The Four Elements of Perfect Class Design
Think of an all-encompassing strategy when designing your experiences.
If you’re new to group fitness or just stuck in a rut, try this fail-proof formula for creating a class that makes the grade every time! By understanding and applying the basics of kinesiology, anatomy, physiology and party planning, you’ll be in the perfect position to design an experience that pleases even the pickiest patrons.
In a nutshell, kinesiology is the science and study of human movement. Some classes—just by their format—are limited in this arena. An indoor cycling class will typically focus on one plane of movement, the sagittal. Knowing this can help you incorporate stretches that utilize the frontal, or coronal, plane (e.g., shoulder stretches on the bike, hip-opener stretches off the bike), as well as the oblique plane (e.g., rotational trunk stretches on the bike). Other formats inherently accommodate a variety of planes, and a class that intelligently incorporates these will feel more complete.
Practical Application. As you plan your strength classes, assess the planes of movement involved in each exercise. If you’re doing a lot of lunges (sagittal plane), balance those with side squats and pliés (frontal plane). Add some rotational upper-body movement to your lunges to incorporate the horizontal and oblique planes. In a step class, provide plenty of variety with front-to-back, side-to-side and twisting/rotating movements. When you incorporate a variety of movement patterns within different planes, you train all muscles more effectively and provide a workout that is more functional, with greater carryover to daily life.
Also think about spatial awareness. How are you moving the body in space? Are you using different ranges of motion for each joint? Is every exercise a standing one? Or do you have some prone, supine and side-lying exercises as well? Do you incorporate movements that are both high in space (e.g., plyometrics, standing work) and low (e.g., planks, mat work)? Have you ever thought to include a push-up or low lunge in your step choreography? As long as you create smooth transitions, you can use spatial awareness to put the body in high and low positions back to back. This creates a greater demand on the cardiovascular system and increases intensity, so be cautious with at-risk populations and save these movement patterns for more advanced classes.
You don’t need to memorize stacks and stacks of textbooks to apply a sound knowledge of anatomy to your classes. The most applicable element of anatomy is muscle balance: between upper and lower body, right and left sides, back body and front, and antagonist and agonist muscle pairings. When choreographing or designing any class, pay attention to muscles that you are overworking and others you may be neglecting. Have you targeted the adductors? Have you incorporated arm movements to work the triceps as well as the biceps? If you break down your choreography, do you spend as much time repeating on the left side as you do on the right? Allow time for participants to do an extra set of strengthening exercises on their weaker side.
Practical Application. During the cool-down portion, be sure to stretch the major muscles you worked the most during class. Don’t fall into a rote routine for stretching and ignore the correlation between the movements of the workout and the stretches of the cool-down. If the quads received more work than the hamstrings, spend more time stretching the quads. Additionally, be aware of participants’ bodies and incorporate stretches that offset poor postural habits or address tight regions. Do chest-opening stretches to alleviate slouched posture; wrist stretches to improve range of motion and strength; shoulder, upper-back or lower-back stretches to relieve areas of persistent tension. If you need ideas for new and varied stretches, attend a respected restorative yoga class or read books on the subject.
Finally, use your knowledge of anatomy to cue proper body alignment. Encourage participants to keep ankles, knees and hips aligned during lunges. Remind them to draw their shoulders into the back body and keep the chest open. In plank/push-up position, cue them to maintain “strong columns”—from wrists to elbows to shoulders—and keep the chest lifted rather than collapsed. When working the core, help participants locate and engage their transverse abdominal muscles.
When designing your class, create a routine that utilizes different types of muscle contractions. Alternating quick movements with slow and controlled motions, or even with static positions involving isometric muscle contractions, will challenge the muscles and work the different muscle fiber types (fast-twitch, intermediate, slow-twitch).
Practical Application. Consider adding the following moves:
- After performing a set of squats, try holding a yoga chair pose for 8 counts, then resume squats with pulses.
- After a set of basic and oblique crunches, roll into a low plank and have participants hold this position for 32 counts.
- In a cardio kickboxing class, alternate slow-motion kicks from a low squat with quick-flick kicks from standing.
A class that incorporates a variety of muscle contraction types will be challenging and exciting to people of different fitness levels.
Once you’ve planned or choreographed your class and checked for variety in kinesiology, anatomy and physiology, you’re ready to add the fun factor. This all-important ingredient comes from proper music selection, “games” and your own enthusiasm and energy. Like a good party, your class can have a theme—anything from a Latin celebration to a 1980s bash. Choose music that fits your theme, is the right tempo (beats per minute) and is appropriate for the class (e.g., 32-count continuous play for step aerobics, tempo variety for cycle classes).
Practical Application. Plan one way in which participants can interact with one another. This is where “games” come into fitness. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- For cycling class, incorporate races.
- When teaching step, try a double interactive version.
- In a group strength class, partner participants up and give them medicine balls.
- In a dance-based class, select one song during which participants face each other for a mock dance-off.
Games typically don’t make up the bulk of your class; they provide a short element that gets participants interacting, laughing and really enjoying fitness.
Finally, your own energy and enthusiasm are what keep participants coming back for more. You are the host of the party, ensuring that everyone has a good time. All your knowledge of kinesiology, anatomy and physiology will be overlooked and underappreciated if you cannot bring your exuberant personality to class. Making squats enjoyable may be the most challenging task you face in your endeavor to design a perfect class!
As with any recipe, if you miss an ingredient, the result may be mediocre or even disastrous. Include all four crucial parts as you design each experience, and you’ll have participants begging for more.
- For advanced participants, add oblique twists during a standing climb (keeping both hands on the handlebars). Emphasize the right side for 32 counts; alternate.
- After warming up and while in a seated upright position, cue participants to stretch the spine by twisting at the waist and gazing gently over the back shoulder.
- During the cool-down, stretch off the bike and incorporate the frontal/ coronal plane with a plié inner-thigh stretch and cross-legged hip openers. Remind participants to keep the pedal stroke action in the sagittal plane.
- Every other song or halfway through the workout, cue participants to switch the lead foot.
- Incorporate muscle awareness drills by cuing participants to emphasize the down stroke for 1 minute, the up stroke for 1 minute and forward pushing for 1 minute, to give attention to the quads, hamstrings and glutes and to better understand each muscle’s role in a regular pedal stroke.
- Remind participants to engage the abdominals to protect the lower back as they ride.
- Cue your class to ride with hips, knees and ankles aligned and to ride with smooth, flat pedal strokes.
- Alternate heavy hills with fast flats to recruit muscle fibers in different ways.
- Incorporate heart rate training, and encourage participants to go anaerobic for short bursts of time. Check in after every few songs to gauge rating of perceived exertion or to take target heart rate.
- Explain the metabolic benefits of interval drills.
- Explain what goes on physically during a proper warm-up or cool-down, to encourage people not to skip these stages.
- Make a playlist with songs from different decades. Cue participants born in a specific decade to “lead the pack” during their song.
- Throw in some random speed play. Split the class into four groups, labeled by number. When you call out a number, have that team take the lead. Encourage team members to cheer one another on.
- Choose an upbeat song that makes you want to clap. Ride in an upright, seated position and cue participants to clap their hands along with the chorus. Remind your timid riders that overhead clapping loosens tight shoulders and lengthens the spine.
- As the instructor, be sure to get off your bike and work the room at least twice during class. Verbally motivate individuals using their names, and be sure to give as much attention to the back row as you do to the front.
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