For years, group exercise instructors have been debating the topic of creativity. The controversy usually arises when facilities license preprogrammed classes. Some instructors argue that preprogramming limits creativity. They feel that “free-style” classes are more creative and are better suited for advanced participants, who “crave complex movements.”
Regardless of whether you’re in the “free-style” camp or the “preprogrammed” camp, have you deviated from your roots? Are you still committed to designing and leading safe, effective classes that, while creative, always put participants first? Is your ultimate goal still to inspire people to move?
What is creativity when applied to group fitness? Is it about class design freedom? Is it about dazzling participants with intensity and complexity? Is that creative? Yes. Effective? Maybe. Welcoming to all members? No. It’s admirable to want to deliver a creative experience; however, creativity is not stifled by preprogrammed classes nor by going back to basics. Creativity can be infused into your communication: how you connect, cue and coach. It’s not about flashy moves. The class experience, regardless of whether it’s free-style or programmed, is boring only if you present it that way.
Getting Back to Basics
Do you remember the “KISS Principle—Keep It Safe and Simple”? If breaking down the choreography of the class you’ve designed takes too long or if you have to spend a lot of time previewing and explaining movement patterns, the design may be creative but it’s probably not appropriate for the average participant. When designing a class, ask yourself the following questions:
- What is the goal of this class?
- What is the purpose of the exercise? Am I achieving that?
- Is the exercise safe for most participants?
- What are the risks?
- Do the benefits outweigh those risks?
Let’s say your design calls for placing one knee on a stability ball and one foot on a Gliding™ disc while lunging and doing overhead presses with a barbell. This may look creative, but how does it benefit class participants? As an instructor, you are used to moving. It may be easy for you to perform this move, and it may look impressive. But how is it relevant for the person who just wants to gain a baseline of physical confidence and awareness?
One of the simplest, most effective ways to inject creativity into a class experience is through connecting. How you connect with participants is what adds the “Wow” factor. Your preparation skills allow you to be different while remaining consistent. Kelli Snyder teaches both free-style and preprogrammed classes at Healthtrax® Fitness & Wellness in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania. She says she finds it easier to focus on the member experience when teaching a preprogrammed class. “When I teach my free-style class, I am too much ‘in my head,’ worried about what I will do next. So I don’t cue as much form or technique. I also find that I am less playful.”
Snyder explains that she can easily deliver a different class experience even when content is static. “I tailor the class to the participants who are there that day,” she says. “It’s easy to make the class creative by calling out a member’s name, giving them a wink, pointing them out or even sharing a funny story. If I just spit out programming, count or insert the obligatory ‘woo-hoo,’ class would be flat.”
Cuing can be fun and exceptionally creative. You’re limited only by your imagination! A good class experience can be made great when the cuing goes beyond calling out an exercise or counting methodically. I recently attended a dance fitness class in which the instructor yelled out bullet points: “Go big,” “Work it,” “Get low”—all in the same monotone voice. I had no idea what I needed to make big, how to work it differently than I already was or why I should get low. I left frustrated because I couldn’t follow her. She looked great performing, but my workout suffered.
In contrast, I attended the exact same class taught by another instructor who delivered each move quite differently. Her cuing was clear, explanatory and fun, and it gave purpose to the move: “I want you to get down like you are in a chair and don’t come up. Do you feel that in your legs? Stay under the radar—now come up for air! You guys are working so low I can smell the smoke from the calorie burn! We are lower in the legs so we can shape and bake them!” Same moves, same class, completely different experience.
One instructor was more dialed in to the member experience than the other. Creative cuing takes shape when you’re familiar with what you’re teaching, and when you watch your participants. “You can’t just learn programming or decide in the car what movement you’re teaching in class that night,” says Snyder. “You have to plan, prepare and practice. I look at the participants to see if they are following me, or doing what I need them to do to meet the exercise objective. If they aren’t, I do my best to change up what I say, or how I say it. I use descriptive words—something they can identify with—and give them the hows and whys throughout class.”
There are many ways to put a creative spin on coaching. Why not borrow techniques from athletic coaches? For example, watching the coach interact with my son during football practice gave me great insight into how to coach my class participants more creatively. When my son ran a wrong route, his coach stopped and said, “Here is what you did, and that is why you didn’t catch the ball. Here is what I want you to do.” He demonstrated my son’s error by showing and telling him—by running the same play incorrectly. Then he demonstrated the play correctly and followed up with these comments: “Did you see how much smoother that play went? Did you see how you were able to avoid that tackle? There you go—that’s better!”
You can layer this same “Show and Tell” coaching approach into preprogrammed exercises or simple moves. Don’t assume that participants understand exercise terminology or that they’re as aware of their bodies as you are. Once people are familiar with the exercise, don’t hesitate to stop and show them how they’re doing it wrong and then show them how to do it correctly.
For example, when teaching a lunge, I may turn sideways and say, “This is what I am seeing.” I’ll demonstrate the front knee pushing forward, a lack of flexion in the back knee or the back heel not being lifted. Then I follow up with “Here is what I want. Do you see my heel up? Yeah, you’re feeling that now, aren’t you?” This coaching technique is much more creative than if you’re simply saying, “Lunge. Down, down, up, up.”
Music can also be a great, creative coaching tool. Use the lyrics to describe a move or set the tone for an exercise. Use the highs and lows to create anticipation. Bring the music to the front and don’t simply use it as a background beat.
All classes, whether free-style or preprogrammed, can be creative. It’s up to you to be dedicated. Spend time preparing and practicing—not just what movements you’ll use, but how you connect, cue and coach. Creativity comes from making the member experience the top priority.