Kelsey Graham, MEd, CHES, is an Assistant Professor and Director of the Health and Wellness Coaching and Personal Trainer Certification Programs at San Diego Mesa College. She has more than 10 years of experience in the fitness industry, working as a personal trainer, group fitness instructor and health coach. Her love of movement lies in its ability to go beyond physical health and improve mental and emotional well-being.
How to Personalize the Group Fitness Experience for Your Participants
As a group fitness instructor, you’re expected to do it all: create challenging workouts, motivate and inspire participants, and ensure safety and proper form. When teaching a large group of diverse individuals, this is no small task.
All participants come to your class looking for a great workout, but they also arrive with unique goals, preferences, limitations and fitness levels. Faced with such diversity, it can be difficult to create a class that is safe, motivating and challenging for every individual. While class cohesion is important, personalizing the group experience allows you to create a more meaningful experience for each participant. This deeper level of connection enhances exercise enjoyment; produces greater mental, physical and emotional outcomes; and increases long-term exercise adherence. Further, class attendees who feel uniquely noticed and valued will quickly become devoted regulars. To create a truly health-enhancing experience, look beyond the masses and personalize your clients’ group fitness experience.
Get to Know Your Participants
Personalization cannot begin until you know the people in your class, and simply learning participants’ names is a great place to start. This small step goes a long way toward making people feel noticed and important. Think about the last time you met someone. At the end of the conversation, did they bid you farewell by name? How did that experience make you feel? You were likely surprised and impressed the person paid enough attention to you to remember.
Ashley Yandle, founder and owner of Ashley Lane Fitness in San Diego, knows the value in using names. “Instructors arrive early and check who is signed up for the class, noting the names of new people so they can give them extra attention and make sure they’re comfortable before and after class,” Yandle says. “We greet and learn the name of every participant and then try to use each participant’s name at least once.” Yandle explains that this helps each client feel both included and special, which is challenging in a large group setting.
Using an online platform where members sign up for classes can help you learn and remember names. This allows you to scan the list for names before meeting each person. You can even take an extra step and jot down a list of everyone’s names (or a handful if the class is large). When you have seen a participant’s name on a list, written it down, and heard and repeated it, you’re much more likely to remember it. Additionally, you can take quick peaks at your list throughout class as needed.
Names are a good start, but there’s more to each participant than his or her moniker. Goals, injuries, and mental and emotional states are among the many things that contribute to the unique needs of the individuals you lead.
LJ Pocsi, founder and owner of Infinitely Fit in San Diego, considers all these factors when starting class. “Before any class, we ask clients about injuries, new or old, and how they are feeling. Then we ask them to assess their energy level on a scale of one to five. One means they did everything they possibly could to get to class, but if they had the chance, they would walk out. Five means they’re ready to kill the workout,” says Pocsi. Using this scale makes it possible to assess participants’ energy in that given moment so instructors can personalize their interactions with participants.
Of course, this means doing more than creating killer workouts.
“We are just as quick to tell a client to put down a heavy weight and pick up a light one to prevent injury as we are to push someone to break through their mental limits,” explains Pocsi. “That means that sometimes a participant’s workout looks more like rehab than interval training, and that’s okay.” Pocsi notes that they’re able to provide this level of individuality because they limit class sizes to no more than 10 participants.
Even with large classes, a quick injury check is beneficial.
“Before starting a class, I ask how everyone’s bodies are doing,” says Rachel Watson, M.S., group fitness instructor at the Fitness Institute of Texas in Austin, Texas. “Some people may speak up and some may not, but it’s important when teaching an exercise to offer modifications regardless.”
For example, if you’ve programmed an overhead shoulder press into your workout and a participant complains of shoulder pain when extending her arm overhead, you can suggest she try a lateral shoulder raise instead. You’ve now let her know that you recognize her as an individual, that her injuries matter, and that you are skilled enough to provide her with modifications to keep her safe.
Another way to deepen your understanding of participants is to determine their communication styles. When you give a participant a compliment on her form, does she smile and push harder or shyly avert your gaze? Each person will have a different comfort level with both compliments and critiques. Paying attention to these individual responses can help you understand how to uniquely motivate the participants in your classes over time.
“Encouraging specific participants on an exercise or calling someone out for great energy is something that I do every time I teach,” says Watson. “Don’t be afraid to get next to someone in a squat station and say something like, ‘Dropping it like it’s hot, Mary Ellen!’”
Keep in mind, however, that while one person might thrive off of an over-the-mic shout out, another might appreciate a quiet affirmation once class has ended. Paying careful attention to participants’ responses to form cues and praise will help you tap into their preferred styles of communication.
All people crave autonomy, a sense of control over their own lives. The self-determination theory of human motivation suggests that individuals engage in a behavior when they feel autonomous, competent and related to others (Ryan and Deci, 2000). As such, allowing for a sense of autonomy in class is imperative for exercise enjoyment, adherence and personalization. To enhance participant autonomy, look to intensity level, exercise selection and overall class structure.
Research confirms that self-selection of exercise intensity can increase exercise enjoyment and adherence (Parfitt, Rose and Burgess, 2006). While encouraging participants to exercise at a high intensity enables you to flex your instructor muscles, it doesn’t necessarily put the individual and his or her needs first. Provide options that allow for various intensity levels and communicate to the class the importance of selecting the intensity level that best fits their needs and physical state that day.
“I give levels for each move to make it more challenging or take it down a notch for those who need a break or have a physical limitation,” says Watson. “For example, high knees—the faster you go, the more challenging it is. Or you can take it to a march with big arms for a less intense option.”
Enhancing clients’ exercise-related autonomy can be as simple as giving permission to rest as needed. Saying something like “Breaks are yours to take when you need them” gives clients the power to tune into their bodies and gain a sense of control over their exercise experience. Beyond personalizing the experience, this sense of control helps foster long-term exercise adherence.
Provide a sense of class ownership by allowing active participation in exercise selection. This can be done before or after class. To start, chat with class members and inquire about their goals. “My classes are filled with participants with all different goals,” says Watson. “Those goals could be stress relief, social hour, weight loss, or muscle gain. My goal is to get everyone moving because I know that covers 99% of those in class. If there is a station with an overhead dumbbell press, I mention that if you want to go for strength, go heavier with fewer reps and if you want more of a cardiovascular effect, go lighter and faster,” she says. Watson also occasionally asks clients what muscle groups they want to work or which equipment they’d like to use during class. Once you’ve programmed particular exercises into your workout based on this feedback, highlight them as you teach to let the participants know you heard and value their input.
Bring regular class participants even deeper into the planning experience by allowing them to help build the class structure. This can include participant-selected theme workouts or input regarding music selection.
“I email my classes asking if they’d like any music added to the playlist,” says Watson. “Music is everything and it gets participants in a good mood. When clients hear their songs come on, you can immediately tell—a big smile comes to their face and they move a little bit quicker.”
Open requests for class feedback can also give participants a chance to express their likes or dislikes. Though this can be somewhat uncomfortable to do, it’s a great way to ensure classes are meeting participants’ needs while also enhancing your skills as an instructor.
Genuine Personal Interaction
The time before and after class is a perfect opportunity to personalize the group experience. Beyond asking for names, injuries and goals, spend a few minutes getting to know who your participants are outside of the gym. What do they do? Do they have any hobbies? Where are they heading on vacation this summer? This builds rapport and connection, letting people know you value them as more than an addition to your headcount.
This is a great time to transform new clients into recurring participants. Check in with new participants to see how their experience was and answer any questions they may have. This small step lets newbies know they’re wanted and appreciated in class. Additionally, consider out-of-class activities to foster relationships. “I offer walks on the weekends to have more social time to learn about my participants,” says Watson. “You don’t get to know [participants] very much just hollering during the workout.”
Yandle uses social media to create connection with her members. “We encourage instructors to take pictures with class members and post to social media after class. Not only does this promote our studio and our instructors, but it makes members feel like a friend,” she says.
More Than the Sum of its Parts
Group fitness classes are inherently (and rightfully) group focused. However, that group is comprised of individuals with unique goals, wants and needs. To enhance your impact on class participants, consider not just the group, but each individual therein. This enables you to create deeper, more meaningful connections that help your class participants become movers for life.
Parfitt, G., Rose, E.A. and Burgess, W.M. (2006). The psychological and physiological responses of sedentary individuals to prescribed and preferred intensity exercise. British Journal of Health Psychology, 11, 1, 39–53.
Ryan, R.M. and Deci, E.L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development and well-being. The American Psychologist, 55, 1, 68–78.