I am an SGF Level One instructor.
I am also a Barry’s Bootcamp Hardcore Abs and Butt and Legs instructor.
These two worlds, “strength and conditioning” and “group fitness” don’t typically collide.
Unfortunately, the fitness industry tends to be elitist.
Powerlifters may think they are the best only adhering to the big three lifts; kettlebell gyms tend to feel that their way is the only way; some people who run marathons think running is supreme.
I am not here to say group fitness is the best.
I support all types of movement (hence my mantra #daretomove), but the elitist attitude I often observe in the online fitness world is stressful.
The topic of “what’s wrong” with group fitness is often discussed in the science-based fitness industry online.
For example, as I anticipated the StrongFirst certification last fall, (something I had looked forward to for over a year), I was really nervous…
…but not because I didn’t have the strength for the physical tests.
I was nervous I would be judged because I am a group fitness instructor.
But I knew going into the certification weekend that SFG would only give me the tools I needed to be a better coach in the group fitness arena.
Even after the certification, still seeing people’s opinions about the state of group fitness, (re: the lack of assessments, the incorrect work/rest sets and the sexy marketing tactics that are so ridiculous they must be wrong), I felt like I was somehow “wrong.”
But here’s the deal…
Bad coaching, teaching or instructing can happen in any industry or facility.
Just because some group fitness instructors coach poorly doesn’t mean we all are bad, just like some strength coaches use outdated techniques doesn’t mean all strength coaches are bad.
Group fitness doesn’t mean un-scientifc or unintelligent.
Group fitness appeals to the masses.
Something group fitness studios do very well is marketing.
They appeal to people.
Clients of mine tell me that their favorite classes are the sole reason they get out of bed in the morning and into the gym before work.
And while I do think there are ways group fitness can improve, I’m writing this article to demonstrate how I strive to find a happy medium between group fitness classes and strength coaching.
I apply StrongFirst principles when I teach group fitness— principles of which have had an enormous impact on my life.
I learned about StrongFirst at a kettlebell gym in Chicago.
After training StrongFirst style for three months in Chicago I began incorporating what I had mastered into my classes at Shred415.
Crawling was the first StrongFirst type of exercise I introduced to my clients at Shred415 as a core exercise in the floor warm-up.
Soon after, I introduced T-spine hip bridges, crawl to tall seat, crab reaches, and unweighted windmills.
It went well. Really well.
The clients at Shred415 were benefiting from these mobility/core exercises on the “floor” part of their workouts.
There are no kettlebells at Shred415, nor are there any kettlebells where I currently teach at Barry’s Bootcamp Boston.
But that doesn’t stop me from incorporating StrongFirst exercises into my floor workouts.
Without a shadow of a doubt, the training methodologies I’ve learned from StronFirst have worked incredibly well with my clients in group fitness classes.
Want to see?
Here’s How I apply what I learned at StrongFirst to group fitness:
Crawling is a great warm-up exercise. Some people who have attended animal flow workshops may have learned crawling there or through Original Strength workshops.
I learned to crawl and coach crawling at my old kettlebell gym, Rebell Strength and Conditioning.
Crawling is an excellent drill for the warm-up on the floor at Barry’s. Clients engage the abdominals, focus on breathing and thoracic stability while working their brain too!
The brain is challenged most for some people because it takes ample coordination: opposite arm and opposite legs move together.
I tell clients to pretend they have a cup of water on their back which they do not want to spill.
This way they keep from rocking their hips because they are engaging all the core muscles.
When the class is very full I will have clients do a similar movement that mimics the crawl but is done in place. This is the x-lift from a crawl position, another move I learned at my old kettle bell gym!
2. Breaking down the TGU
The Turkish Get-Up is made up of several pieces. In my opinion there are too many pieces to teach this all at once in a group setting because class is timed and usually very large.
It is easier to see little errors in form with one piece of the TGU at a time.
Roll-to-elbow, windmill, sweep throughs… all of these are feasible.
I tell clients to grab a light set of weights when I am planning to break down the TGU just to be aware of shoulder injuries and mobility.
Doing windmills and rolling to the elbow with weight overhead can sometimes put too much stress on the shoulder especially for beginners. The option to do this unweighted is always noted.
I have clients do sets of 4-8 roll-to-elbows on the right side and then switch to the left.
Other times I will have them do a ten second hollow hold in between each set of roll-to-elbows.
If I have a lot of regulars in class that can do windmills and roll-to-elbows well; we will practice doing windmills to a tall seated position by sweeping the leg through.
The way I teach the sweep through is by way of doing the windmill first.
I have clients come to a kneeling position, perform four single-arm presses (or whatever rep scheme makes sense that day with the rest of the program) and then place the hand down (seen above), then sweep to the bridge followed by the seated position.
Overall, the windmill is a great exercise to include on “abs” day because of how it uses the obliques and the entire core for that matter.
One other way I incorporate the windmill is through the step back lunge. I will have clients use a lighter weight to do 3-8 overhead step back lunges, on the last lunge in the set they will bring their knee to the ground, shift the back leg 90 degrees and do 1-3 windmills.
The best part about incorporating various pieces of the TGU is the getting up and getting down aspect of it all. It keeps it interesting and people learn to pick their own body up and down off the ground.
3. Unilateral work
Unilateral work is exciting for clients because it reveals their strengths and weaknesses.
Incorporating these movements is not hard to do it just depends on ability and size the class.
If I begin the class with basic bilateral work and see a lot of people struggling I will specifically not teach unilateral movements that day.
However when I teach an exercise that could be done unilaterally I will tell the more advanced regulars to do it unilaterally and I’ll demonstrate.
Kneeling single-arm presses, standing single-arm presses, single-arm floor presses…all of these encourage core stability and strength.
Single-arm rows from a split squat stance to racked reverse lunges are awesome. If it’s “butt and legs” day we will do less rowing and more lunges, using the rows to break up the sets.
Conversely, if it is back and chest day at Barry’s we will do more rows, breaking up sets with a few lunges.
One of my other favorite exercises is the single-leg deadlift. I like teaching it with one dumbbell somedays and two dumbbells on other days or when we want to go heavier.
One issue with this exercise is that many clients have a hard time placing a dumbbell all the way down to the floor between reps. Therefore when we do single-leg deadlifts they are most often done Romanian deadlift style.
My third favorite unilateral exercise to teach at Barry’s is the “mock bottoms-up” kettlebell iso-hold.
I like these because the medicine balls are on the lighter side so there are light enough balls for everyone to try the exercise. These encourage grip strength and core stability but also strength the forearm.
Clients love to try these.
If I have a lot of regulars in class we will do bottoms up presses or squats.
4. Halos from kneeling, standing or goblet
Halos are great for shoulder mobility. I like to do these in the warm-up or as a more active rest between heavy dumbbell complexes at Barry’s Bootcamp.
At Barry’s there are mats which clients can use for their knees so kneeling is not painful.
If I have clients who can squat well I will have them do goblet squat halos.
Clients like these because it feels different to them and typically really great on their shoulders. If not, then we know to modify other exercises for the rest of class.
5. Racked, paused squat to box
Getting the general population to hit depth in a squat is tough. At Barry’s you are teaching to 40 people at a time so it’s challenging to make sure everyone is in fact squatting correctly.
The good news is that there are risers that serve as benches on the floor.
The best cue I give is telling clients to look at the bench next to them and try to squat as low as the bench.
Many times clients ignore that cue. Therefore, in order to get them to squat low enough (mobility permitting) and teach them that a squat should go to parallel at least (besides my demonstration) is to have them actually squat to the bench, pause and then stand.
I demonstrate typically with two racked dumbbells or holding a dumbbell in a goblet position.
Kettlebell swings are possible at Barry’s…even without kettlebells.
The medicine balls with handles are a great substitute. The only downfall of these is they aren’t as heavy as most kettlebells.
I pattern the hinge in my demonstration and I urge clients to avoid squatting.
I literally have seconds to cue people into the next move at Barry’s Bootcamp; so for a hand-to-hand swing for example, it is a few cues at a time.
Teaching these things in a larger, timed setting is a true testament to cueing.
Strongfirst armed me with this skill of cueing at the certification.
I begin by having people hold the handle of the med ball in their right hand and “reach their glutes” to the treadmills behind them.
From there I demo the hand-to-hand swing and ask them to try along with me.
“Slight bend in the knees, reach those hips back to the wall, squeeze your glutes at the top!”
The most common mistake is to see people swing the ball overhead or past shoulder height.
Therefore, after I demo I walk around the room stopping in front of people and make sure their arms are not coming above shoulder height.
6. Eagle workout
Dan John posted a video in April 2015 about the SFG Eagle workout, adding a twist to it.
The Eagle workout includes loaded kettlebell front squats and farmer walks.
In his video he added pushups on the kettlebells, a swing through into a L-hold, and then the heavy farmer walk.
I have my clients practice L-holds often at Barry’s.
As soon as I saw Dan John’s video I knew a lot of them would be up for this challenge.
At Barry’s there is limited space so I had to modify it.
In the end I had them complete it this way:
– 3 push-ups with the dumbbells
-crawl the legs through to the 5 second L-hold. (I gave the option to practice L-hold on the deck).
-then 10 marches in a farmer carry position, 10 marches in a rack hold position and option to do 10 marches in an overhead position.
It went well and many clients enjoyed the challenge.
7. 200 yard run/snatch workout
Last fall StrongFirst posted this workout on the blog:
-run 200 yd
-perform 1 TGU and then 5 snatches per arm
repeat 4-6 times
I am a former track runner and I love short distance running and sprinting.
200 yards is a great challenge and that distance specifically for the SFG workout is very akin to the 45-60 second sprint we do at Barry’s.
However, in order to let people go at their own pace and make this workout fit into Barry’s, I had clients do it in dynamic mode.
On this specific night at Barry’s there were only 20 people in class so I could coach to one group, all on the treadmills at the same time.
Here’s how I modified it:
-run .12 distance (shown on the woodway treadmill) in dynamic mode.
-slowly come done to the floor and perform 6 snatches per arm
repeat at your paces for 12 minutes.
Dynamic mode is when the belt is loose and the clients control the speed by push the belt just like you would push a sled.
I set a timer and let them work at their own pace.
I think they enjoyed it very much.
One more thing….
What strength coaches can learn from group fitness
Group fitness classes appeal to the masses because they are good at getting people to believe in them.
Dark lights, black lights, red lights…. loud music, hott trainers…. all of these things make going to work-out very attractive…
In my experience I have been lucky to coach group fitness with co-workers whom are all strong, lean and maintain their physiques year-round.
They walk the walk and it’s inspiring.
Clearly, as far as motivation goes, group fitness is doing something right when it comes to sexy marketing tactics as well.
However, just because they push sex appeal doesn’t mean that they are coaching incorrectly.
I think any gym owner can see that selling out a class with 40 spots, eight times a day is a testament to great marketing and business practices. The clients’ results are also a testament to great coaching.
Of course, there is always room for improvement.
But hating on group fitness as a whole is a waste of time and, to be blunt, just ignorant because there are some great coaches in the group fitness space working incredibly hard to help their clients succeed.
Everyone can work on being a better coach.
The cool part of group fitness is that you can pull ideas from lots of different methodologies if it fits the overarching goal of the class and will help your clients.
Personally, I use SFG principles because I know they work and I strive to practice what I preach.
I also use principles from Powerlifting, TRX, gymnastics, and a variety of other training methodologies.
The reality is coaches should empower other coaches regardless of what sector they are in… certifications, workshops, sharing of ideas… it is how we make people better and improve ourselves.
One final thought on the biggest challenge for group fitness coaches
Class Pass is a company that allows customers to buy a pass which gives them access to most group fitness classes around their respective cities. After paying one fee to Class Pass they can sign up for whichever classes they desire.
As a coach, one of biggest challenges with applying StrongFirst to group fitness classes is Class Pass because it reduces the amount of regular clients they have.
In a group fitness setting the “regulars” know what to expect. The regulars come so often that the instructors can build onto programing throughout the month, progress movements and challenge the clients each time they come come to class.
With Class Pass it is tough on instructors at any gym or studio (who have classes inundated with new people on a regular basis) to progress exercises not knowing who is about to walk through the door and how they move.
There are no assessments in group fitness.
Barry’s instructors always ask if there are injuries but unfortunately that is about the extent of the “pre-assesment.”
Regardless, group fitness instructors can still do an incredible job.
Beginning with mobility drills and teaching simple kettlebell exercises (without the kettlebells) seems to bode well for all levels.
Good movements and good information is in fact able to trickle down to the masses and large groups of people involved in Class Pass… and that is what makes me happy.
Whether you are a group fitness instructor teaching the masses or a strength coach opening your doors to Class Pass for the first time, you can impact the majority of people seeking to conquer their fitness goals!
Practicing what you preach is obviously important, but the arena in which you teach shouldn’t change what you teach; your information and coaching should always be smart, safe, inspiring and what YOU believe in.