Group Fitness Classes: Best Practices from the Experts
As a new gym owner or head trainer, you assume the responsibility of helping your clients meet their health and fitness goals. The hard work is up to them, of course, but unless you are making smart decisions about the way you run your gym, create your workouts, and manage your group classes, your clients’ hard work isn’t going to get them the results it should.
Managing group classes is no easy feat, however. You’ve got multiple members with competing priorities, different goals, and a variety of life contexts—and they are all looking to you—your programming, your coaching, your guidance—to get them where they want to be. The trouble is, there’s no manual for this kind of thing. Every gym owner has a different approach, every group is unique, and if you ask ten experienced coaches how you should run your new gym, you’ll get ten different answers.
However, you may also see some commonalities—some overlap in things they do, approaches they take, and ways they structure their programs. So we set out to do just that—ask some of the most successful gym owners and coaches in the country how they achieve such great results with their clients, and look for commonalities.
Today, we’ll share with you, the new gym owner or trainer, our experts’ “best practices” when structuring and running their group classes, in the hopes that you are able to apply some of these concepts in your own facility, for the benefit of your clients. (And if you’re a client at one of these group training facilities, consider asking your trainer how they handle some of these situations, to ensure they have their own well thought out best practices.)
Our Panel of Experts
Chris Brown, Emergent Fitness, Fort Collins CO. Chris opened EmerFit as one of the very first CrossFit affiliates in in 2005. Chris has accumulated over 10,000 hours of coaching, has competed in the CrossFit Games and Olympic Weightlifting, and recently completed his first marathon. He has been an RKC-certified kettlebell instructor since 2005, and holds a variety of fitness certifications, including NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist.
Greg Everett, Catalyst Athletics, Sunnyvale, CA. Greg is the weightlifting team head coach and program director of Catalyst Athletics, publisher of the “Performance Menu Journal,” and the author of Olympic Weightlifting: A Complete Guide for Athletes & Coaches and Olympic Weightlifting for Sport. He owned one of the very first CrossFit affiliates, and co-owned CrossFit NorCal with Robb Wolf and Nicki Violetti. Greg is a USAW Senior Coach, NSCA Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist, RKC Kettlebell Instructor, and CSUH Certified Personal Trainer.
Scott Hagnas, CrossFit Portland, Portland OR. Scott Hagnas opened one of the very first CrossFit affiliates in 2005, holds a Level I certification in the prestigious Poliquin International Certification Program (PICP), and is the only Level II BioSignature Modulation Method practitioners in the Pacific Northwest. Scott is also a Level 1 coach in the Certified Coaching Program (CCP) designed and overseen by Optimum Performance Training founder and CrossFit Games champion James FitzGerald. He is currently working toward Level 2 in this system.
Kate Klaers, Athlete Lab, Little Canada MN. Kate’s fitness background includes college basketball, triathlons, group fitness instruction, weight lifting and more. Her professional life has taken her from being a firefighter, to a licensed acupuncturist, to currently fueling her passion for fitness as a CrossFit coach and gym owner. Kate opened Athlete Lab in 2008. She is CrossFit Level 1, Olympic Weightlifting, Powerlifting, Gymnastics, and Mobility certified; an RKC-certified Kettlebell instructor and holds a Masters in Acupuncture.
Eric LeClair, Team CrossFit Academy, Monrovia CA. Eric is the 20th official CrossFit affiliate owner, has served as a CF HQ Head Trainer and Games competitor, and is a Level 3 CF Certified Instructor. He completed James Fitzgerald’s OPT-CCP Exercise Physiology Assessment and Program Design in 2012, is a USAW club coach, and served as the head strength and conditioning coach for Monrovia Varsity Football. He holds numerous fitness certifications and has received a number of awards and accolades for his accomplishments and service in the health and fitness industry.
Dutch Lowy, Black Box Fort Worth, Fort Worth TX. Dutch has been in the fitness industry for ten years and coaching for eight. He has CrossFit certifications on the CrossFit HQ staff, finished 7th at the CrossFit Games in 2008, and finished first at the Southwest Regional in 2009. He is now a competitive weightlifter and ranked in the top ten in his weight class. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, USA Weightlifting Level 1 coach, and a Level 2 CrossFit coach.
How far in advance do you program for your group classes?
This is one question in which all of our experts agreed*—programming should be planned weeks, if not months, in advance. (Some even know the basic outline of their training schema a year out.) On average, gym owners are programming six to eight weeks ahead of time, and then tweaking and modifying based on the physical feedback of their members.
*We found in significant that none of our polled gym owners believed in the “hopper” approach—rolling dice to come up with a random workout for the day—or planned their group workouts on the fly the night before class.
Scott Hagnas of CrossFit Portland in Portland, OR says, “I have a rough outline in place for the year, then I program in three to four month blocks. I build the exact training sessions out several weeks in advance.”
Dutch Lowy of CrossFit ATM in Fort Worth, TX says, “In general, we program six weeks in advance. This is what I require of my coaches as it allows me the chance to see how a program is going to unfold and if it needs to be modified after the first couple of weeks. I accept that there is an adaptation period, but clients’ soreness or pain lasting more than a week is overdoing it, and I usually will modify the workouts at that point.”
Kate Klaers of The Athlete Lab in Little Canada, MN adds, “We are constantly tweaking and double-checking the previous weeks in that month (and assessing what’s up and coming) to make sure we are not burning our clients out while at the same time providing enough stimulus to make change.”
For members who are intermediate or advanced in their training and are part of special group classes or teams, coaches plan workouts even farther in advance—usually around three months at a time. Their belief is that the more specific the fitness goal, the more specific and planned the training programs should be.
Eric LeClair of Team CrossFit Academy in Monrovia, CA says, “Our fitness and performance classes (for intermediate clients who have been in our program for two to four years and have a well-balanced approach to their fitness) are designed nine to twelve weeks in advance. Our USAW weightlifters’ programs are done six, eight, or twelve weeks in advance. Our personal training clients are all sport, season, or goal dependent and most of that programming is also done eight to twelve weeks in advance.”
Do you let members know a few days worth (or more) of workouts at once, or do you “surprise” them with the workout the night before? Why?
This question produced a great variety of answers, which makes us think that it’s generally a personal preference of the coach, based on the general behavior of the members. If a gym owner believes his/her members will skip out on workouts they don’t like or aren’t good at, they’re less likely to post workouts in advance. This could also be a question of the culture of the gym, and the gym’s encouragement of highly specific member goals. Those gyms who require every client to have a sport, season, or goal-dependent training program likely see far less “cherry-picking” when posting workouts ahead of time.
Our gym owners responded with a variety of answers: some post a week’s worth of workouts in advance, some post the workout the night before online, and some do not allow the client to preview the workout at all.
Greg Everett of Catalyst Athletics in Sunnyside, CA says, “We don’t post our workouts anywhere but on the board at the gym. If a client wants to know what the workout is, they can come to the gym and do it. Posting workouts beforehand creates the opportunity for clients to skip things they don’t enjoy, which are invariably the things they need the most. Our clients have an idea of how are strength cycles work, so they have a good sense of what’s coming next within a certain cycle.”
Eric LeClair takes a different approach to encourage his members not to pick and choose: “I encourage each and every member to see the big picture, so we write each week on the boards in advance. This way they can plan everything down to their gear and pre/post workout fuel. The more mature clients appreciate the heads up. The immature members pick and choose, arriving only on days they “like”…but after we point this out they often adjust their attitudes.”
Scott Hagnas adds, “We post all of the week’s workouts on Sunday night so everyone can see what the week has in store. This allows those with sports interests outside the gym (many of our clients) to plan which days to train. I will get questions about what days work best given their sport goals, and I am always happy to help.”
Chris Brown of EmerFit in Fort Collins, CO says, “We post a week at a time. We’ve posted a full month a few times and marked it as a ‘draft.’ We also tell people if there is a particular benchmark lift or workout coming up later in the month.”
Would you be offended if any of your members asked you why you programmed a certain workout for a certain day?
Overwhelmingly, our gym owners welcome questions from their members about their programming. In fact, most of them are already explaining much of the reasoning behind the chosen series of movements before or during class. Much forethought is put into high-quality programming, and our coaches actually want their clients to know why they are doing these particular workouts.
Our polled gym owners never expect their clients to go into their program blindly. They believe having a good grasp on the methods behind their programming “madness” will help their client make even greater improvements in the end.
Kate Klaers says, “I love it when clients ask questions! I would never be offended and love explaining the thought process behind what gets programmed and why. Additionally, when we debrief the workout each day for the class, the coaches help explain what type of stimulus we are trying to reach, what the loading should feel like, and so forth. We try our best to avoid clients feeling like a ‘deer in the headlights’ and not understanding what they should be aiming for that particular day or week.”
Greg Everett puts it bluntly, “We explain why – it’s not some secret, and to me, refusing to explain why you’ve done what you’ve done is a sign that you don’t know.”
Eric LeClair adds, “Always…I always care to explain. My job is that of an educator, teacher, leader. If I shunned members away and simply sent them off to sweat, I wouldn’t be doing my job.”
Chris Brown agrees, saying, “We encourage those questions. We usually offer an annual seminar that explains why we program what we do. We’ve found that over half of our clients eat that stuff up. At the beginning of our three month cycles and often at the beginning of the month we’ll run a shorter training session and take time before and during prehab to explain what’s coming up. We also pass the ‘why’ of our programming down to all of the trainers so they are all able to answer these questions.”
If your programming is based on a high-intensity model (what some might consider “traditional CrossFit”), do you allow people to train an unlimited number of times per week?
While none of the folks we asked had hard and fast rules at their gyms regarding the number of days members are allowed to train, they all make it a point to educate people about why hard training more than a few days a week can be counterproductive, and is often downright harmful. Our polled coaches will often mitigate this by programming rest, recovery, or lower-intensity days.
Chris Brown says, “Someone taught me that making rules usually means reducing trust. In other words, rather than making a rule, I encourage my members to seek education and understanding. If we see someone coming in too often we’ll usually speak with them individually.”
Dutch Lowy adds, “We make an effort to expose our people to different time domains each week, allowing for varied levels of intensity. We encourage just three to four days of training for 95% of people in our gym. Our weightlifters only train three to four days as well. We also may recommend people put a workout in the tank on a certain day based on how they are feeling.”
Greg Everett takes a more individual approach, saying, “We do allow people to train up to six days per week, but the ones who do are monitored. The trainers are creating specific workouts for anyone who comes more than three days per week, taking into account how much they’ve trained already that week, how hard, what they’ve done, and what they will be doing in the future in that training cycle. Our workouts are not haphazard in any sense, so we don’t really have a problem with clients blowing themselves out.”
Do you have options for people who are too sick or stressed to be in your regular high-intensity group classes (other than just scaling back weights)?
Though general fitness programming works for the general population, our group agreed there will always be outliers. Just as athletes require classes beyond those of the regular group class, so may those who need a little extra care. Some gyms offer alternate classes, but most prefer these folks to get in one-on-one with a trainer so that programming can be tailored to their specific needs in the safest way possible.
Note: All of our coaches agreed that throwing “sick” clients into a high-intensity program by simply scaling their weights or movements is not the best approach.
Greg Everett says, “Private training is their option as they need to at least get started with the full attention of a qualified trainer. We need to be totally comfortable that a client can handle a group class situation in which they’re not being supervised 100% of the time and deal with the inherent pressure of performing up to the group standard.”
Dutch Lowy says, “We have special programs outside of our normal group classes for those with health conditions or chronic stress. We do an individual consult with everyone who trains with us, and we determine which program is appropriate for them. This usually means having a hard discussion with folks.
What else can you add about running a good group program?
The last thing that our coaches agreed upon—getting to know each and every one of your clients on a personal level and being involved in their lives is absolutely critical to their success in the gym.
Dutch says, “Everyone’s first question when they come in the gym is ‘How do you feel?’ Based on that response we can adapt the program for them that day. Good coaches can see when some walks in the door whether they need to go hard or take it easy on a certain day. You can also hear it in their voice if you are really listening.”
Chris Brown agrees, saying, “We do a lot of customization during class. And yes, I said ‘customize’ not ‘scale.’ Not everyone in our classes are doing the same workouts.”
Eric LeClair says, “We have seen situations where individually it makes sense (to change the program). Our most common example is someone who is changing their eating or dealing with addiction. If working out five days a week for a little while helps their individual context, then we’ll encourage that behavior (while carefully monitoring).
Greg Everett closes by saying, “We ask our members to trust our programming, but if they’re here and doing our workouts, that trust is implied—we don’t have to literally ask them to trust us. If someone doesn’t trust us, they don’t train here—why would they pay us to do something for them they don’t believe in?
Build Your Own Best Practices
While there were many commonalities in our experts’ answers, there were also many differences in how they run their gyms and their programs. As a new gym owner or trainer, you have to create the culture you believe is best for your population—but taking some of these sage pieces of advice (like planning your training program weeks in advance, getting to know your members individually, and creating different programs for special populations) would serve you and your members well.
Have you discovered some of your own best practices when it comes to running group classes? Share your thoughts in comments.
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