Secrets to a Multi-Level Class

In an ideal world, all health clubs and studios would offer a variety of classes delineated for beginners or advanced students. But often the reality means we have experienced exercisers, pregnant women, people recovering from injuries, and de-conditioned individuals all in one class. According to the Pew Research Center, over the next 19 years, 10,000 people will be turning 65 every day. The likelihood of people with joint issues or other health problems attending our classes will continue to increase.

“Our goal as fitness professionals is to have every participant feel successful. Otherwise, they are not likely to return to class on a regular basis,” says Julie See, President of the Aquatic Exercise Association in Nokomis, Florida.

So how do we keep clients on all ends of the spectrum happy?

Get to Know Your Students

In order to help members feel successful, we need to get to know them and their goals. Are they recovering from an injury? Are they pregnant or post-partum? New to exercise? Training for a triathlon? Do they have arthritis? Are they trying to lose twenty pounds or add muscle? How we respond to them in class should vary greatly depending on this information.

“Be early for your class, invite members to come up and talk with you. Stay late and find out what issues people may be having,” encourages Wendy McClure, Co-Owner of Body Dynamics Health and Fitness Studio in Boulder, Colorado, and one of Men’s Journal’s top 100 trainers.

Often we know the stories of our regulars and fans, and it can be tempting to focus on them at the expense of making newcomers feel at home.

“We have to let go of teaching to the front row,” adds McClure. “Often the people in the back and on the far sides need the most attention.”

Make It All About Them

What’s your music like? Do you have participants with vacant stares while you sing along to Tool? You may need to mix contemporary selections with “old school.” Is your tempo manageable for everyone?

“If we’re more fit, we can move faster,” says McClure. “De-conditioned people have to compromise their range of motion to stay on the beat.”

If you worry your fit students won’t feel challenged enough if you alter your music or your tempo, use them as an example. Single out Susie in the front row as doing the advanced version and encourage others to follow her if they want more challenge. Then, depending on the type of class, use that as an opportunity to reach out to other students and move around the room.

“Get out from the front of the class and walk around,” McClure advises. “Spot people, stand next to them, connect.”

You may find that your back row feels more included, and Susie in the front is delighted to serve as a model.

Use Inclusive Cueing

“To guarantee success for all participants, cueing must be carefully planned and practiced,” says See. “Instead of ‘Touch your ankle,’ change your verbal cueing to ‘Reach for your ankle,’ as not everyone has the range of motion to actually touch his or her ankle and still maintain proper form.”

Also, think about the language you use and focus on making it more inclusive.

“You motivate and encourage by verbally cueing, ‘You have eight counts to get to the other side of the pool,’” See says. “For those who reach the other side, there is a feeling of success. For those who don’t, the feeling is less positive. Instead try, ‘Travel as far as YOU can in eight counts.’ By making a simple change you can assure that everyone reaches the goal.”

Sometimes you need to give people an “out” so they don’t feel forced to push too hard. Molly Burnett, a cycling instructor for more than 12 years in Broomfield, Colorado always offers this caveat to her classes: “I don’t know what this workout is for you. Is this your recovery day? Your hard cardio day? You have to listen to your body. It’s your workout.”

Continually Offer Modifications

See suggests previewing modifications. “Take time in the warm-up to demonstrate impact levels, and your appropriate cueing techniques, so that later in the workout the students will have options from which to choose,” she says.

McClure encourages instructors to demonstrate the modified version first during a workout, and then add intensity. “If you require them to do high intensity first,” she says, “Most people won’t go back down. Offering the modified version first allows them to stay there. It doesn’t hurt the high level participants, and it’s less risky for the others. Besides, the high intensity folks usually know how to make it harder.”

Often it’s necessary to multi-task when offering modifications if there is a variety of participants with different injuries or issues. “But try to make it about the group,” McClure advises. “People often don’t like to be singled out. Or you can make it about yourself, like ‘I have to remind myself to pull my belly in.’”

Most important, be open and willing to help.

“Do you know what to do to modify moves for all your students?” asks McClure. “Do you know how to find out? We need to let go of feeling like we need to know all the answers. If you never expose yourself to your participants’ problems and how to solve them, you’re not going to grow or learn and become a more interactive and popular instructor.”

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