The job title “group exercise director” is becoming more clearly defined as facilities recognize the value in having a strong leader for their programs. Owners and managers know that without a focused principal who is passionate about group exercise, there may be little growth, organization or direction. The instructor team may lack cohesion and accountability. The importance of strong leadership becomes clear when you consider that the group exercise department is typically one of the largest in the facility, has the ability to affect the greatest number of members in the least amount of time and yet is commonly staffed by part-time employees.

In the past, the duties of managing the group exercise program and its staff fell mostly to the busy club manager, who would often recruit help from one of the instructors. The instructor would be responsible for choosing music, creating choreography or helping the manager with other tasks, such as printing class schedules. In some cases, the instructor would be handed the position full-time and set loose to become an instant manager.

The question today is: what quality or characteristic is most important in a good group exercise director? Is it a lengthy resumé filled with years of teaching experience? A degree? Multiple fitness certifications? All these glowing attributes may enhance job performance, but they fall below the most important job qualification of all: the ability to make sound—and sometimes unpopular—decisions.

The Right Stuff

The decisions you must make as a group exercise director affect a variety of people—members, instructors, other managers and staff. You must possess a number of attributes that will allow you to make judgment calls.

Be Confident. When moving to the next level, ask yourself, “Am I afraid to fail?” Fear of failure may impede your ability to make a good decision—you may be afraid that your choice will upset a colleague or member or that others will question your competence. As a decision maker, you must be confident. Confidence comes from being prepared. Gather as much information as possible prior to setting any decision in motion.

Be Strong in Your Convictions. Avoid constant backpedaling, as it will make you seem “wishy-washy.” Others will view this as your Achilles’ heel and pounce when faced with a decision you’ve made that is not in their favor. A wishy-washy manager is easily swayed and cannot effectively manage. A team may lose respect for a leader who waffles on a variety of issues. Your program will be in jeopardy as well. In order to grow, it needs time, consistency and TLC.

Be Open, Yet Firm. Remember that pressure from members can be daunting. A strong group exercise director must toughen her skin in order to deal with the very vocal minority. At times, it will seem as though this group is the majority. Those in the minority might stuff the suggestion box with letters in an attempt to make you give in to their wishes. Or they might aggressively approach another facility manager with their discontent. This can be quite intimidating. While it is good to listen to and acknowledge their suggestions, you must command respect. Be open and understanding, while sticking to your guns. Although these unhappy members may seem like the majority, in most cases they are not. Your job is to
offer a program that has something for everyone—not just for those few wheels who squeak most loudly.

Decisions by the Dozen

As a group exercise director, you must make numerous decisions. These include hiring, managing and developing staff, overseeing the class schedule and perhaps building revenue-based programs. You must keep in mind the domino effect of each decision you make. Consider your club’s entire scope. A decision that may seem positive in one regard may have many negative consequences down the line. Strong leaders constantly weigh the pros and cons of their decisions and what the trickle-down effects may be.


Deciding who will be on your team is crucial to the success of your program. Use a thorough screening process, complete with a formal interview and an audition. (See “Screening With Meaning” by Peggy J. Gregor in the October 2006 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.) This process is a must. You need to be aware of instructors’ strengths and weaknesses. How well do they communicate with you, their teammates and the members? Where does each instructor fit into the grand scheme of your program?

At times, you may be faced with an unexpected hole in your schedule. If you decide to throw in a warm body to fill the spot, you may satisfy short-term goals and prevent the class from being cancelled. However, this strategy could fail in the long run, for both the instructor and the members. For example, say your dance fitness instructor gives 2 weeks’ notice. The class is popular, so you seek out someone with the skills to handle the load. One of your trainers has a degree and is a former dancer, but he’s never taught a class. With practice and guidance, he may be a great candidate in the future, but casting him in this role immediately may not be a wise decision. Members can be tough on the “new kid,” particularly if he’s a fresh face who lacks skills and confidence. Their expectations may not be met, and your trainer may sour to teaching.

When deciding whom to award classes to, consider both attitude and aptitude. Look at an instructor’s attitude toward the program, other staff members, the club and its mission. A positive outlook is as important as the ability to teach the class. Interacting with your staff and staying in constant communication with individual members will help you make prudent decisions.

Class Scheduling

Managing your schedule seems like an easy task, but it is filled with nerve-racking decisions. A change can affect many people, in either a positive or a negative way. Be prepared. Any decision you make concerning your schedule will be met with some type of malcontent. You cannot please 100% of the people 100% of the time. Your goal: satisfy the majority.

Before making any decision that involves the schedule, you must know your club’s demographics. Who is your average member? For example, let’s say you are managing a hospital-based program within a wellness facility. The average participants are in their mid-50s and sedentary. They fear the group exercise studio and are intimidated by exercising in front of others. Putting a “pole-dancing” or “striptease” cardio class on your general group exercise schedule may not be a good decision! Yes, you continue to get notes in your suggestion box requesting that type of class, but stay focused on your target audience. This is not to say a class of that sort might not take off. Consider offering it as an occasional special event or as a fee-based option, to satisfy member requests.

Something Old, Something New

Staying abreast of current fitness trends will help you make scheduling decisions. This goes hand in hand with knowing your members and your market. Strive to create a good balance of old favorites with a few new ideas thrown in for variety. Take a chance and occasionally add something new. Give it time to grow. If you add a new format and members don’t break down the door to get into it within the first month, don’t immediately pull it off the schedule. The members may simply not be aware of the new class or may need a little coaxing to leave their comfort zone.

Tracking Success

Every director is faced with deciding whether to remove or add classes and whether to change formats, instructors or class times. Use a variety of data to make those decisions. Use member check-ins to track busy times in the club. This will help you determine optimal start times. Tracking attendance in each class may help too, provided the numbers are honestly reported (encourage counting heads and not feet or toes!). Such stats, however, can be misleading. Your goal is to pack classes and maintain a budget based on costs per head, but not every class will be at full capacity. Some classes that are unique to your center may draw smaller crowds but be necessary to maintain your place in the market.

Be wary of adding too much of a good thing. For instance, maybe your eight group strength classes pull in the biggest numbers. What happens if you decide to add three or four more classes immediately? You now have 12 semifull classes. Your strength instructors are overworked and overexposed. You may have had to eliminate other classes in order to add these extra ones. Be conservative, and add only one class at a time.

To make these and other vital decisions, you must be at your facility at various times in order to observe all classes in action, connect with staff and interact with members. Be approachable and be a presence.

Watch Your Step

A good group exercise director can make valid decisions and is not afraid to take a chance. When taking that next step up the ladder, understand that you will be faced with tough decisions every day. These
decisions could place you on the frontlines in dealing with unhappy members. Most likely you will not hear from all of the people whom your decisions have touched in a positive way. This silent
majority, however, will reward you with increased class participation.

© 2007 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

Peggy Gregor, AFAA, ACE

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