As a group fitness leader, you may now find yourself teaching virtually—live, but online. Yet you still want to engage your participants in a way that creates that “group” feeling. How can you offer a connected experience while also cuing, moving, and referencing your computer or cellphone? Read on to discover how other group fitness instructors have forged the way, and learn from their insights, tips and mistakes.

Prep for Your Virtual Class

Jennifer DeMarco, MS, a longtime instructor in San Diego, had to adapt quickly to online workouts scheduled through Grossmont and Southwestern Community colleges. She teaches several yoga sessions per week via Zoom to both private members and registered college students, and she has to work hard to keep her large classes focused.

Teaching online (was) painful and a struggle every step of the way,” DeMarco confesses. “I am best as a face-to-face teacher. It took a lot of courage for me to start. With that said, I have now (successfully) been teaching on Zoom since the 2020 summer semester.”

Choosing Twitch as her mode of transmission, Santa Barbara, California–based fitness leader Alexandra Williams, MA, found that she needed help with technical details before being able to focus on teaching skills. Her first online classes were also for registered students, though she now offers subscription-based classes to the general public (you can catch her in action at twitch.tv/alexandrafunfit).

“My 26-year-old son was instrumental in setting up the technical aspects, as well as providing advice about how to use the platform,” says Williams. “For some platforms, such as Twitch, [it’s important to] either have a moderator or be able to quickly moderate any inappropriate comments.”

Set Up Group Fitness Energy

When asked for tips on how to minimize transition and technical stress and maximize a positive feeling of  “we’re in this together, even though we’re apart,” Manuel Velazquez, global wellness education and movement specialist at Rancho la Puerta Fitness Resort and Spa in Tecate, Mexico, says the key is energy.

“As an instructor who wants to share a message, a service or an experience, you have to create a performance,” says Velazquez. “Show your personality and true self with enthusiasm, no matter how simple, serious or complex your message or program is. You create more value, connection and empathy when you show passion and excitement.”

He imagines with intention that he’s teaching with everybody close to him in the same space and that his group is responsive and in a good mood. He injects energy before class by welcoming people as they log on, asking them questions about their week and sharing something fun and personal about his week. He uses this time—just as he would in an “in-person” class—to get a feel for the participants’ “vibe.” Based on the pre-class interaction, he may then reveal his plan for the workout or change his approach on the fly. “Understanding what we are about to embark on—and why—creates a sense of trust plus a tease to [build] curiosity and excitement,” he says. (Experience his energy directly at homeroomfit.com/manuel-velazquez/.)

Similarly, Cathleen Mura-kami, Pilates & GYRO-TONIC® department head for Rancho La Puerta Resort and Spa, advocates logging on early to informally chat with those who are present and to allow time for regulars to catch up with one another. Murakami lists her Zoom class schedule on her
website, cathleenmurakami.com/zoom-classes, and offers newcomers a discount, to increase her following.

Williams also builds in pre-class online time, but she takes a different approach from Velazquez. As people check in or say goodbye, she asks questions to help them interact safely, without sharing personal information. “For example, I’ll mention that ‘today, in Santa Barbara, it’s foggy but very humid. How is it where you are?’ Sometimes I ask how big their workout space is and what kind of floor they have. Not only does this give them a chance to tell me about their workout parameters, it also gives me information to plan my workout. I don’t want to do choreography that takes up a lot of space if I have students in a small apartment kitchen trying to follow along.”

Murakami likes to “move toward the screen and away (as if in) a ‘real’ class.” She reminds instructors to “look at the camera instead of the screen. That way you are speaking to the group instead of aiming your eyes lower than theirs.”

See also: The Rise of Virtual Classes

Take Advantage of Online Features

Virtual class technology and features

Take advantage of online platform features to enhance interaction.

Williams notes that “one of the benefits of using Twitch is that a lot of computer-savvy young people are there, willing to financially support a streaming provider they like. They are used to interacting. I found that it’s important to take a number of water breaks to give me a chance to respond to comments and questions in the middle of the workout, rather than at the end. If I answer in real time, as opposed to addressing everything at the end, my students feel they are getting a more person-to-person class instead of simply watching a one-way YouTube video.”

Williams also caught on that her students would answer each other’s questions in the chat box during the workout. For example, she says her “class members would share information about how to avoid ads that pop up during the workout, which is something I knew nothing about.”

DeMarco also learned to take advantage of online platform features to enhance interaction. “Participants’ names are on Zoom,” she says. “Plus, if students have questions, [I invite them] to unmute themselves and ask.”

“I have slowly worked my way into the same conversational teaching style that I use in person,” DeMarco continues. “It is incredibly helpful not to feel pressured to do every repetition of every movement with your class. Get them started and then move to the screen to give direct, specific feedback on form, alignment and modifications. Become adept at going back and forth from the mat to the screen.” (Find DeMarco at ginsengyoga.com or email [email protected])

Avoid Pitfalls

Practical considerations matter and definitely affect online group dynamics and participation. Williams advises online class leaders to avoid using equipment that most people don’t have on hand. “I don’t know my subscribers’ equipment limitations unless they tell me,” she says. “I could alert them in advance that a given day will be a tubing workout, for instance, but then anyone who doesn’t have tubing wouldn’t be able to fully participate. They probably won’t return, which decreases my ability to grow my following. So I stick to body weight, free weights, a mat and a step, telling them they can use the floor if they don’t have a step.

“Another pitfall is either forgetting to invite people to subscribe (pay) or asking too often,” warns Williams. “Once at the start of class and once at the end is sufficient.”

Bolstering Velazquez’s point, Williams mentions another common mistake: having lower energy than you would for an in-person class. “It’s easy to forget that real people are present, which could lead to teaching in a more ‘inward’ fashion, when actually more energy than usual is needed to get through the computer and into their space,” she says.

Murakami reminds instructors that structure creates success. “Start and end on time,” she says. “Do not wait for latecomers. Begin with a brief overview of what’s to come, the goals, and end with a call to action. Avoid singling participants out with cues unless you know for sure they don’t mind and it is something the entire group can pay attention to.”

DeMarco learned to embrace the reality that streaming from home means dealing with background issues that normally don’t occur in a gym or other in-person setting. “I am learning to tolerate my dog, Tucker, moving into and out of every class,” she says. Williams also notes pet distractions and turns them into an opportunity to build rapport. “When my cats wander into view, participants will ask their names, and I’ll then ask, ‘Who else has a cat? What are your cats’ names?’”

Visual Cues That Increase Engagement and Adherence

Cues that work in the traditional studio can get tricky in an online environment. Be ready to revamp some of your cuing repertoire. Williams leads with directions specifically geared to the virtual experience. “As people log on, I remind them that I can’t see them, so they’re free to dress as they like and work out on whatever surface they have available,” she says. “Then I invite them to follow my Twitch account, comment and subscribe. During class, I chat with them as if I’m with them. Students have told me they feel I’m talking directly to them, which is gratifying. I’ll say things such as, ‘Whew, I wonder if you’re as sweaty as I am,’ or I’ll comment about my cats as they meow to be let in, then out, then back in.”

Murakami advises choosing cues that minimize the need for people to refer to their screens. “Avoid cues such as ‘here’ and ‘there,’ as participants have to [interrupt their workout] to look at the screen,” which may be small, faraway or hard to discern. “Also, instead of saying ‘right,’ ‘left,’ ‘front’ and ‘back,’ say ‘close to the screen’ or ‘away from the screen.’”

Use landmark cues, such as, “Grapevine toward my outdoors, now face the center of the room, now face my fireplace,” suggests Williams. Velazquez agrees: “[Orient cues relative to] landmarks in the room, such as chairs, columns or walls.” He interjects his “trademark” questions even if he knows participants can’t verbally reply. He finds that pretending they have answered the way he hopes enhances engagement and energy. For instance, he’ll ask, “You know what!? . . . Say what?” and then “answer” with options, variations or progressions.

DeMarco suggests instructors “offer cues that are concise and precise.”

See also: Managing the COVID19 Disruption With Virtual Training

Visual Cues That Increase Success and Connection

Of course, you want to make sure participants can see, hear and succeed in your classes. Williams offers a few practical ideas for visual cues. “Wear a different shoelace color for each shoe to make it easier for students to follow,” she says. “Also, since cuing north, south, etc., won’t work, point a lot with a fully outstretched arm. [Keeping in mind] that people are watching on a variety of [screens], from phones to huge wall monitors, I hold my arm out with fingers counting down (i.e., five, four, three fingers). I also show some moves, especially abs, from a variety of angles, to make it easier for people to see what I’m doing. Sometimes, for detailed moves such as abs, I’ll pull my laptop onto the floor right next to me.”

Velazquez also has solutions for visual challenges. “When showing movement in the sagittal plane, stand diagonally or face the corner of the room,” he says. “Give exaggerated examples with your body.”

Speaking of your body: “Be sure (your camera) does not cut off your arm or leg,” cautions Murakami.

Recognizing some of the unique aspects of online workouts will allow you to spring to the next level—leading classes where people are engaged and connected, even when physically apart.