Before we get into the specifics of how to teach a great group exercise class, it’s important to clarify that ‘great’ is going to mean different things to different people.
There are commonly three reasons that people come to a group exercise class and understanding these a little better may help you build on what you’re already doing.
The majority of group exercise participants come to classes because they either want to spend their time exercising with like-minded people and friends, or they prefer the community of working out in a group. For these people, the class itself is secondary to the relationships they form with other participants, or the sense of belonging or security they develop as a result of attending.
These participants appreciate the instructor using their name or introducing them to other members of the class with whom they have something in common. Anything that helps them feel a part of the group or builds their social network is motivating for them.
Some participants come for the mental benefits which broadly fall into two categories. The first category is people who want to switch off from thinking, mainly due to stress. These people simply want to be pointed in the right direction and told what to do. The less thought involved, the better.
The second category of people want the peace of mind that comes from having completed a helpful behavior. Just the act of attending is enough for them. These participants can sometimes be a challenge for instructors, especially if they fail to pay attention or modify their behavior/technique in a given class. The important thing to recognize is that although they eventually want to see some physical benefits from attending, their primary goals are more mental.
These participants are the ones that most instructors expect to fill their classes. They’ll respond to any cue or direction on technique, follow up on any recommendations you may make for helpful activity outside the class, and will monitor their progress from week to week to ensure improvement. The reality however is that most participants, whilst superficially motivated to attend for physical reasons, stay for either social or mental ones. This group of participants is also subject to the highest turnover if the class doesn’t deliver the experience or results they seek.
So, how can you deliver a class that caters to each of the three types?
The following list provides you with a series of checks to ensure every class you deliver has the best chance of keeping as many people happy as possible.
- Learn people’s names and use them. This is such a small thing to do, but can lead to significant results. Regardless of whether someone is socially motivated or not, being recognised and acknowledged is almost always appreciated.
- Interact with individuals as well as the group. As you get to know your class participants you’ll get a feel for who wants more of your attention and who wants less. Make sure you spend some time with as many individuals as possible, even if it’s only a few seconds before class to give advice, or during, to suggest a modification to their technique.
- Recognise that people are there for different reasons. I remember years ago a participant telling me to stop advising her on how to land properly when doing a plyometric exercise in a circuit class! She told me she just wanted to get on with it without the distraction! I remember being shocked and telling her that she was risking injuring her knees and lower back landing the way she was and in response, she walked out of the class. I remember feeling offended and indignant at the same time. Here I was, a trained professional, just trying to help her and keep her safe and she’d literally turned her back on me. I now recognise that some people just want to be left alone, almost regardless of anything we may have to say. Fortunately, these participants are rare, but in the case of the lady above, the signs were actually clear weeks before the final incident. I’d been making helpful suggestions every week and she’d been consistently ignoring them. I was starting to worry that she was in real danger of doing herself some harm. To this day I’m still divided on how I feel about this particular situation. On the one hand, I’m ok with it. I’d rather she left than injure herself on my watch. On the other hand, I feel like I’d given her the coaching I needed to and should have allowed her the freedom to decide what to do with it. Now, I tend to look for other indicators; a lack of interaction with others, the choice of an isolated position in the class or one that makes eye contact or interaction less frequent. If a participant seems to keep themselves to themselves, I’ll acknowledge them and make the occasional suggestion so they know I’m there for them as a coach, but otherwise, I’ll leave them be.
- Make sure the class is good. One of the reasons for the success of programmes like pump fx and T3 swing is that they’re designed by experts to deliver results. If you’re teaching one of these all you have to focus on is your delivery. If you’re freestyle, you need to pay attention to the quality of your product, i.e. the workout or choreography.
- Be professional. Turning up on time and being prepared seem so obvious that it’s easy to forget just how important they are. An instructor that regularly turns up late is basically saying they had more important things to do elsewhere.
Remember, you can’t keep everyone happy all the time and if you try, you’ll probably drive yourself crazy. That said, simply recognising that different motivations are in play can help you deliver a consistently great class.