Pete McCall by Pete McCall

In my years of teaching group fitness, it seems as if many instructors try to attract more participants by making their classes harder than other teachers on the schedule. This may be an effective method of appealing to the hardcore enthusiasts, but what about the newbies? If a class is too hard or extremely challenging it could cause muscle soreness, which could deter a beginning exerciser from ever returning because they don’t enjoy the feeling of being sore from exercise. 

Group fitness classes are the most common entry point for novice exercisers to engage with experienced fitness professionals. As group fitness instructors, it’s important for us to help these beginners enjoy the experience so they can become experienced exercise enthusiasts in the shortest amount of time possible. While many instructors teach because they enjoy helping others, we are often judged on our ability to attract a number of people to our classes rather than our passion for service. 

Most health clubs have minimum numbers a class is supposed to maintain to make it cost-effective (and thus stay on the schedule). If you are a popular instructor with full classes, you will likely have the opportunity to teach more classes, which helps you to achieve your goal of helping others. The best way to improve your class numbers and help more people is by making your classes accessible to individuals of all skill levels. Yes, some members may like pushing themselves to their limits, but if your goal is to become a popular instructor and make this a long-term career choice it is important to know how to scale your workouts so they are appealing to participants of all skill levels. 

Here are six ideas for making your group fitness workouts more accessible, which may, in turn, increase your class sizes and help more people experience the benefits of exercise. 

1. Choose an appropriate class name and description.

The current trend in group fitness is high-intensity training. While these extreme workouts may appeal to the most die-hard gym rats, the class name or description could sound too intense for many novices and keep them from ever stepping foot in the fitness studio. One way to make classes more accessible is to make sure the names and descriptions are written to make them appealing to individuals of ALL skill levels.

2. Start with the regressed or easiest version of an exercise and then offer more challenging progressions on an individual basis.

When I demo different levels of an exercise, most people try the most advanced version, even when I cue it as being only for the most skilled participants. If I want everyone to do a safe version of an exercise, I show the easiest version and then offer a more advanced progression to participants on an individual basis. This means walking around and engaging members instead of simply doing the workout and expecting them to follow along.

3. Give participants permission to go at their own pace.

When I am showing a first-timer how to set up an indoor cycling bike, I encourage him or her to go at their own pace and not try to race the people around them. I remind participants that they can go at their own pace because there is no worry about being hit from behind or bumping into the person next to them. Similarly, when I teach sports-conditioning workouts I always encourage participants to listen to their bodies and go at their own pace. And, when it comes time to organize groups for drills I try to connect newer, less-experienced members with one another so they can share in the learning experience.

4. Give participants permission to take breaks when necessary.

In both my sports-conditioning and cycling classes, I encourage newcomers to take a break if they feel the need to catch their breath or rest. At the beginning of class, I make an announcement that participants can take a break if they feel it’s necessary, but I do encourage them to finish the drills they start and walk to the finish rather than quit.

5. Engage and connect with members by asking their names.

Here’s a great tip for remembering names: When a participant says his or her name, repeat it back. How many of us have had the embarrassment of seeing the same person every class for months (or years) without being able to remember his or her name? We may be very friendly with this person, we may even know private details about his her life, but at some point we have simply forgotten his or her name (I know I have). When I meet new members, I do my best to repeat their names and try to use their names at least once or twice during class so they stick in my memory.

6. Ask about existing injuries and provide modifications to tough exercises or give members permission to make their own modifications.

Not only is this the right thing to do for safety, it can actually help you remember your participants. True story: I grew up in the Washington, D.C., area with a mother who worked in politics. One trick I learned from her is that when you meet someone new you should try to remember a little fact about them. That way, even if you forget the name, you may remember that they have two kids, follow a certain sports team or where they’re from. I use this as an instructor because, while I may forget names, I never forget injuries. 

These are just some strategies and techniques that I have found useful in my 15-plus years of teaching group fitness. As instructors, we have to remember that people only have 24 hours in a day. When they choose to spend one of those precious hours in our class, we owe it to them to make it special and we can do this by making sure that everyone can feel successful when they leave at the end of the workout.

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