Like many group exercise instructors, my journey began as a participant. It started in high school, when I ventured out of the weight room one summer in to an athletic training group class. I was the nervous and young wallflower hiding in the back, but I loved it. Eventually I started taking group dance, kickboxing, and BODYPUMP classes. The electrifying energy pushed me to work harder than I did on the weight room floor. And from there, a young group exercise instructor was born.
My story is probably similar to other fit pros or group fitness instructors. We start out as a shy and scared wallflower participant, become a “middle of the room show-off”, and eventually find ourselves as a “front row diva”. From there it is only a matter of time before we are googling how to get certified to teach our favorite formats and asking our looking to our favorite instructors for advice and tips on making that transition.
A Full Teaching Bank But Depleted Personal Wellness Bank
But then something happens. As soon as we get that certification to teach we all of a sudden loose that drive to be participants. We agree to sub and teach as many classes as possible to make our “teaching bank” as full as possible. Often we even agree to teach or cover classes that we may never have attended as a participant, or ones that don’t give us joy or pleasure, simply because it allows us to be an instructor in front of a room.
In my fifteen years as an instructor, this has been the story of my life. I found weeks where I taught 20+ classes, had a body that hurt all the time, and dreaded going into teach some of those “non-ideal” formats. I was filling my “teaching bank” but was depleting my “personal wellness bank”. I was constantly pushing to teach more and be in front of more people, that I wasn’t taking the time to be a participant myself. I was forgetting what it felt like to walk into a new class for the first time. I no longer had the knowledge of what it felt like to “not know” what was coming up next in the choreography. And ultimately I was losing touch with my personal fitness goals.
It takes a lot to take me out, I’m a fighter and a stubborn, competitive one at that. Thus I didn’t care that my body hurt all the time, that I was exhausted more often than not, and that I really didn’t know how to train myself anymore because I was so busy always teaching classes. I wanted to be “the best”, and to me that meant teaching more classes (because more is better, right?!). One day, about 3 years ago, my body said “fuck you, I’ve had enough” and shut down. I was forced to cut things out and “slow down” (goodness I hated it when people would say that to me).
Stepping Away to Refill & Replinish
This is not the time or place to discuss all the crap I went through, but I will simply say this was a slap in the face to reality. My body could no longer handle having a “teaching bank” that was overflowing, but a “personal wellness bank” that was majorly in the red. Therefore it was time for me to make some hard decisions to get myself back on track. And that first hard decision came when 2-years ago I stepped away from fitness completely for 6-weeks. I took a “personal adventure and hiatus” from my life and tried to get everything back on track.
While doing this, I returned to being a participant. I went back to my early days of hiding out in the back row, talking to no one, and simply focusing on the workout experience. I tried new classes, went to a wide range of studios, and allowed myself to do the workout that I WANTED TO DO daily (not the one I HAD TO DO because of my daily teaching schedule).
At the end of the 6-weeks my body felt better than it had in years. I wasn’t feeling the plagues of daily pains, I wasn’t mentally drained at the end of every day, but most of all I was enjoying my own workouts again. These were things I had simply forgotten how to do.
If someone would have told me I would take the time away from fitness and appreciate it more, I would have laughed at them. It was impossible to even fathom not teaching. Yet, I am so appreciative that I allowed myself that leave of absence to discover who I needed to be in the fitness space.
But above all, I remembered what the experience was like to be a participant, and brought that back to my teaching.
A Learning Experience
As with any good learning experience, I had a few great take-aways, and lessons I learned that have helped shape me into the instructor I am today. Take these 5 tips from an instructor turned participant and grow yourself.
1. Don’t be afraid to step away for awhile.
Was it scary to tell my gym, clients, and members that I had to take a leave of absence, OF COURSE. However, I was lucky enough to work with an amazing team, and they stepped in and took care of my clients and classes. When I returned some opted to stay with that new trainer, and I thought this was fantastic. I learned that it is more important for people to find the trainer that is the best fit for them, then to stay with someone simply out of convenience.
By “forcing” my members to try new people and experiences I gave them a hidden gift in possibly discovering a class, instructor, or training style they never knew they would enjoy.
2. You never know a person’s story, don’t assume anything.
This was a really big one for me, and now get upset when instructors complain about participants not doing exactly what “they want”. As an individual we all have different reasons why we attend classes. Maybe it is for the social environment, the opportunity to check out and not think, or simply because you don’t know how to workout otherwise, whatever the case, with those reasons brings different stories.
Don’t get upset with someone because they choose not to do the movement you are recommending, maybe it hurts them. Don’t glare at a person for not pushing to “throw up zone” in every class, maybe they are sick. Don’t judge a person because they are using a phone in your class, maybe they have a sick child/parent, are scheduling an uber pick-up or shazaming your music choice. Don’t tell someone they can’t attend your class because they are late, maybe they were rushing from a doctors appointment or dealing with their kids, you never know.
Stop making assumptions about a person, don’t hate them because they don’t have the same beliefs as you, and allow them to take your class in the way that is best for them on THAT DAY.
3. Don’t complain to your members about having taught “x” amount of classes in a day.
I’ve been to a few classes where the instructor just constantly complains about how much their body hurts, why they can’t do certain movements, or how tired they are because it is their “4th class of the day”. As an instructor I had empathy for these instructors, but as a participant I didn’t care. It would actually get frustrating to hear over and over about the number of classes they taught, because I knew they had a choice. They agreed to cover those classes in an effort to fill their “teaching bank” and thus the participants are not getting the best class possible.
It’s pretty easy to tell when an instructor isn’t feeling it and would rather be elsewhere. They go into “autopilot”, telling participants what to do, but not going beyond that. It really sucks as a participant to have this experience, as it impacts my workout.
Don’t agree to teach that class format if you don’t love it. Don’t agree to sub 4 classes in one day. And be willing to find subs when you are not feeling well and know you can’t deliver your best.
4. Know your shit…
They say “fake it until you make it”, which maybe in some situations works, but in the fitness environment that just doesn’t work. As an instructor it is your responsibility to come prepared and ready to teach that day. This means coming to class with a purpose, plan, and well designed playlist. It means understanding regressions and progressions for the exercises you are offering. It means knowing how to explain the technique behind an exercise.
I went too more classes than I could count where I couldn’t do an exercise, not because physically I wasn’t capable, but because the instructor didn’t teach me how to get into it (especially true in yoga and Pilates classes). I was left watching the rest of the class and desperately trying to figure out where to put my arm. If you can’t explain it to a 4-year-old then you have no right teaching it to others.
5. Have a plan, please don’t “wing it”
I don’t care if you’ve been teaching 10 days or 10 years, you should never enter a classroom to teach without a plan. There should be an objective to each class, otherwise it is just random stuff put together in ways that may just not work together.
Two prime examples of when I knew an instructor was “winging it” include:
- A CYCLE CLASS: A few weeks ago I went to a cycle class, at the end the instructor told participants when they would be teaching again and to please join them. Someone prompted to ask “will you be doing the same ride profile in that class”. A legit question for sure. The instructors response: “I don’t have specific profiles, every class I change up throughout the ride, selecting my music as we go.”This left me floored. Really, you want to tell your participants that you’ve got no plan for them and you just make it up as you go. Well maybe that is why I found myself writing to-do lists and not pushing as hard as possible in your class. You were too busy trying to figure out what was next that you couldn’t really guide us on the journey.
- A BOOTCAMP CLASS: Awhile ago I went to a bootcamp class (back when my ankle would let me jump). Upon entering and asking the instructor what we needed, he told me “grab xxx, xxx, xxx, and xxx. I’m not completely sure which ones we will use today, but we will do something with those toys.” A little baffled I think I gave him the WTF look, but proceeded to get the equipment. 40-minutes into class we hadn’t used ANY of the equipment I had pulled out, but instead had used OTHER pieces of equipment that he would grab or tell us to get.To make matters worse he kept saying things like “this sounds like a good choice now”; “I think we’ll do this exercise”; “nevermind, let’s do this instead”. He would make us stand around while he pulled out OTHER pieces of equipment from the original list, and made us watch as he figured out the order for exercises. I left so frustrated that I had to get on a treadmill and run simply to let go of the anger I had towards the instructor.
While we should all be adaptable in working with those in front of us, have a general idea of what you want to do. Don’t you enjoy it when a presentation seems organized versus random words thrown together?!
3 Questions for You
These days I continue to be a participant more than an instructor. Currently my hubby and I are on an adventure, traveling from state to state, spending time with family/friends, and really experiencing life. I’m again left as a fit pro participant, touring classes and studios with ClassPasss. Every class I learn something new, discover new things, and realize the importance of filling my “personal wellness bank” more than my “teaching bank”.
I leave you with 3 questions:
- How full is your “personal wellness bank”, is it in the green or red?
- When was the last time you participated in a class?
- Is it time you set off on an adventure?
Now get off the stage and be a wallflower or front row diva again!
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BS: Exercise & Sports Science
NSCA: Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS)
ACSM: Certified Exercise Physiologist (EP-C)
Yoga Alliance: 200-hr RYT
ACE: Group Fitness Instructor
Balanced Body: Reformer Level 1 Coach
Schwinn: Indoor Cycle Instructor
RRCA: Running Coach