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Small-Group Secrets: Exercise Design Success Stories

Wouldn't it be great to peek at the exercise designs of successful small-group entrepreneurs? Now's your chance.

SGT enables trainers to work with three to about 10 clients at a time, making more money and delivering better results. But it may be difficult for newly minted trainers to know how to create exercise plans for a group of clients who work out simultaneously.

To succeed in this area, you must consider participant numbers, available space and equipment, and the degree of personalization you aim to deliver, says Fabio Comana, MA, MS, the San Diego–based director of continuing education for the National Academy of Sports Medicine.

This article continues our IDEA Trainer Success small-group-centric series by sharing examples of SGT workouts that work. What follows are four effective ways to approach small-group-specific exercise design.

The Circuit Approach

According to our experts, from a nonexercise, business point of view, a circuit-style format is highly efficient. This is especially true if you want to have a high-volume, small-group-focused facility with several trainers on staff and above-average gross revenue. In this case, systematized and centralized exercise planning is essential.

Consider the NutriFormance fitness center in Frontenac, Missouri, where groups of up to a dozen SGT trainees go through a circuit of 12 stations. As co-owner Dale Huff explains, on-floor trainers regress and progress the moves according to individual needs.

In general, Huff notes, clients get through the circuit twice in a session, allowing for a 10-minute dynamic warm-up and a 10-minute cool-down for each 60-minute workout.

The workout is similar at Breakthru Fitness in Pasadena, California, reports owner Phil Dozois. Trainers first explain each move and then set clients up at each circuit station. Trainees use lighter weights for the first round, and then—after some coaching on proper form—increase the weights for rounds two and three.

Note that the transition time between exercises is a rest period, adds Dozois. “For instance, after a 40-second set, clients will have 20 seconds to transition to the next exercise, set up and rest until it’s time to do another 40 seconds of work.” (For more details on the Breakthru format, see the sidebar “A Real-World SGT Plan.”)

The Time-Per-Parameter Approach

Comana prefers to earmark time for physical and skill-related factors, with the number of exercises changing as needed.

For example, a roughly hourlong SGT session with Comana might break down like this:

  • an 8-minute warm-up
  • 8 minutes of cardio-based exercise
  • 8 minutes of power and SAQ (speed, agility and quickness) drills
  • 8 minutes of upper-extremity strength work
  • another 8 minutes of cardio-based exercise
  • 8 minutes of muscular endurance and/or core stability work
  • 8 minutes of cool-down and flexibility focus

The Rest-Based Approach

This approach (introduced briefly in the last issue of IDEA Trainer Success) is rooted in the work of Jade Teta, ND, co-owner of Metabolic Effect in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

The rest-based method requires clients to perform a short series of exercises: for example, 10 reps of battle ropes, followed immediately by 10 burpees, followed immediately by 10 reps of mountain climbers. Participants then immediately repeat the cycle, starting with 10 ropes, and so on, until they can’t do any more. However, there is a trainer-fixed time limit on the continual cycles—say, 5 minutes of the ropes–burpees–climbers routine.

Your role is to coach clients to “push until they can’t, rest until they can,” notes Teta. Participants then start up from where they left off, until they need a break again, and/or until the 5-minute cycle is over.

Teta gives an example: Clients might complete one full circuit and three extra reps of the ropes to reach fatigue. They rest, breathe and, when ready, complete the seven remaining rope movements; then they move on to the next part of the series (burpees).

Trainers cue form and emphasize quality over quantity, allowing participants to take breaks and filter through the circuit at their own pace. “When you see clients resting, you should cue them as follows: ‘Nice rest; get back into it when you are ready,’” says Teta. He suggests using poker chips to count rounds; for example, to measure results, clients would move a poker chip from one pile to another for every circuit completed.

Teta emphasizes that a rest-based approach is not the only useful technique trainers should have in their toolkits. The approach could be used for an entire small-group workout; or it could be saved for a portion of a session, such as 15 minutes out of an hourlong workout, to mix things up.

The Prepackaged Approach

Want to offer an SGT program but prefer to outsource the exercise design? Consider a license: paying for the right to use, sell or market someone else’s intellectual property (such as SGT plans).

One such license comes courtesy of prechoreographed group exercise giant LES MILLS. The company’s recently introduced GRIT™ Series consists of three SGT-oriented workouts: GRIT Strength, GRIT Cardio and GRIT Plyo (plyometrics).

Conceived of as fee-based, 30-minute high-intensity interval training workouts for small groups, the GRIT series offers prechoreographed moves, and the music and rest intervals are preset. But unlike its instructor-always-up-front LES MILLS group exercise cousins, the GRIT Series is designed to be led by personal trainers who demonstrate the HIIT moves half of the time, and coach from the floor the other half.

Another option? Through his company North Point Personal Training Systems™, gym owner Rick Mayo licenses his SGT-centric business system to over 120 gyms worldwide. Billed as a turnkey SGT business solution, the package includes complete exercise plans, business coaching and access to custom software programs that help record SGT clients’ results.

Monthly licensing fees range from $99 to $500, depending on the services required.

Variety in Exercise Design

Once you have a format, you’ll need to decide on variety: How often should you change up the SGT workouts you offer? The answer varies.

At NutriFormance, the SGT workouts change monthly. However, Huff notes, his facility’s SGT program is structured so that trainees participate in non-SGT sweat sessions as well, so their potential exposure to repeated workouts isn’t that great. For different business models, you should consider changing small-group exercise plans more frequently, Huff adds.

At Catalyst Fitness in Atlanta, SGT workouts change daily. Owner and 2007 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year award recipient Bill Sonnemaker, MS, argues that important principles of exercise design (such as overload, specificity, progression, variation and individuality) improve most when exercises change every day.

Similarly, Rick Mayo’s studio offers three different SGT workouts each week, with exercises changing every two days (his studio is open 6 days per week.)

Workouts That Work

What’s the bottom line on SGT exercise design? Different approaches offer different physical and practical benefits. By creating a fitness format that suits your business model and training abilities, you can ensure that your clients get the biggest return on their small-group efforts—and keep coming back for more.

SIDEBAR: A Real-World SGT Plan

Here is an example of Breakthru’s basic small-group exercise framework. Floor trainers should tweak it to meet individual client needs, advises owner Phil Dozois.

Warm-up (beginner: 20 minutes; intermediate: 15 minutes; advanced: 10 minutes)
Consists of: Soft-tissue work (foam roller, softball, baseball), active stretching, dynamic stretch and/or cardio.

Workout (30 minutes)
Consists of: A total-body movement (e.g., a squat combined with a biceps curl and a shoulder press), a pull (e.g., rows), a push (e.g., push-ups), core work (e.g., super band rotations) and a finishing “burn” (e.g., a “cardio push” of 90-120 seconds). Repeat entire circuit once or twice.

“Finisher”/Challenge (5 minutes)
Consists of: Some type of metabolic work, so clients leave sweaty and feeling that they did some hard work, says Dozois. For example: Pair up participants. Have one person run a 40-yard sprint while the other holds a plank, then have them switch places, as in a relay race. Repeat three times.

Cool-Down (5 minutes)
Consists of: An athletic flow, client-specific stretching, soft-tissue work.

SIDEBAR: More Resources

Want more SGT ideas?

Both Dale Huff and Bill Sonnemaker post their SGT workout plans publicly for clients and other trainers. Visit NutriFormance’s YouTube channel for SGT workout summaries (called “Hybrid Training” videos), and check out Sonnemaker’s Twitter feed for written exercise plans.

Also look for the upcoming NASM Group Personal Training Certificate Course, notes Fabio Comana.

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