Teaching your first group exercise class

Count down is ON baby! Can’t wait to start my weekend.  The other day I posted tips to help students ease on in to their first group exercise class.

Today we approach a far, far scarier topic.  Teaching your first group exercise class.

Oooh, my stomach dropped just thinking about it.  Don’t worry! I’ve got the tactics to make it a little less frightening.

1.  Practice, practice, practice.

It seems obvious, but preparation will give you confidence that first day.  I read that some comedian (Johnny Carson? Someone famous) told other comedians, “Never wing it.” When I say practice, don’t just hide away in your basement.  Ask other instructors if they’ll let you teach a warm-up or a song or two for them.  I wasn’t able to do this, but I wish I had.

Practice your entire class before you teach it.  When I started, teaching took me 3 hours.  1 hour to practice, 30 minutes to drive to the studio and get set up, an hour to teach and 30 minutes to pick up my stuff, say good-bye and drive home.  Eventually, that hour of prep time goes away and you can choreograph in your car on the way to class.

Listen to your class music in the car ALL THE TIME.  Especially on your way to class. Your subconscious is absorbing the music. You become more familiar with it so you’re more natural when you’re teaching.  Also, mentally tick off the moves as the song plays.  Visualizing what you do and what you will say is so beneficial. Most elite athletes use visualization to improve their sports performance, so you should too.

2.  Show up early.

I am so overbooked these days I typically rush in right when class is about to start.  Do as I say, not as I do.  I’m a bad instructor in this respect, but it can’t be helped.  Inevitably, your stereo will need tweaking and you have to get yourself mic’d up.  That takes about 5 minutes.

When you arrive early, you can greet your students and the front-desk people.  Smile at everyone.  Be friendly.  This is Chalene advice.  When you are in the club, you should be a pleasure to have around.  That means being friendly to each and every person, regardless of whether they clean the showers or are pumping iron and have no intention of taking your class. If someone is new to a gym and asks the front desk attendant, “What class should I take?” you want the front desk attendant to remember the sweet, happy girl who teaches Step, not the scowling diva who never says “hi.”

3.  Expect to be scared as hell.

Teresa, who is going to get her booty kicked by me in the Brazilian Buttlift Throwdown, had a great quote the other day about how the stomach butterflies will help her fly.  I loved it.  You will be nervous. It’s okay. Channel that energy into being EXCITED.  I still get nervous when I go to a new class.  Ugh, being on stage is really hard for me.  There’s something about being elevated about people’s heads that freaks me out.

Feel the fear, do it anyway.  Be brave.

4.  Remember it’s supposed to be FUN.

Both Chalene Johnson and Beto Perez talk about turning your classes into a party.  My mama is from the south and I was raised to know how to put on a good party.  You greet your guests.  You make sure they interact with each other.  You are fun and upbeat.  You make sure everyone is having a good time.  It is your responsibility as a good hostess to make sure your students have fun at your party. Yeah, there’s always someone who refuses to have a good time.  That’s okay. Don’t let that one person hamper your ability to make sure everyone else has fun.

5.  Remember it’s a privilege.

This is a bit of wisdom the Anti-Rat shared with me the other day.  Our most precious asset is not money but time. Time is the one commodity you can’t make more of.  We’re all on fixed time-budgets.  So when someone chooses to spend their time with you (or in your class), they have selected you as a recipient of something precious. They could be spending time with family.  They could choose to be on the treadmill watching Ellen or workout at home to some very nice DVDs.  Instead, they are making it possible for you to do what you love.  Respect their investment in you by being the amazing superstar they know you are. They wouldn’t be there if you weren’t.

6.  Get outta yo mind.

Part of being a superstar is leaving the self-consciousness at the door.  The sabotaging thoughts that you’re not good enough/ thin enough/ pretty enough/ tall enough/ blonde enough/ Latina enough… they inhibit your ability to do your best.  They also prevent you from connecting with other people.  By absorbing yourself in what others are thinking about you, you’re not thinking about or talking to them!

Also, it’s good to go a little crazy.  Be a little foolish.  Be sillier than your students.  Look goofy.  Make faces.  It helps take the intimidation out of class.  It lets them relax and let their guard down.  They don’t want you to be perfect, they want you to be fun.

7.  Be verbal.

I know my Zumba fans and instructors will disagree with me here, but I simply feel you must talk to your class. I understand Beto’s reasoning behind relying on non-verbal cues (partly because the man teaches all over the world and you just can’t learn every language), but you connect with people by talking to them, plain and simple.  I can quote almost every verbal cue that Chalene Johnson gives.  “You’re not tired!” “You just got your second wind!” “Show me what you got!” “I’m shakin’ like a scared chiahuahua!” “Don’t say it’s too hard, tell yourself you’re strong and you can DO this!” Guess what? Most of her students would open a vein for her.  Do you see the difference between that and someone holding up 4 fingers to indicate you’re going to perform a move 4 times?

Connect with your class so they know you. Otherwise, you’re just the Wednesday night Zumba girl who is interchangeable with the Sunday morning Zumba girl.

8.  Save the drama fo’ yo mama.

When you begin teaching at a new space, members may tell you the reason the other instructor left.  Maybe it is pretty salacious.  Maybe they’ll tell you all the instructors who are better than you and the ones who are worse than you.  Be polite and turn everything into a positive.  My response when people compare instructors is to say “We’re all so different as instructors and that’s awesome because everyone can find the instructor they click with best!”

Never, ever, ever get involved in the comparison and criticism game because I promise, it will come back to bite you eventually. The member you’re talking to now about how Joe Blow’s aqua class is just awful?  Next month, Joe Blow might start teaching TRX and your student loves the new format and becomes Joe’s BFF.  Guess who’s going to hear every word you’ve said?  There’s a lot of overlap in the fitness community, so be professional no matter what.  The instructors at one gym will likely be your fellow instructors at another gym.  Support them and encourage your students to support their classes, because a successful group ex program benefits all the instructors.

I think teaching group exercise is the best job on earth. Yes, it’s a job and so there are always petty annoyances.  But unlike most jobs, you’re in and out so quick you don’t have time to get annoyed at the person who made a mess in the microwave or never refills the copy tray.  It’s worth it to be a little nervous to reap all the benefits that teaching provides.

Questions? Comments? Did I miss anything?  Please share your wisdom in the comments below!


  1. says

    I used to tell my jr high cheerleaders to use the visualization technique – “picture yourself doing it correctly.” And after my first zumba class I downloaded some of the songs so I could internalize them – I know I’m not a exercise teacher but I thought that is a good piece of advice. I was just thinking today ‘how does she go so quickly into the next move’ – it’s so hard for me! It’s obvious you’ve put a lot of time and effort into your class. Oh, and I’m ALL for verbal cues. As a student. I have no idea what’s coming next.

    • Elizabeth says

      Thanks Sarah! It’s great to hear from students as well. Honestly, you guys are the reason we do what we do. So if something isn’t working for you, I think it’s important to know it!

      I’m glad that visualization thing really does work, because I do it a lot. 😉

      You were awesome tonight, my front row diva! <3

    • Elizabeth says

      Thank you Jen! Chalene is honestly…. I can’t tell you how that woman has changed my LIFE. She is so, so wise. I’m so grateful she does what she does!

      Keep me updated on your certifications — I’m so excited for you! This is such an amazing thing to do for yourself and others!

  2. Angela Dalessio says

    Thank you for this!! I need to print it out and keep reviewing this… Maybe it will help me to become ready eventually to teach. :)

    • Elizabeth says

      Thanks Ange! You’ll know when you need to teach, it will just be like… a bursting feeling that you have GOT to get OUT. I’m here for ya girl!

  3. Gabrielle says

    Ahh!! I am so nervous! I am trying to prepare to teach my first SurfSet class in NY. I am only 18, I feel like no one will take me seriously. I am also nervous that I wont be able to keep track of reps, with time, and music. Any advice?

  4. Daniela says

    I am a new Zumba Instructor, I really wanted to take the time to thank you. I haven’t taught my first class as of today but in just about a week I will be teaching. I am extremely nervous and I needed to know if anything was different with all the other Instructors. However, This article gave me some great insight. I just wanted to thank you. I will keep all of this in mind.

    Thank you.

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