Creating a Group Fitness Family

Go beyond rote, scripted formats to build a cohesive community.

By Daniel Marshall, MS
Apr 22, 2016

As group exercise instructors, we can get wrapped up in creating
choreography, choosing music, cuing effectively and teaching proper
technique. While all these aspects are important, we sometimes lose
sight of the overall picture and miss the opportunity to connect with
participants.

Think about the reasons why people choose group exercise and what keeps
them coming back. While some attend for the sweat and others enjoy the
choreography, some may be motivated more by the social support and group
interaction. Therefore, use the time before, during and after class to
connect with participants, create personal relationships and make
everyone feel part of the group “family.”

This article provides several strategies to help you build a supportive
and welcoming class community that will motivate participants, promote
social engagement, remove exercise barriers, maintain class retention
and support your fitness center’s mission and goals.

Before Class

Arriving early for class is not only essential for preparation; it also
gives you an excellent opportunity to get to know your students. This is
your chance to make a positive first impression on new participants and
a lasting impact on your “regulars.” Attending a fitness class for the
first time can be intimidating, so introduce yourself to newcomers,
connect them with other participants and explain the format. This first
interaction establishes an individual’s perceptions of you and the class
and may determine whether the person comes back, so make it count!

Meeting and greeting is only part of the big family picture. Go further,
taking time to converse with participants. Learn about their fitness
goals, identify their reasons for attending and become aware of any
injuries. When you gather information about your students, it shows you
have a vested interest in their success, and it can help you tailor your
class to meet their needs. Also make an effort to 
remember names—this
will foster a positive instructor-student relationship and build a
comfortable and inclusive environment. Before class is also a great time
to check in with participants who are returning after a hiatus, to
welcome them back and offer support. Your acknowledgement of their
absence may make them feel they are valued members of the class.

During Class

Use class time to foster community through instructional techniques and
structure. This may be as simple as asking participants to give their
neighbor a positive comment or high-five. Try to interact with each
person at least once. “Work the room” by moving around, engaging with
participants, making eye contact and providing encouraging words
throughout class.

Occasionally “flip” the room during a segment of class to give people in
the back row a front-row experience, and to let front-row devotees gain
a different perspective. This will also allow you to connect with
individuals hiding in the back row. Another idea: Give attendees a
chance to work together by incorporating partner drills and team
activities.

Partner Drills

Partner drills give participants the opportunity to interact, challenge
each other, and exchange support and motivation. When designing partner
drills, consider the type of interaction you want to create. For
example, you may want each pair to complete a specific exercise or
challenge, to focus on coaching and motivating each other, or perhaps to
engage in friendly competition. Create drills that keep both
participants active and engaged. Here are some ideas:

Tag team intervals. Provide each team with two exercises, one that’s
high intensity and one that’s low intensity. One partner performs the
high-intensity exercise for a period of time while the other performs
the low-intensity move, concurrently encouraging the high-intensity
partner. Have pairs do this for a set amount of time and then cue them
to switch places.

Cooperative partner exercises. Give partners two different exercises to
perform simultaneously. For example, one partner squats while holding
the other partner’s legs, preparing him or her for decline push-ups.

Coordinated exercises. Have partners work together while performing the
same exercise. For example, they hold the handles of two interlaced
resistance bands and face each other with arms straight out in front of
them. Next, they step away from each other until the “mega” band is
taut. Both partners perform a squat while maintaining tension on the
band. As they return to a standing position, they do a row.

Mirror image. Use this drill for agility and speed training. One partner
performs a movement while his or her partner mimics it.

Team Activities

Team activities integrate cooperation into classes by challenging
participants to work in larger groups to accomplish a specific goal.
This may help students bond as they support each other and work
collectively.

Splitting the room. Divide the room into two teams and have them perform
the same exercise simultaneously or one after the other. For example, in
a dance format have teams “battle” for the best dance moves; in a
cycling class, cue half of the room to sprint while the other half
recovers and cheers the first group on.

One-team challenge. Have the entire class work together to complete a
specific challenge or task. For instance, charge the class with doing a
set number of push-ups or burpees in a certain amount of time, or with
completing an obstacle course or other activity.

Relay. Divide class into several teams and have them race against each
other to complete a specific exercise or task in the shortest time.

After Class

If feasible, take a few extra minutes after class to talk with
participants and answer questions. Go the extra mile and interact with
newbies again to thank them for attending and to offer encouragement.
The more positive interactions a new member experiences, the more likely
it is that he or she will return. The end of class is also a great time
to ask for song requests or suggestions from participants.

Transforming your class into a warm gathering that feels like home away
from home may take a little effort and energy on your part, but the
payoff in retention and happiness is worth it. Students will know that
you care and will feel accountable to others to show up, have fun and
get fit. n

© 2016 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction
without permission is strictly prohibited.

Additional Team Building Ideas

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Daniel Marshall, MS

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