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Small-Group Secrets: Crafting the Client Experience

Crafting a quality, personalized experience for your small-group clients leads to a robust, healthy program.

You’ve heard the buzz about small-group training (SGT): more money in less time. (See the article “Small-Group Secrets: The Start-Up Plan” in the October 2012 issue of IDEA Trainer Success). And you may also have heard that SGT business growth relies—heavily—on referrals from satisfied trainees.

Both statements are true only when you deliver a fantastic fitness experience.

So here’s the catch: If you are a career boot camp instructor or one-on-one trainer, SGT is a whole new gig. For a trainer, SGT demands a different base of soft skills, such as group management and rapid, effective cuing. Instructing three to a dozen clients simultaneously will require you to modify some of your existing teaching techniques.

So what do current one-on-one and boot camp leaders need to do in order to create amazing client experiences?

This fifth article in our series on SGT will explore how to frame your program to ensure success for you and your clients.

First, Retrain Yourself

A world-class SGT client experience is about more than exercise. The dynamics of social camaraderie and group interaction, combined with personalized fitness tips, set SGT apart and drive customer results and retention. Provide mediocre leadership in this regard, and your trainees will trickle away.

“[SGT] is very different than one-on-one training,” says Sherri McMillan, MS, a two-time IDEA award winner and the owner of two training centers in the Vancouver, Washington, area. “It takes a very skilled trainer to ensure an SGT session is not totally chaotic, with one person twiddling his thumbs while another person gets all the attention.”

Successful SGT also looks and feels different than group exercise or boot camp. Jonathan Ross—the Bowie, Maryland–based author of Abs Revealed (Human Kinetics 2010) and the 2010 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year—puts it succinctly: Great small-group trainers are leaders, not cheerleaders.

Translation? Simply calling a session “small-group” and then delivering a boot camp–style workout—complete with one-size-fits-all cheers (“Nice work, everybody!”)—won’t motivate participants to pay a premium for additional SGT services.

Instead, you must demonstrate professional leadership by delivering a “personalized” experience that happens to be in a group setting. And it will be your systems and skills that make the SGT client experience feel as much like private training as possible.

Small-Group Versus One-on-One Techniques

“The biggest obstacle for a trainer who is only well versed in one-on-one training is how to practically manage sessions with a number of different clients,” observes McMillan.

According to Dale Huff, co-owner of the NutriFormance and Athletic Republic training centers in St. Louis, effective SGT trainers must function well in a group, relate easily to a broad clientele, have lots of personality and patience, and be confident in a leadership role.

To ensure a great client experience, heed the following:

Pay Attention Evenly
“Learn to distribute your time equally among all participants rather than spending too much time on any one person,” says McMillan. How? “Be sure to make eye contact and spot each person in your program at least once per session.”

Cue Succinctly

In small-group, your time and attention become divided among all participants. So you will no longer have time to explain exercises in great anatomical detail. You must become able to “see and correct movement issues with very quick, effective, down-to-earth cues,” Ross notes.

“When teaching small-group, you cannot ignore movement quality,” he explains. “Yet at the same time, you also cannot get so lost in correcting one person that you lose track of time, or of what other participants are doing.”

Curtail Conversations

You want group camaraderie, but not at the expense of a good workout. Learn to use humor and tact to curtail excess chatting. “You cannot be a ‘Chatty Cathy’ and must be able to reel in clients who get too talkative,” cautions Huff.

McMillan agrees: “Learn to politely explain to a client who may be demanding too much of your time that you must go and help the others to ensure you’ve spent equal time with everybody.”

Prepare to Share
A flexible personality and attitude matter, notes Josh Proch, owner of Defined Fitness LLC, in Wexford, Pennsylvania. This is especially true in studios where trainers “share” clients (for more on this programming option, see “Small-Group Secrets: Programming for Profit”).

In such systems, there’s no room for ego. “The trainer who wants to come in and do his or her own thing is just not going to work in [a shared-client] environment,” Proch observes. Bring an open mind to the studio, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the teaching nuances you can learn from your fellow trainers.

Small-Group Techniques vs. Boot Camp

Picture an SGT session with six clients. Now imagine a sculpt class or a boot camp workout to which only six people show up. For the clients, what’s the difference?

In a word: You. You’re the one who must put the “personal” into small-group personal training. Here’s how:

Don’t Sweat It
Unlike a group exercise instructor, “Under no circumstances should anyone teaching small-group do the workout with the participants,” says Ross. Your job is to lead, not to get your own workout.

Compliment Concisely
In a boot camp setting, yelling “Doing great!” a few times may be enough. But generic statements won’t cut it in SGT. Ross explains: “Research shows time and again that individuals respond much more favorably to very specific feedback rather than general feedback.”

For example, Ross might acknowledge a trainee’s effort on a certain exercise: “I could see how focused you were on keeping your chest lifted.”

McMillan favors quantitative praise: “Point out that a client is lifting 10 extra pounds in comparison to when they first started.”

Personalize Praise
Know the participants’ names, every time, says Huff, and use them. And point out an individual’s improvement in front of the entire group, adds McMillan. This develops client confidence and self-esteem.

Use Unique Equipment
To boost the perceived value of your SGT sessions, include tools that clients might hesitate to try on their own, recommends McMillan. Her suggestions: stability balls, medicine balls, wobble boards, BOSU® Balance Trainers, Stroops Slastix Power Bands, the TRX® Suspension Trainer™, resistance tubes, DynaDiscs, skipping ropes, boxing bags and gloves, or steps (for more equipment ideas, check out “Small-Group Secrets: Programming for Profit.”).

Foster Friendships
It’s your job to encourage a team atmosphere and remind participants that they are in this together, McMillan advises. Remember, social bonds reinforce fitness results and customer retention, and therefore, revenue.

To cultivate a client community, introduce all the members in a session to one another, says Proch. “Use a few partner exercises or games to get people interacting,” offers Ross. And don’t let the group disband without saying goodbye and giving kudos to everyone, Huff adds.

Get-Going Advice

To transition smoothly from one-on-one or boot camp training to small groups, give yourself ample practice. The key is to start simple while you hone your soft skills. “The biggest mistake you can make when launching an SGT program is to overthink things and make them too fancy,” cautions Proch.

Instead, master group management first through a simple 4-week program with no more than six participants, advises Ross. You can move on to more complex programming models later.

When training small groups, you must deliver the customized critiques of a one-on-one session while creating the community spirit of a larger class environment. Hit the right balance, and you’ll keep the personal in small-group personal training—and keep your clients coming back for more.

SIDEBAR: Managing Mixed Groups

Imagine a 5:00 pm SGT session that includes an aging grandma, a young male athlete, and a middle-aged disk-jockey. It’s a true motley crew. Why the mash-up?

“From a monetary or scheduling standpoint, it is very difficult to divide clients by ability, gender, age, interest and so on,” Huff remarks. Thus, with the exception of themed, fixed-term SGT programs (such as a 6-week, run-your-first-5K women’s group), it’s likely that customer availability—and not ability—will primarily dictate who works out when.

For most drop-in style group programs, this means keeping the emphasis on movement first and dealing with higher intensity or equipment second. “For example,” suggests Ross, “you could have a less fit individual perform shallow range-of-motion squats while a very fit individual does squat jumps.”

With SGT, it’s your job to make sure everyone feels taken care of, says Huff. Offering appropriate progressions and regressions to (often wildly) mixed client groups is a big part of this personalization.

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