Talking point: what advice would you give newly qualified Group Ex instructors?

In each issue of Group Exercise, Mind Body & Aqua Network we ask a selection of leading industry professionals to share their insights and experiences in the world of group exercise. Here we ask what words of wisdom would be of most help to a new group exercise instructor.

Motivating people to work out in an enjoyable and supportive group environment can be immensely rewarding and a lot of fun. For some instructors, however, the experience may be short-lived, as they burn out or initial enthusiasm wanes. So what does it take to build a long and successful career in group exercise instruction?

To gain an insight into the mindset of some leading lights in the field, Group Exercise, Mind Body & Aqua Network asked:

What advice would you give newly qualified Group Ex instructors starting out on their instructing career?

Rebecca Small

International presenter and instructor

‘One of the best pieces of advice I can give is to take the time to practice your art! As the saying goes, practice makes perfect. Regardless of whether you are teaching freestyle or pre-choreographed classes, being fully prepared is essential. If you are comfortable with what you are teaching, you are able to focus more of your attention on your participants, ensuring they have a really positive experience.

As a new instructor, do your best to participate in other instructors’ classes. This is a great way to pick up new skills, and can also be a lesson in how not to do things!

It is also essential to make sure you are fit enough to teach a class. As fitness instructors we should be leading by example.

Lastly, don't forget to enjoy yourself when you teach. At the end of the day your participants (and you) will remember how they felt throughout the class, rather than what choreography you did. So even if everything else goes pear shaped, make sure you still have fun …and your participants will too.’

Karen Finucane

Cluster Group Fitness Manager, Fitness First (NSW – Eastern Cluster)

‘Choose to teach programs that are true to you. To be successful and to ensure that you’re a suitable role model for each program, it is important that you embody the essence of each program with regard to look, feel and personality. The more versatile and adaptable you are, the more program varieties you will be successful at. Begin by mastering one program and then build from there, ensuring that you have sufficient preparation time available for each.

Like most things in life, preparation is the key to success. Whether teaching freestyle or pre-choreography, walk into each class knowing your music, class plan and choreography so that you can focus on how you’re going to present the workout, not on what you’re going to be doing.

Make everyone feel like they’re an integral part of the class and the fitness journey. Make newcomers feel welcome. Positively connecting with your members will go a long way to building your class numbers and ensuring that your participants return regularly. Be personable, approachable and available for a chat before and after class. Learn as many names as you can, as addressing people individually during the class will make them feel important (although make sure they are comfortable with this as some people prefer to be left alone).

Most importantly, love what you do. Delivering an awesome class requires loads of energy and passion (excuse the cliché!) and if you don’t enjoy what you do, it will sap your energy, leaving you with little for yourself.

Finally, look after your body – you only have one and it’s the tool of your trade!’

Marietta Mehanni,

International instructor and presenter

‘My advice is divided into two parts: mentoring and professionalism.

Mentoring in this industry is the key to success. Choose someone you admire and are happy to regularly attend their classes. Most experienced instructors are happy to take someone under their wing, and this will definitely fast track your progress. Often it is said, ‘that it is not what you know but who you know’. Having a mentor helps on both fronts – you learn new skills and avoid common ‘newbie’ pitfalls and also link into a network that your mentor has acquired over the years.

With regards professionalism, it is important to decide on your own personal code of ethical practice. New instructors stand out when they return texts, phone calls and emails promptly, dress professionally and arrive early for appointments and classes. It is also important to watch what you write on facebook and other social media and what comes out of your mouth. The instructor you criticise may become either your future coordinator or someone you need assistance from in the future. Use your mentor to debrief on issues that you are frustrated with. Your mentor is a person you can share thoughts with, without the fear that it will be shared with other people.’

Nathan Short

Instructor, dancer and director of The Future Drop

Understand what inspires people to want to do group exercise instead of going for a run on their own or working with a PT. The psychology behind the response you get from individuals in social environments can play a key role in what you can help your participants achieve. You will become a stronger leader if you see your room as a collection of individuals and teach to each of them.

Music is king. Defining group fitness classes as the 'use of music during exercise' is far less powerful than 'exercise because there's music'. The music you use in your class is the most crucial element you can control to get the best out of your participants. People will achieve things they never thought possible because you took them there with music. Don't underestimate its power to evoke life changing moments. There is much more to it than just a beat.

Teach to the people in front of you. If people aren't achieving success in any class style, pre-choreographed or freestyle, change how you teach that twist, lunge, or step curl mambo combo. Think about the visual (look), auditory (listen), and kinaesthetic (feel) learners in the room, and teach to each style. Master these three elements and you can teach anyone anything.

Be you, and nothing else. If you are a natural born boot camp sergeant, embrace that. If you can't help but smile and find humour in everything that happens, embrace that. It's when you try to be a jack-of-all-trades that people will not respond well. Every leader has their strengths. Find these and teach from them, and you will always teach from a place of honesty and authenticity.’

Stephen Parker

Group Fitness Manager, Fitness First Darlinghurst

‘Firstly, I’d advise you to congratulate yourself on making the decision to become a group exercise instructor! Being in the fitness industry is such a rewarding career as you can see firsthand the positive difference you make in peoples’ lives.

Teaching group exercise can be a little overwhelming at first, and sometimes it will feel like you are taking one step forward and two steps back. The best piece of advice I can give is to learn to teach to the people in front of you. You may have prepared some fantastic choreography, scripted some great cues, or have a strong structured format, but if you notice the participants on that day are having difficulty with the class, you should be able to adapt in order to quickly deliver a class that is suitable for them. It's not good for you or the participants to struggle with a workout that is not at their level.

What makes me really proud of the fitness industry is the genuinely passionate people that you get to work alongside. There are plenty of people who are more than willing to help and assist you with your career, so my advice is to learn from the experts who surround you and benefit from their knowledge and experience.’

Melissa Guest-Smith

National Group Fitness Manager, Goodlife Health Clubs

‘Throughout my career I have mentored many instructors, and the following tips are always first on my list when I’m recruiting new instructors;

Don’t over-teach. It’s easy to burn out or sustain an injury through instructing too many classes, especially of the same program. Balance your workload to include flexibility training and a rest day, and don’t be scared to say no to covering a class – it’s better to say no than to get an overuse injury.

It’s common to hear ‘I teach so much that I eat what I want’ but this isn’t how it should be! Ensure you replenish your body with the correct nutrients and fluids to offset your physical workload.

Look after your voice. If you struggle with voice projection and speaking from your diaphragm, I would encourage you to visit a voice coach. Remember, you cannot teach without your voice!

It’s easy to form bad habits when first starting out, so be open to all feedback and making changes to ensure you’re continually taking your instruction to the next level.

Once on stage you open yourself to multiple opinions of your class. Even if you’re teaching a great class, it’s important to realise not all participants may like or connect with your teaching style, so if this happens don’t take participants’ criticisms personally.

Be authentic. Your style is unique and participants will like your classes because of you! It’s important to have mentors, but don’t copy other instructors or presenters if it’s not authentic to you. Participants will see this instantly and it will come across fake. Blend everything you see and learn to design your own unique style.’

Judi Mead

National Group Fitness Manager, Fitness First

‘Embarking on a career in group exercise, putting yourself ‘out there’ on the podium, can be exciting, exhilarating and intimidating! Ensure you know the reason why you want to be an instructor – is it altruistic or egocentric? Successful instructors are those who are passionate about fitness and want to share their passion with a wider audience! To guide a new instructor through this process, a great mentor is integral to success. A mentor will help you from a practical and an emotional perspective.

Be a sponge: look, listen and learn. Participate in other instructors’ classes – you will always learn something. Be open minded. Be humble. Be professional. Most importantly, give no ‘feedback on the feedback’. Whilst you may not always be the new kid on the block, there will always be someone out there with more experience or more knowledge. Or both!’

Key advice
  • Practice, practice, practice
  • Learn from mentors/ fellow instructors
  • Be authentic
  • Teach to the people in front of you
  • Look after yourself as well as your participants