less stressed) when you’re on the spot—and right before you teach, no less! If you’ll need any passwords and your manager won’t be around, make sure you jot them down in a safe place so they are at the ready.
WHAT IS THE SUBBING SYSTEM?
Even the healthiest and most responsible instructors need a sub from time to time. Ask up front how hard it will be to find one. Knowing this ahead of time will help you set realistic expectations. Most managers expect instructors to find their own subs, but some managers prefer to fill the openings themselves, taking a lot of responsibility off your plate.
WHAT IS THE REVIEW/FEEDBACK PROCESS?
This question will help you pre┬¡pare for the road ahead. Find out if you’ll receive a formal review each year. If you won’t, ask how your manager will evaluate your performance and if the results will determine a raise, additional classes, or whether you get to keep teaching the class.
WILL I HAVE TO SIGN A NONCOMPETE AGREEMENT?
Ask this early in the hiring process because a blanket noncompete might be a deal breaker for you, but don’t walk out at its very mention. Some noncompetes concern only certain formats or local competitors. Also, some chain boutiques require instructors to sign noncompetes, but they have several locations in the area. If this is the case, find out if there is potential to fill your schedule by teaching elsewhere within the same chain.
WILL I BE A CONTRACTOR OR AN EMPLOYEE?
The requirements for the independent contractor designation are specific, and few instructors can actually qualify, so this is becoming less common across fitness facilities (see “Independent Contractor vs. Employee,” below). If you do qualify as an independent contractor, this is a factor to consider during pay negotiations. You will pay more in taxes, since you will essentially function as both the employer and the employee.
DO YOU OFFER A FREE MEMBERSHIP?
Most group fitness departments and group fitness–based studios encourage instructors to take each other’s classes, but this might be space dependent. If you can take unlimited free classes, find out the policy when a class fills up or has a waitlist. Beyond group fitness, find out if you automatically become a member. Some facilities offer only discounted rates or limited hours for instructors and other staff. It’s rare, but some exclusive members-only health clubs do not allow employees to work out at the location.
DO YOU OFFER CHILD CARE?
If you are a parent, child care can open up days and time slots that otherwise would be difficult or impossible. If a fitness facility offers child care, find out if the cost is fully covered, whether you can use it only during certain hours and how many children are allowed.
HOW DO YOU PAY SUBS?
Don’t assume that you will get paid the same way or at the same rate when you’re subbing as when you’re teaching your regularly scheduled classes. Some facilities pay subs less than regular instructors because subs aren’t putting in the work to build and maintain the classes. Some pay more because they recognize and appreciate that subs are available in a pinch. If the regular instructor makes a commission or per-head rate, you might be paid a flat rate as a sub, because that way the manager can tell you what to expect ahead of time.
WILL I GET PAID IF NO ONE SHOWS UP?
There can be no-show flukes at any location, but this is usually only a concern at new facilities and for newly offered classes. Also, find out how long you should wait until you pack up. If you are getting paid either way, your manager might expect you to stay the entire time.
Questions to Ask Yourself
Don’t forget to contemplate your own needs, expectations and boundaries with the following reflective questions.
WHAT IS THE TRAVEL COMMITMENT/EXPENSE?
Calculate your travel costs before you get into pay negotiations, and be realistic about traffic. If the distance and traffic are reasonable, find out if you will have to pay for parking and if the facility will validate a portion of the cost or all of it. If you have concerns about the distance but you’re interested in the opportunity, find out if teaching back-to-back classes is an option to make it worthwhile.
IS IT MY SCENE?
“Instructors need to figure out if they’re the right fit for the culture of the club, because culture is huge,” says Kolovou. “They are going to be pushing water uphill if there isn’t a fit or if the culture doesn’t mesh with their personality.”
SHOULD I BE TEACHING THIS FORMAT?
You might get the opportunity to teach a format you’ve never taught or been trained to teach. Since not every fitness facility has the same hiring process or requirements, and some hiring managers are actually unfamiliar with group fitness, you might have to decide whether you should be teaching a specific class. When deciding, remember that in certain cases of student injury, the instructor can be held liable, in addition to the facility.
DOES THE CLASS PASS THE “GUT CHECK”?
There’s something to be said for pushing yourself out of your comfort zone or accepting a less-than-ideal schedule when you’re starting out, but don’t go against a gut feeling that a class just isn’t right for you or a strong doubt that you can pull it off. For example, if you have a history of sleeping through your alarm, perhaps it’s best to decline that early-morning cycling class, at least for now. Even if you make it on time, you might not bring the energy that the class expects and deserves.
As you gain more experience, your needs will shift, these questions will evolve and you’ll learn a lot about yourself. “You don’t even know exactly what and when you want to teach when you’re first starting out,” says Bartee. “Create a name for yourself and figure out when you’re at your best and when and where you engage best with the clientele.”
Group Fitness Instructor Payment Styles
Rates vary from city to city, boutique studio to box gym and beyond, and the way in which you can be paid varies just as much.
FLAT RATE OR PER CLASS
In this scenario, the instructor is paid a set rate no matter how many students attend class. This is the most common style of payment. You might find it anywhere you teach.
PRO: You always know what you will make, and you can count on that income and budget around it.
CON: You do not get financially rewarded when you teach large classes that require more work.
In this case, the instructor receives a percentage of the class earnings, which depends on how many students attend class and how much each student paid. Expect this style of payment in a smaller setting with few instructors.
PRO: You get rewarded when your class is larger and when the gym or studio is making more money. It feels almost as if you are a member of the business rather than simply an employee.
CON: Although, over time, you can estimate an average to expect, you never know exactly how much you will make, and you cannot plan on earning a set amount. Also, you take a hit when your class numbers are low.
Here, the instructor is paid based on the number of students who attend class. This payment style is common in yoga studios and other nonfranchise boutiques.
PRO: This is a cleaner version of commission pay and usually is easier to calculate. Plus, you get rewarded for larger class sizes.
CON: As in the commission model, your earnings can suffer when class sizes are small.
Instructors get paid for their time, which often includes setup and cleanup. Usually, however, the rate is adjusted to reflect a typical per-class rate. Colleges and larger companies often use this method if they already pay other employees on an hourly basis.
PRO: You can depend on a set income, and you will likely make more for longer classes.
CON: As with a flat rate, you won’t see a financial reward for larger classes.
COMBO: CLASS FLAT RATE + PER-HEAD BONUS
In this structure, instructors get both a minimum, or flat rate, and a bonus per-head rate for any students beyond a set threshold. This is the second-most-common payment style, and you might find this in studios and larger gyms and health clubs.
PRO: You can plan for your minimum, and you get rewarded for larger classes. This is basically a double win for instructors.
CON: This structure can be frustrating when you are just below your threshold for your bonuses; plus, you can get obsessed about your class size.
See also: Coping With Instructor Burnout
Independent Contractor vs. Employee
The IRS is paying more attention to the fitness industry, and few group fitness instructors actually qualify as independent contractors. If any or all of the following apply, you are an employee and not an independent contractor, and your tax filing should reflect that designation:
- You use equipment provided by the facility.
- The facility management sets your schedule.
- Management provides training.
- You are required to sign a noncompete agreement.
- Classes are an essential component of the business.
Source: IRS 2019.
Up Your Game
Teaching group fitness has changed from a whimsical pastime to a more serious career path with many benefits. Approach your own teaching career with the respect it deserves by investing in your future opportunities with sound research and smart questions.
Hojman, D.A., Miranda, A., & Ruiz-Tagle, J. 2016. Debt trajectories and mental health. Social Science & Medicine, 167, 54–62.
IHRSA. 2019. 2019 IHRSA Health Club Employee Compensation and Benefits Report. Boston: IHRSA.
IRS. 2019. Understanding employee vs. contractor designation. Accessed May 3, 2019: irs.gov/newsroom/understanding-employee-vs-contractor-designation.
Patel, M.R., et al. 2016. Effect of financial stress and positive behaviors on cost-related nonadherence to health regimens among adults in a community-based setting. Preventing Chronic Disease, 13 (E46).