something a group fitness certification won’t teach you

Once upon a time -I’m being vague here because I don’t want to directly call out the company/studio- some blogging friends and I went to take a fitness class as part of an event. The studio knew we were bloggers, were wonderfully kind and accommodating, and made a point to let the instructor know that a group of fitness bloggers were taking her class. She came over and introduced herself, and I was excited to try something new. Even though we were there to potentially blog about the experience, we all laid low (no camera flashing or anything like that!) and did what we could to follow along.Β 

During class, she made a point to call us out and correct us during many of the exercises, which were new to most of us. Whenever we started on the next thing, you could pretty much guarantee that she’d be there to physically correct our form, tell us how we were doing it wrong, and point us out in front of the class. I didn’t think that much about it at first, but by the end, I knew I probably wouldn’t want to return to her class. Right then and there I also promised myself that I’d do my best to make my class attendees feel the OPPOSITE of how I felt when I left: attacked for being “new” and not really knowing what I was doing. (For what it’s worth, this was supposed to be an all-levels fitness class, so it’s not like we were jumping into something advanced without the proper prerequisites).

Your group fitness cert wont teach you

I’ve only been teaching group fitness for five years, but I’ve been taking classes for much longer. I’ve had the opportunity to watch and learn from many incredible instructors and also pick up strategies on how to motivate my classes, modify or progress according to fitness levels, and create relationships with frequent class participants. I’ll never forget how kind Marilyn (<– my favorite spin teacher in Tucson!) was to me when I took my first spin class ever. She asked if there were any new people in the class during warmup, I shyly raised my hand, and she took her mic off during warmup to come over and give me the basics.

Something she told me that I’ve made an effort to consistently tell my classes:

“Listen to your body. Don’t be afraid to scale back or take a break if you need to.”

Spin

She didn’t make me feel badly for pedaling more slowly during the sprints because I was already fatigued beyond belief, for chugging water when it wasn’t an “official” break, or for not knowing the proper positions. She made me feel welcomed, and even though I was exhausted when I left, I also felt successful because I got in a great workout. That is what made me come back, and continue to take her classes until I moved to North Carolina with the Pilot.

So why am I posting this?

I got an awesome email from a reader, and it really got the gears turning in my brain and heart. There are so many “x” factors in health and fitness, and demonstrating kindness have a dramatic impact, especially because we have no idea where someone may be on their fitness journey.Β 

A snippet of the email (which she gave me permission to share with all of you):

Dear Group Fitness Instructor,

Sometimes, I really need to hear you say it. Your motivation is part of what brings me to your class, and I promise I am trying my absolute best, but sometimes I need to hear a couple little phrases from you.

They’re not “keep going!” or “try harder!” or “this is where the change happens!” or “sweat is fat crying!” or “no pain no gain, cupcake!” in case you’re wondering.

Surprised?

I need to hear you say “It’s OK to take modifications and honor your body.” Or “It’s OK if you need to drop and rest for a minute, just rejoin us when you’re ready!” Or “Way to go! You’re doing awesome! Stay where you are, or add this for more if you’re ready…”

You see, I’m not stopping during your class or leaving out reps or grabbing an extra water break because I’m lazy. I know I’m overweight and not as flexible or strong as most of the fit, awesome looking people in here; I’m here because I want to change that. I promise you I am trying my hardest. But I have some limitations.

I have a cardiac problem. I have bad joints, and a tendency to injure easily. I have asthma. And I am the sole breadwinner for my family. If I hurt myself and I’m unable to do my job (which has physical requirements) I will be in deep trouble. And so will my family.

When I stop for a minute, I’m assessing my body. I’m listening to my joints, and my heart, and my lungs, to make sure I’m just feeling fatigue. Or because I’m feeling dizzy and I need to check my pulse rate (or see if I’m skipping beats). Or because I only got three hours of sleep last night, and I’m debating how much I can push this time without getting hurt. I’m here because I know doing SOMETHING is better than doing nothing at all.

I’m not overweight because I’m stupid… or because I’m lazy. I’m overweight because I worked night shift and went to school full time for several years and I didn’t take as much care of myself as I should have. I knew better, but life can get in your way sometimes until you get enough breathing room to figure it out.

I’m really proud of being able to participate in your class. I am building strength, and endurance… I am starting to lose weight, and my clothes are starting to fit better. You have a lot to do with my motivation; you can make or break a class for me.

When you shout the wrong thing at me, I feel attacked. Or defensive. Or discouraged. I feel like you are pointing me out to the rest of the group, which makes me compare myself to them even more than I already do. “Keep going!” when I’m trying to check in with myself feels like “Not good enough!” I won’t stop coming to class, this time, because I know better… but what about the girl next to me, who’s only been to class twice and is at a point in her journey where she gives up easily?

I know I’m doing overhead triceps instead of tricep pushups. My biceps tendon isn’t agreeing with that today. I know I dropped one set of reps during the squat track. My heart was pounding badly enough I needed to let it settle, so the chest pressure would go away. I envy your ability to power through with twice as much weight as I can handle. Or your ability to dance and look coordinated. Or your ability to lead the class, carry on a conversation, and still be pushing through your workout when all I can do is focus on getting through it and breathing.

Be kind to me, and to the others in your class who are like me. It seems so small… but it makes such a big difference. Acknowledging you see me trying and affirming my taking time to check in with my body makes me feel encouraged, and helps me to grow stronger and stay committed to my goals.

Sincerely…

Me

So here’s a little fun challenge for today: show some extra kindness to someone next time you’re taking a class or working out at the gym. Compliment someone on their shirt/sneakers/headband/whatever, give a fellow class participant a high five after class, or just make an effort to say “hi” to someone you see frequently and introduce yourself. A little kindness goes a long way!

xoxo

Gina

More:

You don’t have to be good

Confessions of a group fitness instructor

Confessions of a personal trainer

Getting into group ex

Gym class etiquetteΒ 

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Comments

  1. Such a well written email, and a great message! Don’t get me wrong, now and then I love a good shout and all but it is so true, sometimes it just makes me feel a bit inadequate and want to shout back ‘I’M TRYING!!’
    Thanks for sharing πŸ™‚

  2. oh I just love this. Seriously. It is such a great reminder of the role we play as group x instructors.

  3. Gina !! I LOVED this post (as I do all of your blog). I have a fitness instructor who I think is fantastic! She is such an inspiration and she totally motivates me. She is about 10 yrs younger than me and she just had a baby 4 months ago but she is back at it and kicking our butts like crazy. She is the reason I have been consistantly exercising for the past 3 years. She offers modifications and sometimes I will just hang back and do my own thing if I feel I need to. She has made a significant impression on me and others in the class. You are spot on with this topic!!

    Your blog friend Gina (from Mass)

  4. Cassie Vaughn says:

    Beautiful post and reminder to be gentle on people and ourselves!

  5. I think this is an interesting post. I know that if I don’t like an instructor, I will seek out an alternative, but I won’t let it keep me from attending a class that I want to attend – things like this just make me work harder to correct my form (which is really for safety reasons but there are positive and negative ways to go about correcting forms). I think some amount of pushing is good though – I’ve seen (and been) the person who just doesn’t really want to put in the effort while there and leaves without breaking a sweat. When they have an instructor that pushes them a little, they improve and get into it. Taking a break because you are sick/have injuries/are really not feeling it/etc. is a different story, of course.

    I used to live in an extremely small town with a yoga studio run by a husband and wife – the wife’s taught in a way that was 100% about her and what she could do vs us (which, we were students, so it’s no surprise we couldn’t do everything), the husband taught in a way that 100% about the student and honoring your body. It was night and day. Same with Zumba instructors. I’ve had some that were totally into themselves and the teacher getting a good workout – the students felt left out and we all left annoyed. I’ve had others that made everything about the student and I enjoyed it.

  6. Beautiful post!! πŸ™‚

    I’ve noticed this in yoga classes. I went to this instructor twice (the second time was to give her the benefit of the doubt, but I ended up leaving both classes annoyed instead of relaxed). She would make everyone do the poses at the exact same time and in the exact same way. I don’t have to tell you that this is so incredibly unrealistic and annoying. If someone went into the pose before she was finished instructing it, she would call them out and make them wait. Then if someone was modifying, she would yell that it looks better to her when we all look the same. I was so incredibly annoyed at first, but then halfway through class I decided to rebel against her meanness and started doing my own thing. I hoped that it showed beginners that this is your practice and you do what feels good in your body, not what someone else tells you should feel good in your body. And that there are better teachers out there so don’t give up on yoga! I spent several minutes in childs pose, breathing deeply so I wouldn’t punch her in the face. πŸ˜‰ (I’m sure it annoyed her that someone was out of place).

  7. Love love LOVE IT!

    I left a class in tears once because I truly felt an instructor was picking on me. She kept telling me to put my shoulders back and tuck my hips up over and over and OVER again. I’m not stupid. Obviously if I’m not doing it after you’ve said it 20 times there’s something WRONG. Either I’m not understanding your explanation or I have physical limitations. The last straw came when we were doing ab work. I have scoliosis and fused vertebrae. My spine does not bend the same way as other people and she kept literally trying to push me up and then berated me when I couldn’t stay in the position she put me in. What a jerk! What was I supposed to do, stop the entire class to explain my medical history? Needless to say, I never took her class again.

    On the flip side, my favorite instructors will encourage me to push to the next level and cheer me on through it. It’s awesome when they notice that I’m doing my personal best because then when they say ‘you’re strong, I know you can do this harder’ it actually means something because I know they notice my level and they’re not just blowing hot air.

    • You should have told your instructor your limitations. A good instructor is there to help you modify if you need.

      • I did ask her for a modification across the room for one exercise stating I wasn’t strong enough and she refused to give me one. So I had to sit there doing nothing.

        A good instructor also realizes it’s awkward to yell your medical history across the room.

        I had also done this class before multiple times with other instructors, none of whom corrected me nearly as aggressively.

  8. One thing I think is important is to push yourself, and as an instructor you should always be trying to push your group! But that definitely doesn’t mean that everyone should be going to same pace, it means encouraging each member individually and doing your utmost to cater to each individuals level! My spin class teacher does an excellent job of this and sometimes will make jokes about being tired, it sort of just lets me know that it’s okay not to be going as fast as others. Often she will come round and encourage us and say how well we are doing, and I think that really helps!

    Excellent article, I hope this makes some people realize they don’t have to compete against others πŸ™‚

  9. This is so great! I’m a group fitness instructor and I totally agree with you. I see a lot of women come in either as a first time exercising or just getting back after a long break. I always remind them to take it at their pace and I think they appreciate that honesty. I always try to think of how I’d feel and what I’d like to hear! Feeling comfortable in your own workout is key–it is YOUR time to care for yourself, after all! πŸ™‚

  10. Great reminder! Love it!

  11. Great post Gina! I vividly remember two occasions where I had a negative experience with a group fitness instructor. One was very similar to the experience you describe. It happened about four or five years ago now and I’ve never been back to that studio.

    The second one happened a few months ago. The instructor in my small class of about six told everyone what a great job they were doing except me. She kept coming over to check my form or push my weights up higher or pull on my band to test tightness. I felt picked on. I remember I had only a few hours sleep the night before and was exhausted but didn’t want to cancel. I had to take some modifications because I was tired and it was like she decided to pick on me for that. I will never take that instructor again.

    I love the idea of being extra nice to someone at the gym to help motivate them. Nothing pushes me harder than getting good feedback!

  12. Ahhh I love this reminder to be kind to everyone you encounter. One of my lenten goals was to have people I encounter (familiar & not) think “she’s so nice” after they leave me. The other action I try to remember when I’m grumpy or in a funk…if I take the effort to smile at someone and they smile back….instant mood lifter! This takes more effort some days than others of course!!

    Have a great day! Here’s a smile for ya πŸ™‚

  13. It’s always a great challenge to brighten someone else’s day!

  14. Great post! I’ve always appreciated my favorite spin teacher’s words of encouragement to our class. She says things like, “Strong legs, healthy heart” or “I hope you are feeling stronger than when you walked in today” instead of phrases like, “Time to burn off all those Christmas cookies you ate, ladies!” I feel like focusing on how exercise improves your overall health is more empowering than making your class ‘pay for’ or ‘earn’ what are considered ‘bad’ foods through exercise.

  15. I love this open letter!! Such an awesome reminder for all people group fitness or not. I find this is very common in yoga instructors especially, all of my teachers have been awesome and offered modifications and reminded the class as a whole that you need to do the workout where you are at THAT day, some days it may be more, other days less. The world needs more awesome fitness instructors πŸ™‚

  16. I love this post and can totally relate to the open letter. I was there and am still in some scenrio’s and I totally believe with the perception of the teacher is what would make or break my spirit and attitude to come back. The instructors that I have now, I love for them telling us that it is “our workout” and “honor your body”, “don’t judge yourself on what your neighbor is doing”. But they also say things like, “can you go a little further?”, “is that the lowest you can go”, “do you have another set in you?” and “we do want to challenge ourselves a little, because that is what will bring change”. I always try to ask someone I think is a newbie on what they thought of a class and encourgage them to come back. Group fitness can be sooo motivating.

    I had a kickboxing instructor once teach the class like a drill sargeant and that wasn’t what I felt I’d signed up for or how the other instructors taught it and I didn’t go back when it was her teaching. So, I guess I know that about myself that that isn’t the type of enforcement I relate to. I thought… “I hope she doesn’t call me out, cuz I’m just trying to stay in the game, here!”. I did live through it though… πŸ™‚

  17. Thank you for sharing!! Amazing post!

  18. Yes! It is very easy to feel picked on and discouraged when a teacher makes you feel guilty for not “getting it.” I will never forget, but several years ago I was just starting out yoga and bought a groupon for a local studio. My grandfather had very recently passed away, so I thought it would be a great time to get a yoga class in and feel better, as I was in a pretty low point in my life. Well I was wrong. The entire hour the teacher was almost yelling at me when I couldn’t get my body to contort like everybody else around me. I specifically remember her telling me to look at my third eye and when it was obvious I had no idea what she was talking about, she rushed over to me and made me feel so embarrassed as the rest of the class watched us. Pretty soon I was trying to hide the tears streaming down my face. I’m even tearing up just remembering that feeling of being so upset and wanting to walk out in the middle of the class. Fast forward a few years and I absolutely look forward to my yoga classes at a new studio, where everyone is made to feel welcome and encouraged no matter what.
    Gina, I’m sure you’re an amazing teacher based on your positive attitude! It’s always great to remember that every member of the class is coming from a different place, and just being able to show up to the gym is an accomplishment to some. Thank you for sharing this post!

  19. Leslie says:

    What a kind post. I have been an instructor in the past and now I am a person who attends class so usually I can see why and instructor is saying something – whether I agree with it or not. But your post spoke more to me as a person. You mentioned many things to to your readers not just for group X classes, but to us as people. I feel that if we all showed a little more compassion with the people around us we would all be much better off.

    Thank you for making me think and ponder my actions!

  20. So true! I love my yoga studio because they are always saying things like ‘Honor your body’ ‘Have no expectations of this practice or your body, it’s not the same as it was yesterday, it’s not the same as it will be tomorrow.’ But they also pay attention and know if you’re having an awesome day and they can push you a little further into your pose.

  21. So true! I teach spin and while I do motivate the class with “your mind will give out before your legs do” and “if it’s challenging you, it’s changing you”, I also remind my class to drink water and to take a rest and join up with us when they are ready. I always tell the new students to give the class 3 times before they decide whether they like it or not. I remind them it’s their race, their pace! I think when people feel comfortable, they are more likely to stick with something. Being a first time student in any class is intimidating. I know that not all instructors ask if people are new or give modifications.

  22. I really liked this post. I’m still in grad school, but someday (in the near future), i definitely want to teach group fitness classes (bodypump & yoga!), and as i take classes with different instructors, i think about how i want to teach. first and foremost, i want to be myself. i want to say what’s on my mind and i want everyone else to feel that they can just be themselves too. but it’s also important to have a sense of kindness with the honesty. hard balance.

  23. I’m reading this a little late because I got the sense that I wanted to take my time really reading it and absorbing it. While I thrive on the “push yourself” type of stuff when I’m working out to a Jillian Michaels DVD at home, I have the luxury of pausing it if I’m really needing some water or the bathroom or a breath. I don’t know that I would love that in an in-person class because there are times I may be thirsty and it’s not convenient, but as your reader said, we know our bodies and we know what we need to do to take care of them (most of the time). To not honor them is unhealthy in every respect. I can’t imagine being called out during class. That’s awful.

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