What I’ve learned from teaching group fitness for 12 years

Is it really possible that I’ve been teaching group fitness for 12 years? It is!

While you know I teach classes every week, I don’t write about teaching as a craft as often as I used to. In fact, some of my most popular posts ever on A Lady Goes West are about group fitness. It’s a subject that is near and dear to my heart. And I don’t write about it as often now, because I know I used to cover it a lot. When you love something … you like to talk about it.

And here’s the deal: I’m absolutely not a perfect instructor. But I can say, without feeling boastful, that I’m a good one. Not because I’ve been doing it for a long time, but because I practice, I prepare, I educate myself, and I take it very seriously. It’s a real passion of mine, and I’d do it even if I wasn’t being paid. But it’s nice to get paid.

A little background on me and my story of teaching group fitness:

So what have I been teaching for these last 12 years? Here’s my history …

I was one of those nervous group fitness class members in the back of the room, who turned into an eager class member in the front of the room, who then turned into an instructor (encouraged by another instructor to go to a training, hi Teri, thank you!).

It all started when I began teaching Les Mills BODYPUMP after work while holding down a full-time public relations job in Orlando, Florida. I became obsessed with the New Zealand-based Les Mills group fitness company, and after moving to San Francisco, California, I even worked at the Les Mills office that used to be there. Then, I became certified to teach two other Les Mills formats, BODYATTACK and Les Mills CORE (formerly CXWORX), and taught several classes a week around San Francisco. During that time, I was growing my blog and finding a path to leave the corporate world behind. I then became a certified personal trainer and worked as a trainer at Equinox in San Francisco.

There’s a lot more to the story, but teaching group fitness started as a side hobby to me, then became a much larger part of my life and career. Throughout the years, I’ve been a coach at Orangetheory Fitness. I’ve also taught live/virtual classes for the Motus platform. And I’ve gone through countless trainings and programs, like Bootybarre, Pop Pilates and Les Mills advanced trainings.

I relocated to Charlotte in early 2021, and these days, I’m a studio performer at Life Time Charlotte. And I teach Barbell Strength, Shred and Life Barre, which are Life Time signature workouts. And although there is a suggested frame-work for my Life Time classes, I make up all the moves and find the music, so these are much more freestyle than Les Mills. It’s a real process, but one that I love. And I can say for sure that Life Time is an excellent place to work as an instructor — it’s high-quality, and that’s why I knew I wanted to work there even before we officially moved.

Over these last 12 years of teaching group fitness, I’ve grown, I’ve changed, I’ve developed, and I’ve absolutely learned a ton not only about group fitness, but also about people in general, by meeting and interacting with thousands of class attendees closely every week. This post will share some of those learnings with you …

What I’ve learned from teaching group fitness for 12 years

What I've learned from teaching group fitness for 12 years by A Lady Goes West

Everyone wants to feel successful. Instructors need to help their students succeed.

It doesn’t matter someone’s fitness level, gym experience or personal background, every single person walks into a group fitness room wanting to feel good about the work that they do in there. If they are doing their first workout in their life or if they are doing their third workout of the day. It’s something that brings us all together. We care. And I love to see all ranges of people working hard and doing their best. Nobody shows up planning to fail. Nobody shows up hoping to quit.

As an instructor, you have to help everyone to feel successful by offering levels, options and modifications even in a very hard class. And you need to speak to the class knowing that not everyone is an expert. You can absolutely be familiar with your class, but you should never teach your class like every attendee knows everything they need to know. Always help them to succeed.

What I've learned from teaching group fitness by A Lady Goes West

Everyone is a little insecure. Instructors need to treat everyone respectfully and as an equal.

Similar to the last point, just as everyone wants to feel successful based on their own level, everyone is also always worried about what they look like and how they are doing. Even the most fit person is watching themself in the mirror and watching their performance. But what you should definitely know is that most often, people are NOT watching each other. This is hard for newcomers to understand, because they often feel they will be on display. But that’s simply not the case. People watch the instructor, or they watch themselves. Everyone is hoping that no one else is judging them. The instructor included.

As an instructor, you have to remember that people may be feeling a little unsure, so make eye contact with everyone as an equal without any judgment. And work to build people up and help them be confident in their movement and themselves in each and every workout.

And this should go without saying, (but I guess it needs to be said, because I’ve seen it done poorly), you should NEVER single anyone out in a negative way in front of the whole class. Never. You can correct people and adjust them off the microphone or with eye contact only, and that’s how a skilled instructor does it.

People want to know their instructor as a person. Instructors should try to get to know their students as well.

I don’t think you should be talking about your cat non-stop during the workout. There’s nothing worse than a chatty instructor that never shuts up and goes off topic. However, there is a time and place for adding personal anecdotes.

Before or after class, you can socialize with your members to get to know them and to share about yourself. As an instructor, you shouldn’t be a boring robot who leads a workout without a single smile or bit of personality. You should let people get to know you, but you have to do it in just the right amount, so as not to go overboard. This takes trial and error.

Above all, ask questions to your members before and after class to learn about them. But don’t talk too much about too much junk. It takes away from the experience. Also, people LOVE it when you learn their name and can call them by it. It’s not easy to learn names when you teach a lot of classes, but it’s absolutely worth the effort.

You have no idea what people are going through in their personal lives. Instructors should help students be in the moment and always be kind.

Over the years of connecting with and talking to so many people inside the group fitness studio, I’ve learned that you have no idea how much someone has had to overcome, or how much they are currently working through just to be in that room that day. These people are making time for themselves, and they are doing it because they know they are better off for it. We must respect everyone’s time. And we must know that this class means a lot to many people. I’m talking about single moms. Caretakers. Business owners. Cancer patients. Grievers. Widows. There are so many things that people are carrying with them when they arrive. And when they show up, they want to forget about it all for a little while. 

As an instructor, it’s your job to be kind, to promote kindness in your class, and to help everyone be in the moment when they are with you — so they can feel even slightly less burdened for a short time. We all have so many things to think about or worry about, but we should always focus on the work at hand. This is easier said than done, and a great instructor brings people into the space and encourages them to zone out, do their thing and take it all in.

Teaching group fitness by A Lady Goes West

As an instructor, you are an example from the second you get out of your car to walk into your gym or studio, until you are back in your car. People are watching you.

Being a group fitness instructor is an important job, because you can be an inspiration to people. You can also be a bad example. While it used to be that an instructor was on display in front of the room only, I think it’s much more than that now. An instructor’s attitude, posture, composure and general demeanor is very important all the time.

I hate to see an angry and disgruntled instructor rushing into the gym, not holding doors for others and barely smiling at anyone. These interactions matter, because you never know who is watching you and considering coming to your class one day. I’ve been so surprised to hear how people watch your outfits, your personal workouts, your conversations and even your attendance, when they know of you as an instructor. And of course, all of this is just heightened with social media.

Once again, this is a real lesson for life — not just group fitness. How you treat people when you aren’t in the spotlight, how you act when you aren’t in front of others matters. As an instructor, you should be a good person even when you aren’t on the stage. Be polite. Show up as a leader, as a good example, and set the stage before you even walk into the door.

Every single group fitness class should feel like a journey with a beginning, middle and an end.

Over the many years that I’ve taken classes and taught classes, I can tell you that every single class should be a journey. There should be a welcome, an introduction, a beginning, a build up, some middle content, a peak, with a tapering, a finale, a finish and a close. This is necessary. And it’s a lesson for life. Not everything should be a constant-level stream forever. People like beginnings (not always middles), and people like endings.

I cannot stand it when an instructor begins a class with a shouting yell and holds that same-decibel of a yell throughout the entire class with no inflection. There needs to be moments of silence. There needs to be peaks and valleys. This is an instructor’s job to create with their voice, their music, their moves and their programming — all the way from the warm-up to the cool-down. And even if you’re teaching a pre-choreographed program like Les Mills, you need your coaching style to reflect the story of the music throughout the tracks. 

As an instructor, you should treat every class like a full experience, with a clear start and finish, using a range of vocal inflection and words to paint the picture and tell the whole story. Instructors who never change their inflection or level are not good instructors. Your voice is a huge tool, and you have to use it. And your body language, facial expressions and energy should follow the pattern, so that you can help your participants feel the journey. If you present a full journey, they will feel more connected, more successful and more entertained.

Group fitness instructor by A Lady Goes West

Simple done well, beats complex done mediocre any time.

This is a lesson for life, my friends. Simple done well, beats complex done mediocre any time. I know it’s not sexy, but the basics are what get you fit. The basics are what help you to grow. The simple basics are the foundation. Yes, you can build on them, but you need to do the simple stuff very well, before attempting the complex. I think the best classes take simple moves, add difficulty with intensity slowly, and let you feel what you need to feel as much as you want to feel it, without crazy intricacies. 

As an instructor, you need to focus on getting people to nail the basics, before adding too much fancy stuff that isn’t necessary. I’ve seen so many instructors trying so hard to be different and creative that the set-up for a single move takes three or four minutes, and people get lost and never feel what they need to feel anyhow — and they get frustrated and don’t feel successful. And no, I’m not saying things need to be easy. I’m saying there’s a difference between keeping your workouts fresh and innovative with variety, than being complex just to be complex. Help people be successful by building off doable movement patterns. I love a solid workout that provides intensity in simple ways. And I think most people agree with that.

People love to feel like they are part of a team.

This should not be a surprise, but anyone who is willing to show up to a group fitness class wants to feel like part of the team. No one wants to be left behind. People want to feel like they are working toward a common goal with others, all moving in the same direction and putting effort in together. It’s a simple idea, but an important one to remember in the studio, while teaching group fitness, as well as in daily life. 

As an instructor, you need to use inclusive language to support your members. You need to let them know that they all belong, they are all part of the collective goal, and they are all part of the team. This feels good, it builds community, and it keeps people coming back over and over again as committed regulars.

Group fitness by A Lady Goes West

Other things I’ve learned from teaching group fitness …

  • Everyone is working through some physical thing. Nobody and no body is perfect. Oftentimes, instructors are working to heal areas of weakness, just like class attendees are. It’s normal to have areas of weakness, and it’s okay to share that with your class. Nobody is perfect.
  • People don’t learn about the importance of recovery until they get injured. Recovery is essential for everyone. I love to see eager class attendees who have a full workout schedule. But I hate to see class attendees who go super hard every single day and never take time to recover. Instructors too. You don’t understand how much you need to rest, stretch, foam roll and do other recovery methods until you face your first injury. Recovery matters.
  • Music matters. Class music should be as diverse as class attendees. People all have different tastes in musics. And unless an instructor is teaching a musically themed class, music choices and song selection should have at least some diversity. 
  • Repetition isn’t sexy, but it’s beneficial. I think that an instructor should repeat the same class plan two weeks in a row, at a minimum, in most cases (not in all, especially something like cycle). People need a chance to get the hang of moves and timing, so they can add intensity as they are more comfortable with patterns. Depending on the format of the class, you can repeat similar plans for two weeks in a row, potentially more. But of course, you shouldn’t teach the same thing every week, week after week. You’ll need to read the room and vary the workout as often as perhaps two to five weeks — once again, totally depending on the setting. But, just as in life, repetition in the group fitness studio is beneficial.

Concluding thoughts …

I could go on and on, but I’ve let this one get a little long, as I tend to do. Once again, I’m not sharing all of this because I think I’m an all-knowing expert instructor. I’m a student too. I’m sharing the things that I’ve picked over the years that can be lessons for other parts of our life. And these can certainly be lessons for newer or always-learning instructors.

And if you’re reading this and you’ve yet to go to a group fitness class, what are you waiting for? It could change your life! It sure changed mine. Have fun!

Thank you for reading this post about teaching group fitness! Come say hi to me on Instagram, if you’d like! Have a wonderful day! 🙂

Lessons from teaching group fitness by A Lady Goes West

Other posts you may like …

I’ve written a lot about teaching group fitness (and taking it) over the years. Here are a few of the best ones …

Questions of the day

What makes you like or dislike a group fitness instructor?

Have you taken a group fitness class recently?

What’s your current favorite type of workout to do?

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4 Comments

  1. This post definitely makes me miss group fitness! I’m not sure I’m ready to get back to the gym with covid, but my old gym changed up their schedule so much anyway that the classes I like aren’t available at times I could attend, so it’s Les Mills on demand for me for the foreseeable future.

    1. Hi Julie! Les Mills On Demand is an AMAZING alternative, so keep up with that. And hopefully, when the time is right for you, you can fit in some live group fitness here and there. And maybe the schedule will expand by then. Have a wonderful week, friend! 🙂

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