If you are a fitness instructor or group exercise junkie you will get the title of this post. If you are neither one of those, keep reading anyway. I’ve been a group fitness instructor since I was in college. I went through an instructor training program at the University of Northern Iowa so I would be better qualified for any worksite wellness or health promotion jobs that came my way in the years out of college. It was a smart move on my behalf. Not only did it give me an edge on my resume, it helped me establish an active lifestyle from a very young age.
For the past eight years I’ve been the Group X coordinator at Drake University. I think to date I’ve trained 28 students to be fitness instructors and have had over 50 rotate through my staff (many come with certifications such as yoga or Zumba so I don’t train them). It’s one of the most rewarding aspects of my job because I get to see them evolve from their first moments of shaky confidence in front of a group of peers to commanding a room and really letting everyone know who’s the boss. Also, we have a lot of fun, as evidenced by some of these photos.
A lot of people ask me how to go about becoming an instructor and most of these people aren’t full-time wellness professionals like me. The good news is that you don’t have to work in the wellness field to become an instructor! I know pharmacists, news anchors, stay-at-home mothers, and marketing professionals who have pretty successful and somewhat lucrative side hustles as fitness instructors in the community. So if this is something that is even on your radar, here’s how I suggest you go about pursuing your dream:
1. Determine what type of class you want to teach. The best way to do this is to start taking a variety of fitness classes. I’ve found that unless you’re a full-time wellness professional you will most likely stick to one, maybe two formats. The biggest factor I recommend you take into consideration is do you want pre-choreographed or free-style format? POUND, R.I.P.P.E.D., Zumba, etc. are pre-choreographed. In addition to the training you must keep contemporary with the latest workouts and tracks. Free-style means you make up your own routine. There are pluses and drawbacks to both which I’d be happy to go over in the comments section if you have any pointed questions. Over the years I have taught the following formats: A variety of toning classes with a variety of names (Muscle Mix, Extreme Abs, Butts and Guts, to name a few), Step Aerobics, Hi-Low (God help me), Bootcamp, Cardio Kickboxing, Pilates, Yoga, water aerobics, a variety of strength and conditioning classes (Cardio Bar, Sport Circuit, etc.), and of course, POUND. I’m missing two pretty popular formats – Zumba and Spin, but I’m going to let others take care of those and call it good.
2. Find a place to teach. I know you just took a big leap from figuring out what you want to teach and finding someone to hire you but trust me on this. I recommend identifying a place you want to teach before you figure out the next step, which is getting a certification. Why? Well for starters, certifications are pricey up front plus there are fees to maintain the certification. So if you have a place or two in mind, talk to the Group Exercise coordinator and see what is required to teach. The last thing you want is the wrong certification to teach at your favorite studio or fitness center. Perhaps there is an on-site instructor training certification (I believe this is a common model at the YMCA’s) or maybe they want you to get a specific nationally recognized certification. Many fitness centers have agreements with third parties such as Les Mills, R.I.P.P.E.D., or Zumba and you need to get your certifications from those specific entities. Another reason to figure out where you might want to teach is to see if your certification fees will be reimbursed. Remember, if you never ask, the answer is always no. I would highly recommend you also determine how likely it is you will get hired once you get the certification. I say this only because I know of some yoga studios that have costly instructor training programs (I’m talking between $1,000-$2,000) and some people will pay for the certification but not get hired. Figure that part out before you invest.
3. Become certified. Once you’ve figured out points one and two you should go on and get that certification! I hold a general but highly respected Group Fitness Instructor certification from the American Council on Exercise. I also have a NETA Pilates certification and am a certified POUND Pro. Yes, I just typed certified several times in one sentence, but it is SO IMPORTANT! Fitness and exercise is a field where a lot of people can walk around saying they know what is best or have the latest and greatest workout regime but they have no credentials or education to back their philosophy and practices. Get certified.
4. Never apologize. I know, sounds like it’s out of left field but one thing I learned early on in my Hi-Low days at Farm Bureau was to never apologize during class. I messed up one too many box steps or grapevines and my internship coordinator, who also was instrumental in getting me going in the group fitness, almost made me cry* after a class because I said “sorry” too much. But you know what, she was right. When you keep saying “oops” or “sorry” it points out that your combo or movement pattern or progression failed to meet your expectations, which only magnifies something that most participants would never have noticed. So I have the same rule at Drake – my instructors can’t say sorry unless they drop a dumbbell on someone’s foot, in which case I recommend they apologize profusely. I want you to keep that same bit of advice when you go to teach for the first, 10th, or 100th time!
Teaching group exercise has been one of the most rewarding parts of my life to date. Yes, I’m very young and hopefully will have many more years in front of me to find other passions and pursue other paths, but I can say with certainty that teaching group exercise will always hold a special place in my heart and I hope to continue doing it as long as my feet allow!
*Jenny, yes, it’s true, you almost made me cry but I was a thin-skinned 21 year-old who was probably too sensitive. I am over it. Thank you for setting a good example.