How to Become a Group Fitness Instructor
(me back in the day at Commonwealth Sports Club in Boston)
Today I’m going to share with you the answer to a question I get all the time! How does one become a group fitness instructor?
I got certified in Pilates when I was a sophomore in college and my little sister Jackelyn started her group training career even earlier at the age of 18! I am so grateful to be teaching still, 7 years later and still loving it as much as the first day I started.
Oh man guys…where do I begin. Back in the day, I was teaching to classes of 2 people. I started at a small gym down the street from my school called It Figures! in Whittier, CA. They are no longer around, but they were the ones who gave me a chance to teach. Seriously, it was because of them that this all started. After I got a wee bit more confident, I applied to 24 Hr Fitness and was sooooo happy to get an email saying they wanted me to audition. Heart was beating so fast…I was so nervous…I didn’t think I was ready. My group fitness director told me to do some team teaching with a more seasoned instructor before she could give me a class. I had never taught in front of a crowd before…ever.
That Tuesday evening after my Bio class, I walked into 24 Hr Fitness in Whittier for the 5:30pm class and saw about 30-40 ladies in this dance studio. I was panicking. I headed straight to the front of the room, avoiding eye contact, met the instructor, introduced myself real quick and she gave me the headset. OMG a headset??!! I’v never worn one before. She taught me how to turn it on and place it on my head. Too big, but whatever, I needed to start! The students were getting antsy because they didn’t know why their normal instructor wasn’t teaching. She told me, “Cassey you do 30 min of abs and core and I’ll do arms and legs the 2nd half k? Okay now go.”
BIG GULP. Uhhhhhh….
All these people were staring at me. Hands were sweaty, heart was beating LIKE CRAZY.
“Hi everyone, my name is Cassey and I will be team-teaching today and showing you some intense core moves!” No response. Ok umm just go I guess…
I started with The Hundred, then did some Roll Ups, and some Double Leg Lifts. The only thing that could keep me calm was counting 10-9-8-7-6-5…My heart was SERIOUSLY beating out of my chest. It was SOOOOOO SCARYYYYY. I still remember those feelings as I type. It was terrifying.
After class, I spoke with the instructor and she gave me the one piece of constructive criticism that I will never forget. She told me, “Cassey that was good but you need to stop counting everything.” From that day on, I never did anymore. I remember immediately calling my sister and telling her that I was still shaking.
After 24 Hr Fitness and after I graduated from Whittier, I moved to Boston, started my first corporate job, and taught on the side at Boston Sports Club (love that gym). I remember seeing that Equinox was holding an audition, and if you know anything about the gym industry, to teach at Equinox is an honor. It had always been my DREAM be a part of that place ever since the day I started instructing. I had heard how glam it was…how clean it was…and how hard it was to teach there. I had only been teaching for about 2.5-3 years at that point and I thought what the heck, let’s give it a shot.
Let me tell you. That Equinox audition was so intense you don’t even know. Top instructors from all over Boston came together in the most beautiful yoga studio I have ever seen in my life. Perfect hardwood floors, velvet curtains, soothing lights, and a room shaped like a lily pad. It was a round robin audition where all the instructors had to teach each other a prepared 2 min routine. Meaning…not only did you have to be able to do the moves that the instructor up in front was demonstrating…but you also had to perfectly execute your own routine. If the directors liked you, you were allowed to finish. If they didn’t think you had it, they would say “Okay, thanks, next please.” It was so American Idol.
After a couple hours of auditioning, they told us to go home and they’d contact us if we made it. I waited a week. 2 weeks. 3. I finally wrote the director back and asked about my standing. She said, sorry Cassey, you seemed more like a video instructor than a teacher who can engage with her students.
I was devastated.
Several months passed by. I was hating my “real” job. I ended up quitting 9 months into it without a plan. I just knew I had to get out of that toxic environment. The only thing I could practically fall back on was Pilates…so I started applying EVERYWHERE. I ended up teaching 10+ classes a week at numerous gyms and studios to pay the bills. It was hard. It was tiring. But I attribute my skills today to that period of my life when all I did was live and breathe Pilates. I started to “get it”…I started to get more comfortable in front of my students…I started to become more creative and stylish on the mat. I loved it all. Then one night as I was browsing Craigslist for fitness jobs, I saw that Equinox was holding another audition. Ugh…it had been almost a year. Should I do it? If I fail again, I should really never come back I thought. Took a deep breath and said, whatever let’s go.
Came into that same studio I’d set foot in a year ago. Saw the same directors. I wasn’t sure if she remembered me. This time, I didn’t even prepare anything. I told myself, you know what you know. Just do your thing. If you get it, good. If you don’t, who cares! When it was my turn to get in the front, my heart was at ease. I just taught like I was teaching friends. I made my peers laugh, I made their core hurt, and overall, it was very easy and pleasant. At the end of the audition, they told us thank you and that they’d get in touch with us within the week to let us know how we did. I wanted so bad to teach at Equinox. But I told myself…if it’s meant to be, then it’ll be. Don’t worry. Your time will come.
You know, they always say…if you stop waiting for something or expecting something to happen, what you want will come true.
Then it happened. I got an email saying that that weekend out of the 50+ instructors that auditioned, they only picked 2, and I was one of them. The director did remember me. She said I had grown so much from the first time I auditioned and that I truly impressed her.
I started crying. It was so intense. I couldn’t believe it. My dream came true. I finally accomplished my goal of working at one of America’s most prestigious gyms. I called my sister. We laughed and celebrated together.
So that’s my story of my group fitness career. I’ve taught at numerous gyms along the way and loved every single one of my students in every single one of my classes. Getting that room filled to capacity, jammin’ to the music, sweatin’ to the beat….ahhhh INVIGORATING!!! I will never ever ever stop teaching. It keeps me sane and makes me so so happy. YouTube has given me the opportunity to go beyond the dance studio and teach you guys too. I am so grateful. I hope you understand that you are my life :)
Now, I want to introduce you to fitness dvd star Nicole Nichols of Sparkpeople.com who is a fellow group exercise instructor . She literally teaches EVERYTHING. I remember watching her on YouTube way before I made videos and learning some moves from her routines. Years later we are now friends and she is here to tell you the details of the fitness industry and how to break into becoming an instructor. Please, let’s give a warm welcome to Nicole!
Cassey: Hi Nicole! Can you tell everyone who you are and how you got started in fitness?
Nicole: I actually started out studying architecture and interior design in college. But after about three years of study, I knew it just wasn’t for me. My hobby of reading nutrition books and going to the gym, I discovered, could actually be a career—something I never even considered. I discovered the major “Health Promotion” at my university, switched majors and never looked back! I decided to make my love of design and art a hobby and my passion for health and wellness into a career.
In college, I took on every possible learning experience and work opportunity. I volunteered, went to professional health conferences, joined health-related campus groups (like one that educated people about preventing eating disorders and encouraged body love), and took part in training programs at my university rec center, which is where I first worked as a personal trainer and group fitness instructor. When I took a required class called “Writing for Healthcare” I knew I had found my niche: I wanted to write about health and fitness for a living. So I called up the campus newspaper to offer my services, wrote a regular health/fitness feature, and got a call from SparkPeople. The rest is history.
I’ve been writing, blogging and creating health and fitness stories for nine years now. All the while I have continued to gain new fitness certifications and I still teach fitness part-time outside of my full-time job with SparkPeople. I’ve been teaching a variety of fitness classes now for 10 years. Because of my background as an instructor, I was the go-to person when SparkPeople wanted to create their own fitness videos and DVDs. I love my job! I love learning and helping other people feel empowered to take control of their health, too.
Cassey: What’s your fave healthy food?
Nicole: It would be IMPOSSIBLE for me to pick just one. I truly enjoy a lot of healthy foods. I probably wouldn’t want to live without…avocados, Greek yogurt, BERRIES (don’t even get me started…soooo good), and broccoli.
Cassey: And your fave YOLO or “cheat” food?
Nicole: I don’t ever consider any food to be a “cheat” food actually. I think that all foods can fit into a healthy diet when you practice moderation. I make it no secret that while I eat healthy food (and love it) at least 80% of the time, I love my sweets. My favorite treat that has no redeeming nutritional quality (since I was a kid) is Twizzlers. But I also love ice cream.
Cassey: You work out so much! But what’s your fave form of exercise?
Nicole: Finding exercise that you enjoy is key to sticking with a routine and it not feeling like an obligation or chore. I love to run and train for 1-3 half marathons each year. I also love Pilates! It’s my go-to exercise. I think of Pilates as daily physical therapy. It feels good and does so much good for your body.
Cassey: Now for the BIG question! How does one become a group fitness instructor?
Nicole: There are so many types of group exercise classes these days that it can be tough to navigate the world of group fitness as a newbie. I now have almost 10 fitness certifications (and am currently working on another: yoga!) but I surely didn’t start out that way. I started with just ONE—a broad “group fitness instructor” certification from AFAA. Here’s a good breakdown of how to reach your goal of becoming certified, getting experience, and getting hired to teach.
1. Decide what you want to teach. Is it yoga? Pilates? Group strength training? Maybe you love step aerobics, kickboxing or BodyPump. The easiest way to start is with ONE method that you can focus on. In my experience (and my professional opinion), yoga and Pilates are more challenging formats when you’re just starting out as a teacher. The training is longer, more expensive and more complex, and they’re harder to teach because they are so nuanced and detailed. Just something to think about—but of course lots of people learn them and do them without any previous fitness experience.
2. Talk to the right people. If you want to teach—perhaps where you currently take classes or at a specific gym—find out what they require in terms of training and certifications for their instructors. Spinning is a specific form of indoor cycling, and another specific one is Schwinn, for example. Some gyms might require one certification over the other. There are also a lot of Les Mills fitness programs gaining popularity, but to teach them you have to be certified specifically in those methods. Then there are some general classes (kickboxing, step aerobics, toning, etc.) that many people teach with just a “general” group fitness certification. If you want to teach, find out what is required. This may also include CPR or first aid certification in most gyms.
Also talk to other instructors who teach classes that you enjoy. Ask how they got started, where they did their training, and if they have any tips. They will probably be very happy to help you get started on the right path, such as recommending a good certification or training program.
3. Get certified. The next step is deciding on your certification. ACE and AFAA both have great group fitness certifications that will train you and give you experience to teach some general classes. But if you want to teach yoga, Pilates, cycling or another specialty class, you’ll need that specific certification. Many certifications can be attained through your own home study, and some will require in-person trainings and test-outs. Don’t just go for whatever is “easiest.” Go for the format that you think will truly help you learn and be a good instructor. That will make all the difference in creating successful classes—and getting hired.
(Cassey: here’s me at my Les Mills BODYPUMP cert a few years ago!)
4. Get experience. You should practice teaching as much as possible while you study for your certification and even after you obtain it. Most gyms will require you to “audition” for a teaching position, and you want to feel confident when you do that. It can also be nerve-wracking to get up in front of people and talk the whole time and give them the cues they need to exercise correctly and safely. The more practice you can get—even with friends or family members, the better off you will be. Some gym and universities will be very open to letting you “practice teach” as well to gain experience, often for no pay—but it can make a huge difference to feeling confident and ready to lead a class by yourself. Be open to feedback that will help you get better.
5. Get out there! Now you’re trained, experienced and ready! Like any job, network. Meet people. Talk to other instructors. Talk to your gym manager or gym owner. You never know what opportunities it may lead to.
6. Remain professional. That means keeping up with your certification. A quality, reputable certification will require ongoing continuing education in order to stay certified, and a professional instructor will keep her certifications current. This also means staying true to what you have been taught. If you received a general group fitness certification and someone offers to let you teach a format that you have not been certified or professionally trained in—then you are not remaining professional and neither is your fitness studio. These sort of things do happen, but it is seriously frowned upon in the professional fitness community. It also makes you liable if you teach people things you were never trained in and they injure themselves. That could get you sued and your other certifications revoked. Speaking of, all instructors should protect themselves by getting a professional liability insurance policy; you hope you’ll never have to use it, but it’s good to have just in case.
For many, a love of group classes (and OK, a bit of a desire to get paid to work out) leads them down the path of becoming a fitness instructor. It can be fun, rewarding and interesting, but it also takes a lot of groundwork and a desire to continuously evolve and learn to truly be successful. Most fitness instructors wouldn’t change what they do and love to help others find their way as well, so don’t be afraid to ask your favorite instructor for some tips along your journey!
Thank you so much Nicole for sharing this information with us. I know all of the POPsters here looking for a career in the fitness industry truly appreciate it. Guys, if you have any more questions, please comment below and we will do our best to answer! You may follow Nicole on twitter @thecoachnicole and check out her blog at Sparkpeople here.
Love you guys! See you soon on Monday for a brand new workout!