Rookie Undercover: Bypassing Common Mistakes

A veteran instructor shares her tips for entering the group fitness studio with grace and professionalism.

By Pamela Light, MA
Aug 28, 2015

September marks my 23rd year leading group fitness. A lot has changed since I started teaching. Women are no longer afraid to pick up a pair of dumbbells heavier than 3 pounds, and high impact has given way to high-intensity interval training. What

hasn’t

changed is what it takes to be a strong group fitness instructor. It’s normal to make mistakes, and over the years I’ve made them all. Read on to learn from my rookie flubs and how to avoid making them yourself.

Rookie Mistake: Asking Class for Suggestions

Asking the class for suggestions may seem to be a thoughtful way to personalize the experience, but you will come across as ill-prepared. When you show up at a Madonna concert, do you want her to walk out and take requests, or do you want her to explode out of the stage, colors flying, and knock your socks off?


Expert Move

Come to class ready to wow. Know what the class expects beforehand, and prepare plenty of rock-solid material. Let participants know the class goal, how it will be achieved and why it will pay off, so that they’ll be excited out of the gate. Personalize the workout by offering modifications. Let people know that, no matter what their fitness level is, they can attain the class goal. Present several different versions of each exercise, and then leave the front of the room to make one-on-one adjustments and offer individualized encouragement.

Once you have a game plan with many different levels, be ready to change it! A true expert has plans A, B and C at the ready. Even with a regular class and time slot, you never know when a “wild card” might be thrown into the mix. For example, you might have a high-intensity workout planned, but even your best modifications may not fly with the novice, the pregnant lady, the 80-year-old and the participant who has a back injury. If you’re overprepared, you can break out your backup plan instead of breaking out in a nervous sweat.

Rookie Mistake: You Start Late and Run Long

Class was supposed to begin 5 minutes ago, but there are only six people in the room. You know if you give it a few more minutes you’ll have at least 15 people, so you make yourself look busy playing with the stereo. When your hour is up, the best song on your playlist is just starting. There’s no class following yours, so you give your participants the “gift” of 5 minutes overtime. Who wouldn’t appreciate that!?


Expert Move

Starting late breeds a bad habit. People begin to plan a late arrival, knowing they won’t miss anything. Who wants to rush out of a meeting or skip that last errand to stand around in a classroom waiting for the instructor to get her act together?

Always begin on time and your students will make a point of being there. One or two might rush in late, but the bulk of your class will be lined up 5 minutes early to claim a spot and make sure they’re not missing anything.

Ending on time shows respect for your students’ time. They should be able to experience the entire workout in the allotted time slot. If you’re still rocking away when class is scheduled to end, students with commitments will leave feeling frustrated and without a proper cool-down.

Rookie Mistake: You Shame Participants

There’s no hiding in your class. You call people out if they’re lagging. You keep the energy in the room high by screaming, “Just do it!” and, “Go faster!” at regular intervals. The best way to describe your motivational style is “in your face.” You take it as a compliment when peo-ple compare you to a communist dictator, and the fact that some people are too scared to come to your class secretly pleases you.


Expert Move

Even instructors who present the most physically exhausting workouts are successful because they make their students feel proud of what they

can

do. They don’t shame people for what they

can’t

do. All students have off days, when just showing up takes a Herculean effort. On those days, people need you to lift them up, not tear them down.

There are many coaching styles: cheerleader, coach, scientist, buddy, Zen master and more. No matter what your style is, emphasize the positive. Call out individuals who are doing an espe-cially good job, but fight the urge to put the spotlight on someone who is lagging. There are dozens of valid reasons for participants to dial back intensity. Correct form and praise improvements, but never lose your patience, even if you make the same corrections on the same people every week.

Rookie Mistake: You Overshare

To break up the monotony of the workout, you regale your class with funny stories, talk about the latest movies, or share your opinions on current events. You are providing a workout and entertainment! What could be better?


Expert Move

You have a microphone and a captive audience; don’t abuse them. Polarizing topics like politics or religion have no place in the classroom, but even more benign topics can be a turnoff. People are in your class to do something for themselves. Make

them

the focus. Talk about things that are relevant to the task at hand, and save the rest for the locker room or a coffee date with your close friends.

The urge to gab often comes from the fear of dead air. Fill that void by beefing up your cuing.

  • Repeat setup cues for participants who missed key pieces.
  • Cue modifications, and talk about what students should be feeling and where they should be feeling it.
  • Throw down a challenge on how to increase intensity.
  • Remind people of the positive changes they are making in their bodies.
  • Praise their efforts.

If you still feel the need to make class more personal, talk about the challenges you face with a particular move and how you work with it. Knowing an exercise can be tough for you as well will do more to help students relate to you than knowing who your favorite Kardashian is.

Rookie Mistake: You Fight the Music

You like it loud, and everyone loves how you always play the latest hits even if there’s some explicit content. We’re all adults, right? You can keep the beat without a problem, but sometimes transitions are awkward, and you end up doing a ton of counting to keep reps consistent on each side.


Expert Move

Music is the driving force of group fitness. The right playlist can get extra work out of the most tired student, and the wrong one can empty a room. It’s impossible to please everyone, but it’s also important not to alienate anyone. Blast your hardcore lyrics in the car on the way to the gym, but when you stand in front of class and push “play,” keep it to songs that won’t make your mother blush.

Once you have the right mix, use it to your advantage. If you find the 8-count, your transition and counting problems will be solved. Every 32 counts, there is a break where the music shifts. The beat becomes heavier, the chorus starts, or the bridge kicks in and something changes. Break each 32-count phrase into four 8-count sets. Once you’ve learned how to hear these counts, they can help you keep track of your workout. Save a big transition until the beginning of the next 32-count phrase and it will switch as smoothly as a jigsaw piece clicking into place. Use the 8-count to keep track of reps and you can spend your time cuing form rather than counting down reps.

An important note: As motivational as super-loud music can be, hearing loss is a real problem for instructors. We are exposed to music for many more hours than our members. If your students are asking you to turn it down, imagine what your inner ear would say to you if you listened? You may be 23 now, but you will still want to be able to rock out when you are 53. Find the volume level that motivates you without damaging your hearing.

Rookie Mistake: You’re Crushed by Criticism

Yesterday two people walked out in the middle of your class. Today a woman asked you if the old instructor would ever be back. One of the regulars said she didn’t like the routine you’d spent the entire weekend working on. You’re beginning to wonder if a job digging ditches might be more rewarding.


Expert Move

Some members don’t like change and you are new, so they don’t like you. Every class becomes a proving ground, and the only way to win is to beat your students to the punch. Don’t wait for criticism; ask for it. Remind people that this is their class and you want to know how you can make it fit their needs. Leave your ego behind and meet them outside, ready to listen to everything they have to say. Do this every week for as long as it takes.

It’s never possible to please everyone, but the fact that you’re trying goes a long way. No matter how long you’ve been teaching, “helpful suggestions” will always be forthcoming. Look at each one closely, and rather than beating yourself up, see if you can find a way to improve.

It takes guts to get in front of people, put yourself out there and try to deliver a home-run performance day after day. Give yourself credit for all the hard work you do, and get ready to trade in your rookie card for a ticket to the big leagues.


Pamela Light has a bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology and a master’s in writing. She has led group fitness classes for more than 20 years and teaches indoor cycling, sculpt, kickboxing and core classes at Spectrum Clubs in Southern California.

Six Steps to Securing the Class of Your Dreams

You want to teach at “Big Gym,” where all the serious athletes train. The problem: The ink is still drying on your certification. Although it will take patience, here are the steps that will get you there:

  1. Become a regular in the classes you want to teach, and get to know the instructors. Ask if they would be willing to let you team-teach.
  2. Teach as many classes at as many places as you can. The more you teach, the less “green” you become
  3. Ask to be included on the sub list at “Big Gym,” and then be the best sub on the planet. Bring your A-game to every class.
  4. If members give you positive feedback after you sub, let them know you would love to teach regularly, and ask them to share their feedback with the manager. Member support is a huge boost!
  5. Accept any class at any timeslot you are offered at “Big Gym,” and then grow
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Pamela Light, MA

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