Leading group fitness classes can be an uplifting, exciting and rewarding experience, but there are times when it can be extremely challenging and even frustrating. After all, when you have a room full of participants with different levels of fitness and skill, each with his or her own movement preferences, injury history, needs and goals, it’s anything but a one-size-fits-all environment. 

So, how can you successfully teach a class of individuals with many differences that must be considered? The answer is multilevel teaching, which requires you to observe carefully, communicate clearly, motivate by creating challenges and build movement from the ground up. Having a good understanding of both the stages of change and the phases of learning also helps. Let’s take a closer look at these components and how, with a little wisdom, your teaching experience can go from good to great to awesome. 

Stages of Change

When it comes to adopting new healthy behaviors, such as starting an exercise program, change comes in stages. The five stages named in the transtheoretical model follow a progression from precontemplation to contemplation, when individuals are not likely to be even thinking about adopting new habits or are just starting to think about it. When they move into the preparation stage, they are periodic and sporadic in their habits and are most likely to drop out, like the new January gym member who drops out by mid-February.

Once people move from preparation into the action stage, they are engaging in regular physical activity, but have been doing so for less than six months. They have begun to develop an exercise habit, but are still at a point where they could relapse into inactivity. Teaching with multiple levels makes it possible for participants with a wide range of fitness levels to feel successful and gain mastery, which can help people transition from preparation to action. 

Finally, after maintaining a regular physical-activity habit for six months or longer, the maintenance stage is reached. Creating new challenges for your classes is a great way to keep people in the maintenance stage engaged and motivated. 

Most of your classes are undoubtedly filled with participants who are in different stages of change. Additionally, even when people are in the maintenance stage, they may have poor movement skills, an injury or movement preference that means they don’t want a cookie-cutter workout. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health examined how the self-determination theory, which is concerned with the natural or intrinsic tendencies people have to behave in effective and healthy ways, could be used to promote physical activity and weight control. Specifically, the researchers looked at three key factors critical to success in any health-related effort: autonomy, competence and relatedness. 

Autonomy, or the need to experience a sense of choice and being the originator of one’s behavior, was found to be essential to keeping participants from dropping out of the study. One of the greatest benefits of multilevel teaching is that it gives participants a sense of control because they choose their own intensity, speed of movement, complexity and even volume of training. As these researchers found, success variables improve when people get to choose their movements.

Competence, which is an individual’s need to interact effectively with his or her environment and produce desired outcomes, is developed through a supportive teaching style. Class participants feel successful when they are encouraged to be autonomous, which, in turn, helps build their self-efficacy, self-esteem and confidence. Plus, it guarantees a good experience. 

Finally, relatedness, which is the need to feel connected to and accepted by others, is in your hands as the instructor. Teaching with compassion, empathy and understanding helps participants feel connected and, ultimately, more engaged with, and committed to, staying physically active. 

Learning Phases

Motor learning involves complex processes in the brain in response to practice or experience of a specific skill, which result in changes in the central nervous system that allow for the creation of a new motor skill. Researchers have identified three stages in which motor learning occurs: cognitive, associative and autonomous or self-sufficient (Figure 1). Being able to recognize an individual’s phase of learning is another important skill for group fitness instructors. When people first start learning a new movement, they can feel easily overwhelmed, confused and frustrated. As an instructor, it’s easy to think that participants have to master all the nuances of the movement, but this is a mistake. Expecting perfection and lacking the patience and empathy to allow participants to develop and learn at their own pace puts you in the role of commander rather than supportive teacher, which will be particularly alienating to new learners.  

New learners are in the cognitive phase. They make mistakes and their movements may be tentative and unsure. Keeping them safe and building their confidence is essential. This is the person who is most likely to drop out because they may find the whole experience to be a negative one. This learner is also frequently deconditioned and needs to be given suitable movement options to be successful. Accommodating the specific needs of a newer learner can mean the difference between that person becoming a life-long exerciser or dropping out and giving up altogether. 

As an instructor, being sensitive to the cognitive learner’s needs keeps these participants coming back so they can start to build some skill, moving them into the associative phase. This phase, characterized by improved levels of movement efficiency and skill, carries with it enhanced confidence. Associative learners have built a level of skill, yet they still make errors. They are less cognitively engaged, but still need to keep their minds focused on the task. Offering moderate challenges to these participants can help keep them motivated. 

Because skill is built on repetition, once something has been practiced repeatedly, associative learners move to the autonomous or self-sufficient phase. Their movements are skilled, smooth and unconscious. They need only minor alignment corrections and are able to auto-correct. The skilled learner tends to be innately tuned into his or her own body’s abilities. This person is often confident, has high self-efficacy and enjoys taking on significant movement challenges.

Figure 1. Stages of Motor Learning 


Goal-directed Movements

Multilevel teaching must be goal-directed, which means beginning with the end in mind. When planning your classes, your thought process may begin with an advanced-level exercise, but then you break it down into less-challenging versions of the same movement. When teaching, however, you will follow the opposite pattern by starting with the most basic version of an exercise. Each phase is then micro-progressed until you are teaching it at the most advanced level. 

Creating an advanced-level exercise provides the end-point of the goal. It gives you a direction. The goal of the base-level exercise is for the movement to create the foundation, making it possible for the cognitive learner or deconditioned participant to master the basic level so they will be ready for the next challenge. The second level then sets the foundation for the most advanced variation. This process creates invisible learning and not only helps the individual be more successful, but makes it possible for everyone in your group to perform the correct intensity of movement.

Progressions and Regressions

When a movement is broken down into basic components, regressions and progressions are logical. With an understanding of movement principles, developing multilevel exercises becomes intuitive. Here are some examples of principles to consider when planning your progressions: 

  • Teaching a movement from slow to faster allows time for precise instruction. Furthermore, it's easier for those in the cognitive phase to learn a movement when it’s performed more slowly.
  • Using symmetrical movements or loads make it easier for exercisers to maintain their balance and it is less challenging to the postural muscles. By contrast, loading or moving with asymmetry increases the challenge to the core and makes it more difficult to maintain balance. 
  • Introducing movement through a smaller range of motion before moving to more challenging ranges or longer levers gives participants the opportunity to explore correct levels of challenge while also learning basic body control.
  • Simple discrete movements that have a clear start and finish are easier to learn than something more complex.
  • Bilateral movements are generally easier to control because both sides of the body are doing the same thing.

Table 1 provides some additional characteristics of regressions and progressions.


Following is an example of using these principles to break down a dumbbell fly and create a new exercise. The end goal of this particular fly is an alternating upper-body movement with legs off the floor; as the arm horizontally lowers, the opposite hip and knee extend parallel to the floor. This exercise offers an advanced level of complexity, with a large range of motion as well as asymmetrical movement and load. 

The following four steps provide clear levels for each version of the exercise.

  1. Teach a bilateral dumbbell fly while lying supine with the feet on the floor.
  2. Next, offer a progression by alternating the dumbbell fly. Rather than calling it “Level 1-2-3”, simply teach it as an exercise in and of itself.
  3. Next, coach participants by saying, “If you want a greater challenge, especially for the core, pick your legs up off the floor, as if you’re sitting in a chair.”
  4. Finally, cue: “If you want an even greater challenge, extend the opposite leg away from you. The closer it is to the floor, the more you’ll test your core.”

Allowing people to move at speeds that are appropriate for them is another way of providing autonomy. To reinforce to participants that the quality of their movements is more important than trying to keep up, use the following cue: “You can stay with me or feel free to move at your own speed. Your form is more important than trying to stay on the beat.”

Being able to recognize participants’ phases of learning and stages of change can provide you with important insight when designing safe and effective classes. And, by adopting a supportive and inclusive style of multilevel teaching, you will undoubtedly enhance the enjoyment and feelings of autonomy for every participant, whether he or she is a first-timer or a life-long exerciser.

Further Your Knowledge

Get more tips, approaches and practical examples of how to create amazing exercise experiences for clients and participants from other world-renowned group fitness instructors and earn continuing education credits at the same time.

Multilevel Teaching Strategies for Group Fitness Instructors [Recorded Webinar]

Creating Memorable Movement Experiences for Clients and Participants [Article]

A Science-based Blueprint for Creating Inclusive Yoga Classes [Recorded Webinar]