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August 2010

Motivate and Challenge Your Clients with Occasion-based Programming


The majority of today’s fitness programs are ongoing classes and personal training sessions aimed at retaining clients for the long haul. The intention is good: to keep clients on track with healthy living. However, sometimes “the long haul” leads to waning motivation. An alternative approach is to build programming around a beginning, a middle and, yes, an end—with the intention of delivering goal-oriented experiences. Once a series of classes or training sessions is complete, you simply start them up again—but as a new programming package.

This is called occasion-based programming and it may well be the future of personal training and group exercise, according to Jay Blahnik, a leading fitness presenter, writer, innovator of fitness products and programs, and consultant to fitness companies such as Nike and Nautilus. Consider programs that are outside the fitness industry, Blahnik says. They are designed to maximize participant attendance and skill advancement. For example, many community-based programs—cooking classes, dance classes, walking clinics—are goal-oriented with a start date and an end date. No one expects participants to show up to the same level of pottery class every week at the same time for the rest of their lives! In the fitness industry, however, too often we take the opposite approach. “Many gyms are set up as the place you go to exercise until you die,” jokes Blahnik. “There’s no end to that Monday class that’s been on the group exercise schedule for 15 years!”

Why Occasion-based Programming Works

An alternative to programming with no end in sight is fitness training with a sense of occasion: limited-time programs that generate commitment, excitement and accountability among clients (and maybe even fitness pros). Each occasion, or program, provides something to work toward—a goal, experience, theme, event to train for or skill acquisition. And, notes Blahnik, clients stay motivated because they know the program won’t go on forever. “One way to create more energy around a class or personal-training situation is to have it end,” he says. Programs with cutoff dates generate interest because people are naturally drawn to setting and reaching goals. And they look forward to special occasions, including special fitness occasions.

“It’s part of the human condition to get excited about things that start and stop—that sense of occasion,” says Blahnik. “However, that doesn’t mean your programs can’t continue after you’ve reached the end date. You just start them again.”

Breaking Down Barriers to Exercise

Occasion-based programming reignites exercise motivation and provides fresh challenges for long-time gym-goers and training clients, but it also eases newcomers’ anxiety about getting started with exercise.

“Programming around a sense of occasion creates less intimidation,” says Blahnik. Because it can be intimidating to enter a class full of regulars, fitness pros can help lift anxiety about joining a new workout by offering packages of limited-time classes or boot camps. That way, everyone experiences “the first class” at the same time. “And there’s a jumping-off point to help new participants feel like they belong,” says Blahnik.

On the other hand, the opposite problem may exist in one-on-one personal training. Namely, there’s no “escape” route for clients, which can be equally intimidating. “Some clients might not sign up with you because they don’t know how they will ‘break up’ with you if they have to,” says Blahnik. Allowing clients to enter a client–trainer relationship with a built-in end date can help ease that “break-up” anxiety.

However, does providing such an opportunity for escape let clients off the hook too easily, while making trainers more vulnerable to revenue loss? Blahnik doesn’t see it that way. “A lot of trainers might worry that if they book people for only four or six weeks, clients won’t renew with them,” he says. “The other way to look at it is that maybe clients will renew with you more often because they’re excited about the goal and the ending they’re working toward. If you’re good at managing relationships, clients will be there.”  

How to Create Occasion-based Programs

Occasion-based programming can be integrated into any personal-training or group-exercise department. According to Blahnik, the best way to generate the biggest payoff with the least amount of work is to build an occasion-based program around a regularly scheduled class, perhaps one you’ve already been teaching for some time. For example, establish a theme, end goal or event to train toward within a set timeframe, such as four or six weeks.

Ideas for Creating Your Own Occasion-based Programming

Whether you lead group fitness classes, train one-on-one, or both, here are some ideas to help you identify occasion-based programs that fit your skill set and also appeal to your clients:

Scheduled Community Events

  • Fitness-related charity fundraiser
  • Community-based walk/run
  • Local triathlon
  • Local 5K, 10K or half-marathon race

Group Outings and Recreation

  • A hike or round of golf
  • Sports game (e.g., baseball, soccer)
  • Local cycling tour
  • Seasonal (e.g., beach volleyball, snowshoeing)

Goal/Promise-oriented Themes

  • Weight loss (e.g., last 10 pounds)
  • Bridal boot camp
  • Skill acquisition (e.g., weight-training basics, learn to running injury-free)
  • Physical transformation or enhancement (e.g., tighter abs/stronger back)

“Even if the class is always at 6 o’clock on Monday nights on the schedule, think of what it would be like if, for say six weeks, you could sign up with your friends and work toward a common goal or event,” says Blahnik. Participants could attend the class as usual, but with their attention focused on the chosen occasion, such as training for a local 5K charity race or a group hike. Any relevant theme will do as long as the training focus culminates in an end date, event or results-oriented promise.

As a bonus, a class with a sense of occasion allows attendees to be exposed to new fitness concepts, pursuits or events, even if they don’t participate in those events right away. For example, participants that would have never considered hiking up a mountain or taking part in a rowing event might eventually give it a try after attending a series of classes with an occasion-based training theme.

“It doesn’t have to be a giant event or payoff for people to feel that sense of occasion when it ends,” says Blahnik. While occasion-based programming works well for races and events— such as training for an actual or imaginary triathlon—the process and outcome need not be competitive. For example, says Blahnik, “You could offer the ‘promise’ in yoga of learning to do a beautiful Sun Salutation in six weeks.”     

Likewise, personal trainers could work with clients individually or as part of group training or boot camps, leading those who are interested in participating toward a common event or goal, such as a group hike, charity walk or 10-pound weight loss.

bike ride

When to Run Occasion-based Programs

While it works well to generate excitement around a specific occasion, such as an upcoming holiday or community race, you can use occasion-based training to inject excitement into your clients’ programs at any time. “It’s like a New Year’s resolution in the middle of the year,” says Blahnik.

Introducing a Sense of Occasion in the Fitness Industry

Ongoing fitness classes and personal training will always be a staple in the fitness industry. However, as fitness consumers continue to seek out new challenges, experiences and inspiration, occasion-based programming will likely play a larger part in the fitness industry’s overall offerings. As such, consider how you can introduce this highly motivating programming experience to your clients and participants, now and in the future.


Amanda Vogel

Amanda Vogel, M.A., holds a master’s degree in human kinetics and is a certified fitness pro in Vancouver, British Columbia. In addition to being the co-author of Baby Boot Camp: The New Mom’s 9-Minute Fitness Solution (Sterling, January 2010), Amanda owns Active Voice, a writing, editing and consulting service for the fitness industry. Her articles have appeared in Prevention, Shape, Health and SELF. You can reach her at,, or @amandavogel.

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