Author’s Note: All media formats (VHS, DVD, etc.) are referred to as “video” in this article.

There was a time when fitness celebrities like Jane Fonda and Kathy Smith dominated the fitness video world. Today, catalogs and websites feature lesser-known instructors who have put their programs on tape. Is there room for everyone? You bet. Fitness professionals rely on videos to learn new choreography and get fresh ideas. At-home exercise enthusiasts are always eager for new workouts to add to their collections. So maybe it’s time for you to put your dynamic personality and popular class format on video.

Producing a fitness video can raise your profile and possibly your income. If you’re thinking about it, “go for it,” says Sara Kooperman, chief executive officer of SCW Fitness Education Association in Evanston, Illinois. “Just be sure you have the money to lose.”

Behind the Scenes

Do Your Homework. Producing your own fitness video takes a significant investment of time and money. To find out if you’ll recoup your costs—and better yet make a profit—identify several sales avenues prior to the shoot. Here are some basic market research ideas you can try before you start rehearsing your moves:

  • Ask your club if it will sell your video to members.
  • Ask your students if they’ll be interested in buying a video by you.
  • Scour trade show booths and ask exhibitors about their top sellers. Find out if the exhibitors will carry your video.
  • Peruse websites for video reviews; many are written by instructors and fitness enthusiasts. They’ll make up the market for your new production, so pay close attention to what they like and dislike.
  • Call potential distributors and ask which titles featuring lesser-known fitness stars sell well. What are the distributors’ trend projections?

Choose a Topic. “Your video needs a reason to exist, which means something unique,” says Jill Ross, director of product acquisitions for Collage Video in Minneapolis. “Don’t do a copycat workout. When Billy Blanks introduced Tae-Bo, people must have submitted nearly a hundred new kickboxing videos. Now we’re seeing something similar with Pilates.”

This is not to say that if step is your forte you shouldn’t still make a choreography video. Base your choice of topic on more than an industry fad—go with your specialty format. Follow up your creativity with camera presence, excellent cuing and quality film production.

Learn From What’s Out There. Once you’ve settled on a topic, screen several top-selling videos in that genre, noting the structure for each one. Listen closely to the cuing. Notice the wardrobe, the energy of the backup cast and the set design. Make your own list of dos and don’ts and then integrate them into your production planning.

In the majority of fitness videos, the star speaks to the camera as if talking to a class participant. Even if yours is designed for instructors, teaching to the camera gives your video crossover appeal and widens your sales base.

Filming Options

Be a One-Take Wonder. Filming your video in one take with one camera can be a great way to keep down costs. It cuts your studio time considerably, and there is very little postproduction editing, which typically runs $100 an hour (this is where your investment really starts to climb). However, you and your cast must be flawless in that one take. Any verbal flubs or directional bumbles will show up. If you’re completely at ease in front of the camera and can invest the time to prepare to perfection, this is a low-cost, low-risk option. One word of advice: Book enough studio time to accommodate several false starts. It takes a few attempts to warm up, even for the pros!

Divide and Conquer. Splitting your video format into 10- or 15-minute chunks makes filming less stressful. With short segments it’s easier to be articulate and energetic and remember all your moves. You can also take a quick break at the end of each segment before filming the next chunk. With a small amount of postproduction editing, you can insert simple slides announcing the different sections. This is an effective strategy that keeps costs low.

Invest in Dimensions. If your heart is set on a higher-quality production and you have the budget to fund it, invest in two or three extra cameras. This will give your video texture and make it visually interesting. Isolate one camera on you—straight on from head to toe—at all times. This ensures you always have a clean shot of your entire program. Have the other cameras film from side angles, pull in for close-ups and focus on feet when you introduce new patterns.

So, how do you decide which option you need? Consider your audience. If your goal is to sell your video to club members, at local master classes or workshops and to your network of instructors, a one-camera shoot in a nicely lit workout studio can do the trick.

If mass appeal is your plan, produce a more polished program with extra cameras, a creative set design and an excellent editor. An experienced editor can cover mistakes and make your video interesting, entertaining and visually easy to follow. “Make sure you choose an editor who understands fitness,” counsels Ross. “Otherwise, you could end up with camera close-ups on your face when you’re introducing a new foot pattern, or music mismatched to the choreography.”

The Shoestring Budget

Consider the Trade. Besides keeping studio time brief and cameras and editing to a minimum, there are several other ways to keep your project under budget. Look for opportunities to trade advertising space. Many fitness clothing, music and equipment companies will give you their products at wholesale prices or no cost in exchange for printing their logos and contact information on your video box covers. The smaller the company, the better chance you have of forming this type of relationship. Like you, small companies are looking to get their products into the marketplace.

Tap Into Your Fan Base. “Presell your video,” says Kooperman. “Get your biggest fans—the people who take your classes—to help you fund the project.” Your students are your biggest resource. “If you tell your classes what you’re doing, you may find someone’s college kid can write original music for you. Class participants might also help you with locations, set design or referrals to freelance producers.”

Use Backyard Backup. Having “back-up” people in your video adds energy, but there’s no need to hire professionals. “Pick ‘real’ folks to back you up, not models,” says Jay Blahnik of Laguna Beach, California. Blahnik, who has starred in several videos, self-produced his most recent title. “If they are well rehearsed, they’ll deliver better energy than models and add realism that models can’t.” These friends or favorite students will most likely know your choreography and teaching style inside out—and happily invest rehearsal time just for the fun of working with you.

Band Together for Bang. Most pro-duction companies charge a daily rate, regardless of the number of programs you shoot. In a 12-hour day, it’s possible to film up to five videos! Pool your resources with other future video stars to get the most for your money. Kooperman offers conference presenters and local instructors the opportunity to “buy into” her quarterly video shoots. Consequently, they save time and money, while receiving professional input and the assurance of a quality product.

Get It Covered. Don’t skimp on the one detail that can distinguish your video from the more than 750 titles currently available in the United States—the cover. Set up a photo shoot the same day you film to get stills and action shots of you on the set. Capitalize on the studio space, the lighting and your crew’s camera-ready appearance to get some great photos. “Invest heavily in your video cover,” says Kooperman. The design must be eye-catching, clean and dynamic. It must appeal to the demographic that buys fitness videos—women!”

Preparation Is Key

Be Well Rehearsed. If you’ve worked hard on the front end to keep your production costs down, “be well prepared and well rehearsed to keep the actual shooting and postediting time to a minimum,” says 1994 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year Kari Anderson of Seattle, who has starred in more than 20 fitness videos. “Practice your choreography using mirror-image techniques,” adds Blahnik. “It’s imperative for the viewer to get the correct cues while facing the television. When filming, you will call your right foot your left and vice versa.”

Measure the area you will have for filming, and practice in this much space only. It’s almost always much smaller than you have when teaching a real class, and you’ll feel awkward if you haven’t comfortably practiced in the space many times. Include your backup people in these rehearsals.

Get the Seal of Approval. Both Anderson and Blahnik agree that your students should test and approve your on-camera moves. But unlike in your classes, “avoid long, belabored breakdowns,” says Blahnik. “They become tedious when you’re watching the video for the 50th time.”

Teach your choreography well, but use less repetition than you would in class. Remember, if the viewer misses a move, she will rewind and watch the program as many times as she likes. Keep this in mind when you practice what you’ll say on camera. “Avoid noises or comments that might sound cute once or twice, but could become annoying over time,” says Blahnik. “Your video will be a permanent record. You want to motivate without being irritating.”

Make a Good First Impression. To kick off your video the right way, script an on-camera introduction. “Make it short and punchy, 2 minutes or less, with a ton of personality,” says Blahnik. Introduce yourself, tell a little about the program, and give the viewer tips for a successful workout (e.g., “Have water and a towel nearby” or “If you’re working on carpet, be careful of twisting and turning movements”). Memorize your lines to avoid on-camera eye drift from reading cue cards.

Dress for Success. No matter how much fun your workout is, distracting outfits will undermine your program. Try on all outfits before the shoot. Use a home video camera to record yourself and your cast so you can make the necessary changes beforehand. Steer clear of solid black, solid white, stripes, and clothes that blend in with the set. “Pick outfits that are exciting to look at and visually appealing, but not easily datable in terms of fashion,” Blahnik recommends. “You want your video to have as long a shelf life as possible. Neutral-looking clothing will help you achieve that.”

Be Ready for Your Close-Up. Make sure you have someone who knows how to apply makeup for film. This goes for the men, too! Shiny foreheads and pale or blotchy complexions that go unnoticed in life are magnified on camera. Go for a healthy look that enhances your natural features.

Roll Credits, Please

“If you make back your costs on your first video, you should consider your video a success,” says Blahnik. Although it is a tough market to break into (Collage Video picks up only 20%–25% of the videos it screens each year), Ross can name more than a dozen stars who came out with their first titles when they were relative “unknowns” and went on to take the fitness video market by storm. “The secret to success,” says Ross, “is to get a good production done at a reasonable price.” Cut!