Our job is to find ways to reach out to these back-row participants while still giving our seasoned students what they have come to expect. Here are some proven practical strategies that can help you extend a hand to even the most timid participants.

Before Class

As fitness professionals, we know it is standard practice to arrive early to our classes. Doing so ensures that we can reach out to new participants before they take their places in the back row.

1. Welcome newcomers to class by introducing yourself as they come through the door. And don’t forget to ask them their names! (One way to remember a newcomer’s name is to repeat it immediately in your reply; this can also personalize the experience for the student.)

2. Use this interactive personal technique to break the ice: Find out and remember one piece of personal information about each newcomer and then incorporate it later in a discussion during class. This way you can show the new clients that you have remembered their names and also help them feel part of the group. Make sure, however, that you ask nonthreatening questions, such as “Is this your first time taking step aerobics?” or “Is this your first time in the pool?”

3. Give key safety recommendations pertinent to the particular class. For example, in a step class, advise new clients about proper step height and why it’s so important.

4. Suggest spots where the newcomers might position themselves during class. If the class is choreography-based, suggest places up front where they can see you—and you can see them—to expedite class integration. If any new exercisers are not familiar with the equipment being used in class, suggest they take spots somewhere on the sides of the room toward the front to allow visual access to you at all times without distracting the die-hard members front and center. However, be sensitive to the fact that some extremely shy and nervous individuals may prefer to remain in the rear of the class. Respect their wishes, and take extra care to observe these clients continuously throughout class.

5. Encourage personal interactions by posing nonthreatening personal questions of the class at large. For example, ask a few seasoned participants if they like the new tape you are debuting that day and see how the newcomers react. If one of them smiles or nods her head, it may be appropriate to ask the same question of her. But if she looks uncomfortable, don’t pursue it any further.

6. Share empathetic personal anecdotes with newcomers. Whenever you learn a piece of personal information about a new client, share something about yourself so the client feels there
is a sincere, reciprocal exchange of information.

During Class

Here are some techniques to try during class:

1. Use the sandwiching technique: When giving appropriate, positive feedback and motivational cues, mention a newcomer’s name between the names
of two veteran participants. For example, “Deborah [veteran participant], your form is always great in class! Jeff [new participant], excellent posture. Connie [veteran participant], you are working so hard!” This technique ensures that everyone—whether seasoned or novice—gets recognition and motivational attention in a nonthreatening manner.

2. Vary everyone’s position and space throughout the class. (In other words, the “front of the room” doesn’t always have to be the front of the room!) For example, in a movement class, vary the direction students face in the room so they all experience front, back and middle orientations during class. This technique trains kinesthetic awareness by teaching participants to relate—in a comfortable environment—to class dynamics that continually change. New participants, especially, will quickly gain experience and comfort from knowing different areas of the class. Also vary your own position throughout class, to keep everyone alert.

3. This is also a great time to relate some general piece of information you learned about one of the newcomers when practicing the interactive personal technique prior to class. If, for instance, you learned that one of the newcomers is a nurse, you could say, “Hey, gang, we’re in safe company today because Nancy is a nurse!” When you casually integrate such personal tidbits during class, newcomers are made to feel part of the group and participants relate more personally to each other.

4. Use terminology that newcomers can readily understand while learning proper form and kinesiology. For example, don’t intimidate new participants with cues like, “Sit on your ischial tuberosities and externally rotate the femur; now depress the scapulae toward the superior parts of the iliac crests.” Take the advice of Josie Gardiner, 2002 IDEA Group Fitness Instructor of the Year: “Use language they can relate to and understand, or they won’t get much benefit from the exercise. It’s got to be something that they can take away with them when class is over.”

5. To simplify things for newcomers, cue in lay terms first, then follow with the technical terms. For example, I use the following two-part cue to teach newcomers proper core stabilization: (Lay cue) “Class, I want you to find your belly area and think of squeezing a lemon behind your belly button against your spine as if making lemonade.” (Technical cue) “These are your deep transversus abdominis muscles, and this compression action engages them and makes you stronger.” This cuing technique will not only help both new and seasoned participants follow you but also help you fulfill your role as a true fitness educator.

6. Pay attention to the form underneath those newcomers’ baggy sweatshirts. It’s common for new participants to dress in loose clothing because of shyness or body image issues. Although it’s important to respect this preference, you need to keep a keen eye on these participants to prevent injuries, because proper form is harder to observe when someone’s dressed in layers of clothing. Encourage everyone to dress comfortably, but advise clients when safety is an issue. For example, wearing baggy clothes when exercising on a stability ball can be risky because the clothing can cause participants to slip off the ball in certain positions. Here’s a nonthreatening cue to try that focuses on the safety issue: “Barbara, I want to maximize your success in class today, and I want you to feel comfortable. Feel free to keep your sweatshirt on as we warm up. However, once we start moving on the ball, it’s safer if you shed the sweatshirt so you don’t slip and fall. Trust me, I’ve learned from experience—I’ve fallen off a few times myself!” This addresses the safety issue, and your empathetic personal anecdote adds humor and realism to the exchange.

7. Consider how your own clothing choices affect newcomers. Often, the first thing new participants notice is the instructor’s appearance. You should dress in a nonthreatening way that allows participants to see any moves you demonstrate from all anatomical positions and planes. With the exception of your own facility’s name, clothes should bear no slogans or logos, as some clients may find these offensive. Hair, footwear and other gear should always be professional. If you are performing barefoot (as is common practice in some mind-body classes), proper foot hygiene is essential. Instructors who display a positive and professional image send the best possible message to both new and seasoned participants.

8. Demonstrate moves in a way that’s “user-friendly” for newcomers. We all know it’s important to teach exercise progression and modifications at the level that’s most appropriate for the majority of the class. That said, it’s easy to lose sight of how novices in the back row are perceiving such instruction. This is not the time to show off your own incredible flexibility, choreographic creativity or contortionist genius; newcomers can be put off instantly by such displays. Remember that your goal as
a fitness professional is to create—in every class, for every participant—a feeling of success by including moves that everyone can perform safely.

9. Take advantage of the final stages of class to provide exceptional customer service to new participants. During the cool-down, summarize the purpose of the class and compliment newcomers for having completed the experience. Positive verbal feedback can be specific, such as, “Katrina, your form was just awesome today. I think we can all learn from that!” It can also be very general: “I want to tell all of you that it’s always rewarding to teach to a class that moves as cohesively and beautifully as you all did today.” Such cues include the newcomers as part of the group experience and underscore what you have accomplished as a fitness professional.

After Class

After class, it behooves you to make one last effort to exchange dialogue with your new participants. “You’ve got to make that the most important time,” advises Petra Kolber, 2001 IDEA Group Fitness Instructor of the Year. She says that new participants will most remember their impressions from the first 5 minutes and the last 5 minutes of class—so make the last precious minutes memorable.

1. To encourage dialogue, ask one or two open-ended questions, ones that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. For example, don’t ask, “Did you like your first experience at water fitness?” Instead, ask, “How do you feel now compared to how you felt before class?” or “What did you like most and least about the class?”

2. Ask newcomers about their specific fitness goals. This can help you bond with new students while ensuring that their goals are realistic. For example, if a newcomer tells you that she wants to drop three dress sizes in a week to attend her upcoming college reunion, you can gently disabuse her
of that goal and substitute one that is more attainable. Again, it’s best to ask open-ended questions so that newcomers can take a moment to reflect. For some participants, just being asked to verbalize their feelings about this new class experience can be part of the learning process itself.

3. Whenever possible, follow up with newcomers later. If your facility permits it, call or e-mail newcomers within 24 hours to inquire about soreness, adherence and overall feelings. New participants who receive sincere, caring individual contact from an otherwise busy instructor can become devotees for life. In today’s competitive fitness market, your success truly depends on this customer service. When newcomers feel valued as customers, mutual success is almost guaranteed.

Make New Friends

There may be times when you look at all those new faces in your class and wince at the thought of all the effort involved in making class introductions and adding more basic instruction. When that moment strikes, remember that you, too, were once a newcomer. Try to see your class with the fresh perspective of someone new. And take an unfamilar class yourself once in a while, to stay in touch with how it feels to be the new kid on the block. (You might also pick up a valuable new trick or two by observing another instructor’s teaching style!) Never forget that tomorrow’s classes depend on the success of the newcomers in your class today.