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How to Develop and Use Class Themes

Your group exercise students understand that consistency is the key to reaching their goals, yet they struggle to show up on a regular basis. In addition to being a great teacher who leads effective classes, you may need to drum up creative strategies to get people in the door, ready to give their full effort. If you need a little kick-start to help you generate ideas, the following themes are a great place to begin.


Yoga practitioners enjoy a more mindful approach to fitness. Why not bring this concept into the group fitness studio by teaching a fitness class that uses mind-body movements borrowed from yoga? Play subdued music, and keep the pace moderate. Offer minimal verbal cues, and select exercises that keep students upright so they can observe visual cues. For example, put together a sequence that includes the warrior pose and chair pose. Since these are similar to lunges and squats, participants will be familiar with them.

Instruct students to flow from one movement to the next while focusing on their breathing. Also encourage them to pay close attention to the


of their movements, and ask them to step away from the traditional “no pain, no gain” mentality. Students will appreciate the calm atmosphere as they build strength and endurance in a different way.

Team Training

Many fitness enthusiasts gravitate toward group exercise because they want to make social connections. A little friendly competition can be a fun way to encourage people to socialize and create a sense of camaraderie. You can easily offer a unique and intense workout where interactive teams complete drills—such as relay races and timed competitions—that focus on speed, agility and functional movement patterns. Divide the group into two or three teams of about eight to 10 participants each, and instruct them to work together to complete a series of exercises. Team members decide which participant will complete each of the assigned exercises. The team that finishes the series first wins! Sprinting drills, plyometric exercises, medicine ball passes and challenging body weight moves are great options. Think outside the box to keep your students guessing what they’ll do next!

Partner Play

Working in pairs is another way to generate a playful, goal-oriented atmosphere. Stephanie Thielen, an instructor and fitness presenter from Omaha, Nebraska, uses creative partner exercises in her strength and conditioning classes.

“I often assign a series of exercises for participants to complete as a team,” she states. “For example, I have them do 50 biceps curls, 50 squats, 50 shoulder presses and 50 lunges. Each participant completes 20 repetitions of each exercise. This leaves 10 more repetitions in each category. The team of two has to decide which partner is going to ‘take it for the team.’ If partner A is feeling strong, perhaps that team member will take on the last 10 squats and lunges. Then partner B can finish the last 10 curls and shoulder presses. The partners negotiate to figure out how to complete the task.” Thielen adds that this is a good way to partner people up “without them having to make physical contact with each other, which may not be desirable.”

Another approach: Encourage partners to coach each other through tough conditioning moves. Try designing high-intensity interval training drills in which one student works while the other recovers. For example, in an exercise such as a plyometric lunge, partner A executes the move for 30 seconds, while partner B provides encouragement and motivational cues; then they switch roles. Each person does the exercise four times. Allow for 1 minute of rest, and then repeat the entire cycle with a different move. Participants will love the challenge and intensity, and they’ll appreciate using their recovery time to assist their partner.

Musical Themes

Jamie Schirtz, owner of All About Fitness in Brewerton, New York, offers special musical-themed classes throughout the year to build a sense of community. She frequently hosts “decades-inspired” classes, with music and clothing from the 1980s and 1990s. “It’s a great way to create a stronger teacher-student and student-student bonding experience by sparking conversation (‘I love that outfit!’ or ‘Cute headband!’),” Schirtz declares, “and it gives off that wow factor that makes it a special must-attend class.”

Another idea: Schirtz teaches classes that focus on a single recording artist, such as Pitbull. She also invites students to participate in something she calls “glow classes.” She explains, “Everyone wears white and neon attire. We kick on the black light and have a blast!” Schirtz adds that themed classes are always well attended, and when they’re properly promoted and executed, they boost numbers and bring in new members.

Kids’ Games

Meredith Andrews—physical education teacher at Wellwood Middle School in Fayetteville, New York, and group exercise instructor at Aspen Athletic Club in Cicero, New York—uses games from classic PE classes to get her students started. “We often warm up with an ‘Everybody’s it’ tag game,” she says. “Students walk around the studio, and when they pass another participant, they can ‘tag’ that person. People who have been tagged must do 10 jumping jacks before they can walk again. This process is repeated, but now participants skip instead of walk. When tagged, they must jog in place for 10 seconds. For each round of tag, the exercise changes to include different planes of motion and movement patterns. All participants move at their own personal fitness level and stay within their comfort zone.”

Andrews also offers “Simon says” drills to warm students up. “Those who move before I say ‘Simon says’ have to do five push-ups,” she declares. “My students enjoy this playful approach to starting class, and before they know it, their heart rates are up and they are ready to go!”

Sports drills also work well in the group fitness setting. Set up stations around the room, and have students travel from one to the next in small groups. Each station offers an exercise inspired by various sports. Kickboxing drills, soccer kicks and speed skater movements are fun options for aerobic training, while golf- or baseball-inspired rotational exercises with tubing are effective ways to train the core. Movements from track and field, like bounding (long-jump) drills, give students the chance to train in a high-intensity zone. The possibilities are endless!


Special occasions provide an opportunity to celebrate, and they give participants that extra incentive to show up even when they may be busy and less likely to make time for their fitness routine. Host a fitness extravaganza during the holidays, and invite a team of instructors to teach a segment of the class. The instructors might choose holiday-themed tunes, and participants can dress in festive attire. Emily Duggan, a fitness instructor from Elmira, New York, organizes a “mash-up” holiday class each year. “We offer a 90-minute class that includes three unique formats,” Duggan shares. “This allows participants to expand their horizons and try something new. We have door prizes, which adds to the excitement, and we offer healthy treats and refreshments so everyone can mingle and connect after class. We also provide a themed photo booth, which is always a hit. Everyone has a great time!”

Something for Everyone

If you want to keep students engaged and connected with your programs, provide unique group fitness experiences. Think outside the box and try something new! A few simple adjustments to your class plans can make all the difference. n

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