RateYourBurn | 25 Habits of Amazing Fitness Instructors

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At RateYourBurn, we are constantly thinking about what makes a good fitness instructor and how we can help instructors increase their career trajectory (we'd love nothing better than to hand out 5-star reviews every day, believe it or not!). Over the past 15 months and more than 500 classes, I have come to have a general understanding of what makes me (and the RYB community) tick. So I share with you: 25 great habits that make a stellar fitness instructor.

habits of amazing instructors

Teaching a great class is a combination of science and magic. The magic part, we can't help you with that. But we CAN provide this list of habits that we notice over and over in highly-rated instructors. 

1. Arrive Early.

...To mingle, not just set up your mic. It's the best way to get to know your clients and their needs before class starts. Make your way around, find out who's new, who has injuries, who's nervous. This will pay huge dividends, especially if you remember and use the information you collect.

2. Own the room from minute 1.

I love when I walk into class and immediately know who the instructor is, not because they're fumbling with the sound system, but because they've got that confident instructor swagger. Even if you're nervous, suck it up and step into your instructor super-suit. You're about to teach me. I want you to be confident and competent. Oh...and SMILE.

3. Hook up your iPod before class starts.

I love to be greeted by some pre-class pump-up tunes. It's the same concept as foreplay, people... Get me ready for the main attraction. This isn't just a high-intensity class thing. I love some softer music before a slower class, too.

4. Touch me.

I'm not just talking about corrections (that's No. 16). I'm talking about using physical contact to make a connection. One of my favorite spin teachers always touches students' hands as he walks by their bikes, and I've had some yoga teachers touch the small of my back or my shoulder while introducing themselves. It's the best.

BUT: If you're going to do this, it has to be natural. If you're not a touchy person to begin with, don't force it.

reach out and touch me

5. Make an extra effort to keep the energy high in a small class.

Keep a back pocket full of strategies to deal with a less-than-packed room. A few I've liked:

  • Asking everyone to come up together to the front of the room, like a pack.
  • Making sure to know everyone's name and using it, often.
  • Introducing the students to one another to create more of a group mentality (a leisure you wouldn't have in a huge class).
  • Complimenting students on their dedication (we're the few, the proud, the people who made it to class today!). Even if the class is empty because it's a new slot or you're a new teacher, just make us feel good for coming. Turn the low turnout into a special experience.

6. Encourage me to meet my neighbor.

I'm not naturally a meet-people-in-class kind of person, so I always enjoy when instructors require us to make that connection. Here are a few strategies I've liked.

  • Pairing us up with a neighbor for a two-person exercise.
  • Asking us to "turn and tell your neighbor how amazing they're doing" or "give your neighbor a high five."
  • Asking half the class to do something high-intensity while the other half cheers, and vice versa.

7. Curse (sometimes).

Within reason, I'm a huge fan of a well-inserted profanity. It's a great sign of confidence and another way to cue desired intensity. But use only when appropriate (AKA, maybe don't tell us to "calm the f*ck down" in savasana).

8. Find a great catch phrase. 

This one cannot be forced. It has to be a phrase that people have responded to in the past—something that has to come about organically, a specific type of noise or question. Many of my favorite instructors have a calling card.

yes or yes charlee

9. Make the class relevant.

No matter what time of day or holiday it is, find a reason to tell me how awesome it is that I'm there and not somewhere else (in bed, out drinking, on vacation).  I love when an instructor makes me feel good for being there at 6 AM or pumps me up for the upcoming three-day weekend.

If it's a holiday, or something noteworthy has happened in the news, consider making a relevant playlist for the cause, or theming the exercises.

10. Be excited about your playlist.

I'm not a music snob. In fact, I enjoy a wide variety of the musics. When an instructor gets pumped for their jams or mentions "what an amazing playlist" they have for us, I often end up paying more attention to it and enjoying it more. It's psychological, but if you're excited about something, I get excited, too! Brainwash me, I don't mind.

11. Put fresh music in my earholes.

I am no music guru (if you want to talk to a workout music guru, follow my girl, BeFit, on Facebook or check out her amazing Big Mix workout playlists), but I know a stale track from a fresh one—and I also know when you use the same playlist two classes in a row. (Kick that habit to the curb, pronto.) Music is like a heart pumping blood through the fitness body. If you were a doctor, would you pump stale blood into your patients?*

*My apologies for the creepy, nonsensical metaphor.

befit big mix playlist spinning rateyourburn fresh

12. Match the music to the beat.

This might seem obvious, but beat-matching is so underutilized in fitness classes. Whether it's a strength class, a barre class, or a cycling class, use those beats to motivate—and make an effort to keep everyone together, too. There's nothing more motivating than a class in unison.

13. Don't ask me, tell me.

You are the instructor. I want you to be firm in your instruction. Remove the upward inflection at the end of your sentences. When every command sounds like a question, it makes me wonder if you know what you're doing.

14. Recover gracefully from mistakes.

A tricky but important skill. When something breaks or malfunctions, or you forget to repeat an exercise on the other side, calmly deal with the situation without losing time to win my ultimate respect. Make a list of things that could go wrong in class, and know in advance how you would deal with them.

15. Encourage noise.

If someone whoops or screams or Indian War-cries, DO NOT IGNORE THEM. Take it as a massive compliment and encourage the bejesus out of that behavior. It means they're having an amazing time—and if you reward it, you might be able to get others to join in. Then you have your students feeding energy off of one another: a recipe for magic.

spinning cycling stereotypes rateyourburn types ve

16. Correct the sh*t out of me, no matter my level.

Everyone can be better. Coming to me with corrections (GOOD corrections) instantly earns my trust that you actually know anatomy and understand what you're doing (and what I'm doing wrong).

17. Remove the mic when giving me said corrections.

I want the help! But not the public shaming. Most instructors don't even realize that they're embarrassing students. Just take the mic away from your face for a sec.

18. Show love to your colleagues.

I love when instructors mention a class they took recently or talk about how great the next instructor is, in case we want to double up. It speaks to their character and shows that they support their colleagues, instead of compete with them.

ryb love fitness instructor

19. Give me a high five.

Literally. I just love high fives. And fist bumps. And magic fingers. Spread that goon-city energy.

20. Catch me being good.

Notice when I self-correct/get deeper/work harder and call me out in approval. Call me out when I didn't realize you were watching me. It's a double whammy: positive reenforcement and a reminder that you're always watching.

21. Make eye contact.

...with ME. Not with the mirror or with the cute girl next to me. Look into my eyes! I'm not a wolf. I won't take it as a sign of aggression and jump for your jugular. Typically. Unless you're pregnant with a half vampire baby and I'm trying to mate with the baby before it's born.

22. Learn my name, and use it.

Everyone loves to hear their name, especially when attached to a compliment. It's a true skill to remember names, but it can be honed (there are a lot of brain-training games that can help).

23. Embrace the potentially embarassing side effects of your class.

Sometimes, we don't know what's normal and what's not. When my muscles fail or when my pores start projectile squirting or when my flying crow plummets to the earth, I need some reassurance. For example, in barre class, when my legs shake like a hot potato, say "YES! THAT SHAKING MEANS YOUR BODY IS CHANGING!" Or if I'm trying a headstand and I fall, say "Falling is great! I'd rather see you try and fall than not try at all!" 

shake shake mentirosa chica rateyourburn barre lot

24. Develop an end-of-class ritual.

Let your students savor the work they've just done. Give me a minute to be excited about it before you push me out into the real world. Kind of like how my dog leaps in circles when the coffee grinder goes on in the morning because he knows that he's about to get fed. Let me feel that excitement and accomplishment of having gotten through the class for a few minutes. It could be a stretch routine or a savasana—but if you ritualize the sequence, my brain will feel comfort every time it's repeated.

25. Stay after class to chat.

...For the same reason you mingle before class. Get to know your students, get feedback, let them know they can review you on RateYourBurn. Just be a normal, nice person. We're super curious to know what you're like once you're not doing the whole instructor performance thing. Sprinting out of class diva-style is such a bummer.

So, Burners: What did we miss? What's your favorite instructor habit? Do you agree with ours? Let us know in the comments!

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Comments 26 Comments

LittleBigBurn 03/23/2013

SO GOOD! 1, 12-17, 20-22, and 25 especially. This is awesome Lactic I wish all classes were like this!!

burnjunkie 03/23/2013

This is fantastic! I also love when, in the middle of a killer set, the instructor says something a little outrageous or funny, which makes me laugh and temporarily forget how badly I am burning at the moment!

Zumbada 03/23/2013

I see "Yes or yes?" and I think Charlee Atkins. Then I think I really should get my butt back to class. So I guess it works lol

Smalls 03/23/2013

Love all of these!  A few things I also like:
- When an instructor admits something is hard (ex: "I know this isn't easy") it makes me feel better about the fact that I'm struggling AND better about the fact that I'm doing it/trying.

- In a spin class if there's an open bike, sometimes an instructor will hop on it for a little while.  It changes the energy of the room and always makes me feel like we're really all in it together now. I've seen this come up in RYB reviews before but this is especially awesome when it's a bike that has become free during class because someone left for unknown reasons.

- Tell me "I've go you" or something similarly reassuring.  For me, pushing/trying things that test my physical limits is scary and knowing that while you are kicking my behind and mean business you are also there for me makes me feel safe and establishes the trust and confidence I need to do whatever craziness you have requested.

Smalls 03/23/2013

* that should say "I've GOT you"

LittleBigBurn 03/24/2013

@smalls agreed with both of those! i think in any class when the instructor practices with the class for a few sets it's great whether it be a mat, a bike, a treadmill, etc.

also, re: "i've got you" - that kind of stuff, i think kate hickl at flywheel does an awesome job of being right there with the class. not sure if you've tried her but sounds like someone you might enjoy!!

Lactic Addict 03/24/2013

@burnjunkie and @smalls - absolutely! Great additions to the list. We already almost have enough additional tips for a second list!

Smalls 03/24/2013

@LBB Hickl was exactly who I had in mind Smile

Mona 03/31/2013

Two things I ABSOLUTELY agree with:
1. A gentle touch
-I had a fairy godmother like yoga instructor in Toronto who was SO SO SO wonderful and calming and encouraging. She was an older lady with the sweetest smile and would go around when we were holding tough poses and give us a "there, there, you are amazing" tap. So...motherly and much needed after a stressful week!

2. High 5s or thumbs up
This just makes me work harder, knowing they're watching me and wanting me to finish the class strong. Thanks, instructors!

Brynne 04/02/2013

Love these!  A lot of instructors would benefit to adhering to most of these wants.  But - some of them are personal preference.  For example, I'm really not fond of when strangers touch me.  Form corrections are fine, but please don't touch my hand or shoulder!

kharise 04/03/2013

Love it! #1-4 (esp. #4), and all the small class stuff for sure. It's hard to keep the energy up in a small class but still important.

#PIGACHU 04/13/2013

@Lactic this is great-- totes agree.  There are a bunch that remind me of Natalia Petrzela's IntenSati class-- especially #6.  Natalia has really encouraged everyone who takes that class to form a little community-- by asking us to do some of those "neighborly"  types exercises regularly.  It's not always comfortable in the moment-- but overall I really do enjoy the class much more feeling like a little 6:30 family.  Namaste!

Lactic Addict 04/22/2013

@Brynne - thanks for your comment, that's very true. Another one we could have added to this list would be to "clarify which of your students like to be touched". Some instructors have nice ways of asking discretely.

Spike 04/22/2013

This is such a great list; the most thorough of this type I've seen, thanks!

Ricardo 04/22/2013

Some good pointers, if only half of the instructors would follow half of these.
#1 should be : leave your ego home (not even at the door).

Mad Dog took care of killing #12

This should be posted at all Spinning, Spin Cycle, Indoor Cycling and any other denomination, studios.

Ricardo

Mark wheeler 04/26/2013

Good stuff.
Re # 24, I use short meditations by Deepok Chopra to end the class.
Also I get emails of the class and send out reminders and mention the music theme a day before the class.

RateYourBurn 04/27/2013

@Mark, love your idea of emailing students with music theme!

aerobigirl 04/30/2013

There are some great ideas here.

I would add:

Be adaptable; teach the class you have in front of you at the moment, at their level.  This may mean adjusting your class plans for the day.  For example, you walk into class with some brand new choreography and on that day your advanced students are absent and a dozen new people have decided to try out your class.  Adapt.

Eye contact!  Try to make friendly eye contact with EVERYONE, especially the new people, at least once in class.  Smile.  If your studio has a mirror and you're facing it, your participants would appreciate your looking at them through it, not how cute your hair is.

Scope of practice.  Teach only what you're trained to teach.  Before bringing in a cool move that you saw in someone else's class,  evaluate whether you know the purpose, the form, and possible modifications well enough to teach it yourself.

Welcome new people.  Your front row divas already love you but you're on probation with the newbie.  Personally, I have a short "infomercial" I give before class.  It's different every time and about a relevant fitness topic.  When I have new students, the infomercial is about what the class is, 1-2 key safety points, how to monitor their own intensity, and permission to modify moves that hurt or are uncomfortable.


Proceed with caution regarding the following:

I would be very careful about correcting the *** out of someone. If someone is going to get hurt, I absolutely correct them.  But there is a fine line between showing a member that you care about their safety and shining an unwanted spotlight.  Even if you take off the mic and give feedback in a kind manner, it can still be an affront.     Further, make sure that the correction is within your scope of practice.

I would also be careful with cursing.  Not everyone appreciates it.

Paige 05/03/2013

#26: they support their clients and loyal followers when they are recovering from an injury and unable to take class.

BV 06/10/2013

I agree with a lot of these--be on time, encourage how hard it can be, pump us up, play good music. I love when they move around the room because when they are in front of you and you're lagging it really helps get the energy back! I also am disturbed when instructors don't correct students doing potentially dangerous stuff so I would encourage that. I personally would hate if an instructor touched my hand (or any other part, unless it was for correction) and I don't want a high five either.

Laura 09/05/2013

Awesome post!! Every instructor should read this!!

Lindsay 11/16/2013

This was so hilarious, and so good!  Thank you!!  

Kevyn Brown  12/02/2013

i love this sounds like me ....www.thestudio14.com

Terra Simpson 03/29/2014

My Wed night group x teacher curses on occasion and I HATE it when she does that. I feel like confronting her when she does that but it's not my place to do that. However, she does call me out every once in awhile witch is fine. I'm not the only one that she does that to. I just wish she would just bring in a certified person to walk around the room just to make sure that nobody is hurting themselves. My arobics teacher Heather does a better job at that. Yes her class is huge but that doesn't keep her from running around the room. She'll even winde up being next to you and you won't even know it till you hear her over a michraphone.

Toby Jones 04/14/2014

You seem very insecure.

classjunkie 07/23/2014

I see 'touch me' and immediately think Danny Kopel. Also love when I was once in the back row and Sydney Miller yelled at me to keep going during a hard sprint out of the saddle.

One thing to add - definitely if something is hard and you KNOW it, offer some encouragement (maybe more than normal) - like in barre once, Lauren Engleman at P57 was like, Yes, that's horrible to do to you on Monday morning but you're KILLING it. And Danny goes, 'I know it's hard because I'm doing it too!' Totally changed my attitude.

GREAT list.