Today’s landscape of fitness classes is a vast array of choices both for participants and instructors. When it comes to indoor cycling, in some situations you are bound by the style your facility expects, in other situations you are at a licensed facility required to teach specific formats by the book, and in others your imagination is the only limit. Choices range from pre-choreographed to freestyle, packaged to instructor-driven, and power-based to rhythm-based rides. While we could spend copious amounts of time debating the value (or perceived disservice) of each and still not come to any type of agreement, the intent of today’s article is to answer the question, regardless of the style, format, or intention of the class you teach…are you a true fitness professional?
To answer this we must look at what is expected from you as a fitness leader. First and foremost, I want you to think back to what your professional certification requires of you. In most cases, the fitness professional is required to lead a safe, effective, and enjoyable workout.
The Fitness Instructor as a Leader
The best way to lead is to learn as much as possible about the format you have chosen to teach while staying true to your nature. This means being a voracious reader, seeking out answers, questioning everything, and accepting the possibility you may currently be doing some things wrong. Look for opportunities to better yourself. Attend other instructors’ classes, sign up for workshops, look for online learning formats, constantly seek to be more. The growth doesn’t stop there. Once you have started to acquire and expand your knowledge base, you must then figure out how to share this information in a way that resonates with the people sitting in front of you.
Participants are drawn to instructors who have something special or unique to share with others. Determine how you are unique and use that to your advantage. Your participants want a leader that will empower them and inspire them to do ‘more’ and the best way to do that is to relay pertinent information that they can understand in a concise and meaningful manner.
The truly successful instructor is able to create connection through knowledge and communication. If you are looking out at a sea of confused faces in your class, there is a chance your communication style or the knowledge that you are hoping to impart is not being well received. Seek ways to clarify your message and have an impact on those who are looking to you for leadership. Find a mentor—attach yourself to someone you respect and admire that will help you to reach your potential via their feedback and experience. Seek feedback from trusted sources. Videotape or audio record yourself teaching a class to review or ask a friend to provide feedback. Review and clarify your communication skills by communicating the same thing three different ways. Use opportunities to support key learning objectives by linking them back to concepts or information you provided earlier in class.
Leading a Safe Fitness Class
When it comes to fitness classes, an understanding of both biomechanics and energy systems is key—in essence you must, at minimum, have a base understanding of exercise physiology. Envision the wide array of bodies, ages, fitness levels, and mindsets within a single fitness class. How can you, as a fitness instructor, prepare a plan that will be safe for every single person in that class? By coming back to the basics…exercise physiology.
To help each member get the most out of their time spent with you, there needs to be an overall objective for the class. Is it to complete all movements with perfect biomechanics and form? Is it to create more power or go farther than last week with equivalent effort? Is it to create cardiovascular gains in the form of mitochondrial development or through the innervation of fast-twitch muscle fibers? In order to lead a class that is safe, you must understand the primary objective of the activities you will be doing, the proper form in which they are to be done, the physiological outcome of the exercises themselves, and the body’s ability to do it over the period of time you have planned at the intensity required to make positive physiological adaptations.
Often we hear about instructors putting together multiple Tabata sets in the middle of a 45-minute cycling class. However, if you were to examine the training effect of a single 4-minute Tabata set at 170% of VO2 max and the energy cost associated with doing just one set, you would realize that it is physiologically impossible to do multiple sets and the result of attempting to do so is a complete eradication of the desired training effect. In essence, you are simply planning on doing sets of 20 seconds on and 10 seconds off as a form of interval work, not multiple Tabata training sets.
As a result of expanding your education around creating physiological adaptations from exercise, you begin to reshape your language and how you share that knowledge with your class, which leads me to my next point.
For each exercise or drill you ask your participants to undertake, you should be able to answer the What, Where, When, Why, and How questions:
- WHAT is the purpose, function, or action of the exercise/drill?
- WHERE do I feel the exercise? Which muscles/energy delivery systems are targeted?
- WHEN would I use this exercise in my overall lesson plan and for how long?
- WHY is it important to know and understand this information?
- HOW do I perform the exercise/drill properly to ensure positive adaptations will occur?
If you fail to answer even one of these, your drill or exercise lacks defined purpose and safety and should not be a part of your class. Ensure that each drill can be defined for its intended purpose and fits within your overall lesson plan and objective.
Leading an Effective Fitness Class
The key to leading an effective class is to be clear from the outset as to what your participants can expect to do in their time spent with you and how this will challenge their fitness levels. To achieve fitness, the intensity level must be sufficient. It’s not enough to just move—your activity has to reach a certain level of difficulty. Without knowing the required effort level, duration, or objectives, how can your participants work effectively to challenge their fitness levels without burning out too soon, or worse, not working hard enough?
From the outset, there should be a clearly defined scale of effort that participants can check in with to observe if they are too high or too low. This scale could be a number scale such as Borg’s rate of perceived exertion (RPE), physiological cues such as the talk test and heart rate response, or an actual measurement based on their individual abilities such as a percentage of their functional threshold power (FTP). At the outset of each class you should be able to clearly and effectively communicate your class via your INTRO:
I = Introduce yourself and greet the class with intention.
N = Name the type of class to be taught and state what the overall objective is.
T = Talk about the class components, work-to-rest ratios, and how hard they can expect to work.
R = Reassure newcomers and create community with other participants.
O = Organize the group, space, and equipment needed to get started.
By anchoring your participants’ level of intensity to each drill you are about to undertake (and letting them know when and how much recovery they will receive), you create a situation where they will be able to sustain a greater level of output that will suit their individualized needs. This is how fitness levels are challenged and success is achieved.
Leading an Enjoyable Fitness Class
Participants may come to fitness classes for the social aspect, to get fit, to shape their body, or to lose weight. Some may be interested in increasing their cardiovascular ability, while others are interested in something completely different. Understand that different people have different goals but everyone who is in that room with you wants to achieve something.
Research shows that the health-focused activities of others have a direct impact on us. A study published in the Journal of Social Sciences found that participants gravitate toward the exercise behaviors of those around them, giving weight to the saying that “there is strength in numbers.” One of the easiest ways you can create an enjoyable and sustainable group fitness class is by creating a sense of community amongst your participants. By fostering that feeling of team and belonging, we are able to effectively create a sense of our members needing to show up, work alongside one another, and push themselves harder than if they were to go it alone.
By celebrating success, fostering perseverance, and getting to know your participants, that sense of community is built, and who doesn’t like to belong? The feeling of finding one’s tribe goes a long way to ensuring that your members look forward to their weekly class and enjoy being together, no matter how hard they have to work when they get there.
Regardless of where you are coming from or where you have left to go, there are some key steps to ensuring that you put your best foot forward as a fitness professional. Be sure to reflect after each class on whether you were successful in teaching a safe, effective, and enjoyable lesson.