Ditch Modifications In Your Group Fitness Classes (Yup, you read that right!)

Help everyone feel successful in your group fitness classes by ditching modifications and instead coaching to all levels through progressive cues.

One of the amazing aspects of group fitness is that we have people of all ages, genders, skills, and backgrounds coming together to experience the joy of movement together. With this however, comes the challenge of teaching to all levels and abilities. As group fitness instructors we must understand how to not only make an exercise harder, but also make it easier, and allow everyone to feel successful while doing so. Have you ever considered how your coaching of progressions and regressions might impact your participants?

Today we challenge you to ditch exercise modifications, and instead always coach progressions. Yes, you read that right. Stop making things easier, and instead use progressive cuing. Read on to learn exactly what we mean.

Ditch Modifications In Your Group Fitness Classes: 
Coaching Progressions For A Better Group Fitness Experience

Start Where You Are,
Use What You Have,
Do What You Can.
       ~ Arthur Ashe

The above statement by Arthur Ashe is my fitness mantra and what I try to embody and communicate whenever I teach. People attend fitness classes with different motivations, goals, and abilities. It is our job as fitness professionals to honor each and every person that walks through the door and offer a space for them to achieve their personal fitness and wellness goals.

The way we communicate our cues, demonstrate exercises, and develop progressions can create an inclusive environment, allowing everyone a chance to feel successful and increase their self-efficacy.


Self efficacy is the optimistic self-belief in our competence or chances of successfully accomplishing a task and producing a favorable outcome. It can have a positive impact on our overall self confidence and potentially improve our mental and physical health. Instructors can help improve the self-efficacy of our class participants by creating multiple opportunities for people to feel successful within an exercise class.

There are 3 factors that impact self efficacy beliefs. Here are examples for each and how they are played out in a group fitness class.      

1. Mastery Experiences

Experience success with a task

Make sure a first time participant feels welcome and can experience numerous moments of success during your class. Deliver the content in a way that allows everyone, regardless of their age, gender, or perceived ability, to be able to participate.

#1: “Hey Bob, it’s great to meet you and welcome to class!”

#2: “Hey team let’s do some bicep curls. You can be seated, standing or do a single leg balance”

2. Vicarious Experiences

Observing others around us succeed.

Highlight the efforts of other participants so you don’t need to be the central motivator the entire time. When people see someone else in class that they identify with in some way doing an exercise, they may be inspired to try it themselves.

#1: “Wow Jon, you’re plank looks so strong”

#2: “Hey Melanie, is this your first burpee? Nice work!”

3. Verbal Persuasion

When influential people, (such as coaches), persuade us we have the capability to master an activity.

Use positive cues and language to motivate and communicate with your class. The use of negative cues rarely lead to long term positive behavior change and can be demeaning and disrespectful. I call this style of teaching the “shock jock” method of scaring your class into doing the workout and increasing their effort. But if we keep our cues positive we may be able to coach our participants to try something they never thought they could achieve.

#1: “Hey team, I know this feels hard right now but I believe in you!”

#2: “Drew, I bet you can use the heavier dumbbells for this. Wanna try it?”

As instructors, we play an active role in these factors and can potentially impact the self efficacy of our participants in a positive way. How do we do this? By properly progressing movements rather than modifying or regressing and using language of inclusion, not exclusion.

Inclusion – Not Exclusion

As fitness professionals we pride ourselves on creating safe and inclusive environments for our class participants to attend a fitness class and participate with expert instruction. Offering options for any given exercise is necessary to achieve success with a diverse demographic.

But what has become commonplace is the use of regressive modifications to offer safe options for our class. Let’s look at a few examples.

  • #1: “Hey team, the exercise is a burpee, and the modification is an air squat.”
  • #2: “Hey rockstars, let’s get into a forearm plank position on our toes and the modification is to come down to your knees.”
  • #3: “Alright, let’s do a single leg balance bicep curl. To keep it more stable, you can modify and keep both feet on the floor.”

For argument sake let’s say the above cues are delivered in the friendliest tone, with great and supportive eye contact, and expert demonstration. It’s all good right?


For some participants, they may internalize this as a failure or that they are not good enough, strong enough, fit enough, etc., because they cannot even do the intended exercise. Or they may try the burpee when it is truly not the safest option for them and put themselves at risk of injury.

Ditch the Modification

Modifications are not wrong. These cues offer safe alternatives for the intended exercise, but the manner in which we deliver our content can have a positive or negative impact on our participants. So it’s time to ditch the overuse of regressive modification cues in group exercise classes.

I challenge every instructor to stop offering modifications, a.k.a. regressions, and flip the script and offer progressions instead.

By using language such as “options” to give alternatives to the exercise rather than labeling the options as level 1 or level 2 etc., or beginner or advanced, we put everyone on an even playing field and grant them the license to do what is best for them. Providing an achievable task, along with options to progress, creates an environment for success and allows us to meet every participant where they are.

If we flip the script and offer progressions for each exercise rather than modifications, we offer safe and inclusive instruction and multiple chances for success.

Flip the Script

Let’s take the examples above and flip the script.

  • #1: “Hey team, the exercise is an air squat, and if you want you can take it to a burpee.”
  • #2: “Hey rockstars, let’s get into a forearm plank position on our knees and if you want, you can take it to your toes.”
  • #3: “Alright, let’s do a bicep curl. To make it less stable, you can add a single leg balance.”

All I did was swap the burpee for an air squat, the toes for knees and added the option of the single leg balance. Nothing else changed except I gave them the option to progress the exercise using the phrase “if you want.”

By flipping the script, we create a safe training module by offering the foundational movement to the exercise and then providing options for changing the experience without judgment.

Coaching Progressions

Regardless of the class format, cue and demonstrate the intended exercise first, then offer options (a.k.a. progressions) that the participant can add if they choose.

Use the language of “options” to create different experiences or training goals into your cues so people understand that faster is not better than slow, they are simply different. Power is not better than stability, just different.

Let’s look at a couple examples to put this progression principle into action.

Air or Bodyweight Squat

  • #1: Stability: “Hey team, you can add a knee lift and single leg balance after every squat to work on balance and stability”
  • #2: Power: “If you want to increase your power, you can add a jump so it becomes a plyometric and jump squat”

Bicep Curl

  • #1: Stability: “If you want more focus on balance today, you can try it with a single leg balance”
  • #2: Strength: “If you’re feeling it, grab the heavier dumbbells to increase your load and muscle strength”

Reverse Lunges

  • #1: Stability: “ You can keep it on one side or alternate right and left leg to challenge your balance”
  • #2: Strength: “You can do bodyweight or add dumbbells”
  • #3: Power: “Increase your heart rate and develop power with jump lunges”

I am not suggesting you need to offer every option for each exercise because it can become too convoluted. But when creating and coaching your overall training plan and class structure, start with the foundational movement and then offer options to progress for each exercise.

This way you don’t need to create groups based on “Level” or “Beginner – Advanced” and instead you are coaching and describing the physiological impact of each exercise with each option.

Once you get into the habit of flipping the script, we eliminate the need to offer regressive modifications and instead create training options the client can choose in accordance with their overall health goals.


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