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Strengthen Numbers and Stay Safe

Use these sensible strategies for small-group training.

Recently I had the opportunity to do some stealth field research. A local personal training facility hosted a “bring a friend” promotional week. My friend invited me and another guest to join her weekly 30-minute session. Without revealing my professional background, I dutifully followed the instructions and disclosed my health history, goals and ability level on the standard intake form. Without reviewing our forms, the trainer launched us into a strenuous exercise routine with no warm-up. She cued in a verbal shorthand that my friend (a regular client) understood, but it left me and the other guest somewhat confused. The only modifications offered were those that we came up with ourselves. After no cool-down, I left feeling somewhat beaten up, rather than having the sense of healthy fatigue I usually experience after strenuous exercise. I felt like I’d gone for a run in someone else’s shoes.

Clearly this was not the way to welcome a new member into a small-group training session. This article explores the pros and cons of implementing small-group training, looks at boot camps in particular and shares tips on how to manage risk.

Buddy Training Advantages and Disadvantages

Small-group, or “buddy,” personal training sessions have many advantages. More clients are drawn to your facility, which can increase word-of-mouth referrals. Clients can share the cost of a session and hold each other accountable. However, as managers we need to evaluate the marketing and administration of such programs from a risk management standpoint. Could the promotional incentive mentioned in the opening paragraph have been achieved with less risk?

Suppose the facility had conducted a general open house and tour during its promotional week and allowed each client to distribute one coupon to a friend for a deeply discounted 30-minute one-on-one session to be used during that week? With such a promotion, a trainer could take the time to show the prospective client a few exercises and techniques to address that client’s specific issues, and the trainer would have an opportunity to make a meaningful, tailored sales pitch.

Alternatively, if the objective is to promote small-group or buddy training, the incentive should target individuals who have similar abilities and goals and who want to start and commit to a program together. Intake forms need to be reviewed carefully, and each participant’s health history and record should be kept confidential.

Is it possible to buddy-train clients who have vastly different abilities? Of course it is. But such arrangements require advance planning and clear communication, rather than one client’s square peg being crammed into the round hole of another client’s workout.

Boot Camp Necessities

“Boot camp”-style programs take small-group training to the next level, but they also increase liability exposure exponentially. A typical format consists of multiple intense workouts per week, for a defined number of weeks, led by one or more high-energy instructors who push participants to extreme fatigue. When conducted properly and safely, a boot camp can be highly effective for participants who train together consistently with appropriate, disciplined supervision.
A safe and effective boot camp includes the following:

  • instructors with extensive group exercise experience, who have participated in boot camps themselves
  • consistent participation
  • a clearly defined plan that is communicated to participants
  • options for modifications
  • a safe, well-lit and accessible venue

Experienced Instructors

Ensure that your boot camp is staffed with certified group instructors who have participated in a boot camp themselves. Unlike many group exercise classes, boot camps typically don’t allow relatively deconditioned participants to move at a slower pace in the back row or “go through the motions” (although offering options for all levels is ideal). The boot camp mentality encourages everyone to push to the limit. Self-conscious recruits may be so concerned about keeping up that they push themselves straight to the injured reserve. A seasoned boot camp instructor will know from communication, body mechanics, facial expressions and effort level when to push participants and when to offer modifications. Given that boot camps generally last for a relatively short time, and that trainer/participant rapport and communication are essential, instructor turnover within the duration is strongly discouraged.

Participant Commitment

Likewise, screen participants and hold them accountable. Particularly if they learn of the boot camp through mass-marketing tools like Groupon and LivingSocial, they could be relatively deconditioned or unfamiliar with the nature of the activity. Make the introductory session mandatory, and don’t permit excessive absences. Not only does this foster the disciplined environment that participants desire; it also ensures that they are able to follow progressions. For example, if Tuesday’s session includes a review of the proper body mechanics of a jump squat, and Thursday’s plan requires people to toss medicine balls to each other while performing jump squats, participants who missed Tuesday could risk injury to themselves or others on Thursday.

Resist the temptation to accommodate late enrollees. Outdoor boot camps can effectively promote themselves, as runners and walkers passing by could take an interest and want to join in, or participants may want to bring friends. This could lead to a whole host of problems, particularly if the latecomers have not registered and signed the appropriate informed consent and release documents. Instead, encourage leads to provide their interested friends’ contact information, and make this an opportunity to schedule a subsequent boot camp.

Clear Expectations

Make sure participants understand the basic plan and format of the boot camp. If they are expected to warm up and cool down on their own time, they need to know this. In addition, while part of the challenge of boot camp can be the element of surprise, consider giving advance notice about what to expect in upcoming sessions (upper-body emphasis, lower-body emphasis, plyometrics, etc.). This allows participants to adjust their other activities so that they arrive appropriately rested and prepared.

Safe Premises

If you intend to offer an outdoor boot camp on public property, contact the appropriate government entity (city, county, state) to determine availability of space, restrictions on times and hours of use and permitting requirements. Some entities simply require a fee, which could be based on hours of use, number of participants or other factors. Others may require proof of fitness insurance and also require that the government entity (e.g., park) be named as an additional insured. Determine the costs of permitting and insurance before you set a price for the boot camp program.

Inspect the outdoor premises yourself before the inaugural boot camp. If sessions are to occur after dark, confirm that lighting is adequate. Participants should be able to see far enough ahead of themselves to ensure proper footing. The lighting should also be adequate for the instructor and participants to see each other clearly.

Assess the availability of restrooms, the prevalence of unmarked curbs and speed bumps and whether grassy fields are relatively level or are full of rocks and holes. Also require your instructors to inspect the premises carefully before and after each session. Instructors need to arrive early enough not only to locate any hazards, but also to take steps to remedy them. This may be as simple as notifying the designated park official, or it may be more labor-intensive—for example, sectioning off the hazardous area from participant use. Instructors should also leave the property in good condition after each session and see that no litter remains. They should report any damage to the premises to you immediately.

Numbers in Safety

Your small-group training program’s success is based not only on the number of participants but also on the strength of those numbers. Participants who have been screened, informed, appropriately challenged and provided a safe environment will be much more likely to succeed and continue with your program. They will be less likely to incur injury and/or become disgruntled former members—or worse, potential litigants.


Concerned about your place in the new fitness industry? We have 40 years of experience supporting pros just like you! Let’s create a new wellness paradigm together—IDEAfit+ is the extra edge you need. Once you team up with IDEA, be sure to take full advantage of all the benefits of membership.

Tricia Schafer, JD

Tricia Schafer, JD, is both an attorney and a certified personal fitness trainer. As the manager of Starting Now Fitness in Phoenix, Arizona, Tricia helps clients meet their fitness goals. As an attorney at Falbe Law PLLC, she counsels clients on reducing liability exposure and represents them in litigation and alternative dispute resolution.
Certification: ACE

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