fbpx Skip to content


Make Group Ex Magical!

It’s Friday night in tiny Willits, California (population: 4,888.) There’s no Walmart®; there are no chain stores. As usual, this small town is quiet. Yet, at Studio Joy, owner Maddy Avena’s Zumba® class is about to be packed and jamming.

Why? Avena doesn’t just teach fitness classes; she delivers fitness experiences. By combining technical studio upgrades (such as a stage and theatrical lighting) with special events (themed workout “parties”), she injects a solid workout with new emotional intensity.

Like Avena, many other fitness professionals are taking cues from brand-name programs like Zumba, Crunch® Fitness and Les Mills, which specialize in creating heightened fitness happenings that go beyond the now-commonplace “lights off” in cycling classes.

This article explores how group exercise programs around the world are driving the “experiential” class platform and discusses how you can replicate this success in your studio or classes.

An “Experience” Versus a “Class”

“Not just a class, but an experience.” That’s the motto at Energy Gym, an award-winning facility in Selbyville, Delaware. Owner Gina Hall has invested heavily in raising the facility’s group classes from mundane to magical.

Consider that a fitness class delivers the basics: group exercise—to music—following prescribed guidelines for safety and effectiveness. An experience advances that concept: Done right, it’s something clients look forward to, talk about and for which they will happily pay premium fees.

Hall’s group exercise studio is equipped with sound-activated lighting throughout the room, themed props, track lighting suspended above an elevated teaching stage, and a disco ball. Instructors use essential oils and candlelight during yoga classes and team-teach to kick up excitement and enhance the ambience. (Classes are prechoreographed Les Mills programs, so everyone is on the same page.)

The “experience” in the group exercise room is arguably as important as the technical aspects of the workout itself, says industry presenter Donna Cyrus. As New York City-based senior vice president of programming for Crunch, she has made a career of conceiving innovative group exercise experiences for the brand.

Benefits of the Upgraded Experience

The benefits of delivering an upgraded group exercise experience are many and diverse:

  • Clients like it.
  • Instructors stay.
  • It boosts business.
  • It attracts potential new clients.

Upgrading Your Group Experience

Group exercise upgrades come in several forms: special events, physical enhancements to the workout space, and easy-to-use quick fixes instructors can bring to class. Here are examples of each:

Think Theater and Go Mirror-Free

Participants want to be absorbed in a fun and motivating experience, not to watch their possibly out-of-shape bodies attempt to match a lithe instructor’s every shimmy and shake—that’s the Les Mills view.

For such reasons, the GoodLife clubs, in Canada, replaced front-of-studio mirrors with mirrors on the sides of the room, to be used for alignment and safety cues only, under the direction of Maureen Hagan, London, Ontario-based vice president of operations for GoodLife Fitness and 1998 IDEA Program Director of the Year. Instructors face the participants (i.e., mirror-teach) to create a theater effect, as if the exercisers were audience members watching performers on stage. This helps participants “lose themselves in the performance,” Hagan reports.

To further enhance the theater vibe, instructors at Simply Class—an independent gym in Belfast, Northern Ireland—teach from a stage built at the front of the room. “This provides [the same kind of] performance feel you would get in a theater or club,” notes owner Matthew McDowell. “Effectively all of our classes are a performance of the highest level, so a stage is a must.”

Lift the Mood With Lighting

There is perhaps no faster way to boost the mood of your fitness room than by upgrading the lighting system, say our experts.

Take Crunch’s big-budget example as inspiration. With the touch of a button, fitness pros can control lighting displays that are preprogrammed by theme. Instructors choose from programs designed to enhance high-energy classes, like cardio, or from a different set for “sexy” classes, such as workouts inspired by pole dancing. “Another button is available for wellness classes, such as Pilates or yoga, when the room is bathed in blue lights,” says Cyrus.

Avena wanted to create this kind of world-class feel for her small-town clientele but had a very tight budget—so she ordered lights online, and studio volunteers and an electrician friend installed them.

“As I could afford it, I bought nine wall sconces that I ran around the perimeter of the room using regular 60-watt bulbs,” Avena recalls. “I then got strips of lights (similar to outdoor Christmas light ropes) to run behind the stage for more ÔÇÿambient’ lighting.”

For more strategies, please see “Experiential Exercise: The New Way to Sweat” in the online IDEA Library or in the January 2014 print issue of IDEA Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at (800) 999-4332, ext. 7.


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.

When you buy something using the retail links in our content, we may earn a small commission. IDEA Health and Fitness Association does not accept money for editorial reviews. Read more about our Terms & Conditions and our Privacy Policy.


Subscribe to our Newsletter

Stay up tp date with our latest news and products.