What you should know about teaching pre-choreographed vs. freestyle group fitness programs

This is a group fitness post I’ve considered writing for a long time. I know that so many of you are either already in the fitness industry, are a group fitness class lover and thinking about one day joining the ranks, or are just an avid participant who likes to be in the know. That’s why I wanted to talk about a topic that is a bit controversial, depending who you talk to: The pros and cons of teaching a pre-choreographed program, rather than a “freestyle” class.

Here’s the deal, when you teach group fitness, there are a few scenarios for the instructor:

  • It’s a freestyle class, with a generic name and the instructor teaches whatever they want. This means the instructor makes up the format of the class, chooses the type of exercises, and they also select whatever music they like to go along with the workout.
  • It’s a branded class at a gym chain, such as Equinox or Crunch, and there are elements that the instructor must hit to stay true to the title of the class, but the music and moves are mostly up to instructor. It’s basically a loose framework for the instructor to follow.
  • It’s a pre-choreographed program with music and moves and counts, such as by the Les Mills or Beachbody brands, and the instructor has memorized everything they need to deliver. The instructor gets to pick out which “tracks” (or sets of moves combined with music) to do in a specific order, and then they use their own flair to teach the program in a live class setting.
  • It’s a pre-formatted program with moves provided, such as the Bootybarre brand, and the instructor follows a framework, but gets to pick and choose from sets of moves provided by the brand, deciding on counts and repetitions on their own. The instructor also gets to select their own music.
  • It’s a branded class at a private studio, the instructor follows a certain “focus” for the day, but also has the freedom to provide their own music and do the moves that they want, while staying true to the essence of the studio, such as SoulCycle or Barry’s Bootcamp.

When it comes to pre-choreographed or pre-formatted programs, why is it considered controversial to teach them? Who cares? Well, because before Les Mills group fitness was a big thing, fitness professionals used to think it was cheating or lame to teach something that someone else made up. I can totally understand this, in a way, and it’s not for everyone, but there are some DEFINITE benefits, and we’ll cover those today.

Before we get to that, I want to say that I have taught both pre-choreographed, pre-formatted and freestyle classes during my 10 years as a group fitness instructor. I got my start with Les Mills group fitness, I stayed with that for a long time, tried some freestyle (mostly outdoor boot camps and a core-focused class), coached at Orangetheory (which is a studio where instructors are given the moves, but have the ability to choose music and make small adjustments as well), and today, I teach a mixture of Les Mills pre-choreographed classes (which I memorize and deliver), as well as Bootybarre pre-formatted classes (which I put together by picking and choosing from sets of provided moves, selecting my own counts and reps and adding my own music and modifying as needed per each class), and so I feel I have a great mix. 

What you should know about teaching pre-choreographed vs. freestyle group fitness programs

What you should know about teaching pre-choreographed vs. freestyle group fitness programs by A Lady Goes West

Let’s get to the information …

The pros of teaching a pre-choreographed or pre-formatted program

  • Time saved creating workouts. The time spent coming up with safe workout moves that go well with great music is so much time! When you teach a program from one of the big brands, like Les Mills or Beachbody, you have to spend time memorizing, but you would have to do that anyway. Someone else — a team of fitness professionals whose full-time job it is to create the safest and most effective moves and trial those moves in a live class setting — is developing those workouts for you and taking so much of the legwork out of it. That’s huge. I mean, HUGE.
  • Time saved creating playlists. Do you know how hard it is to choreograph workout moves exactly to fit a song? You don’t just have to match the beat, you have to build in the right intensity of moves based on the chorus, verses, intro, outro, etc. Once again, wouldn’t it be nice to let the professionals who spend all day combing for the right music create the moves to match everything perfectly for you? (Of course, you still have to create playlists for pre-formatted programs, but the music doesn’t always have to be a perfect fit — you mostly just try to stick with the beat and the eight count.)
  • Safety for participants. Sadly, not all fitness professionals are created equal. There are a lot of unsafe and questionable exercise moves out there, and when you teach a program from one of the big brands, you know they are only choosing moves that are appropriate in a group setting, hopefully with various levels of difficulty depending on the participant. Could you choose safe moves yourself? Yes, I hope so, but once again, the people responsible for creating the workouts at larger fitness brands have trialed those moves on participants before and would never give you something to teach that isn’t 100 percent safe. And they tell you exactly what to say to cue the moves as safely as possible.
  • Consistency and expectations from participants. From the gym marketing side, this is a big one. People like to know what they’re going to get in a class, and it makes them come back again and again. When you teach a pre-choreographed or pre-formatted program, people are ready for what’s to come, and they know it will be quality. Especially when it comes to ZUMBA, Turbo Kick and Les Mills, even Pure Barre and Orangetheory, people long for the familiarity, so even though they may not know exactly what is coming, they have a general idea and can feel more successful. They never walk into something they aren’t expecting, and they always (well they usually) leave happy. With freestyle classes, the name can be misleading, and instructor’s interpretations of generic titles can leave some classes far harder or better than others. This isn’t a problem with a pre-choreographed or pre-formatted program.
  • Ability to focus on connection. If you are someone who teaches freestyle classes, you will be spending a lot of time preparing for your class, choosing music, practicing the moves (hopefully), and when it comes time to teach, you have so much going on in your head, you may not have as much mental ability to do the most important thing an instructor can do — connect with your participants in front of you. If you are able to memorize and internalize what you’re going to teach because you learned it from a pre-choreographed or pre-formatted template, then you’re free to work the room, look people in the eye and show up for them in the best way. Or at least this is my experience.
  • Easy to sub out. When you are a ZUMBA teacher or a Les Mills BODYPUMP teacher in a time-slot, it’s very easy to find someone to cover the class for you and have them teach something similar that your class members will enjoy. This definitely isn’t the case with freestyle classes, which can be incredibly different depending on the instructor.
  • Ongoing education and innovations. When you sign up to be an instructor with a pre-choreographed or pre-formatted program, you are usually required to do some sort of continuing education in order to stay certified. And if you keep teaching the latest releases from the fitness brands, you are always adding new moves and innovations, to keep things fresh. It’s pretty awesome, once again, to know that a team of professionals are focused on coming up with the next big thing for the workouts that YOU get to bring back to your participants in person. Good stuff.

As a note: When you teach a pre-formatted or pre-choreographed group fitness program, oftentimes you obtain your certification to teach directly through the company that offers the program. This is great, however, I think it’s a good idea to get a general group fitness or personal trainer certification, in addition, to give you a better perspective of fitness as a whole — so your only training isn’t from one brand.

What you should know about teaching pre-choreographed vs. freestyle group fitness programs by A Lady Goes West - July 2019

And don’t worry, this isn’t a one-sided post. Let’s check out the alternative …

The pros of teaching freestyle programs

  • The world is your fitness oyster. It should go without saying that the biggest benefit of teaching a freestyle (or loosely frame-worked) class is the freedom to teach whatever you want to teach. You choose the music, the moves and the difficulty. However, you need to match the class to the clientele at the gym or studio, but it’s up to you to use your craft. When you get inspired, you can put that inspiration into the workouts you’re teaching that week and change things as much or as little as you want.
  • Ability to teach anywhere. One of the other great things about teaching your own program is you can teach your class wherever and whenever you want to. When you train with a branded class like Les Mills, you can only teach that class at a facility that pays for the license, so you can’t go give a free class at a local park to drum up business. It’s a big no-no. Some pre-formatted programs let the actual instructor carry the license, for instance, Bootybarre and ZUMBA, so then you have a bit more freedom. But generally, the best kind of classes to give outdoors or at public spaces are the ones that you make up yourself, so there are no issues. Your ideas, your music, your workouts — your platform.
  • Opportunity to make a name for yourself and make more money. Although some group fitness instructors are introverts, many group fitness instructors are not — some may even want to be a star or a big name in the industry one day. While it’s tough to make a good living JUST teaching group fitness, it can be done, especially at the big fancy studios, where you can get a ton per class. And this also means that if you teach a freestyle class that is absolutely top notch and is drawing a huge crowd and even a wait-list, then you can demand more money from your facility. You can also make a name for yourself, if your class is unlike any other, and perhaps find a place as a leader in the group fitness world.
  • Freedom to modify and change the workout on the spot. If you teach a freestyle class and find that nearly everyone in the room that day raises their hand that they have a shoulder injury, you can take out all the shoulder work from your workout and come up with alternative exercises. If you find that all the weights are missing from the group fitness room, you can turn your workout into a bodyweight one. Once again, if the programming is up to you, then you can make changes as much as you want on the fly.
  • Chance to develop a unique style. Even though you can always infuse your personality and flair into a pre-choreographed or pre-formatted program, you can’t veer too far off the path. But when you teach a freestyle class, you can totally go all out and make themed classes, have a new focus whenever you want and develop your own unique style of teaching, leading, formatting the class and selecting exercises. And if you’re really good at it, once again, you could potentially turn your format into a business and maybe make your own pre-formatted or pre-choreographed program to franchise one day and share with others too.
  • No need to memorize choreography. I’ve actually talked to an instructor once who liked freestyle better than pre-choreographed because she didn’t like to memorize things. Hmmm. While I guess this is a pro, I still strongly believe that group fitness instructors should have a plan for every class in place and not need to access notes (perhaps a glance here and there, but still — prep work is key), but I guess if you are someone who struggles to learn choreography, then teaching freestyle is a chance for you to create simple and loose combinations that you can do in any order.
  • Less wear and tear on your body. With most of the pre-choreographed programs (and many of the pre-formatted too), instructors do the workout with the class. If you make up your own class, you can demo moves and then walk around correcting form — this gives you a chance to save your body from too much repetition when you’re teaching a lot of classes each week.
  • The pride of creation. While I happen to think that anyone who goes through the process of becoming a group fitness instructor and who works at their craft regularly should be proud of themselves — I also think that people who make up their own workouts do have the chance to take home perhaps just a tad more pride when the day is done, if they are filling classes and helping people get more fit, in a safe and effective way.

As a note: In order to teach freestyle programs, you can either obtain a general group fitness instructor certificate through AFAA, or you can get a branded cycling or spinning certification, or a Pilates or yoga certification, etc.

I will say that I think cycling/spinning is one of the easiest and best classes to teach as freestyle, because you don’t have a ton of movement outside of pedaling. It’s a great place to choose your tunes and do what goes with the flow. But please don’t add weights to the bike routine — just don’t. 

I also think that yoga is a great format to be done totally freestyle, because it’s truly up to the instructor to use their flow and knowledge. I do enjoy the format of CorePower Yoga, which is a private studio where classes follow a specific framework, but freestyle yoga is also good, depending on the instructor.

Pilates works well for freestyle too, because you aren’t moving around the room too much and do a lot of work on the ground.

Ashley at MNT event by A Lady Goes West - May 2019

Overall closing thoughts on teaching pre-choreographed vs. freestyle group fitness programs

If you have credentials and you lead workouts for groups of people — you are a group fitness instructor, whether you make the program up or not. I definitely do not think that one group of fitness professionals is better or more skilled than the other just because they choose to create choreography or not. When it comes down to it, if you can get more people working out and packing your classes, and you give them a safe and effective workout that makes them feel successful — you are doing your job. And that’s the truth.

Because I entered the fitness industry by becoming a Les Mills instructor and teaching a pre-choreographed program, I tend to think this is the best way to get started though. When you’re just starting out, you need as much help as you can get, and you’ll be nervous in front of a room. If you can take out the responsibility of creating the workout and choosing the music, you can focus on becoming the best instructor you can, in an in-person live setting, so you can learn the fundamentals and improve, improve, improve. Then, once you’re comfortable leading a room, perhaps you decide to teach a few freestyle classes with your own mix of moves and music. That’s what I did.

Tip ons on how to improve your skills as a group fitness instructor

  • Practice and have a plan. Never show up to a class without practicing it beforehand, even if you won’t be doing the workout with your class — you need to make sure that what you are asking the people in front of you to do is doable and has the right difficulty level. A workout can be totally different on the body than it is on paper, so never forget to trial the moves on yourself.
  • Focus on safety. I’ve taken a lot of freestyle classes where the instructor was trying too hard to do the most innovative and coolest moves around that we’d never seen before, so much so that the entire class was lost and frustrated. People are not going to a group fitness class to try ridiculously hard or intricate moves — they are going to get a great workout that challenges them, but is also doable. Don’t overcomplicate. Spend time doing effective, safe and simple moves. 
  • Teach to the participant. Have you ever gone to a class and seen the instructor constantly checking themself out in the mirror? Ugh. That annoys me to no end. Group fitness classes are not about the instructor. They are about the participants. In order to truly grow into a great group fitness instructor, you have to learn to pay attention to those in front of you — spend your energy helping everyone get a good and safe workout, motivating them, coaching them, and leaving your ego at the door.
  • Video yourself. Want to know something painful? Watching a video of yourself teaching a class when you’re new at a program. Perhaps that’s why Les Mills is known to have such great instructors, because EVERY Les Mills certified instructor has not only gone to an in-person training, but has also submitted a video of themself teaching a class. 
  • Take other classes and do other workouts. It’s so important to try new things, experience other studios, other formats, other styles and even other instructors in your own lane — not to copy anyone else, but to see what you like and don’t like and to see how participants respond in a class setting, when you aren’t the instructor. I also think that any instructor can learn from the Les Mills brand — whether or want you to teach it or not. I don’t think you should steal from Les Mills, but I do think that because the brand is such a leader and an innovator, it’s worth it to experience the classes. And you can try many of the Les Mills classes for 21 days for free, using my special referral link here. Let me know if you do!
  • Invest in your education. The fitness industry is constantly evolving, and group fitness instructors need to continue to learn, try new things and participate in continuing education. No matter your format, you should go to workshops, conferences like the IDEA World Fitness Convention I just came back from last month and any type of fitness industry event you can find. Never stop learning!

So there you have it! Teaching group fitness is a total passion project, and is a great way to get into the fitness industry, even when you have a full-time job in another field. I absolutely love group fitness and hope to be an instructor for many more years to come, because it’s SO much more fun and more powerful to work out with others and feel that community connection — much more so than working out alone.

No matter what type of format you choose to teach, freestyle, pre-formatted or pre-choreographed, keep working on your craft, keep trying to get more people moving and keep up your with own fitness and recovery as well.

Thank you SO much for reading. And if you have any questions, please let me know.

Other posts you may like …

Questions of the day

What kind of group fitness classes do you most like to take?

Freestyle vs. pre-choreographed?

Have you ever thought of becoming a group fitness instructor?

What’s your favorite kind of music to work out to?

How was your weekend?

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10 Comments

  1. That’s so funny! I just wrote about a similar topic the other day, talking about how I was considering getting certified in one of the Beachbody Live formats but decided not to.

    When it comes to classes I teach, I’m definitely a freestyle girl. I love having complete creative control over my classes, but I totally see the appeal in doing some of the pre-choreographed formats, especially Les Mills. I tried Les Mills On Demand after reading your posts and loved it!

    1. Hi Dominique! No way, so cool, I’ll have to check out your post. Which Beachbody Live were you considering? And with the freestyle classes you teach now — how often are you changing the choreography and music? I’d love to know your process. Props to you for keeping up with it all, and also props to you for helping people get a great workout in! 🙂

      1. Definitely check it out! 🙂 I was considering either P90X, Insanity, or Transform (their new step based class). I was really leaning toward Transform!

        With my barre classes, I typically change music and choreography every week. But I set up my classes so that each song is a different series – typically 1 warm-up song, 2 arm songs, 2 glute songs, a bunch of songs at the barre, 2 core songs, and 1 cooldown song! This makes it easy, because I can reuse a song later on but mix it in with other songs so it feels like new. Sometimes I’ll also reuse a series but put it with a different song!

        With HIIT, I just sub so I’m not teaching as often. That one is completely different every class, but I typically only teach 1-2 times a month.

        1. I don’t know as much as I should about the Beachbody programs, but love to hear they have a step-based class. We don’t have ANY step classes at my gym, and that’s definitely a format I would consider one day — it’s so good. I love the process you have for changing out your classes, because people DO NOT EXPECT nor need an entirely new workout every single class, so I’m glad to hear that you repeat things here and there — I find that people like to know what is coming or be able to master moves. Thanks SO much for your insight, lady! Keep up the amazing work!

  2. I’m a Pilates Instructor (teach mostly Reformer classes and privates) who also teaches some barre. I think both formats are great but for myself, I love freestyling! I don’t like to memorize and am more comfortable having creative freedom. I always have a layout and generally know what I’m going to do that day, but it’s fluid.

    1. Hi Amy! I totally agree that reformer Pilates is made for freestyle — no major choreography needed there — just flowing sequences that work the right muscles. I love to hear that you are always prepared with a plan for class too. I wish I took reformer classes more. Thank you so much for saying hi and sharing! Keep up the great freestyle teaching work! 🙂

  3. Great post Ashley! I’ve been teaching yoga completely freestyle for quite awhile. It helped that I had been practicing for 15+ years before getting certified. About a year ago my boss convinced me to get a barre certification. I love teaching barre but it takes considerably more preparation, practice, etc. I utilize a few different choreography subscriptions and for the most part follow a very specific plan for each class, but I use my own music and rarely choreograph music exactly to the song. I doubt if I’ve ever made it through all of the material I’ve had in mind for a class. I couldn’t agree more about the importance of TAKING other fitness classes and experiencing them as a student. If I’m not getting in a yoga class here and there, my flows feel a bit robotic and uninspired. Taking barre classes is always a great reminder of how difficult those last few burning 8 counts can be, that I don’t do when I’m teaching. The gym I work at offers Les Mills BODYPUMP, which I love to take 1-2 times/ week. The amount of prep you guys put into each release before you teach it is amazing!

    1. Hi Jenny! Oh yay! That is amazing to hear that you’re doing yoga as well as barre — always good to be diversified. And I love to hear that you have so much experience — your class members are lucky to have you. I often have more plans for my barre classes than I can get to in the 1-hour slot too. 🙂 Thank you SO much for saying hello and sharing!

  4. Great article carrie! At soul body we choreograph our barre classes for our certified instructors and they are loving it For exactly the reasons you listed above!! Plus the sb community (our squad) is so motivAting and inspires their participants from the energy and inspiration these classes bring.

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