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How to Launch a Successful Small-Group Training Program, Part Two

Train your staff to lead effective small-group training sessions.

In the first installment of our series on launching a small-group training program, we established how the continued health and growth of personal training is due in part to the increased interest in SGT. This type of training allows the personal trainer and the business to generate more hourly income, and it offers fitness-conscious consumers a budget-wise alternative to one-on-one training.

Launching an SGT program in your facility may seem like a win-win-win. However, leading effective SGT sessions requires a very specific skill set.

“Small-group training requires skills that not every one-on-one personal trainer has,” explains Jason Stella, director of education for Life Time Fitness in Chaska, Minnesota. “The dynamic is much different from one-on-one sessions. You have to monitor multiple people and understand how to quickly offer modifications for each movement. You also have to be a great show-woman or showman to motivate your group through a high-energy session.”

This second article in our series identifies the traits you need to look for when selecting coaches. You will also learn how to train those coaches to lead effective sessions and help you create a successful SGT department.

Choosing Your Talent

The strength of your SGT program rests on the shoulders of your trainers and the education you provide them. While the allure of SGT is great, not everyone will be successful at it.

Here are some of the characteristics you want to look for when selecting trainers to lead your SGT program. These are also the skills you’ll want to polish throughout the training process.

Drive. “First and foremost, we look for passion,” says Amy Boone Thompson, national director of personal training services at Wellbridge in Denver. “Is the trainer truly excited about the style of training and the population that the program targets?”

Willingness to learn. Lashaun Dale, senior national creative manager for group fitness at Equinox® in New York City, looks for individuals who will put in the time required to become a quality coach. “The candidate has to be willing to do the work to elevate his skill set,” she says. “Whether that means tightening up his knowledge or polishing the ability to deliver a dynamic group experience, there are tangible aspects to study and then he has to be willing to practice getting out of his comfort zone and leveling up to meet the new challenge.”

A keen eye. An SGT session can be difficult to facilitate owing to its many moving parts, says Jesse Leuer, senior program manager of group training for Life Time Fitness in Minneapolis. To maintain optimum safety, the trainer must be able to observe the form of multiple people’s movements simultaneously. “Small-group training is a sweet spot for people [who pay] great attention to detail,” he adds.

Communication skills. “A coach must have a very strong understanding of impact and the significance of his cuing,” explains Alex Zimmerman, T4 national manager at Equinox. “[In an SGT session] you don’t have time to demonstrate for all “so you must be able to make big changes with a few words.”

Motivation. Small-group trainers must command a room and keep clients motivated throughout the entire session, reiterates Stella. You need someone who feels comfortable in front of a group.

Teamwork. The experts interviewed for this article state that their programs are designed with crossover in mind. Ideally, each client is able to work with multiple coaches. This means that instead of taking sole responsibility for one client, each trainer needs to be able to work with other trainers so that the SGT experience is seamless for all participants.


At Life Time Fitness, Equinox and Wellbridge, all individuals interested in becoming SGT coaches must participate in an extensive education program.

“Our coaches complete an online learning course to become qualified to teach the program,” says Thompson. “They watch training videos [in which] we teach the science behind the programming, and we test to make sure the trainer understands and can apply the information.”

At Life Time Fitness, Stella notes, one of the education fundamentals is to learn a common nomenclature. Since SGT participants work with multiple trainers, a centralized language is needed in order to optimize the training experience. “Every single tool that’s out there—from ViPR® to TRX® to CrossCore®—has a different training system. Now you have 16 different ‘languages.’ Each individual trainer also has to come up with his own exercise name. We teach a common language that all trainers use, so that it’s easier for the members to understand what to do.”

Aspiring SGT coaches—or, as Equinox calls them, Tier 4 coaches—must complete 200 hours of training before being “set free” to work with clients. The program is created in partnership with both the personal training and group exercise departments. “The training is very specific to flow, exercise selection, coaching, cuing and management of the client base beyond class,” says Zimmerman.

How you facilitate your training program depends on your particular philosophy, resources and goals, Stella observes. What do you want the overall client experience to look and feel like? Do you want your trainers to emphasize team spirit and camaraderie? Develop a very clear understanding of your philosophy, so that each trainer adheres to it and every client is provided a high-level experience.

If you’re stalling in the education department because you think that it’s costly or that you have to invest in online platforms or prerecorded video presentations, toss that excuse out. The same level of education can be provided in-person by an individual experienced in leading SGT programs. That person may be you or someone on your staff.

Stella and Thompson have both observed that individuals can learn through participating in group training sessions and shadowing other coaches.

Hands-On Training

“In large part, the initial education is designed to weed out individuals who won’t be a good fit for small-group training,” says Leuer. “If they complete the online education, we see that they’ve demonstrated a commitment to completing the program.”

Upon completion of the online coursework, Life Time Fitness trainers move on to a practical component. “Once they pass the exams, they go through the live course and have to demonstrate, teach and cue in order to test out and pass,” says Stella. “We look at technical aspects of form, and ability to motivate and lead a group, which consists of another 6 hours of hands-on coaching.”

Equinox SGT hopefuls work closely with an established coach to learn what client experience expectations are. They will then have an opportunity to lead practice sessions. While the training follows a uniform path, Dale notes that it is based on the individual’s needs.

“Depending on the skill set that the trainer or instructor brings to the table, the training process may be tilted in one direction or the other,” says Dale. “[We also train on collaboration] and how to co-teach a group experience, which is different from just running a one-time experience that doesn’t need to be replicated. Consistent standards and scalability are critical to long-term program success.”

At Wellbridge, coaches-in-training lead fellow staff members through practice classes to gain more practical experience.

The Test

Our experts recommend incorporating some sort of “final exam” that allows trainers to demonstrate what they’ve learned. It also gives you the chance to offer feedback that can help you decide if more training is required. The test can be as simple as having a trainer host an SGT session while you observe; or it can be more involved, as is the protocol at Wellbridge.

“Once the coaches have taken all of the courses and watched all the training videos, they are required to upload a video of themselves teaching and giving their ‘elevator speech’ or 1-minute introduction to the program,” Thompson says. “The video is evaluated by our national fitness education team, and then the trainer is given specific guidance on content, communication and even body language.”

Train for Success

The future of your SGT program lies within your coaches’ abilities to facilitate strong, purposeful and motivating sessions. Each of our experts insists that it’s important to take your time to train your coaches, so that each one of them feels completely comfortable leading a quality session. The more in-depth the training process, the better quality your trainers will deliver.

Most importantly, don’t let your trainers go it alone, advises Leuer. “Make sure they have support. If you have a new individual who doesn’t yet have the confidence to lead a great session, he needs an experienced person to support him.”

In the next installment of this series, you will learn about several types of SGT programs that other facilities use, and you’ll have a chance to consider which type might be best for your location.

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Ryan Halvorson

Ryan Halvorson is an award-winning writer and editor. He is a long-time author and presenter for IDEA Health & Fitness Association, fitness industry consultant and former director of group training for Bird Rock Fit. He is also a Master Trainer for TriggerPoint.

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