Amber Long by Amber Long

Last Updated December 15, 2023 (originally published January 15, 2018) 


Words matter. Group fitness instructors rely on words to convey direction, emotion and connection. Some words help in creating an inclusive environment, while others might foster competition and isolation. The way we coach a group fitness class can build trust and camaraderie, or it can create insecurity and competition. Create the most welcoming environment through purposeful language and thoughtful coaching strategies. 

Here are four commonly used words and phrases to consider replacing with fitness terminology that inspires, empowers and creates a positive environment to increase your instructor presence and effectiveness: 

1. Newbie, new, first time

New attendees often stand in the back row and hope to go unnoticed. They definitely warrant your attention, but avoid highlighting their presence during class. Instead, approach them one on one before or after class to check in and introduce yourself. Some people feel embarrassed or uncomfortable when they are singled out in a group setting. Rather than asking participants to raise their hand at the beginning of class to announce their new status, assume that you will have new attendees and frequent flyers in every class. Offer multiple exercise options for a range of abilities and preferences, and instruct to accommodate a variety of needs. Use words like we, let’s, ours and us to create a team-like environment where everyone feels included and challenged based on their own unique abilities and goals. “We are going to finish our class with one more challenge!” 

2. Easy, harder, level

Labeling modifications on a scale such as levels one, two or three, or easiest to hardest, presents a notion that one version, usually the most intense version, of an exercise is the best. Easy or level one exercises feel inferior, which means everyone in class will strive for the most intense variation regardless of ability. While one version of an exercise may be more intense, it is not necessarily better for each person.  

Level-based cues create a competitive environment, rather than an inclusive one. Encourage participants to listen to their bodies, and use words like option, choice, version and variation. Even better, present the exercise options in no particular order and, when instructing, perform the lower- and middle-intensity options most frequently. Encourage individual autonomy in choosing the modification that feels appropriate. When participants feel a sense of control and success during their workouts, they are more likely to adhere to a consistent habit. With consistent participation, individuals will inevitably begin to choose more challenging options. “We have three options for our lunges today; stationary lunges, reverse stepping lunges or jumping lunges. Pick the version that’s best for you.” 

3. Sexy, toned, shredded

These words focus entirely on the external rewards of exercise. While many people start an exercise habit because of external motivators and quantitative goals, such as weight loss, it is important to encourage the development of intrinsic motivation to facilitate long-term success. Superficial terms that draw attention to aesthetics tend to create an environment rich in self-criticism, judgment and unrealistic expectations. Strive to use words that empower and help participants find a deeper value and enjoyment from exercise. Use power words like stronger, better, faster, stable or powerful. Focus on the intrinsic value of exercise, like how great it feels to complete a workout or be able to complete daily tasks and recreational activities with more vigor. Everyone in class can identify with these experiences, which creates a universal goal and a shared sense of accomplishment. This positive group effect and individual feeling of success will likely encourage more frequent participation, which may contribute to quantitative goals such as weight loss, while also realizing the qualitative or intrinsic rewards of exercise. “Stick with it; this is how we get stronger!” 

4. Can't, don't

Subconsciously, can’t and don’t remind us of times when someone scolded us or told us what to do: “Don’t stay out past midnight” or “You can’t have that cookie.” Rather than phrasing directions around what to avoid, such as, “Don’t let your back round when you bend over,” ask for what is desired, such as, “Hinge at the hips and brace the core to keep the spine straight.” Instead of emphasizing inability, such as, “If you can’t do a full push-up, drop to your knees,” focus on ability: “Complete 10 push-ups with a strong core and straight spine on either your toes or your knees.” Eliminating negative words from coaching helps participants focus on what they can and should do, rather than worrying about what to avoid. 


To learn more about how creating an empowering and inclusive group fitness environment sets your participants up for success, check out this continuing education course: ACE RRAMP Approach™: Cultivating Behavior Change through Group Fitness (worth 0.1 ACE CECs). 

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