7 Tips for Designing a Fitness Class for Different Fitness Levels

Get the Basics...

  • Fitness classes should be doable for any fitness level
  • Participants need to have options in order to get the most out of your class
  • Your class design should match the title and description listed on the group fitness schedule

If you have ever taught a group fitness class, you know how fun it can be to lead your participants through an effective and energetic workout. Everyone has a smile on their face, is dripping with sweat, and talking about how much they are going to feel it in the coming days. This result, however, is not one that comes by luck. There is a lot of preparation involved in order to make sure that you can provide a great experience for anyone and everyone who walks in the door.

One of the worst feelings, as an instructor, is to have a new class participant who never returns after the first class because he or she felt like they couldn’t keep up. On the other end of the spectrum, some individuals may never return to a class because he or she feels the class was not challenging enough. Regardless of the reason, instructors never want to lose class participants because they did not provide a class with enough options for everyone.

Design a class that properly challenges every single person at his or her own unique level is not an ability that develops overnight. It takes hard work, proper planning, and the willingness to adapt and learn from mistakes. Consider the following seven tips and you will have the tools you need to create a class that keeps everyone coming back. Once your classes are booming, request a demo of our business management software to help you stay organized.

#1 – Plan a Proper Warm-Up and Cool-Down

First and foremost, you want to keep your class participants healthy. After all, if someone is hurt, especially during your class, it is unlikely that he or she will return. It does not matter if someone has been working out for years or if they are completely new to the gym; the risk of injury is higher if they jump into a workout without warming up. A warm-up could include many different things, but a few key requirements are to:

  • Raise the core body temperature. Think of your muscles like a rubber band. If you put it in the freezer for 24 hours and then take it out and try to stretch it right away, it will probably snap. In the same way, if we try to extend and contract our muscles while they are still cold, the likelihood of a pull or other injury is higher.
  • Increase heart rate. In order for muscles to function properly, they need the right amount of blood flowing to them and they need it at the right time. Increasing the heart rate prepares our cardiovascular system for the job that it needs to do in our workout.
  • Choose appropriate movements. If you are teaching a class called Lower Body Blast, it would be fairly pointless to include push-ups in your warm-up given that they are an upper-body exercise. Always choose exercises that will mimic movement patterns and engage the same muscles you will be using for the rest of your class.

After the main portion of the class has ended, it is important to provide a proper cool-down. As with the warm-up, this can help prevent injury and excessive muscle soreness. These last 5-10 minutes of class give your participants the opportunity to lengthen their muscles and bring their bodies back to homeostasis, or steady-state. Make sure to do the following:

  • Decrease heart rate. Although our heart rates are higher during exercise, we don’t want them to stay that way. Make sure to plan movements that will slowly bring your participants’ heart rates down to a normal level. This means that you do not completely stop moving after the workout has ended, but rather, continue moving at a slower pace. Providing dynamic stretches, meaning stretches that involve movement, is a great way to do this.
  • Stretch the appropriate muscles. As with the warm-up, there would be no point to stretch your arms after a class that focuses on the lower-body muscles. Whatever style of class you teach, make sure to focus on stretching the muscles used in class. When the muscles are warm and have a lot of blood flowing to them, there is also greater potential to increase flexibility as an added bonus.

#2 – Choose the Right Equipment

There are some formats, such as cycling or step aerobics, that have specific equipment involved and thus you do not need to make a choice. For resistance training or boot camp style classes, however, you will need to choose what you want to use. When deciding what equipment to utilize in your class, you should consider two things: whether or not the equipment is user-friendly for a group and whether or not it is appropriate for the given modality or format you are teaching.

Some tools are easier to use than others. For example, most people can use a hammer but it takes someone with a little more experience to properly use a circular saw. In the same way, there are pieces of equipment that everyone in a group fitness class can figure out how to use while there are other pieces that might only be effective for the more seasoned fitness enthusiast.

As an instructor, your job is to help everyone in your class get the most benefit they can from the content you design. By choosing tools that are easy for everyone to use, you are giving your class the opportunity to get the most out of the exercises instead of spending time figuring out to properly use the equipment. Dumbbells, resistance bands, and gliders/discs are great examples of equipment that is straight-forward and easy to use. Something like a suspension trainer or sandbag might require more explanation for some people, which will leave time for fewer exercises.

It is also important to make sure that the equipment you choose fits with the style of class you are teaching. For instance, if you are teaching a resistance training class, a jump rope would not be a fitting choice since it would be used in a cardio/endurance exercise. If you are teaching a boot camp or High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) class, however, the rope would be a perfect choice. Whatever format you teach, choose equipment that makes sense so your participants are getting what they expect from the class.

#3 – Pick Appropriate Exercises

When people look at a group fitness schedule to find a class they want to attend they make their decision based on the class title and description. For this reason, it is important that you choose exercises that stay true to both of these items. In the same way that a strength-based class should not contain speed and agility work, a cycling class should not ask participants to get off of the bike and do push-ups.

This may seem obvious, but it is important to remember because people will show up to a class knowing his or her fitness level or what they want to accomplish. If someone shows up expecting a cardio class but the instructor uses strength moves for the majority of the class, this person will be well outside of his or her comfort zone and will be unlikely to return. Participants should be able to look at a schedule and know that the class they attend will stay close to the given description.

It is also vital to pick exercises that set your participants up to succeed. There is nothing wrong with providing a challenge, on occasion, by choosing a more complicated movement. The problem with doing this too often, however, is that the moves take a long time to explain and can be more difficult for everyone to understand. It is better to make the majority of exercises ones that everyone understands and then vary the time, reps, weight, or sequence in order to provide a challenge.

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#4 – Be Ready With Modifications and Amplifications

Teaching to a large number of participants is a lot of fun but, as your attendance increases, so does the range of fitness levels in your class. You can provide a super difficult workout and appease the individuals who have a higher fitness level, but the people just starting out will probably not be able to keep up. On the other hand, it is easy to plan a very basic class that everyone can do, but people who have been working out their entire lives may find it is too easy. Being ready to give options is the solution to this problem.

Although the word “modify” simply means to make a small or partial change, it is commonly used in the fitness industry to reference a way to make an exercise easier or more doable. On the opposite end, amplifying a movement refers to making it more challenging. It is best to design your class with exercises that fit somewhere in the middle and be ready with an option to both modify and amplify so that your participants can choose what works best for their fitness level.

Let’s take a side plank for example. Performing the exercise with both feet stacked could be used as the baseline option. You could then offer your participants an option to modify by bending their bottom knee, or to amplify by elevating their top foot. By doing so, you’ve taken one move and appealed to three different fitness levels. Rather than seeing beginners struggle to stack their feet or watching the bored expressions of advanced participants, you’ve designed something for everyone.

#5 – Prepare Cues That Are Complete and Easy to Understand

Once you have decided on the exercises and equipment you want to use for your class, you need to be prepared to explain everything to your class. After all, it would be different for someone who has never done a specific exercise to perform it correctly without the proper instruction. Even individuals who have previously done a given exercise can benefit from a reminder on the correct technique.

When thinking about how to explain an exercise to participants, it is important to take the entirety of the exercise into account. If you are explaining a goblet squat, cueing to keep the knees behind the toes would be correct, but if that is the only cue, you are doing a disservice to your participants. This exercise should also have reminders on how to hold the weight, the width of the feet, upper body alignment, and which muscles it is targetting. Providing a complete explanation lets your class members know how to get the most out of the movement.

You also need to make sure that your cues and explanations are easy to understand. You are a professional, but your participants are not. Explaining that a squat jump involves a triple extension of the hip, knee, and ankle joints might be over the head of most people in the class. Instead, you would cue to slide the hips back while bending the knees into a squat. From there, perform a jump with your toes being the last thing to leave the ground. This provides a more easy to understand explanation.

#6 – Remind Participants to Listen to Their Bodies

The creation of a class doesn’t stop after you’ve written a workout and stepped into the studio. If fact, the class continues to evolve as participants choose their modifications, amplifications, and intensity. One way to think of it is that you provide a skeleton for your participants but they fill in the muscle as the class goes on. In a sense, you are really instructing the class members to choose their own design.

Part of leading a class that works for all fitness levels is reminding people that the workout is for them, not anyone else. Many times, people will reject a modification or choose an amplification because they feel the need to keep up with the instructor or other members of the class. In the same way, some people will do less than they are capable of simply because they are comfortable and don’t know they can do more. Make sure everyone knows to listen to their own bodies.

This can work both ways. If someone is feeling excessive fatigue or pain, their body is saying they need to scale the exercise back. Another person who is doing the exact same move may hardly be breaking a sweat, and this means their body is letting them know they have the ability to take an amplification. Remind your participants that they are not in a competition with anyone but themselves. It is important for them to push their bodies, but they need to listen in order to know how far to push.

#7 – Remember That You Are a Coach, Not a Participant

Just because you’ve already worked your legs three times this week doesn’t mean that your Saturday morning strength class doesn’t deserve any lower-body exercises. Remember, you are there to provide people with a workout that gives the greatest benefit to them. Any workout you get in the process is a bonus. As the instructor, you probably have a high fitness level relative to many people in your class. Designing content that benefits you would mean potentially sacrificing benefits others could receive.

Additionally, if you are intently focused on doing exercises in class for your own benefit, it becomes more difficult to watch your participants. Some may have poor form, others may need a modification or amplification, and someone else might be completely confused on how to perform the move. It is your job, as the instructor, to keep a watchful eye on your class members to see how they are reacting to your content. It is impossible for you to know what is effective for them if you are worried about your own workout.

Classes with high numbers mean more people for you, the instructor, to keep an eye on to ensure proper form and intensity. Many times, it is helpful to walk around the room, after properly explaining and starting an exercise, to give individual attention to those who need it. This way, you are not singling anyone out by shouting instructions to them over the microphone while you’re at the front of the room. But again, you will be unable to walk around and help others if you’re caught up in doing the exercise yourself.

If you want your participants to get the most of out your class, you also need to give them the proper motivation to do so. The last 15 seconds in a 60 second round of jumping jacks might be brutal, but your class members have a much better chance of finishing if you are encouraging them all the way to the end rather than catching your breath and being unable to speak. They already believe you can complete the exercise; after all, you’re the instructor. What they need is to know that you believe in them to finish the workout.

There is nothing wrong with joining your class for a workout. In fact, some people like to see that the instructor is working hard, too. The only thing you need to be careful of is that working out with your class doesn’t get in the way of you giving a class that works for all fitness levels.

Putting It All Together

One of the best feelings we get, as instructors, happens at the end of class when every single person walks up to us and says how much they enjoyed their workout. Or, maybe they don’t say anything, but they smile and give you a high-five as they walk out the door. Knowing that you put together a class that appealed to everyone in the studio, regardless of his or her fitness level, is something that can keep your spirits up all day.

This result is one that does not happen organically, but it’s one that should happen after the majority of your classes. It starts with planning. Specifically, preparing a proper warm-up, choosing the right equipment, and picking the appropriate exercises will lay the foundation of your class. From there, provide the right kind of cues, offer options, and give reminders for people to listen to their bodies. Finally, make sure you are a coach first and a participant second.

By taking this approach, you are designing a class in which someone at any fitness level can participate in. When the class is doable for anyone, it will soon grow, as will your reputation for being one of the top instructors on the schedule.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

– How do I know that the exercises I choose will work for everyone in my class?

You don’t; that is why you come to class prepared with modifications and amplifications for as many exercises as you can. It may even be helpful to have a completely different move prepared as a back-up if you have someone dealing with an injury.

– What do I do if I see someone struggling in my class?

Your best bet is to try to go up to them individually to offer help. If this is not an option within the format of your class, try to identify the reason he or she is struggling and then give a general cue to the entire class on how someone would deal with that problem.

– Can I use my personal workout routine for my class?

While there might be elements of your routine that could be applicable to your class, it is unlikely that you are all at the exact same fitness level. It would be best to design your class in a way that appeals to all fitness levels and, if some elements from your own routine fit, it’s an added bonus

By implementing these tips, you are sure to have a full class schedule in no time. Request a demo of our fitness business management software to help you stay organized.