Mastering the “all levels welcome” group fitness class

They say there are riches in the niches, and the group fitness industry is no exception. It’s quite possible to make a handsome living by focusing and developing programs for specific populations.

Unfortunately that’s also not always practical. To pay your bills you’re sometimes going to have to cast a larger net in order to fill your group sessions to capacity. Or perhaps you’re picking up classes at a club that only offers “all levels” classes. Either way, you’re going to have to get really good at coaching many ability levels at once.

Being able to manage a multi-level room requires lots of planning, a good grasp of cueing techniques, and lots of practice.

The measure of success when it comes to this type of coaching is when ALL of the participants feel like they belong in the group. The advanced should feel appropriately challenged and the beginners should feel appropriately accomplished.

How do you do that? Follow these rules and you’ll have a room (or field) full of happy clients:

Come armed with options

Do your homework and be prepared with alternative moves for everything you do. You’re working with a large group and, depending on the situation you aren’t always given the chance to meet everyone prior to the first session. So, whether or not you think a particular person should be able to attempt a full push-up isn’t relevant. If they don’t want to get on their toes for whatever reason, you need to give them something to do instead. With a room full of 20 people, chances are pretty good that there will be someone with legitimate wrist or back issues.  There might also be someone attempting full push-ups with terrible form.  This person needs to be doing a modified push-up until you have time to help them.  If time doesn’t allow for individualized attention, then you offer quietly to help them after class. It’s better to err on the side of caution than to allow someone to hurt themselves, never to have them return again.

Present options well

The end goal is to get everyone moving correctly as soon as possible.  This requires being able to concisely explain all the options and know to whom each applies.  Newbies will often feel pressure to do the “real” exercise if modifications are presented to them as a “less than” option.  On the flip-side, advanced participants will be anxious to dive right into an exercise they’ve already mastered and will get antsy if they are forced to wait while you provide extensive coaching to their beginner counterparts.  The key to making both of these groups happy lies in the way you present the options.  Here are 3 methods:

  • Present the desired maximum intensity version, and then show regressions as alternatives.  This method is best used later in the session once you begin to repeat exercises, and the majority of the group has mastered them already.  Even so, preface it by saying “I’ll show you the high impact version first, and in a moment will remind you of the back/knee/wrist-friendlier version.”  This will allow those who are ready to go ahead and jump in, while clueing in the beginners that they might want to wait for an alternative they know will be coming their way in just moments.
  • Begin with the middle-of-the-road option, and then demonstrate both a regression and a progression.  This is a viable option if the group seems to be evenly split in abilities, but it might take a bit of extra preparation on your part.  You’ll need to reverse engineer each sequence (put it on paper if necessary,) and make sure you thoroughly understand each option.  It seems silly, but we’re used to presenting low to high, or high to low.  It might take a bit of practice to present from the middle outward.
  • Begin with a base move (lowest intensity/impact) then add on layers of intensity.  This method is arguably the most logical because it gets everyone moving immediately.  Many seasoned participants will automatically take the initiative and jump directly into the high intensity version.  At the same time, the beginners won’t feel akward while they stand and wait for an option that suits them.

Be efficient

Wasted time should absolutely be at zero. There is a difference between the time built in for active recovery, and time when people are standing around because they’re waiting for you to tell them what to do next. You must, must, must be absolutely prepared before setting foot on the field or in the room. A few tips to use time wisely:

  • Get really savvy at pre-cueing (explaining what will be coming up before it happens.) Strategically build these explanations into whatever is happening beforehand.  For example, get the group started on the warm up and then tell them what to expect from the day, or demonstrate the next series of moves while they are actively recovering from the previous series.
  • Use the “waiting room” technique. This is necessary when your advanced participants complete a task much faster than the rest of the group, yet you can’t move on until everyone is finished.  Let’s say the assignment is to sprint a certain distance and return to the start.  The faster runners will need something to do while waiting for the slower runners to return.  Build that into your plan.  Before everyone takes off for the sprint tell them they’ll be doing (insert exercise here) upon their return.  This should not be an afterthought exercise either.  Since the people who will be “waiting” will be the fittest of the bunch, make sure their “waiting room” assignment is meaningful and helps the cause of their training goal.  Once the last person returns from their sprint, you can move on.  This technique is not only great for the advanced participants, but it also takes the pressure off of the beginners.  They won’t feel like they are holding up the group because the group will be busy doing something else.
  • Use the “holding pattern” technique.  You’ll need this when unexpected things happen to draw your focus away from the group and onto an individual who needs immediate attention.  Unless it’s a serious medical emergency, you don’t need the entire room to come to a screeching halt.  As you make your way over to that individual, put the rest of the group into a holding pattern of some sort.  It could be as simple as “Give me jumping jacks until I tell you stop,” or it could be “You know that last segment? Repeat it again until I say stop.”   Always be prepared for what that holding pattern might be.  This will allow you to address the situation without holding up those in the group who want to keep going.
  • Be prepared with a Plan B.  Especially in cases where you don’t know who’s going to be in the room that day, you can’t totally anticipate how things will go down.  You can be prepared the best you can by mentally reviewing the “what ifs,” and try to come up with solutions to these possible scenarios.  This way, if they actually hit, you’ll waste very little time redirecting course.

Keep things varied

You can’t please all of the people all of the time, but you can certainly avoid displeasing all of the people all of the time.  The only way to keep a varied audience interested is to provide enough variety.  And not just by changing up the exercises themselves.  Varying the flow of the session will appeal to different personality types, and also serve to stave the boredom monotony brings.  Try including a little bit of each of the following types of work in each session:

  • Independent work.This happens when everyone is given an assignment to be completed at his/her own pace during a set time period.  Their accomplishment of the task (or lack thereof) will not affect anyone else, so the slower ones won’t feel pressure and the faster ones won’t feel held back.
  • Working in unison.  This is when the entire group works at the same time and pace, usually directed by your cueing.  Even if it only happens during the cool down portion of the session, it provides a sense of cohesion and fosters the benefits of the group environment.
  • Teamwork.  This requires more planning than the previous two, but it also doesn’t have to happen in every session.  In fact, it’s probably not smart to try this the first time meeting a group.  Once you become familiar with them, you’ll have a better understanding when and to what extent this is appropriate.  Teamwork happens when the group works as a whole to accomplish one task.  Remember though, that it needs to be done in such a way that wide ranges of athleticism can work side by side with no repercussions.


    A simple example of Teamwork in this setting might be: assign the group to complete 10 kettle bell swings, then 10 push-ups, then 10 leg drops, then run to the other side of the room and drop a popsicle stick in a single bucket.  The task continues until the bucket fills with 50 popsicle sticks (less or more depending on the number of people in your group.)  Some people might only contribute 3 sticks while another contributes 10, but it doesn’t matter and no one is the wiser who did how many.  This strategy promotes a sense of camaraderie by allowing everyone to contribute to a common goal (filling up a bucket) while still allowing everyone to work as hard as they can without hindering or being hindered by others.

Follow up

While you should always offer to speak with your participants after each session regardless of who’s in it, it is especially important in cases where you have a multi-level class.   Some beginners might be intimidated to raise their hand in front of the group, so following up afterward will not only help answer questions they may have, it’s also a chance to get feedback and gauge how they felt about the experience.

Let some things go

Whether you like it or not, there will be some people who just don’t get it.  Perhaps they show up every day, but it’s obvious they don’t bring their A game.  Or, despite you having demonstrated something correctly fourteen times, they’re still doing it their own way. At some point, as long as they aren’t a danger to themselves, you have to let it go.  This isn’t personal training, and you can’t feel personally responsible for perfection out of each and every participant.  Whether our egos can understand it or not, they are getting something out of the experience in their own unique way.

If you’d like to see a sample “all levels welcome” boot camp session, check out this video

How to teach fitness classes to all levels

What tips can you offer when instructing an “all levels welcome” class?  Please share.

About Kristin Dowell

Kristin is a group fitness instructor and personal trainer with certifications from ACE and AFAA, is qualified to coach over a dozen specialty programs, and is the creator of 3 exercise DVDs. From creating physical training programs for fire academies, to teaching preschool dance, (and just about everything in between)...
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