Small-group training, an option that allows anywhere from three to 10 individuals to work with a personal trainer, is gaining mass appeal. SGT is considered personal training without the price tag, as it gives budget-conscious consumers an opportunity to gain professional guidance without emptying the coffer.

In our last two issues, we’ve discussed whether launching such a program is right for your facility. We’ve also shared tips from top experts on how to prepare your staff to handle SGT’s unique demands. Now it’s time to explore the most popular program options and how to deliver them.

Program Types

The program you choose depends largely on available staff, client needs and your facility’s philosophy. The most popular are the limited-term option—with a definite beginning and ending—and the continuous, ongoing model.


Griffin Hughes Douglas, owner of Griffin Hughes Wellness in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, has found success with all-inclusive, 4-week fitness and education programs. Douglas, who is a personal trainer and holistic health coach, believes that these shorter programs appeal to participants because it’s easier to think short-term.

“I’ve found that people do so much better when there’s a beginning and an end,” she observes. “Upon completion, they feel like they’ve graduated from something.”

Education is a significant component of her program: She wants her clientele to learn so they can become self-sufficient. Douglas has discovered that it’s much easier to progress through limited-term programs, because usually everyone is on the same page.

Shannon Fable, 2013 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year and director of exercise programming for Anytime Fitness, agrees that limited-term programs can work well. However, she warns that some individuals are wary of making such a commitment.

“The hardest part with the specific-time programs is the logistics involved and learning how to ‘sell’ this program,” Fable explains. “We find the sales and marketing to be the toughest; it’s not something that trainers have had to do in the past. You need a new spiel to get people to commit to a schedule that is required for a 6-week SGT program.”


Another option is continuous programming, which does not have a starting point or an end point. One reason for its popularity is that trainers can capitalize on the motivated client, who is ready to begin training now. Sometimes an individual’s window of motivation and interest will close before the next installment of the limited-term program rolls around. Continuous programs give that person the opportunity to get started immediately.

Underneath the continuous programming format are two different training styles.

Assigned groups. First, there’s the assigned format, in which clients are given a group to join based on their current physical capacity.

“The programs we offer that group similar fitness levels together allow us to also provide a specific outcome,” advises Fable. “The personality of the group allows accountability and camaraderie to naturally flourish, especially when they are all working toward the same goal.”

While these programs tend to create a more cohesive framework, often a new SGT client’s availability does not mesh with an assigned group’s schedule. This can also become a problem when you’re attempting to create a brand-new group. It’s rare that several individuals with similar abilities will have matching schedules.

Mixed groups. To overcome the challenge of assigned groups, many facilities create a schedule of weekly sessions at varying times throughout the day. Clients can participate in these regardless of their skill level.

At Fusion Fitness Center in Newark, Delaware, SGT clients have as many as five workout options per day. In each of those sessions, you might see a relative newcomer training alongside a more experienced exerciser.

Some people might be concerned that mixing different fitness levels is risky, but the facility’s president, Nic DeCaire, works hard to ensure client safety.

Before starting team training, participants “must complete a fundamental workout,” he states. “If they don’t pass, then we let them do it again. If they still do not pass, we encourage them to work with someone one-on-one so they can complete some basic training.”

Invariably, a session will include individuals of all abilities. So DeCaire makes sure that each of his coaches is adept at modifying movements to meet each client’s physical capabilities.

He adds that a second coach often works out in the session and serves as backup if the primary coach requests it.

Ink Young, senior wellness director for Olean-Bradford Area YMCA, in New York and Pennsylvania, says that she’s seen great success with mixed groups.

“Higher performers become role models for people just getting started, so there’s a motivational aspect to it,” she affirms. “I’ve never heard from our advanced people that a new person is hampering the session.”

Program Design

Whether you’ve decided on a limited-term program or a continuous one, the next step is to look into program design. Will you place a single individual in charge of your facility’s programs, or will you give that responsibility to all of your coaches?

Centralized Program Design

When DeCaire first launched SGT at his 600-member facility, he gave his coaches the freedom to develop programs as they saw fit. He quickly learned that he’d made the wrong choice. “Some trainers are better than others,” he admits. “Some can write great programs while others can’t.”

Eventually he changed his mind and put one head coach in charge of designing the programs, which change monthly.

“As we grew, we needed someone overseeing all of that,” he remarks. “I want clients to get the same workout and experience no matter which trainer they’re working with. I’ve found that this works well. The trainers don’t get paid to write programming; they get paid to coach, motivate and execute programs.”

However, DeCaire recognizes that in order for the program design process to succeed, it must incorporate feedback from both the coach and the client. To help accomplish this, he sets up weekly meetings with all his coaches to discuss the current month’s program design.

“We create the programs once we find out how clients are progressing,” DeCaire explains. “We then have a meeting to update [all coaches] on the workouts and we make them go through them.”

He recognizes that aspects of the program will need fine-tuning, so he allows his coaches to modify the exercises to maximize client safety and confidence.

Structured Flexibility

Young believes that structure is important, but she prefers to leave the bulk of the programming to her trainers. Just as at DeCaire’s Fusion Fitness Center, the programs at Olean-Bradford Area YMCA change monthly. But instead of writing out the specifics of the workouts, Young’s staff receives a more generalized format that allows them to fill in the blanks.

“We have a skeleton program where one month might include more of a push/pull workout, or another might include more kettlebells,” she notes. “But they always have a common theme. This helps the trainers build the workout based on the skeleton so they’re not spending hours on program design. It also allows trainers the flexibility to specifically tailor the workout based on each individual within the group.”

Young believes that her trainers appreciate the autonomy, and that it gives them an opportunity to thrive. “We found that too much structure zapped the fun out of the programs,” she recalls. “If I gave them an exact program, they would lose their enthusiasm and joy of learning. The instructors enjoy having flexibility. If you have a good enough staff and you feel comfortable with them, then [structured flexibility] can be highly successful.”

What Will You Choose

There are plenty of questions to ask before deciding on a program type and its delivery. Everything boils down to available personnel and their skill levels, available space, customer needs and your own fitness philosophy. Take the time to weigh the pros and cons presented in this article, so that you can make a solid decision before you officially launch your program.

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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