Just Don't Annoy Me: How to Coach a Good Group Exercise Class
Despite the fact I’ve been a trainer and an athlete for many years, I prefer to work out with others rather than alone. In fact, I really enjoy training in group class scenarios. Group exercise is full of potential pitfalls, however, and is often the domain of minimally educated instructors.
It can be easy for instructors to hide within a group, function as cheerleaders rather than coaches, or rely on someone else’s programming that they don’t actually understand. I’m not singling out globo-gyms or Zumba with that statement either. I include CrossFit, kettlebells, yoga, and just about anything else taught in a group setting. It’s easier to teach what someone else already taught, to mask your ignorance with enthusiasm, and to fake it until the clock runs out, than it is to actually know your stuff. (And yes, if you’re teaching CrossFit, chances are for most of you it means you’re teaching “group-ex,” and if that bothers you then you might have some deeper things to think on.)
So how do you tell the legit instructors from the group-ex charlatans? I have one simple rule, one straightforward litmus test when attending group classes:
Just don’t annoy me.
If I make it through an hour with you and you haven’t annoyed me, chances are you’re leading a good workout, creating a positive and safe environment, and possibly even know what you’re doing. In fact, I just might come back again.
What might annoy me? And how can you be an excellent instructor instead? Here are seven characteristics of a bad group-ex instructor and seven characteristics of a good one:
7 Characteristics of a Bad Group Exercise Instructor:
1. Starting late or ending late – Recently I attended a class that was only thirty minutes in length, and the instructor was eight minutes late. That’s an awfully large percentage of class to miss. On the flip side, remember your students have lives and if you’re going to run past the scheduled end of class, you need to give them the option to leave without making them feel bad (or, if you’re using a room booked back-to-back with classes, irritating the incoming instructor and students).
2. Making people do dumb things – Don’t make me do things that don’t look like anything in real life. Or rather, don’t make me do things that only resemble things a circus animal would do. If we’re in spin class, we should train as if we’re riding our bikes in the real world. Not some world where we stand up and sit down every fifteen seconds and pedal at some ridiculous RPM. Same if it’s a CrossFit class - if you insist on making something so logistically complicated that it’s not pleasant in any way, then I’m going to assume you don’t know what you’re doing.
3. Not coaching – This is one of the biggest offenses of group exercise instructors, from yoga to CrossFit to treadmill classes. They get people going, turn up the music, and then just wander around without giving any actual instruction or modification. I can watch a video at home and get that. If you don’t even attempt to teach me, I’m not coming back. I refuse to believe that if you are indeed educated enough to teach what you’re claiming you’re able to teach, that you have nothing to share with me.
4. Asking people to do dangerous things – The other day in a treadmill running class the instructor had us step off the treadmill, place our hands on the treadmill, and “walk” with our hands. Somehow we were supposed to make the belt move and not face plant. I never figured it out. It seemed like an incredibly bad and unsafe idea. Plus, that’s gross - my hands don’t go where people’s feet have been all day. Don’t make me do gross things on top of dangerous things.
5. Saying something silly – This one is the telltale sign of an instructor who is actually not qualified to teach what they are teaching. While I give some credit to offering coaching, if it’s flat-out incorrect coaching that doesn’t do anyone any good. Don’t tell me to “take big steps” when I’m running. Don’t tell me to engage the wrong muscle. And don’t tell me to attempt thirty reps of whatever we’re doing in the last thirty seconds.
6. Making excuses or telling me you’re tired – I don’t want to hear that you teach fifteen classes a week. If you’re tired keep it to yourself. I didn’t pay money to be told you’re tired. I paid money for you to be awesome.
7. Repeatedly yelling, “Woo!” - Seriously, just cut that out. Especially if you’re wearing a microphone.
7 Characteristics of a Good Group Exercise Instructor:
1. Introducing yourself - A friend of mine says she coaches her classes as if she’s hosting a party and every client is a guest. She greets them and makes sure they’re comfortable. She gets to know them and looks after them while they’re present. She doesn’t fail to say hello and then yell “Woo!” in their faces. That would be a strange party.
2. Asking new clients about injury and training history – Right after you say hello to a new client is a great time to ask them about training and injury history. If you do plan on offering coaching during the class, you need to know what kind of coaching to provide for the attendees. While it’s understandable that in a class of twenty or thirty people you can’t get into a lot of detail, you can offer scaling of movements and know who you should address that scaling toward.
3. Remembering your clients – It feels really good to be remembered, plain and simple. It feels good to have your name remembered, your injuries remembered, and how hard you busted your ass remembered. You have to also remember that as a trainer you are running a business, and it’s just good business to remember your clients and potential clients.
4. Teaching functional movements – You know, those big compound movements like squats, or those other tried-and-true exercises like kettlebell swings, push ups, or even jumping rope. But if you tell me to do any of those things on a Bosu, I promise, I’ll ignore you completely.
5. Explaining context – This is related to functional movements. Functional movements are all fine and dandy, but what if your clients don’t understand what’s so ‘functional’ about them? It’s up to the instructor to put everything in a context that makes sense. What are they getting from this exercise? How would they use this movement in their lives? How does this benefit their overall fitness and health?
6. Teaching some science – The other day I was in a group TRX class and the instructor took some time out from the sets and reps to explain the concept of dorsiflexion. I was so pleased. You should care enough to teach your students some of the why and how behind what you’re asking them to do.
7. Shouting praise and whispering critique – When you’re one on one with a client you can have personal conversations, challenging conversations. When you’re in a group class it’s a lot harder to correct someone without the potential for ego and embarrassment to get in the way. One thing I’ve always done is to make sure that critique is still delivered, just on a personal level. I’ll go right over to someone and speak the corrections to him or her in a voice only audible to the two of us. On the other hand, if I see someone doing something properly or with particular enthusiasm, I make it a policy to shout it across the room, so everyone can hear how wonderful he or she is. Doing this motivates others to lift themselves to higher standards and effort levels, as well.
So there you have it. In a nutshell, treat your clients like they're guests at your house party, and don't annoy them. (Hopefully those thing are not mutually exclusive, or I'm never coming to a party at your house.) And yes, while it might be a rather sweaty, grunty, loud party, it's a party nonetheless. Or it should feel like one, and if it doesn't, that's on you as the group exercise instructor. Whether it's CrossFit, kettlebells, or yoga, the safety, effectiveness, and fun are completely your creation - and your responsibility.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.