The tremendous growth of fitness franchises in recent years provides more teaching opportunities than ever before for health and exercise professionals. Fitness franchises are seemingly everywhere. For example, Anytime Fitness, with about 4,500 total territories sold, was the first franchise to land on all seven continents.
Meanwhile, Planet Fitness appeared in Entrepreneur magazine’s “Top 10 Best Franchises to Open in 2019” (across all categories). Planet Fitness made the list partly due to its membership jumping 65% between 2015 and 2018. More members and locations means potentially more demand for classes.
Based on performance and projected return on investment, Franchise.com ranked Anytime Fitness, Orangetheory Fitness and Crunch among the top fitness franchises to own in 2019. These brands offer group classes at some or all their locations.
These stats tell us what many industry insiders already know: Fitness franchises are booming and will likely continue to gain popularity. Compared to working at a traditional gym, what do fitness franchises offer health and exercise professionals?
This article mines the expertise of instructors who teach for popular franchises to uncover major differences associated with working for a fitness franchise versus teaching traditional, freestyle classes. Weighing all your options can help you decide which approach (if not both) is best for you.
Teaching Franchise Classes Versus Traditional Classes
Any instructor who teaches traditional group fitness knows the amount of prep work that goes into planning a class. For the most part, you’re expected to come prepared with a full program of exercises, choreography, modifications, music and more. At most franchises, a lot of that prep work is done for you—sometimes by top experts in the field—which can save time in your daily routine.
“The top difference I’ve experienced coaching for a franchise versus traditional group fitness is the methodization,” says Lauren Shaver, an instructor and director of the San Diego−based franchise FIT4MOM. Methodization can be beneficial because it takes prepping off the instructor’s plate. But that convenience comes with a trade-off: You lose out on exercising your own creativity.
Franchise instructors might have much less autonomy compared to teaching traditional group fitness. “In a franchise, you are part of a larger whole, so you have to be a team player to an extent. If you’re used to being an island, this can require a paradigm shift,” says Shaver. “This can definitely seem discouraging to an instructor who wants to ‘prove’ him- or herself or separate him- or herself from every other exercise professional in town.”
Shaver speaks from experience. After teaching independently at first, she made the transition to teaching “within the guardrails of franchise requirements,” as she puts it. “As a newer instructor, I felt insulted and stripped of my creativity,” she recalls. “However, as I became a more veteran fitness instructor, I appreciated those guardrails for the actual freedom they allotted me to focus on becoming a better coach and instructor.”
Alternatively, established instructor and Fitness Education Specialist Kim Bond feels there’s more freedom teaching traditional classes: “General group allows you more freedom to provide service with real-life scenarios,” she says. “In a general group fitness class, you can gauge the experience and conditioning level of the participants and instruct to it with proper cueing and visuals. You can speak to the exercise and the demographics, working in the moment with your knowledge and the participants.” According to Bond, who has experience teaching at Orangetheory Fitness near Vancouver, B.C., it’s more difficult to accomplish all that with pre-set franchise classes. “In a class of 20 or more with demographics from zero fitness level to athlete level, there’s no way you can provide the same experience to everyone,” she says.
Based on marketing, many franchises do tend to attract a wide swath of ages and abilities, as do many traditional gyms. However, franchises also provide the opportunity to target specific niches, as is the case with FIT4MOM or Baby Boot Camp. For example, participant demographics in stroller-fitness programs tend to be fairly similar (women of childbearing age), with programming that addresses a very particular audience, including modifications they might typically require. Teaching for these targeted franchises might make the instructor’s job that much easier.
To Bond’s earlier point, diversions from a pre-set program might be useful at times, so why are franchise instructors often expected to follow a tight script? In reality, some—but not all—franchises do permit various degrees of teacher autonomy, either officially or unofficially. However, a hallmark of franchise service is consistency across the board. How far can instructors go?
“The franchise-brand integrity must be maintained,” says Shaver, “which means every exercise professional needs to be delivering the same product.”
However, could attention to general consistency interfere with individual successes? “Brands authorize exercises to be approved or not approved,” Bond says. “If you give a non-brand-approved exercise for any reason, it could be brought to your attention and you would have to go back to the brand’s exercise option, whether that was appropriate for the participant or not.” Many franchises simply aren’t built for personalization.
Finally, when it comes to differences between working for a franchise versus a traditional gym, some instructors might feel as if they receive a higher level of professional support at a franchise. “[With franchises], we are all doing the same thing, just in different locations, and so we can all work together to raise each other up,” says Annie Mills, owner of a Baby Boot Camp franchise in Eugene, Ore. “A lot of times, even if you have support within the gym, you are all teaching at the same place so there is always some level of competition.” Of course, all these variables depend on the gym or franchise.
Does Teaching for a Franchise Help You Become a Better Instructor?
If you’re new to teaching group fitness, working for a franchise with very specific class protocols may help you develop your instructing skills quickly—the roadmap is already laid out for you. For those with years of experience already, predesigned formats could provide a welcome change from creating all your own programming, which allows you to focus on other aspects of teaching.
The pros and cons of teaching for a fitness franchise boil down to the brand and how you perceive the experience. What do you hope to gain?
With all that franchises offer, including a decent amount of capital in certain cases, many instructors who come on board might be looking for opportunities to improve and expand on their teaching skills. Is it a fair expectation?
Not according to Bond. “I do not believe that a better instructor is developed through [franchise] branding,” says Bond. “I actually believe the opposite: it hinders your ability to see or ‘think laterally,’ or make independent decisions.”
Shaver sees it differently. “I absolutely believe teaching for a franchise helps a fitness instructor become better at his or her job,” she says. “Fitness businesses are franchised because they’ve unlocked a system that works and provides results to clients, and they’ve figured out how to wash, rinse and repeat that system. That takes a lot of nitty-gritty strategic and operational responsibilities out of a coach’s hands, which opens up a large space for learning and improving. In the time it would take me to create my own workout, I can go a level deeper with a workout someone else created, and expand my own knowledge and skills,” Shaver adds.
Of course, there’s more to being a terrific instructor than knowledge and technical skills. Anyone who’s taken a traditional or franchise class—let alone taught one—knows that an instructor can say all the right things and demonstrate all the right moves, but they might still lack coaching acumen.
If a franchise instructor just reads off a script, technically it’s fine, but participants might want more in the way of motivation. Program consistency is one thing; motivational consistency is another. Any good program is able to deliver both.
Tasha Edwards, M.S., says it all comes down to an instructor’s commitment to the craft. “While working for a franchise definitely requires longer and more specific training, if a group fitness instructor is adamant about continuing education then they can be a better teacher, as well,” says Edwards, a Holistic Health Coach, teacher and trainer and owner of Hip Healthy Chick in Madison, Ala., who has taught at Xtend Barre and Club Pilates.
Advice for Teaching at a Fitness Franchise
If you’re interested in teaching for a franchise, consider your current and desired skills and style, just as you would when deciding on whether to take on a traditional class. “Spend time researching the culture and standards of the franchise,” says Edwards. “Take a few classes to see if the environment is suitable for your style.”
And remember, you’ll be teaching within a structure that’s already firmly in place, which could limit your role there. Says Shaver, “When you have visions of what your class will look like and how it will play out, a franchise’s larger plans or expectations might not match. Try to take your personal expectations or self-imposed pressure out of the equation.”
Your goals for wanting to teach at a franchise must match the environment. “If you are looking to memorize and execute, a [franchise] brand is for you,” says Bond. “If you have independent thinking, it will challenge you.” For some instructors, that kind of challenge might be undesirable, and that’s OK. For others, it might be useful. The challenge of reframing how you usually teach could help you avoid burnout or grow in new directions.
“I would encourage veteran instructors making the switch to working for a franchise to get their ‘hands dirty’ before they start coaching,” says Shaver. “Attend franchise classes as a client, then attend again with a coach’s eyes. We reach a point where we say, ‘I’ve done it all, I know it all,’ but franchises have their own brand of Kool-Aid, and integrating is easier if you can get on board with it.”
Opportunities in Franchised Fitness
Considering the ubiquity of fitness franchises, there are plenty of opportunities for instructors of all levels to test the waters. “If you have never taught group exercise before, starting out teaching at a franchise is a good option because you will get one-on-one attention,” says Mills. “If you want to transition from teaching traditional fitness classes to teaching for a popular franchise, you just need to be ready to learn that particular niche and be open-minded to the various ways to teach different populations.” Either way, fitness franchises provide yet another avenue for health and exercise professionals to reach more people about the important benefits of exercise.