Club Success Magazine - January 2002
"The group exercise program is a valuable retention tool, that keeps people coming to the clubs."

Taking Your Group Exercise Programs To The Next Level

While many experts feel that most clubs are fairly successful with their group exercise programs, there is almost always room for improvement. "I think clubs are doing a really good job, and recognizing the value of group exercise to their overall population," says Kathie Davis of IDEA. "Yet they can always improve."

"You can always do more," concurs Sherry Catlin of Body Bar Systems.

Whether it's expanding the class schedule to better fit customer needs, or furthering your instructors' training, there are many ways that clubs can take their group exercise programs to the next level.

By doing so, you will help to fire up new member sales, as well as strengthen retention. "The group exercise program is a valuable retention tool, that keeps people coming to the clubs," Davis says.

"It contributes to the bottom line - it increases adherence and attracts new members," says Ken Alan of Ken Alan Associates. Alan is a spokesperson for ACE, the American Council on Exercise.

Here are some strategies that you might want to consider, to beef up your club's group exercise program, and take it to the next level.

Assess Your Current Program

"What needs to happen before clubs take their program to the next level, is to assess their current program, and see where it's at in terms of how successful it is," Alan says. "With group exercise, you start by quantifying the numbers of people who attend classes.

"Each class, the instructor should tally how many people attend," Alan suggests. "Even better would be to have sign-in sheets and have the members sign in. It may seem like a hassle at first, but eventually they will get into the habit of signing in.

"With the sign in sheets, you can track who is coming to the classes," Alan says. "From that data, you can create lists of members. You can track who comes periodically, say a couple times a month; who comes regularly, say Monday, Wednesday and Friday; and who comes seven days a week. Those are your key members.

"Next, you want to have a focus group with those key members," Alan says. "Rather than the group exercise director or the staff thinking 'Should we start a stability ball class?' you can get together with these members and see what they want."

Alan suggests that clubs pay attention to what the different types of members say. "The responses will be different from the people who come periodically vs. the ones who come seven days a week," he says.

"Many times, we see that a piece of equipment is hot right now, and we want to buy it," Alan says. "But is it going to draw more people in? You don't know until you get input from the members. You can ask them, 'What should we offer? What should we name the class?' Then, you will start to program with better vision."

Alan tells of one club that didn't do this type of homework, and got burned. This particular club wanted to offer a class to attract deconditioned people. "They called it the Couch Potato workout," he says. "It got a lot of publicity in their community. But nobody showed up. People don't want to be labeled as a couch potato."

A Balancing Act

"There has to be a balance between jumping on the latest fitness fad, and being quick enough to jump on something that is well-endured and will be around - like Step, Spinning or Boxercise," says Andy Dumas of Balazs. "One of the key things is listening to what the clients want.

"To a certain degree, it's always a gamble," Dumas points out. "To bring in a class that's something new, like Latin Dance, you haven't really lost anything because there's no equipment involved. But you have to be careful if it's something like Spinning, which is a huge investment. You have to be cutting edge, but you don't want to spend thousands of dollars on something that will collect dust. It's a balance between trusting your instincts, doing your research and seeing if it's something your members want."

Equipment

"It's amazing how much equipment is now used in a group exercise setting," says Davis of IDEA. "I would encourage clubs to be open to the new types of equipment that are out there. Clients are looking for excitement - they're always looking for the newest trend. A lot of times, that involves a piece of equipment. I'd be cautious that you don't go overboard, but also be open to the new equipment coming down the pike."

Much of the equipment used in group exercise now-a-days is for specialized classes, such as boxing or Pilates. Here's the lowdown on what specialized classes are being offered for members in clubs today, and how you can take those programs to the next level.

Specialized Classes

"In the 70s and 80s, the only things out there were high impact and low impact," says Davis. "Now, there's so many new class formats, new types of exercise and new research."

"Diversity - that is what I would suggest to clubs," says Bruno Pauletto of Power Systems Inc. "The more different programs you can offer, to suit your different clients, the better. And the more variety of qualified instructors you have, the more programs you can provide." Here are some strategies for injecting a little diversity into your group exercise schedule.

Boxing "Boxing has come away from the back alley gym, to mainstream America," says Mitch Carlin of TKO Sports Group.

However, although boxing is catching on, "The average club still has very little actual boxing equipment," says Dumas of Balazs. "But if they want to try it out, they can use what they have. They could set up a circuit using steps, skipping ropes, and using boxing and kick boxing combinations. In one area, students could be doing lunges and squats with the steps, in another area they could be jumping rope, and in another area they could be doing kicking combinations. Even though it's not a boxing workout per se, it gives people a sense of what it's like."

Taking your boxing classes to the next level might involve buying more equipment, or devoting entire areas to boxing classes. "Some clubs are buying heavy bags," Dumas says. "I'm finding more and more clubs are committing whole rooms or studios to boxing equipment."

"Some clubs are adding an actual boxing ring," says Marty Keary of Focus Master. "That adds a whole lot to it, when people get the feeling of being in a ring. People really get a charge out of it."

"A lot of clubs are putting in heavy bags, and free standing punching bags," Carlin says. "Since the September 11 (terrorist) attacks (on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon), we have been seeing more and more people take classes for self defense.

"Some clubs have a lot of different levels of boxing classes - beginning, intermediate and advanced," Carlin says. "It's not just one class anymore. And a place where a lot of clubs miss out is having boxing equipment available out on the gym floor - not just in a class. If people want to continue their boxing training after the class, you need to have the proper equipment available."

"With a boxing program, it's important to have well-trained instructors, especially if there is a class where there's contact being made," says Dumas. "You have to be careful that you're executing the moves correctly."

"What clubs should be doing is getting somebody in there who has a boxing background, but who has cross-trained in aerobics as well," says Keary.

Older Adult Classes "One thing that a lot of clubs are doing, but some are not doing, is reaching the older adult," says Davis of IDEA. "It can be handled a lot of different ways. One way I've seen is by not so much addressing the age, but by the activity. For example, you'll notice that older people are drawn to stretching-type classes, and some water fitness classes - things that are easier on the joints."

"Seniors have their own special needs," says Barbara Ammirati of Fitness Wholesale. "Special population classes such as a class for seniors can be extremely helpful. They tend to do well because seniors are a very dedicated group. They'll stay with the program.

"With the elderly, the biggest problem is balance and coordination," says John Butler of Airex. "You don't want to make things too aggressive for them. On the other hand, you should offer something that is fun for them, and also helps them."

Pilates "I'd say most clubs we deal with are just scratching the surface of offering Pilates," says Ken Endleman of Balanced Body. "A lot of clubs are offering it, but they haven't gotten close to fulfilling its potential. Most clubs don't understand that it can generate revenue for them, especially when you're offering classes that utilize equipment."

Endleman says that clubs are able to charge anywhere from $7-$20 for a group class that utilizes the Allegro, a reformer manufactured by Balanced Body. "It seems like many clubs are offering mat programs, but the places that are offering equipment-based group programming are in the minority. Yet that is what really attracts people."

Introducing the program to members the right way can make a big difference in how it's received, Endleman says. He tells the story of a club owner who offered private sessions, at $15 each, for people who wanted to take the group classes. "She recommended that her members take at least three private sessions, so they weren't tripping over themselves in the class," he says. "It made the introduction of the group classes go very smoothly. In fact it went so well, she's taken a group exercise area and dedicated that space to just Pilates."

Group Strength Classes "Classes such as Body Pump have been a very good thing," says Ammirati of Fitness Wholesale. "They took people away from the weight room - which can be intimidating -- and brought them into the classroom, where people are already comfortable."

"For a club that is offering a Body Pump-style program , or putting together their own strength class, we provide equipment they can use in the class," says Liz Bianchi, Marketing Director of the Iron Grip Barbell Company. "It's called our Group Strength line . Until we introduced this line, a lot of the equipment being used wasn't commercial grade.

"One of the features we offer is an institutional quality collar (to secure the plates onto the bar)," Bianchi says. "It's secure, reliable and extremely durable. But the major difference with our Group Strength line is the plates themselves, which feature our grip design. It's the same design we've always featured in our commercial line. Not only is it easier to do plate changes during class, but it also adds safety and functionality. People are able to use the plates independent of the bar. Trainers I have talked to say that makes a big difference - it's much easier to hold onto, and gives more versatility to the program."

Beginners' Classes "A lot of times, classes are intimidating for beginners," says Davis. "Clubs should have a special class, such as every Saturday morning from 9-10 or something, where you have an orientation for new people, a one-time class. Include some of the basics of all the different classes that are on the schedule. So, when these people attend their first class, they're not looking around thinking 'What have I got myself into?'"

Sports Conditioning/Boot Camp Ken Alan, the spokesperson for ACE, advocates that clubs try to target people who in the past have been afraid to try a "dancy" aerobics class. "Our future lies in developing more programs to attract people who still aren't coming to group exercise," he says. "Stuff like Boot Camp and Back to Basics - like the PE classes you had in school.

"People who don't have well developed movement to music skills, like this type of class a lot," Alan says. "When people aren't going into the group exercise rooms, it's because they don't have coordination. Club staff should watch when a new person tries a class. It can be very difficult for them, and they often just give up.

"Sports Conditioning might be a format to try, especially if you're trying to target men," says Alan. "A class called 'Advanced Athletic' could help you target the jocks who come seven days a week."

"Ethnic" Classes "One interesting trend I've seen is ethnic classes, such as an Afro-Caribbean step class, Latin Dance, or a Reggae Workout," Davis says. "The music is so different from what you might see in a typical class. That would be something that adds a lot of variety. And some clubs bring in live music occasionally, which really adds excitement to the club atmosphere. Even if they do it once a week or once a month, it's fun to have live music."

Combination/Hybrid Classes "This is what we're seeing is a definite trend," Davis says. "For example, a class could start with 30 minutes of indoor cycling, then the participants get off the bikes and do weight training. A lot of people are afraid to try a cycling class or a yoga class, but if the class is split in half, and you're only doing something for half an hour, they're more willing to try it. People are really enjoying it."

Group Personal Training While group personal training is not typically thought of as "group exercise" at many clubs, it provides the camaraderie of a group exercise class, while having more individualized instruction and motivation. And for many members, that extra motivation is exactly what they need. "People need to be cajoled through their first few weeks of exercise," says Steve Block of SPRI Products. "That's why the personal training market has flourished. It gets people through those first few weeks. Once they get to a certain point (where they're working out regularly_, they won't go back (to being sedentary). People are starting to look more at group personal training."

Instructor Education

At many clubs, the "weakest link" in the group exercise area, according to some experts, is really keeping their instructors up to date on education.

"Instructor knowledge and training are of the utmost importance," says Brendan Cosso of Cemco Fitness Products Inc. "The number one thing is to make sure your trainers are certified, and can meet the needs of the people who are going to be in the class.

"It is the trainer who must recognize who is in the class, and who needs to keep the class safe for everyone," Cosso says. "You need instructors who will keep everybody interested, provide a good workout, and a solid routine."

"Primarily, instructors need specific, hands-on practical skill development in particular areas," says Jay DelVecchio of World Instructor Training School. "Make it convenient for them, and reward them for getting trained. For example, if they accomplish certain things, raise their pay accordingly. In many clubs, the instructors don't see a pay increase for doing their training. But they want some recognition for doing the things that make the club's group exercise program better."

"Most clubs have the tools - they realize they need steps, they need tubes, they need body bars, yoga mats and balls," says Catlin of Body Bar Systems. "The key is not just buying the equipment. The thing that separates the elite clubs is following through with instructor education. That makes such a difference now.

"There are some fairly demanding disciplines out there," Catlin continues. "One thing clubs are not doing well enough is making sure their instructors are qualified to teach those disciplines. The programming we're giving out now is demanding, and it's exacting. Certified Pilates instructors have to do 800 hours of internship before they can teach. And you can't learn to teach kickboxing in a weekend - you could injure people or yourself. The pressure is on the club to find qualified instructors, or educate the staff they have.

"Education usually is offered in a number of different ways," Catlin says. "The equipment you buy will typically come with an educational video series. The next level is to have someone come to the club and do instructor training. That's important - people need their CEC's and often they can't afford to go to a convention. A club can even become a local training center for an area. Another level is the convention - there are tons of regional and national conventions, and the education offered at them is quite advanced. Another level is printed material - a lot of training is available in written manuals, and they're quite good. As we progress, the industry continues to get more sophisticated in educating staff.

"It's a small investment to educate them," Catlin points out. "For the price of a couple of treadmills, you'd have an amazing education program for your staff."

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