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Get Up to Speed With Group

Personal trainers who lead small groups and boot camps refine their skills by taking cues from the group fitness realm.

Personal trainers and their clients are discovering what group exercise fans have known for years: working out in a group is fun, it’s motivating, and it works! And judging from the 2008 IDEA Fitness Programs & Equipment Survey, there are more group opportunities to come. About half of survey respondents offer three- to five-person group training, and 28% provide outdoor boot camp classes. Seventy-two percent of respondents believe boot camps are on the rise.

Considering that the popularity of boot camps and group training has hit an all-time high, it’s no wonder so many personal trainers are drawn to this time-saving, cost-effective service option. With the group approach, trainers can apply their knowledge of fitness to a wider audience and bring in more revenue while charging clients lower per-session fees. At first glance, it seems like a win-win situation. However, there’s a catch: generally speaking, personal trainers are most familiar with managing single clients at a time, not groups—and while many skills cross over, some don’t, says Minneapolis-based Kimberly Spreen, national director of group fitness for Life Time Fitness. The end result is a lot of trainers hitting the boot camp field or assembling small-group training sessions without the know-how or experience to coordinate multiple clients with diverse needs.

Basically, says Adventure Boot Camp creator John Spencer Ellis, EdD, MBA, of Southern California, “a personal training certification doesn’t mean [a trainer] will be a good boot camp instructor.” Even if you are a fantastic one-on-one trainer with lots of clients, you may find yourself struggling to lead a group, says Krista Popowych, an international presenter, group exercise instructor and personal trainer in Vancouver, British Columbia.

And therein lies the dilemma. Many trainers face the challenge of meeting the escalating demand for boot camps and group training, but they lack the necessary skill sets to ensure smooth sailing. To be successful, trainers must offer group programs that are not only safe and effective but also enjoyable and well organized—whether they are intimate five-client training sessions or boot camps for 30 people. This article discusses common difficulties that trainers encounter when shifting from one-on-one sessions to group programs and then offers strategies for overcoming the challenges.

Group Think

If you are a trainer wanting to move into group teaching, your first step is to think of yourself as a group leader rather than a personal trainer leading a group. “You have to be able to control a group, command their attention, motivate and engage them,” says Craig Galloway, owner of CATZ (Competitive Athlete Training Zone) New England LLC in Wilmington, Massachusetts. “This requires a certain attitude and approach.”

Trainers accustomed to the traditional format of one-on-one sessions may struggle to differentiate between individual attention in this setting and individual attention in a group. Learning the distinction comes with experience. “Many personal trainers have a hard time making the shift to distributing their time equally among all members of the group rather than spending too much time on any one person,” says Suzanne Gove-O’Rourke, co-owner of ProActive Personal Training & Fitness Education in Auburn, California.

Spreen agrees that it’s a tricky balance. “You still want to create and nurture the individual relationships you have developed with your one-on-one clients,” she says. Not, however, at the expense of the group. “Avoid falling back into your one-on-one comfort zone by having too many regular ‘sidebar’ conversations with [a single] client,” says Spreen, who advises connecting briefly with each person in addition to engaging the group as a whole. “This way,” she says, “clients feel part of a team but also feel like they are getting the attention they paid for when hiring . . . a personal trainer.” Perhaps the fastest way to help clients feel a sense of belonging in a group is to manage everyone’s special needs.

Handling Diverse Client Needs

A major challenge associated with group teaching is devising one workout design and pace to fit a number of people. Many personal trainers aren’t used to this, because traditional training individualizes programming on a client-per-client basis. “In this scenario it’s rather easy to improvise and adapt to a client’s needs,” says Galloway. However, the dynamics completely change when you’re training multiples or a larger group. “You will almost always encounter a wide range of ability levels that all have to fit into the same essential workout design,” Galloway says.

Help the Needy. One solution is to offer numerous group training sessions or boot camps tailored to different fitness levels or abilities. However, some trainers find this approach logistically difficult to implement. For example, perhaps a client wants to group-train with her less fit friends, or people with different fitness abilities are all vying for the same boot camp timeslot.

In reality, most groups are composed of diverse clients, and the onus is on the trainer to make it all work. But how? Galloway accommodates beginners, advanced group members and “everyone in between” by using circuit stations in his boot camps. “I rotate people through [circuits], making sure that the subgroups are fairly tight in terms of ability level.”

Regardless of how you decide to design your group sessions, your top priority is to acknowledge everyone. It’s about managing the “needy” client or clients while at the same time providing inspiration and instruction to the entire group, says Gove-O’Rourke. Or as Becky Williamson, MS, president of lifeSport Fitness LLC, in San Jose, California, puts it: You’ve got to “give the highly fit participants a kick-butt workout without scaring the daylights out of the newer folks!”

Make Modifications. Unfortunately, meeting clients’ diverse needs all at once is an untapped skill for some trainers. “The skill that personal trainers lack most when it comes to training groups is the ability to ensure that each movement can be modified,” says Barry Lovelace, owner of FitQuest Fitness and Totally Fit Boot Camp in Allentown, Pennsylvania. For example, if you plan to introduce alternating reverse lunges, what are the modifications for people who cannot perform that exercise with good technique? And what variations can you introduce to make the move more intense?

Group members won’t necessarily volunteer that they need or want an alternative, so it is up to the leader to scan the group and offer modifications whenever possible. One caveat: group participants often attempt the hardest level of an exercise even if it is inappropriate for them, because they don’t want to be pegged as beginners at the “back of the pack.” Use the word options instead of levels or intensities when describing exercise modifications. Options de-emphasizes the notion that any one version of the exercise is superior to another.

When it comes to juggling clients’ diverse needs, time management skills become especially important. You must be able to provide modifications where necessary without disrupting the flow of the workout or focusing too heavily on one type of client.

Time Management and Class Flow

Managing time and flow in a group setting presents many trainers with other challenges besides getting modifications right. What works in a one-on-one situation might prove a disaster when applied to a group. For example, says Galloway, coordinating a circuit-style boot camp or an interval-style group format requires clients to move constantly from one place to the next. This format can quickly get out of hand if the trainer hasn’t preplanned class progression.

Multitask. Any time you’re working with a group, you need to rely on multitasking, says Popowych. According to Gove-O’Rourke, the best group leaders are skilled at “viewing the room” (or boot camp field) to get a sense of what all or most participants are doing at any given time. “It’s kind of like they have eyes not only in the front of their heads, but also at the sides, back and many points in between,” says Gove-O’Rourke.

An ability to multitask involves knowing how to handle participants when they’re doing an exercise, but also when they’re not. “Transitioning between activities can be a challenge,” says Williamson. “Some folks move slower than others. A good boot camp instructor should allow the newer, slower folks a little more transition time, but know how to manage the more highly fit folks so they stay engaged.”

Think Ahead. Galloway encourages trainers to limit downtime as much as possible except for planned breaks. For
example, you can leverage your equipment by planning back-to-back exercises using the same tool, such as dumbbells or a medicine ball. “This saves loads of time on changeovers,” says Galloway. Another technique involves “filler” exercises: “[A filler exercise] is a default exercise—such as a plank, jumping jacks or any simple bodyweight move—that clients perform when there’s downtime other than established breaks,” explains Galloway.

“It really can make or break a session when you have people organized and working hard rather than [feeling] confused about where they should go next and what they need to be doing,” says Galloway. Since a confused group leader equals confused group members, a trainer’s best line of defense is to think ahead. “Have a good plan going into the workout,” he advises. “Know what you intend to do. Know how long you are going to spend on each component of the workout.”

Stop Watching the Stopwatch. On the flip side, however, it is possible to become too focused on how each moment of a group session plays out. Case in point: well-intentioned trainers who stare at a stopwatch more than they observe the group. Time management is important, but so is careful observation of the class. To combat this problem, try using a stopwatch that beeps after a set time and/or fitness music with pre-set cues that alert you and your group when it is time to switch activities. These tools will free you up to interact more with group members and to spot those who require exercise modifications.

and Cuing

How well a trainer communicates with his and her group can mean the difference between a crowd that gets out of hand or one that rallies together as a team. “You don’t necessarily have to be a cheerleader or a boisterous personality, but you do have to command the group,” says Galloway.

Communicate Broadly. The communication skills you need to connect with a group are different from those you use to teach someone one-on-one, says Spreen, who has taught both group exercise and individualized training. Group leaders require “the ability to communicate to a variety of personality types all at once,” says Jonathan Ross, owner of Aion Fitness and personal training director at Sport Fit Total Fitness Club in Bowie, Maryland. Think of it as communicating more broadly, says Lovelace. “Remember that what you say is being said to everyone in the group, not just one person.” Ask yourself how your communication style suits various group members. Would some participants benefit if you relayed your message in another way, using different word choices or a different tone?

Cue to the Group. Even how you explain an exercise can differ between one-on-one and group settings. “Most trainers are used to showing exercise technique, then directly supervising an individual,” says Ross. This system makes it easy to correct the client if needed. “In a group setting,” Ross continues, “it’s more important to float through the entire class, not spending too long in any one place. This means you need to be able to cue an exercise effectively without doing it yourself. If you can teach someone an exercise without having to [demonstrate], that’s a tremendously valuable skill.”

Reel in Attention-Getters. And what about those group members who seem to do all the talking? “Quite often there is one person who either talks too much or attempts to demand too much one-on-one attention during the session,” says Lovelace, who handles this type of situation by reminding group members that if they can chat and talk comfortably, they’re not working hard enough. When a participant asks a lot of questions to gain attention or because she wasn’t listening to instructions, Lovelace suggests posing her questions to the group; for example, “Who can tell me if the knees are supposed to be bent?” Doing this takes the focus off the attention-getter. “Plus it puts you on solid ground for pointing out to the client—privately and after class—that [she needs] to pay attention to instructions,” says Lovelace.

Learning the Ropes

The challenges mentioned above can all be overcome with practice, experience and education. As group training continues to thrive in the fitness industry, we’ll likely see more educational and mentoring opportunities for trainers interested in learning group teaching skills. Some associations have already begun to provide such opportunities, Ellis’s Adventure Boot Camp program being one of them.

Expectations for group trainers are high. According to Ellis, “the ideal combination of skills for a boot camp instructor is the science base and knowledge of a personal trainer; the ability to command attention and cue like a group exercise instructor; the charisma of a coach; and the understanding and practical experience of an athlete who’s ‘been there and done that.’” To that end, here are practical tactics any personal trainer can try in order to get up to speed with the dynamics of group instruction.

Start Small. In most cases, gaining control of a small group is easier than trying to take charge of a large crowd. So begin with small-group training. In fact, suggests Ross, teach to narrowly focused niche groups in which most participants have similar interests and fitness levels. “Developing the skills of leading a multiperson workout [will be] easier in a less challenging environment.”

Another way to ease into group teaching, or to test the waters, is to team up with a sports coach, boot camp instructor or small-group trainer and arrange to lead short segments of that person’s sessions. For example, says Galloway, “lead a 15-minute warm-up and gradually expand what you do as your comfort level increases.” 

Lend a Hand. Volunteer to assist or “shadow” a popular group trainer who already runs boot camps or small training groups. “You’ll get practical experience with a successful class, and you’ll pick up helpful tips from watching another instructor,” says Ross.

Speak Up. Any successful group leader must be skilled at speaking in front of an audience. If you’re shy or lack confidence, it could affect your ability to communicate successfully or command attention. So get comfortable with public speaking. “Take classes or workshops on public speaking so you build your confidence and the skills to communicate within a group dynamic,” says Spreen.

Join In. “Sign up for a popular boot camp and be a participant,” says Galloway. “The more you experience the group setting, the better able you’ll be to apply yourself to it.” Plus it gives you the opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t from a different perspective. You can only make your sessions better when you “truly step into the shoes of a client,” says Popowych.

And don’t forget about traditional group exercise! Group fitness instructors have been successfully teaching exercise to groups for decades. “There has always been a bit of a division between group fitness instructors and personal trainers,” says Gove-O’Rourke, who teaches both formats. “We all have something to offer, and we can and should all learn from each other.”

Beyond the
Learning Curve

Despite the growing pains and learning curves, “group training and fitness boot camps have completely enhanced and improved our business,” says Lovelace. And in light of current consumer demand for fun and affordable fitness solutions, group training is likely to become an industry mainstay. “In these less-than-stellar economic times,” says Gove-O’Rourke, “we need to offer affordable programs that will allow for maximum participation while still offering the high level of instruction the consumer has grown to expect. Group training is definitely the way to go.”

One Trainer’s Tips for Teaching to Large Groups

Craig Galloway, personal trainer and owner of CATZ New England LLC in Wilmington, Massachusetts, specializes in boot camp–style group training near Boston. His groups have ranged from 30 adults in a mixed-level class to 60 athletes of high-school age. Based on his experience, Galloway shares five of his top tips for running large-group sessions:

1. Plan. It is not enough just to write up your workouts. You have to look at the flow: how many people will be where, and when, based on the space you are working in?

2. Segment. Having a large group of people all doing the same thing at the same time can be logistically challenging. Consider breaking up the group into manageable segments and putting them through a circuit (e.g., a 30-person group might become five small groups composed of six people each).

3. Use Time, Not Reps. When small groups perform different exercises at the same time, people will start to stand around if some exercises can be completed faster than others. To avoid that problem, use timed circuit stations instead of counting reps; this way everyone finishes and rotates together after the allotted time. This system also tends to improve form and concentration because clients don’t gain anything from rushing through an exercise just to get it over with.

4. Limit Props. Use body weight exercises, bands and partner exercises to create resistance. Limiting the number of props makes it easier to keep people active and so maximize their benefit from their session.

5. Focus More on Choreography Than Coaching. Group training is not personal training, so don’t get caught in the trap of focusing too much on one or two people while others wander about. Nothing destroys a large-group session more than a bunch of people standing around, not quite sure what they should do next. Keep everyone moving to keep the energy high.


Concerned about your place in the new fitness industry? We have 40 years of experience supporting pros just like you! Let’s create a new wellness paradigm together—IDEAfit+ is the extra edge you need. Once you team up with IDEA, be sure to take full advantage of all the benefits of membership.

Amanda Vogel, MA

Amanda Vogel, MA, is a fitness professional and the owner of Active Voice, a writing, editing and consulting service for fitness professionals. She writes for IDEA, Health, Prevention, and Self, and has co-authored books on postnatal fitness and yoga. With a master's degree in human kinetics, Amanda has worked in the fitness industry for more than 15 years, including time spent as a program director and vice president for a chain of all-women clubs in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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