Instructing Group Fitness Classes: A Rated Guide

A favorite side hustle, ranked by personal experience

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Going through graduate school, time and money were understandably tight. I was always looking for ways to multitask absolutely everything. Not being the kind of student that overwhelmingly focused all of my time and energy only on school, I enjoyed being able to find ways to keep a balanced and healthy lifestyle while still achieving my educational goals. Instructing group fitness classes allowed me to combine exercise, music, socializing, and a higher-than-average pay rate into a single hour. It was genuinely the best possible side hustle I could have asked for.

Over the course of my time as a certified instructor, I took advantage of learning opportunities whenever possible in order to expand my fitness knowledge and to be able to take on more classes and hours. While I began instructing general fitness courses, I eventually earned more certifications for classes like Cycle and Pilates. By the time I taught my final fitness classes as a cardio kickboxing instructor, I realized how many ways my side hustle had expanded.

Ranking these classes depended on a variety of factors: most importantly, the gym these classes were taught at. Gym policies can make a huge difference to the ease of running a class and the ultimate happiness of an instructor. Additionally, my own personal style for each class most definitely made a difference. Each instructor has their own personality and instruction style, and who knows- maybe I would have liked certain classes more if I had tried doing them differently. But in case you might be thinking of becoming a group fitness instructor, assuming gyms ever open again, here is one girl’s ranking of fitness classes to consider.

6- Sports Conditioning

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Sports conditioning was my least favorite even at my favorite gym, simply because it is very difficult — and probably ethically a little bit wrong — to have a high-intensity class meant for those who already have a strong baseline fitness level, yet available to people who have all levels of fitness. The perks were that the drills were fun and dynamic. This class also required more coaching than participating, which provided a nice break during weeks where sometimes I would have a schedule of 10+ classes. The difficulty was in ensuring that all drills could be done at any level, and modifications were a bit more challenging than for other classes.

5- Cardio Kickboxing

While I absolutely love taking these classes, instructing them was chaotic. These were the most physically draining classes to teach, and the gym I taught had instructors teaching in hours-long blocks instead of an hour or two at a time. The gym was also extremely popular and frequently had new customers. With little time between classes to help the new people learn how to kick and punch without injuring themselves, I found this environment to be highly stressful. This particular gym also taught from an advanced-to-basic perspective, whereas I had learned to teach the middle-of-the-road option first, and then modify exercises to be more advanced or more basic depending on needs and fitness levels of the participants. This left me seeing participants often trying to do some of the most advanced options on their first day to try to keep up in a competitive environment — like push-ups on a medicine ball — and trying to attend to everyone who needed modifications in packed classes was difficult. It was definitely fun, but it was also definitely stressful and extremely physically demanding. As a marathoner who also had my own personal fitness schedule to consider, this course ended up being something I preferred to take for fun on occasion than to teach several hours each week.

4- Boot Camp

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What’s not to love about boot camp? Many boot camp classes use stations for participants, which I elected to do in most classes as well. This style means rotating participants from station to station, or a group of participants between stations, each targeting something different. It was easy to make modifications for participants, it was fun for the participants and myself to have new and different stations to help the class go by quickly, and it was easy to alternate between cardio drills and strength drills that gave everyone a full workout at their level. Again, this class required more coaching than participation, which is always useful when you live a highly active lifestyle. However, it could get boring being the timekeeper, which is why it wasn’t my favorite from an instructor perspective. The best part, though, was watching participants get stronger and more fit as the weeks went by. Incrementally making the classes more challenging is exciting for the instructor and the participants alike.

3- General Fitness Classes

By general fitness classes, I mean classes that are not branded like Les Mills or Barre or that class where you drum on the floor with neon sticks, but also don’t fall into the category of a particular practice, like yoga. Most gyms offer their own variance of general fitness classes, targeting specific areas of the body, or focusing either on strength or on cardiovascular conditioning or a mix of the two. What makes these classes great is that instructors can use their creativity to build their own class, have full control over music, and easily modify any exercises for all participants. Some of the classes I taught were Total Body Blast, Butts and Guts (don’t ask), and Tone and Sculpt. For me, it was enjoyable to make new classes, craft new playlists, and be half participant and half coach. These classes tend to gain a loyal following if participants jive with your style, and I was able to instruct all ages from college students to senior citizens. While overall these classes have the most flexibility and room for creativity, which made me very happy as an instructor, the gym I taught at would make it or break it. Some gyms just do not prioritize group fitness- mics would be broken, sound systems wouldn’t work, participants could walk in mid-class and then I would be distracted and worried that they would get injured coming in late. The gyms that do ensure mics, stereos, and equipment all work, plus have a late policy to prevent injury were the best to work at while teaching these classes.

2- Cycle

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If the music is loud, the room is dark, and the energy is high, cycle is the absolute best class to teach. It truly puts you in the zone, it’s fast-paced, and it’s usually taught by song, which helps to break up the class. One song might indicate high resistance and hills, while the next might focus on speed. Mixing and matching the varieties of workouts you can get from a cycle class makes it extremely fun to instruct. I typically taught 30-minute classes, so they were usually pretty intense. However, as an instructor, if I was already physically tired, I would just turn my resistance dial down and no one could tell the difference. It’s also a great class to pair with other 15-minute classes to fill a 45-minute time slot. One summer, I taught a Cycle and Core class that ended with 15 minutes of planks and other exercises that strengthened areas of the body critical to cycling. We’d also sometimes do a 15-minute foam roll at the end, which was always a favorite.

The issue with Cycle is that its enjoyableness as an instructor definitely varies by gym. At my favorite gym, they always made sure the doors were locked at the beginning of the class to limit injury and distractions and to make sure everyone got their bike sizing correct. We had time to help out our participants. They also encouraged us to blast the music (the room was sound proof) and dim the lights to add to the ambience if we wanted to. This was completely different from another gym where I taught Cycle that held it in an open-room area of a community center. Anyone could wander in at any time, people using the bikes ahead of time weren’t asked to leave, and the mic never worked. It was also a difficult environment because the open area meant that we received several noise complaints from community center members to the point where we had to turn the music down so low that we could barely even hear it. It was sad. In the right place, this is easily my favorite class. In the wrong place, it’s by far and away my least favorite.

1- Pilates

After two femoral neck stress fractures, I realized it was time to focus a little bit more on injury prevention, and decided to take a course to incorporate that into my work as an instructor. It ended up being one of the best courses I took. Pilates is an excellent class to throw in the mix of classes that beat on the body. I taught mat Pilates and the goal was to make every class as relaxing as possible. I turned off the lights, put together the most soothing acoustic or piano playlist I could think of, and slowly guided participants to connect their movements to their breath. There was one summer that I instructed this class first thing in the morning a few times per week, and it was the most relaxing and rejuvenating way to start the day. Pilates can definitely be more intense and lively than my class was, but I opted to go the more relaxing route for once. It taught me a lot about my own lack of patience and internal chaos during the grad school grind. The gym I taught at was the perfect space for this type of Pilates class, too- the room was quiet, peacefully dim, and full of mirrors so that participants could check their form with ease. Even at a more chaotic gym, this class was still one of my favorites.

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After experiencing some personal trauma that made it difficult to have the energy for these classes, I officially declared myself burned out and quit instructing altogether. While these classes used to be energizing even on a bad day, they started to become draining and I began to dread going into work. Still, for the years that I taught them, they were fun, challenging, and a great way to maximize my resources on a time-deficient schedule.

Passionate about reframing the narrative around sexual violence and immigration. Health & Fitness. Runner, Traveler. OG Student. Believer in the Oxford comma.

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