Any hard-working fitness instructor knows it’s misguided to say instructors “get paid to work out.” Sure, teaching group fitness is fun, but it’s a job with responsibilities and its own set of high-points and hurdles. Generally, instructors are great at ensuring all is OK with their participants, but not as good at taking care of their own needs, such as blocking off time to rest and recharge. While your love for group fitness might help make you an appealing instructor, it won’t protect you from common perils of the profession, such as overuse injury, burnout and/or wasting time trying to reinvent the wheel with class programming.
Fortunately, there are simple steps you can take toward achieving career longevity in group X. These steps apply whether you’re new to teaching or you’ve been doing it for decades. Heed the following words of wisdom from the four veteran fitness leaders quoted here to help ensure you’re able to continue teaching for years to come, whether it's because you enjoy it or because you rely on it financially (or both).
Stamp Out Mental and Physical Burnout
“Burnout is one of the most common drawbacks for the fitness professional who teaches a multitude of classes throughout the week,” says June Khan, C.P.T., an internationally recognized fitness leader and educator, Pilates rehab specialist and founder of June Kahn’s Bodyworks, LLC, in Boulder, Colo. It can happen to any instructor for any number of reasons, and unfortunately, burnout can suck the joy out of teaching. Overtraining is one obvious culprit. But even if you aren’t overtaxing your body with too much exercise, you might still need a mental break from having to put your most energetic self forward in multiple classes each day or each week.
Burnout can also arise from teaching at a time that doesn’t mesh well with your schedule, such as 6:00 AM classes if you’re not a morning person or primetime slots that you always have to rush to after work. Naturally, these scenarios can wear you down.
There’s also a drawback to teaching the same class at the same gym, even if it is quite convenient for you.
“Seeing the same people at the same time doing the same thing is mentally exhausting and will cause burnout more quickly,” says Melissa Layne, M.Ed., Atlanta-based faculty member in the Health and Physical Education Department of the University of North Georgia and author of Water Exercise (Human Kinetics, 2016). With experience teaching everything from step and kickboxing to mat Pilates and aqua, Layne suggests varying the types, times and locations of classes you teach; this will also help you sidestep overuse injury and save time on class prep. (More on this later in the article.)
However, strategically diversifying the formats you teach can be easier said than done. For example, you might excel at a certain type of class and so coordinators want to schedule you accordingly. Or, if you’ve invested time and money in a certification, such as for a pre-choreographed program, you certainly want to get the most out of it by teaching that format frequently. Just be sure to guard against boredom, which can easily lead to mental burnout.
“For pre-choreography formats,” says Kahn, “I encourage instructors to vary how they deliver their material each class, which could be as simple as rearranging how the choreography is delivered.” Try switching the order of strength exercises or adding a new choreography block if possible. This, of course, works for freestyle classes, as well.
Because insufficient sleep, poor nutrition and lack of time off can contribute to burnout, treat your mental and physical recovery with importance—it’s as much a part of your job as anything else you do in the fitness industry. As Kahn puts it, be sure to “rest well.”
When Overuse Injuries Happen
Even with your best intentions to rest well, sometimes injuries happen, often from overuse. As with burnout, you can help prevent or minimize overuse injury through cross training. And certainly don’t ignore a nagging injury or hope it will just go away.
“Follow the same advice you would give to your participants,” says Carol Murphy, of Fairport, N.Y., owner of Fitlife and program coordinator at the Greater Rochester YMCA. “Listen and respond to your body.”
“If you have pain, instead of just continuing to ‘work through it,’ consult a doctor to find out what the problem is,” urges Fred Hoffman, M.Ed, previous IDEA Instructor of the Year award winner and Paris, France-based social media and marketing consultant for the fitness and health club industry. “Then take the necessary steps to heal.” Sometimes healing might mean taking time off teaching altogether, which is a scary prospect for instructors who need the income and/or identify strongly as a fitness leader. However, failing to take care of yourself could derail your teaching career.
If taking time off isn’t necessary, devise smart, creative strategies for delivering a superb class experience to participants even if you’re not at 100 percent. You could always enlist the help of your front-row students.
“Designate one of the more experienced participants in class to demonstrate while you coach,” says Kahn, who has been teaching group fitness since 1981. “This can be set up ahead of time.”
The strategies used to manage teaching with an injury can also be a great defense against incurring an injury in the first place.
“Perfect your verbal and nonverbal cueing skills so that your class can be successful even when you are struggling,” says Layne. “To prevent injury, keep your intense classes to a minimum or alternate ‘doing’ with ‘cueing’ sessions.”
Learning to coach more and do less can go a long way toward extending your teaching career. This approach involves demonstrating an exercise or sequence and then switching to strong visual and verbal communication that’s meant to motivate, educate, instruct and guide. Intermittent coaching, which works in most kinds of classes, allows you to break from the “aerobics” tradition of doing every exercise in unison with participants.
In addition to modifying how you instruct your classes, consider how you plan them in advance. Is the programming optimal for injury prevention (for you and your participants)?
“Minimize repetitive stress by designing classes that are balanced, not only in physical intensity, but also to include all planes [of motion] and muscle groups,” says Murphy.
If you’re still feeling antsy about putting on a good show when you’re bothered by an injury, remember that an instructor’s mission up there on stage isn’t to outperform everyone.
“Your classes should not be your own personal workout,” says Murphy, a Senior Course Instructor for TRX.
Save Time and Energy With Repurposed Content
Another factor that can lead to mental burnout and possible overuse injury is the notion that every class has to involve only what’s brand-new and exciting. That amounts to a lot of extra prep work and practice! Sure, it’s good to bring fresh elements to class, but don’t knock yourself out starting from scratch every week. Repurpose programming from one class to the next to save a lot of time, stress and energy.
Here’s how Layne does it: “I often take my step choreography and make minor changes so that it fits on a step vertically instead of horizontally. I also take my kickboxing choreography from the week and incorporate it into my step combinations and my aqua class combinations.”
Kahn suggests incorporating a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) interval in the middle of class to mix things up. Murphy changes the equipment but keeps the format the same; introduces a new warm-up; teaches a partner exercise; or rotates in one block of new choreography, keeping everything else the same.
There’s no need to bring all new class content every week, says Hoffman, who has more than three decades of experience teaching fitness. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. “Students and clients like repetition as they can better perform choreography or execute exercises they are already familiar with. There is something comforting about familiarity,” he says. Plus, he adds, coming to class with new choreography each week sets a precedent that puts pressure on the instructor over time. “Students and clients will expect it, and when an instructor doesn’t ‘produce,’ then they might be criticized for it!” says Hoffman.
Says Kahn, “My favorite saying is, ‘Don’t give all the magic away in one class.’” A common mistake many health and fitness professionals make is to deliver too much all at once. “You can freshen up any routine to make it exciting and ‘new’ to participants, while in fact you are just creatively rearranging your current material,” explains Kahn.
Make no mistake, this approach matters to your longevity in group X: The more time you save with clever repurposing, the more time you’ll have to rest and recharge your batteries for the next class.
Staying Relevant in Group X
There’s one final factor that might determine your long-term success with teaching group exercise, and this one is seldom addressed: relevancy.
“Our industry is forever changing, and to be relevant, instructors must consistently ‘re-invent themselves’ to remain current with continuing education and in tune with what is new and popular,” says Kahn.
However, don’t feel as if you must jump on every new format that hits the industry.
“Know the difference between a fad (here today, gone tomorrow) and a trend (new direction worthy of attention),” says Murphy. “Keep science and research at the root of all you associate with.”
And stick with what feels right. “If a new format is trending and it is not something that appeals to you, skip it,” advises Layne. “There will be another trendy format next year.” It’s another story, however, if you’ve been teaching the same format for eons without any effort toward new professional development.
Relevancy isn’t about being the newest, trendiest or most popular instructor on the block. It’s about ongoing education, awareness of the industry’s direction and new skill acquisitions.
“That is why we see a lot of veteran instructors still teaching classes and being very popular,” says Hoffman, who specializes in teaching circuit training and functional strength classes. “They have acquired and fine-tuned skills over the years.”
Finally, consider that diversifying isn’t just good from a cross-training perspective; it can keep you in demand on the class schedule, too. You never know when there might be a downturn with one format while another one takes off.
“Even if [a trend] is the greatest product/program on earth, be careful not to go too far in that direction,” says Murphy. “Too much of anything is not good and can lead to overuse injuries, plateaus, boredom, staleness or burnout.”
Your Work as an Instructor Matters
In your quest to steer clear of burnout, injury and other tricky career obstacles, remember that your long-term success as an instructor is imperative for your current and future class participants. The stronger you feel on the job, mentally and physically, the better you’ll be able to help them enjoy a healthier lifestyle through fitness.
“View your work as both a privilege and responsibility,” says Murphy. “Your work really matters. Never take that for granted.”