What I learned from taking time off from teaching group fitness

Teaching group fitness talk coming your way!

This post has been in the back of my mind for quite a while. And it’s about time I put pen to paper (or fingers to keys, you know what I mean). Before we begin, let’s do a quick lay of the land on my history with group fitness.

A little bit of background on my history with group fitness

I entered into the world of fitness with teaching Les Mills BODYPUMP almost 10 years ago when I lived in Orlando and was working as a public relations account manager during the day at an agency. I continued teaching BODYPUMP as a hobby, moved across the country, created my blog, left the corporate world and became a personal trainer at Equinox for a while and then started teaching way more classes and new programs. I even worked as a coach at an Orangetheory Fitness too.

At one point, after leaving one-on-one training behind, I taught more than 15 group fitness classes a week of varying formats at several facilities. The shift started when I went through a process of trying to heal my hormones and recover from hypothalamic amenorrhea (overexercising, to oversimplify it), which meant I had to cut back on teaching and working out. Eventually, I was able to get pregnant, and that made me reduce my teaching/working out load a little more as I no longer felt comfortable teaching some programs. Then, once I had Brady, I had to stop teaching altogether, not only to recover, but also because I didn’t have anyone to watch him and he wasn’t old enough for childcare at the gym. That being said — I went from 15 classes a week, down to 10, to 8, to 5, to 3, to 2 to 1 to … zero! I took six full months off of teaching anything at all, which was a much longer break than I had ever taken before, since starting my teaching career.

Over the past year, I’ve gone from teaching 1 class a week to 2, and have subbed maybe once a month too. But now, starting next week, I’ll officially have three regular classes on the schedule again, including two barre sessions and a Les Mills BODYATTACK (woohoo). So I’m definitely getting back into things, although I think three classes is probably a good limit for me right now based on everything else I have going on. That’s the background. Now, let’s talk about what I learned …

What I learned from taking time off from teaching group fitness

Group fitness has changed my life, changed my body, changed my career and has done wonders for me overall. But, taking time off from teaching group fitness has done wonders for me as well. Today, I wanted to share all of the things that I thought and learned during my time away. 

What I learned from taking time off from teaching group fitness by A Lady Goes West

As an instructor, it’s not about YOU, it’s about them.

I’ve always known that the workout in a group fitness class is about the participants and not about the instructor, but being on the participant side a lot more over the last year and a half has certainly cemented that for me. Here’s why: People want to have a great group fitness instructor in front of them to lead them, but when it comes down to it, they are WAY more worried about how their bodies feel, how their bodies look and how they are doing in the workout rather than how the instructor is doing.

Sometimes, as instructors, we think everyone is staring at us the entire time watching our every move and breath — and well — I’m here to say that that’s just not the case. Most people are staring at themselves. I’ve looked around so many times and seen this firsthand. It’s the TRUTH. Does this mean instructors can slack off? Absolutely NOT, but it does mean that instructors need to shift their mindset and coaching to know that they need to deliver what the participants want and need in front of them that day. Don’t try to be perfect, just try to lead with example with a participant-first plan, look at THEM, don’t look at yourself. It’s not your show or your performance, it’s THEIR workout. (I literally cannot stand to see an instructor stare at his/her reflection in the mirror throughout class, by the way. Like STOP.)

As long as you’ve got good energy as an instructor, participants don’t care if you mess up.

If I’m taking a class from a good instructor, I couldn’t care less if they mess up, and that’s a fact. As an instructor, you can get a little obsessed with being perfect (especially if you are teaching pre-choreographed programs like Les Mills, which require you to memorize moves to music in a very specific order), and that just doesn’t matter. People come to your classes if you deliver a well-rounded experience over the course of each visit. They don’t care, nor will they remember, if you missed a step, missed a beat, fumbled your words or did something a little imperfectly. Most of the time, people won’t even know you messed up either, so no need to say anything if you do.

Once again, it’s not about you. It’s about them. Do your best, teach effectively, coach well, and don’t even give a slight slip-up a second thought. It’s way better to have more energy to support your members than it is to be rigid and thinking nothing but about how you look and whether you skipped a count. Loosen up and just teach the best you can. I’ve definitely walked out of my own classes in the past a little upset about a slight wobble, and you know what, I bet nobody thought anything of it but me. Now I know that!

Ashley at FlyWheel in September 2018 - by A Lady Goes West

Watching yourself in the mirror as a participant is incredibly valuable to fix little form mistakes. And you’ve got to GO to classes other than your own too.

I’ve worked on my form quite a bit in various classes while attending as a participant, because I’m able to watch what I’m doing in the mirror the entire time instead of facing the class as an instructor. It’s so helpful! When I was teaching way too many classes, I didn’t have the time or the energy to be a participant, so I didn’t go to anyone else’s classes but my own. And that’s not good. It made me stagnant.

I’ve made little tweaks to things that I didn’t know I was doing in the past, and it’s made me have better form overall. As an instructor, you’ve got to attend classes and practice your classes in the mirror — there is no substitute for that. I’m so glad that I’ve spent so much time on the other side of the room over the last year working on things that perhaps needed to be fixed and I didn’t know about.

Especially after recovering from having a baby, I felt so weak in my core for so long (and am STILL working on it, 16 months after giving birth), and that loss of core strength has affected my push-ups and my squats significantly. If it weren’t for the mirror, I wouldn’t have realized I was letting my torso dip forward a bit too much in weighted squats in BODYPUMP — and it was a core issue mostly. I had to lower my weights and watch myself in the mirror over and over to start to fix it. It’s still getting fixed!

A side note to this is that a lot of participants stare in the mirror SO much, they forget to watch the instructor at all. That’s why, I like to sometimes say something along the lines of “Everyone take a look over at me right now for this demo.” Because eyes are always drawn to the mirror if not. The point of this reflection is that you need to TAKE classes as an instructor, you need to look in the mirror more when practicing or in another instructor’s class, and you have to help your participants find that happy medium between watching their own form and yet still taking enough of your lead by glancing at you when needed.

Learnings from taking time off from teaching group fitness by A Lady Goes West

Being a robot instructor is boring, boring, boring. You’ve got to show some personality.

I like to hear at least one thing about an instructor’s life or about the world when taking a class other than the work at hand. I don’t want to hear the instructor tell a full story, babble on or be so off-topic we don’t work, but I do want something extra, something that’s not a count, a rep or a form check. I think that adding your personality, whether that be in the intro, cool-down, water break or whatever — is so instrumental to connecting with people. You’ve got to give a little bit of yourself to let people see you as a human and be able to relate to you, in addition to respecting you as the leader in the room. I’ve seen some instructors who are total robots, and it’s boring. Goodbye.

When I teach barre, there’s this sideline series in the middle of class that I always use to CONNECT. I set everyone up with some repetitive moves, and then, when they are looking right at me, and I’m looking at them, I share 1-2 short things that take their mind off the workout and engage with them. Doesn’t matter what it is, but it always elicits some smiles. That’s the point of it. If you’re an instructor who is laser focused on nothing but the work and barely even says “hello, welcome to class” before spewing out instructions, I’d say you may want to rethink that. 

My favorite instructors (some of whom happen to be my friends), always have a little bit of flare in their classes by sharing a couple of fun things throughout the work or at the beginning or end. I love that. I also happen to love it when they make a mistake. It’s human.

Taking time off from teaching group fitness by A Lady Goes West

Be prepared, be ready, start on time and realize what a big effort it is for people to make it to your class.

You have know idea what people have to go through to get a workout class. For me these days, I have to get out the door with Brady, fight for parking in a very busy gym parking lot, cross my fingers that the gym kid-care isn’t full so they can take Brady in, then I have to wait in line for class hoping to get a spot and get equipment, if it’s required. It’s a lot. Those are three big barriers to entry I have to cross just to go to a class. Other people may have even more than that.

That’s why, I’ve learned that we never know what people are doing before they show up in front of you. So you have to treat the class as a big and important deal for everyone in attendance each and every time, even if you’ve taught a lot of classes that day. Be prepared. Start on time. Thank people for attending. Show appreciation for the effort they’ve made JUST to get there, and then guide them along the workout while they’re there in front of you with your very best effort (with imperfections, personality and all). And that’s that!

I could go on and on about what I think makes a great class and instructor, but I’ve written other posts about that before, so we’ll end this one here. (Check out those additional posts linked below.)

Post-BODYATTACK pic of Ashley by A Lady Goes West

Closing thoughts

Overall, I have to say that becoming a group fitness instructor was something I never expected to do (in fact, when my favorite instructor kept telling me I should go to BODYPUMP training, I pushed her off maybe three times over the course of several months). But, then I said yes, and group fitness slowly changed the course of my life little by little, bringing me to where I am today.

I’m SO grateful for my love and passion for fitness and that I get to share it with so many amazing people both in person and online. I will continue to practice, teach and learn for as long as I can and know that I’ll always have a lot of work to do to stay in this game.

If you’re thinking about becoming an instructor, GO FOR IT. And if you haven’t popped into a group fitness class even as a participant yet, what are you waiting for? It could change your life.

Thank you for reading! I’d LOVE to know your thoughts on group fitness in the comments below. Have a great start to your week, and I’ll see you over on Instagram until we meet again here!

Here are some other posts on group fitness you may like …

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Questions of the day

Do you take group fitness classes?

What’s something you always notice about your favorite or least favorite instructors?

What’s your favorite group fitness class?

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20 Comments

  1. Wish I could take one of your classes! I bet you are fantastic.

    Starting late has been my biggest pet peeve with a group fitness class in the past. I am pretty rigid with time so I guess I tend to be higher maintenance when it comes to that, but it bugs me when something like this is late. Either we end late and I have somewhere to be or we miss out on time within the class.

    Anyway, happy Monday and thank you for sharing your thoughts. Xo

    1. Hi Courtney! Yessss, this is especially hard for some of my classes that are IMMEDIATELY following a class before that runs over time, so I’m with you on that. We’ve got to respect people’s times, particularly the early morning folks who are there before work — but I don’t go to the gym at that time any more. 🙂

  2. Congrats on the new Body Attack class!
    For me I’ve learned that group fitness is by far the best motivator for me, I’m prone to slacking when I’m on my own but this year I’ve been taking a group spin class and a group weights class (just 10 women doing circuits) and I’m in a really good place with them.

    I notice when the instructor is encouraging (sounds silly as everyone should be but some go out their way to make eye contact or give a thumbs up) and makes all the difference!

    1. Hi! Ohhh cool, so your group weights class is sort’ve like small group training? Sounds awesome — you get more personal attention that way. And YES for instructors being encouraging — they MUST be that way for sure. Thanks for saying hi, lady! So glad to hear you’re still loving classes.

  3. This is a great post! I accidentally stumbled into the world of being a group fitness instructor. I am an exercise physiologist, and ended up having to sub for someone as a literal last minute emergency situation. That led to subbing another class, and another, and long story short, almost 10 years later I teach a variety of formats from Spin to senior fitness, to bootcamps, and more. These tips you shared are all great reminders for instructors! Thank you!

    1. Heather! That’s so cool how you were sort’ve meant to be an instructor I guess. You must like it if you’ve added programs and stuck around for so long. Thanks for reading!

  4. I really like this post because I’ve only taken classes and haven’t taught any. I do imagine that as an instructor you are always learning so I’m glad you spoke about that as well. I especially agree with the last point. There was a point in my life where my job was so miserable and going to a spin class was truly the highlight of my day. It felt so nice when the instructor took the time to learn my name and ask about my day!

    1. Hi Virjinia! Yesss, group fitness can totally be the highlight of someone’s day, and it’s really important for instructors to know that. Thanks for reading and I hope you’re still taking classes! 🙂

  5. I wholeheartedly agree! I love group fitness classes and miss them. Can’t wait to get back, but it will be at a different gym and I will really miss my favorite instructors. Hope to make it to your class soon!!

  6. I love your posts and great advice! I was wondering if you think it is better to teach fewer (like 3 or ?) formats than teach several different. I am teaching 7 classes a week and 5 different formats. I find it is a lot of work to keep up with all 5. Any advice?
    Thank you so much for all the great info

    1. Hi Kristina! Thanks SO much! I DEFINITELY think that you want to have a master on your formats and teach each program twice a week — that’s sort’ve a rule — so having five formats and only seven classes, means you aren’t teaching any of them very much. But, it depends on how different the formats are. Are you teaching Les Mills or are you making up your own workouts? I feel like three programs is the sweet spot, but then again, you could be able to handle more like four. If it’s too much work keeping up with as many as you have, try consolidating – it could make you enjoy it a lot more! 🙂

  7. Hi Ashley! Thank you for all the great info! I was wondering if you recommend an instructor teaching only a few formats instead of many. I teach 7 classes and 5 different formats but it is really hard to prepare for all these classes. What do you think? Thank you again

  8. Girl, such a great post!! Love your thoughts, and totally agree 100%. As an instructor I am often humbled by the sacrifices people make to get to my class, so you best believe we are gonna have an epic time! Thanks for the reminders to keep things fresh and focus on them — it really is all about the participants. <3

    1. Hi Annette!! YESSSS, people jump through hurdles to get to group fitness classes, so they deserve so much praise just for making it. Thank YOU for being a passionate instructor and doing so much good out there for so many people! 🙂 oxoxo

  9. Hi Ashley. Do I have to tell you my favorite group class. Of course it is the only one I take, spinning. I have two favorite instructors. Been with both over ten years. Both have wonderful personalities. They both put as much effort into teaching the class as they expect from their participates. My pet peeve is people talking during the class.

    1. You do love your spin, Richard! And that’s so great you’ve found something you love so much! I also get annoyed when people talk during class. So rude!

  10. Love this topic and post! I’m a pilates instructor that teaches a barre class for fun, too. Soooo important to keep being a student. Keeps me in touch with what I appreciate in teachers and always stay fresh and engaged!

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