Almost every role and function within the fitness industry involves marketing. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fitness director promoting a group exercise program, a manager preparing for a membership drive or a personal trainer attracting new clientele—baseline knowledge of marketing is vital.

Marketing is the process of creating an image in the consumer’s mind regarding a product or service and then communicating that message to current and potential customers (American Marketing Association 2011). Some fitness professionals market and sell actual products, and you may be among them. However, what if you marketed yourself as the valuable product or service?

Group fitness instructors need to promote themselves to two main markets: the fitness facility’s members and the department manager. While your primary role is to provide safe and effective classes, you should also strive to retain or increase class head count and let your manager know you are doing so. You need both audiences to understand, trust and respect your skills, abilities, talents and expertise. This keeps members coming back each week and gives you the potential to garner more time slots on the schedule.

Fortunately, group fitness instructors can utilize a unique and very effective marketing tool—subbing. On occasion, a personal trainer or manager may need a stand-in, but instructors have weekly opportunities to sub. Usually looked at as a chore, a way to make a few extra dollars or a chance to return a favor, subbing can be one of the most successful marketing tools available.

As ubiquitous as social media is, you can’t just post an announcement on Facebook about how fantastic your class is and expect people to attend. Members need to experience classes physically. And you need to rely on good old face-to-face and word-of-mouth marketing based on participants’ personal experience. What other way can you increase your exposure and show a plethora of new members (and your manager) exactly what you can do? When looked at from a new angle, subbing is self-marketing at its finest.

To squeeze the most marketing potential from your subbing time and efforts, consider the following simple tips:

Maximize Face Time

To make the most of face-to-face contact with members, accept as many subbing opportunities as your schedule will allow. These are priceless opportunities for personal interaction with your target audience. If you teach at several facilities, you may not teach the same classes across the board. So don’t pigeonhole yourself as a sub. Vary your time slots and class formats. If you teach primarily in the mornings, strive to teach in an afterwork time slot. If you teach both yoga and water fitness, make an effort to sub for both, even if you’re not on the regular schedule. We all know that some yoga folks never see the outside of the studio and that die-hard water fitness participants might not leave the pool.

When you diversify your subbing opportunities, you open the door to meeting and connecting with various members. You build trust and create significant relationships. Don’t be shy about announcing your regular class times. People who like your teaching style will be searching for your name on the schedule!

Expand Your Comfort Zone

Recently, a cardio-boxing instructor asked me to sub. She was desperate. I taught a few kickboxing classes back in the day, but in no way would I call myself a cardio-boxing instructor. I was hesitant about digging up my mediocre boxing skills for her jam-packed class. However, I excel at circuit training, so I accepted. The class went fine, and participants appreciated a sub rather than a cancellation. Luckily, one member told my manager my boxing wasn’t perfect, but that I did a nice job on the circuits. Guess who’s teaching the new circuit training class? That boxing class reminded my manager of my abilities. I actually increased my hours and my paycheck by agreeing to one subbing opportunity that I almost turned down.

If you teach a sculpting class and a sub is needed for an interval training class, why not go for it? Mix in your strength specialties with a few short heart rate–raising cardio segments. If you teach Pilates and your club offers a version for active older adults, do your research and teach it. If you’re not exactly sure about the pace or fitness level, talk to the regular instructor for pointers or even ask for an outline. If time allows, attend the class prior to your sub date.

The more formats you teach, the more opportunities there are to sub. Make sure, however, that the classes you’re subbing are appropriate for your current capabilities, knowledge and certifications.

Ask for Feedback

Although subbing is a great promotional tool, it’s not always easy. Every sub has experienced a participant’s disappointed look or, even worse, the member who immediately heads for the door when she sees her regular instructor isn’t there. Nonetheless, participant feedback—both positive and constructive—is invaluable. It enables you to engage in conversations, learn names and find out exactly what members are looking for. More than likely, you’ll sub that class again or see some of the same faces in other classes. Requesting feedback shows that you are approachable and adaptable and that you care about members’ needs, wants and thoughts. Plus, it makes your future planning process easier.

“Every good instructor should give participants an opportunity to comment,” says Cheryl McDermott, group fitness director at HealthTrack Sports Wellness in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. “It shows me and the members that the instructor is teaching for the right reasons.”

Get People Talking

Word-of-mouth marketing is the “act of consumers providing information to other consumers,” and it can be a very powerful tool (Word of Mouth Marketing Association 2007). We all know how quickly word travels around a fitness facility. People love to talk and share their experiences. Satisfied customers are the key to starting a great game of “telephone.” The people who spread the good word about you to their acquaintances, friends and family are your core influencers. When they chitchat to others about your energetic demeanor, “new” movements or great music, they’re recommending you and your class. These folks can significantly influence future decision making and can sway people your way.

Teaching an incredible class is the obvious way to start a conversation. However, keep in mind that many participants are looking for more than just a great workout. Julie King, MS, group exercise instructor at The Wellness Center in Arlington Heights, Illinois, emphasizes that “[your] reputation is not solely dependent on the type of class you teach and how well you teach it. Are you on time? Do you stay after class and make yourself available? Do you address questions to the best of your ability? Always act professionally, but promote who you are as a person. Share stories, laugh and make it an experience. That is what they remember.”

There is no doubt that you can be a great instructor without subbing. However, subbing will give you an advantage. Accept as many assignments as possible and add strategy to your efforts. Both the members and your manager will notice if you’re subbing with regularity. You’ll position yourself as a well-versed instructor and team player who is willing to help out when needed. “In my experience, your manager appreciates you so much more, and it’s always a nice bullet point for an evaluation,” says King. Adds McDermott: “If and when it comes time for salary adjustments, evaluations are a key factor.”

More Self-Marketing Ideas

If you want to market yourself, you don’t have to hand out fliers or carry a big banner around the club stating how great you are. You’re part of a team trying to build a dynamite group fitness program. If you teach in a well-respected facility, this is already a testament of your abilities.

Therefore, market yourself subtly. Strategies might include teaching a slightly different twist on Pilates to differentiate yourself from the other instructors, contributing to a question-and-answer column in your local paper or just sliding in your numerous certifications and degrees during class introductions.


American Marketing Association. 2011.; retrieved Oct. 16, 2012. Word of Mouth Marketing Association. 2007. WOM 101.; retrieved Oct. 16, 2012.

Stephanie Vlach, MS

Stephanie Vlach, MS, is a certified fitness professional with 17 years of experience. She has held numerous roles and positions within the industry. Currently, she is a group exercise instructor and freelance writer in the Chicago area. She can be reached at [email protected]

Leave a Comment

When you buy something using the retail links in our content, we may earn a small commission. IDEA Health and Fitness Association does not accept money for editorial reviews. Read more about our Terms & Conditions and our Privacy Policy.