Elevating Group Fitness

Kevin Mullins | 04 Oct 2016

There is an old saying about respect. It goes something like, “respect is given when respect is earned.” It refers to the fact that respect is not an inherent assumption in life, rather someone must demonstrate worthiness for the admiration of others.

Group fitness has become that someone. It has lost its worthiness among other forms of training in the expansive sphere that is the fitness industry. It is often seen as careless, as strength and conditioning professionals continue to rise in prominence and a constant stream of science enters the space.

Simply put, large-scale group exercise has not evolved with the industry around it. In fact, some would argue that the majority of classes put individuals at risk with careless programming built on ramping intensity and completely ignoring the quality of the workout.

Thus, its position in the industry is justified.

Far too many group instructors will program every variation of a burpee because they can’t create intensity in other ways. They won’t take the time to ensure class goers are capable of performing all of the exercises they have planned, and don’t offer regressions or modifications when they do see an issue. All of this mixed with a stereotypical attitude on the microphone that only barks orders, motivational idioms, and congratulatory expressions - no wonder the industry can’t see potential.

Not to mention those instructors who still perform the same exercises in the same order to the same playlist every single week. Year after year progresses and it is still the same moves set to 120BPM for forty-five minutes. The class members are beyond faithful, but they stopped seeing results many moons ago – and they really only keep coming because it is the only class on the schedule at that time.

Much of the aforementioned rant reads as though there is nothing good left in the group fitness sector of the industry. It is much the opposite, however. In fact, with the massive influx of new talent into the space, the rise of the boutique gym, and a greater wealth of information available at the fingertips of the curious – I’d argue that group fitness could never be better.

Yet, this needs to reach the end consumer. People who are participating in classes need to see this enthusiasm, sense the genuine curiosity, and acknowledge that they are taking in part of something that is designed with the absolute intention of improving them. Thus, group fitness classes across the nation, regardless of demographic, price-point, or geographical location – need to kick it up a notch!

Here is how:

1. Be a Professional Information Consumer

There is an astounding amount of information being published into the sphere on a daily basis in regards to health and fitness. It is more than just hard-to-read studies; blog posts like this one, and the blogs of notable professionals push actionable information that can be utilized immediately after reading.

Even if you have no desire to be a personal trainer, strength coach, or any other title for a full-time fitness professional, you should still be looking to consume as much information as possible. So much responsibility rests on the shoulders of the individual leading a class, and there is absolutely no weekend-long group exercise certification that will grant you the depth of knowledge necessary to handle this burden appropriately.

Read whenever possible, learn from other professionals, and seek the counsel of those who have succeeded on stages much larger than your own.

2. Understand that Intensity is Multifactorial

Far too often in a class the instructor will escalate the intensity in an instant. One moment the class is performing squats with a dumbbell and the next they are dropping into burpees for time. There is nothing inherently wrong with this programming if it were a part of a finisher, or the set was explained beforehand.

However, many instructors lean on exercises such as burpees, squat jumps, and other high intensity plyometrics as their only means to create an effect. The sweat will pour and the hearts will race, but not much else will change. Moreover, the majority of individuals in a group fitness class aren’t necessarily qualified to perform a burpee safely – leading to an injury, whether it happens immediately or months down the road.

You can create a similar training effect by stringing together a series of exercises that challenge multiple areas of the body that do not compete with each other. Harnessing scientific principles such as peripheral heart action, the size principle, and coaching movement instead of muscles are also ways to push class goers without breaking them.

3. Fun is Mandatory

Building off the previous point – all exercise participants, regardless of ability level, should have a great time in a class. Many classes are either so hard that everyone is focused on surviving the experience, or too focused on fun that there aren’t substantial stimuli for physiological adaptation. In both cases – not much is achieved.

It is important to ensure that every individual who participates in a class feels included. Many high intensity classes are fun for those capable of keeping up with the pace, but an absolute dread for those who cannot. Offering regressions, modifications, and provide one-on-one support to them as often as possible are all tactics to ensure they feel involved, cared for, and happy.

Look for interactions that make the class laugh. If you flub a few words in a row because you are out a breath, make fun of yourself. If there is a funny moment due to the music, your cues, or popular culture – capitalize. The goal of a great class is to create an experience that has the potential to create intrinsic and extrinsic change within someone.

Change is made in the mind and upon the body equally.

4. Your Words Make or Break the Space

There is no obligation to say the words “great,” “good” and “awesome” one thousand times during a class. Furthermore, there is no need to say “do it,” “go-go,” “push,” and any other incarnation of motivational prose.

Cueing is the language of a quality coach. In fact, coaching external images and not internal processes is the exact difference between an elite and an average coach. A great baseball coach will tell a pitcher to finish their release by picking up a dollar bill off the mound. A good baseball coach will tell that same pitcher to lengthen their arm and follow through their fingers. Neither cue is wrong, but one will resonate significantly deeper in the processing region of the pitcher’s brain.

The same goes in a group class. A variety of individuals have piled into a common space with common intentions; yet, they do not own common experiences nor speak a common language. Thus, a coach must be far beyond common and pronounce beyond the common speak.

Give them an image to portray. Let the class try to recreate an experience from their lives. Instead of coaching “hips back and chest tall” during a deadlift – aim to say “get long like Superman and sit back into a rocking chair.” Follow with “take off like a rocket ship and squeeze your glutes at the top like you need to hold a credit card.”

Use the microphone with intention. With great power comes great responsibility.

5. Feel, Don’t just Dictate

Lastly, but arguably equally as important – is the ability to feel the room. If a class presents itself as being relatively deconditioned, or new to the space, then it is imperative that the class be modified downwards to ensure that everyone wins.

There is absolutely no victory in destroying a room of good people. You are not a “great” trainer because you made the room like a battlefield of disoriented warriors searching for safety and solace. There needs to be a constant conversation, subconsciously, between the class and the instructor.

When developing a plan for a particular class, it is crucial to program movements and not specific exercises. For example, performing loaded squats is a safe “program,” yet, “DB front squat to overhead press” may not be. There could be a series of individuals who do not possess the neuromuscular coordination to string together two compound moves.

This isn’t just programming to the lowest common denominator either. There will be classes where it feels as though an all-star team has been bestowed upon you. These moments allow you to stretch your creative muscles and push these individuals to their limits. Still maintain that watchful eye, but look to experiment with new concepts or exercises to challenge the group.

A great leader is always prepared. Preparation is best exemplified by the ability to deviate from a prescribed plan. Whether it be battle, sports, or an exercise class – nothing ever goes to plan. Don’t be blinded by intention; rather, subscribe to the ocean and keep up with the waves.


Understanding each of these five points is critical to designing or refurbishing a group fitness class. The experience should be built upon science, driven by an open relationship between the participants and the instructor, and fueled by creative exercises, appropriate cueing, and a sense that the space is nothing more than a party for fitness.

There is no moment more special than the one in which you change a life. One-on-one training provides these moments; so too does small group training. Yet, when you can stand in front of a room, pull your microphone onto your head, and stare into the eyes of the mass of people who await you…

And you know that you have such a perfect plan built upon the intention to advance them…

You’ll elevate.

They’ll elevate.

And the world will be better for it.

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Kevin Mullins

About the author: Kevin Mullins

Kevin Mullins, CSCS is the Director of Product Development for The St. James in Springfield, VA. The author of Day by Day: The Personal Trainer's Blueprint to Achieving Ultimate Success is a former EQUINOX Master Instructor, Personal Trainer, and Group Fitness coach. He has presented for the NSCA, SCW Mania, and contributes content to PTontheNet, other websites, and his own page: KevinMullinsFitness.com.

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Comments (2)

Brown, Jill | 25 Oct 2016, 15:16 PM

Perfectly said Kevin! With 25 years of group training experience, I agree 100%. I teach with those exact criteria in mind. Thanks for reminding me to come up with more movement metaphors. I've used the credit card line for a long time, except here in Beverly Hills I use "Amex black card" instead ;) I believe my students at Equinox feel I endeavor to make each workout understable and doable for all levels, and they are fully prepared for each movement once I say "go!"

Steer, Jenny | 17 Oct 2016, 00:15 AM

Great article, has some really useful ideas and very practical. thank you!