Categories: fitness

The Secret Life of a Fitness Instructor

My career in the fitness industry started in 2008 when I took my Level 2 CYQ in Exercise to Music as a first step to becoming  a fitness instructor. Believe it or not I actually first started attending Group Fitness classes back in the 90s with my Mum – we loved a bit of step aerobics at the local leisure centre! Almost 20 years later I still can’t quite believe sometimes that now it’s me up the front with my Britney-style head mic teaching classes across London week in week out. But did you ever stop and think just how much preparation and planning goes into the classes that you turn up to? Had you ever considered the amount of training we fitness instructors do to ensure we’re at the top of our game? And when you complain that the studio is too hot, timetable doesn’t suit you or music is not to your taste…. did you ever think what a blow that might me to the instructor who has put her heart and soul into delivering a life changing group fitness experience for you? No? Well maybe you might after I let you in on a few secrets about what life as a fitness instructor is really like…..

One of my Body Burn classes at Lorna Jane UK

You might think delivering a “life changing group fitness experience” is a little over the top for a 45 minute class that you rush to in your lunch break, or something that you do once a week to relieve the boredom of your usual gym routine, or that your friend drags you along to for a laugh. But you know what – that’s what I aim to deliver – every time. I work as hard on my classes as I do on my Personal Training clients – it is after all my job and I treat it as such, aiming to deliver the highest possible professional standards. Like any job, I have good days and bad – incredible experiences and awful ones too. I want to ensure that everyone who attends one of my classes gets a great workout, challenges their body, pushes their fitness levels, and most importantly has a good time. I might make you do things you don’t like, I might try to motivate you through something you don’t want to do and I might make you question whether you want to be there at times – but if you leave having achieved something you couldn’t have done alone, then I’ve done my job. Even more so if you can leave with a smile on your face!

So what sort of prep does go into teaching Fitness Classes? As I mentioned in the first paragraph, my journey started when I took my Exercise to Music qualification. That took a few weeks to complete, but is the first necessary step in being able to teach groups of people. I did my level 2 course over a few weekends as I was working in an office at the time and wanted to teach classes around my day job (which a lot of Group Fitness Instructors still do). From there I took my Les Mills training modules – first Body Pump in late 2008 and then Body Attack in early 2009. If you want to know what either of these classes are, just click the links and I’ll let Les Mills explain in far better detail than I could! For me Body Pump was my more natural programme – it’s a barbell based strength workout and although I do love cardio and interval training, I am passionate about weight lifting and I’ve just always felt that my teaching strengths lie in delivering Body Pump classes. That’s not to say I don’t love teaching Body Attack – it’s an interval workout like no other and I can really have fun when I teach these classes – whilst sweating through the pain with my participants. The choreography did take me a while to get to grips with though, and certainly in my first couple of years of teaching, Body Attack used to make me so nervous – I nearly gave up teaching it several times in the first year after I qualified as I wasn’t sure if I was good enough. Even to this day when I start teaching new releases I get incredibly anxious (about remembering choreo, being able to coach effectively, knowing when and how to motivate members) – I always joke that I lose a couple of kg every launch week as I get such a nervous stomach before I teach the new classes! You’d never have thought it, right? But that’s how seriously I take it.

Teaching a Body Pump class

I spend a good couple of weeks learning my choreography inside out. Les Mills classes are pre-choreographed, so I don’t make up the movements, routines or sequences – that’s all done for us Les Mills instructors from their global HQ in New Zealand. They spend months developing the programmes, and the movements are all backed by science to be proven to get incredible results for participants – when performed safely and correctly, and of course consistently. So I always make sure I follow the choreography to the absolute letter – what’s the point of teaching a pre-choreographed class otherwise? But you know what – here’s another secret –  some instructors either can’t be bothered to learn it properly, or in some cases don’t like it – so they change either music or moves to suit them. Which is not only unfair on participants who are not getting the class as it has been designed, but unfair on other instructors who have taken the time to learn the release (whether they like it or not) and are then faced with questions from members asking “why do you do X differently to Y instructor? I did their class last week and you did X whereas they did Z”….. I mean what am I supposed to say to that?! Oh, and that’s a polite version, some people take their Group Fitness classes VERY seriously, some even like to learn the choreography themselves, so if you’ve changed a bottom half bicep curl, or gone to a kick instead of a knee lift, they’ll make it very well known that they think you’ve messed up, or they demand to know why they can’t do it – and if other instructors are changing the moves or music – you can see where this confusion and sometimes annoyance comes from.

Of course, there will be some moves that participants can’t perform – because of illness, injury or pregnancy. This isn’t a problem, and us instructors generally have a shed load of options up our sleeve to ensure that whatever you fitness level or limitation, we can offer you a safe alternative so you still get a great workout. But we need to know about it. So every class, when I ask at the start, “any illnesses, injuries, pregnancies or brand new members that I need to know about?”  – that’s your cue to tell me if something’s up so that I can do my very best to help you. But you know what? A lot of the time people say nothing. Then start making up their own moves or missing things out midway though, much to my surprise and indeed confusion. If you start doing your own thing, it’s my job to coach you back to what we should be doing – and if I don’t know that you’ve got a strained wrist, or you had surgery two months ago, or that you’re four months pregnant – then I’m just going to coach you like everyone else. I’m not insured for people doing their own thing in my class. You also won’t get the same workout experience as everyone else and you may even risk injuring yourself even further. Not to mention put off or confuse other people around you. Yet people do this, week after week, class after class. And once again, some choose to become very abusive after the class is over when I ask why they were doing their own thing. “I know what I’m doing, I always do it like this”, “You should have know I had an ankle/knee/shoulder problem”, “I just want to stand here and do my own thing”, “So and so lets me do it, why can’t you?” – heard them all before – and as I said earlier, I’ve heard much, much ruder variations on this too. It still baffles me to this day – why do a GROUP FITNESS (clue is in the name people!) class but then do you own thing once you’re there? My job is to ensure everyone has a safe, effective and enjoyable workout – which is impossible when there’s free styling and quite frankly blatant disregard going on around me.

Same goes for coming in late. If you’re due to catch a 14.22 train from Paddington and you rock up at 14.25 and it has left, would you start complaining to the train company that it left without you? No? So why do it to a Fitness Instructor? If a class starts at 7pm, I press play at 7pm. I understand the tube might have been playing up, or the traffic was awful, or your child wouldn’t go to bed, or your meeting ran over – I truly get all of those things. So if you’re a couple of minutes later, make eye contact with me to ask if it’s okay to join, and even better say sorry for being late then we’re cool. But if you saunter in after ten minutes, don’t even look at me, weave your way in and out of everyone else who DID show up on time and then proceed to get aggressive with me when I say you’re too late –  we are not cool. Especially when it comes to an equipment based class like Body Pump. Whilst everyone else is halfway through their squat track it’s not safe for you or them to be wandering around with a bar and 5kg plates, not to mention that it’s distracting for me and disrespectful to everyone else who is trying to get on with their workout. I don’t let you join my class after the warm up is over for a reason. It’s not safe and it’s not fair. If you’re not warm you can risk injury, and if that happens my insurance won’t cover me or you because you missed the warm up. Yes it is super duper irritating if you left work early to get to class and then you were stuck in a tunnel for 15 minutes on the District line with no signal – and I’m truly sorry for that. But it still doesn’t mean I can let you in midway through for you to do your own thing. Like I said – if you were catching a train, I’d have gone. Sometimes in life sh*t happens and we miss stuff we want to do. But don’t take it out on me. Especially if you’re new or injured. I’ve had several instances lately of people rocking up to class late, then just standing there expecting me to drop everything and explain what they’re meant to be doing, even though the class has already started and I’m trying to coach everyone else. I am already trying to do several things at once – coach the moves, tell the class what’s coming up next, correct technique, offer options, engage with the music – and on top of this you expect me to interrupt my class to show you the ropes because you turned up 5 minutes late? And then shout at me at the end of the class for not doing so? Yup, there’s another secret right there – apparently some participants want it all their own way and I’m the one in the wrong for not letting that happen.

With one of my Body Attack classes

But sometimes, things start brilliantly. A busy class, everyone arrives on time and no injuries. I press play, welcome everyone with a smile and start the warm up. And from then on in receive absolutely zero interaction for the next hour. I know not everyone comes to the gym for a social experience. I also know singing or counting or answering the instructor in class makes some peoples’ skin crawl. And I also fully, fully understand that even just coming to a class in itself and being in that room is way out of some peoples’ comfort zones. I know that because that was me once. I started attending Group Fitness classes properly around 2006 – after I gained a lot of weight and had absolutely no fitness. I felt so self conscious and would panic if I couldn’t get my usual spot right at the back so no-one had any chance of seeing me in the mirror. Partner work made my stomach flip as I didn’t want to interact with anyone – so I do truly understand that some people just want to have their workout and go. But you know what? I still managed to be polite, even though a lot of the time I didn’t really want to be there because I was so scared someone would laugh at me and wonder why a fat girl was doing the class, or snigger at the fact that I couldn’t do a push up or a burpee. I could still return the eye contact of the instructor, and sometimes even smile, and I always said thank you for the class at the end. I most certainly did not roll my eyes at them, stare at the floor, ignore them when they said hello or goodbye, talk over them to my friend whilst they were trying to give instructions, swear at them, or get my phone out and start texting or checking my emails. Sound rude? Everyone single one of these things happens to me on a fairly regular basis. Even the swearing! Think about it like this: you’ve been working on a huge presentation for work for weeks. Lots of people are coming to the meeting and it’s a great chance for you to show them something that could really change their life. You’ve spent days working on it, but you’re confident with the end result – it’s engaging, challenging and offers something for everyone. After some great practices you’re pretty sure people are going to love it, and you rock up to the meeting room actually excited about standing up in front of a room full of people and doing your thing. Except during your one hour presentation that you’ve worked so hard on and felt so passionately about not one person seems to share this enthusiasm. You don’t understand, they accepted the meeting invite and you didn’t force them to come along. They came because they wanted to. Yet no one makes eye contact with you. Even if your jokes are a little cheesy, not one person so much as even raises a smile. When you ask a question you don’t get a response. Some people have started to stare out of the meeting room window, and one person has even got their mobile out and is WhatsApping their mate. You dig deep, bringing out some of your best slides, some ideas that you really think would be of huge benefit to them, and you start to enthusiastically sell these benefits to them. You give it your all and yet no-one will even engage with you, even with a friendly look. Sounds like a horrible meeting and a tough position to be in, right? That’s what Group Fitness classes can feel like for an instructor sometimes.

I actually received some interesting feedback this week after a particularly challenging class. A participant said to me I shouldn’t take people’s indifference personally because “they’re not there for you, it’s about the workout not the instructor”. I wasn’t sure what to make of this comment. Firstly I can kind of see it’s coming from a good place and to an extent I suppose this could be true. I am there to deliver a workout, and that’s exactly what I do, all the time, every time. But I also want to deliver that bit extra. That fun, that motivation, that extra mile – the things that make someone say “I really enjoyed THAT class and I’d love to workout with HER again”. Maybe I am over-exposed to the world of Group Fitness, but I still participate in plenty of other people’s classes. And I choose those classes based on the instructor – if I love an instructor not only will I always tell them (and generally post about it on social media afterwards too) but I’ll return, and sometimes leave positive feedback online or at the venue too. If I don’t like their class, I will still be polite – make eye contact, smile and always say thank you, but I just won’t come back. I certainly won’t go back to classes where I’ve not related to the instructor, and then made it obvious that I dislike them and their workouts bore me and then choose to moan about it publicly afterwards. I agree – in a Fitness Class you are there to workout, not socialise, and you’re there to work hard, not partake in karaoke – but is there anything wrong with creating an atmosphere, and dare I say it, having some fun too? Am I wrong for wanting people to engage with me and enjoy their workout? It’s quite possible I care too much, but that’s always been the way I am and it makes me genuinely sad to think someone could leave a class I’ve delivered thinking it was boring, or easy, or both.

Teaching an outdoor Bootcamp

Which brings me on to people who come to a Fitness Class to say they’ve been to a fitness class. Anyone can show up to a class. But not everyone can, or wants to push to their physical limits with the purpose of creating the best version of themselves. I teach and coach and motivate people to push past where they thought their body could go, and that includes some tough love sometimes. I’m going to try to help you get that extra rep, to jump those extra few inches, to press that little bit more weight. Because it starts with small challenges but it ends with some huge results. I want to help people get fitter faster which means if I think you’re not working hard enough, or that you can do more, I’m going to try and motivate you to get there. We are all (myself included) capable of more than we think, sometimes we just need that push to get there. I get that sometimes you do just want to go through the motions – maybe you’re slightly hungover, or the baby kept you up all night, or you’ve had a terrible meeting at work and you just want to spend an hour doing something for you, so you want to hide at the back of class, lift a few weights, perform a few squats, jump around a bit and feel better than you did at the start of the warm up. That’s a good thing. But how much better could your day be if you achieved something you didn’t think was possible? If week after week you felt just that little but stronger, that little bit fitter? No one gets there without edging out of their comfort zone, and that’s my job, to try and get you there. I will never make anyone do anything I don’t think they are physically capable of, and I always coach regressions and options, but if I think you have a little more in the tank, I’m going to try and help you get every last mile out of it. That might mean getting a bit uncomfortable, but nothing worth having comes easy. So if I tell you not to shake your head, not to tell yourself you can’t and most of all not to stop when things get tough, it’s not because I get a kick out of seeing you suffer – it’s because I KNOW you can. I don’t want to see you fail, I want to see you push yourself further than you could have done alone. If you don’t want to push yourself, if you don’t want to be coached to the next level of fitness, if you don’t want to improve your technique and challenge your body and most of all if you’re not prepared to accept feedback about your technique and advice on how to make it better then maybe my classes aren’t for you.

I could go on – stranger and indeed worse things than all of this has happened to me over my teaching career. I’ve had a stalker, I’ve had equipment thrown at me, I’ve been called every name under the sun, I’ve dragged my sorry butt to teach having been up all night with violent food poisoning only for someone to make a complaint to management that I was teaching whilst still drunk, I’ve seen a testicle during class, I’ve seriously injured myself whilst teaching , I’ve broken up a physical fight between two participants and I’ve taught with no microphone, no air conditioning and even no music more times than I can remember. So you’re probably asking why, after almost 8 years I am still doing this? Why put myself through all of this hassle and more for such little return?

Because I love it.

Yes I wanted to use the post to actually make people stop and think about how they treat their Group Fitness Instructors, and to try to make people realise how much hard work and effort goes into delivering a class week in week out. But for all the negative things I’ve listed above, the positive things will always far, far outweigh them. I have a folder full of thank you cards from class members over the years thanking me for my classes and telling me how I’ve helped to change their life and their body. I’ve watched people go from struggling with their own bodyweight to being able to squat half of what they weigh, people who use to get breathless in the warm up smash themselves through an hour of non-stop interval training, and most importantly people go from hiding at the back of the class barely able to look at me to being in the front row whooping and clapping and just loving being a part of the Group Fitness experience. I’ve met some truly incredible people over the years – from teenagers to 70 year olds and everything in between. Some of my participants and fellow instructors have become some of my closest friends. If in a packed class of 30 people I can genuinely make a lasting difference to one person and their health, fitness and confidence, then I’ve done my job. Group Fitness literally changed my life, and I want to show people how and why it did in the hope that they too can see what an amazing thing it can and should be.

So next time you attend a class – mine or any else’s, please remember that it might be a stolen lunch hour, or a duty visit on the way home for you – but to the Instructor this could represent hours of planning and a huge amount of effort. You don’t need to be asking for post class selfies or become a cheerleader for them, trust me when I say even a smile and a thank you can go a long, long way. Physically us instructors are supposed to be the strongest person in the room, but mentally and emotionally we can be weak too – just like anyone else – so please don’t forget that your class teacher is a person too. One that more than likely cares more deeply about you and your workout that you could ever know.

Selfie after Lorna Jane UK class

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