Group fitness training is an exercise mode that is widely employed at gyms across America, yet it has come under regular scrutiny for a variety of reasons. The most common criticism of the group model is that it is based on a “one size fits all” approach and leaves little room for individualization of programming. There isn't any doubt that this is a valid complaint and it would be difficult to argue that a one-on-one training approach isn't the best method for helping a client achieve her goals.

However, despite the limitations inherent to many group fitness programs, they remain a popular option for many people, which one can easily observe by examining the docket of classes offered by many successful gyms and fitness centers. At some of the larger national health club franchises, it isn't uncommon to find twenty to thirty different class options offered in a single week, which is indicative of very significant demand. While there may be inherent limitations with the group model, there are also benefits. In a study performed at the University of Pittsburgh, participants recruited to exercise with three friends or family members had greater weight losses than participants who were recruited to train on their own.

Typically, group-based programs and classes are more heavily attended by women, with female to male attendance ratios often estimated in the 3:1 to 4:1 range. There isn't any indication that this market sector is going away anytime soon. To many people, camaraderie and budgetary considerations are essential factors that lead an individual to one fitness program or another. It makes little sense to deemphasize those factors in an effort to force a trainee into one-on-one training that she may not find enjoyable or affordable. This leaves the accommodating trainer or coach with the question of how best to incorporate group training into his skill set.


When designing any program, a list of important details should first be compiled. Consideration should be given to the goals and limitations of the prospective trainee(s), as well as to the constraints that you, as a trainer, must work within.

At the forefront of any list of key elements is the program’s ability to achieve results. My own client base consists largely of busy, working women (yes, being a full-time mom counts as work) who quite simply want to look and feel amazing. As such, this is the group on which the article will maintain focus. Each individual trainee may place greater or lesser emphasis on specific goals such as increased strength, fat loss, muscular development, or endurance, but when designing a program for a group, it is necessary to apply some degree of generalization to those items in order to come up with a common program goal. Needless to say, “looking and feeling amazing” is a result that few people object to.

In working toward the common goal, availability of the participating trainees is of great importance. As working women, my clients rarely have a surplus of time that can be reserved for organized fitness activities. While efficiency and training economy are vital to the success of any program, it is especially crucial when a trainee may only have an hour, two to three days a week, to dedicate to your program. It probably goes without saying, but full body sessions should be used, not training splits. Everything must be organized and streamlined, and the bulk of a session must be spent getting the most out of the allotted time slot. You must know how long a warm-up or break should be and do your best to stick to the scripted schedule.

Whatever the training program, it should be enjoyable and appealing in the short term. Although fast results are certainly achievable, instant results are not, and so there must be something more to a program than your own assurance that a trainee will be a bikini model in six to eight weeks. The social aspect of working in groups goes a long way toward creating a fun training atmosphere that lets a trainee treat a session as a break from her day-to-day routine, rather than work that simply has to get done. Interaction among trainees will lead to formation of groups whose members look forward to seeing each other every few days. However, it is often up to the trainer to get the ball rolling. Be loose, be positive with your instruction, and make it clear that you enjoy what you're doing. Others will follow suit.

Surely, if one’s enjoyment of an activity was the only item to consider, any number of get-togethers, fitness or otherwise, would do just fine. My wife belongs to a drinking group (with a knitting problem), and based on the incessant laughter that keeps me awake every few Wednesdays, I know that the entertainment value of my training sessions will never compete. Luckily, it isn't all about having a good time. My trainees do come to work and they want to leave my sessions feeling like they did just that. At the risk of generalizing, I've found that women more so than men are most receptive to workouts that come with plenty of sweat and heavy breathing. Luckily, these are easy effects to produce with the proper programming. Moreover, when the broad collective goal of a group is as stated above, women aren't wrong to seek a certain state of fatigue.

Finally, and perhaps the most challenging aspect of group training, is being able to accommodate different strength levels, different endurance levels, and even different statures. Again, this goes back to planning and organization. While you may love to use barbell back squats in one-on-one sessions, it might not be the best choice for a group of five women of different heights and strength levels. Choosing a certain movement may result in you, the trainer, scrambling to change weights and adjust rack settings at the expense of proper observation and instruction. Likewise, combinations of concurrent movements should be carefully planned because you're responsible for overseeing more than one trainee at a time.

Putting it all together

In order to effectively meet the goals of my clients, I use a group training strategy that works well within my constraints. The group size I’m willing to take on isn't any larger than five women. By keeping my groups small, I feel confident in my ability to attend to each trainee and log each individual’s session, which is essential for keeping everyone progressing. Furthermore, to produce the perpetual motion I’m aiming for in my 450-square-foot garage gym, I’d be hard pressed to accommodate many more than five trainees.

Each session consists of a brief warm up and instruction period followed by two circuits, A and B, with a break and second instruction period between each. Each circuit consists of a lower body movement, an upper body pushing movement, an upper body pulling movement, a core movement, and a high intensity “finisher.” Multi-joint movements are emphasized, and circuit A and circuit B exercises for any given category are chosen to complement each other. For instance, if a horizontal pushing movement is used in circuit A, a vertical pushing movement is normally used in circuit B.

Time rather than repetitions is used to determine set length. Resistance, where applicable, is chosen so that pace slows by the end of a set while technique remains sound. Each movement is performed for 35 seconds and is followed by a 15-second rest. When the first trainee in line begins movement two, the second trainee begins movement one. At the end of one 5-movement cycle, the trainee rests an additional turn (1:05 minutes total) before repeating the movement cycle three more times.

If a new or detrained trainee has difficulty keeping up with the pace, the trainee may simply stand at her current station until she is ready to begin or skip the movement altogether and move on to the next station after the current movement’s stop signal. It is my job to adjust resistance down in an effort to keep movements challenging yet not overwhelming.

Likewise, if a new trainee flies through a particular movement her first time through, resistance is adjusted up. As trainees become regulars and I become more familiar with their strength and endurance levels, rarely is there a problem with over- or underestimating their abilities. With proper logging and familiarization with your clients, it is absolutely possible to defy the one-size-fits-all stigma associated with group training.

The following is an example of a single group training session that I might use:

This example emphasizes several key points related to movement planning. First, each exercise can be quickly and easily adjusted for each individual. For instance, while a barbell back squat comes with challenges mentioned previously, the set up for a landmine goblet squat doesn't change according to height. Furthermore, to change resistance, there is a single point of loading. By keeping a stack of five- and ten-pound plates next to the bar, transition between trainees is effortless. Other movements utilize dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls, bands, and kegs, all of which can be kept on hand in multiple weights that cover the variations in trainee strength level.

Second, complimentary exercises are represented between circuit A and circuit B. Circuit A includes vertical push/vertical pull/rotational core exercises while circuit B includes horizontal push/horizontal pull/planar core exercises. In addition, a big multi-joint lower body movement, such as a squat, deadlift, or lunge variation, is normally used for circuit A followed by a lower body movement in circuit B that focuses on hip extension, such as a Romanian deadlifts, band pull-throughs, swings, or hip thrusts. With women who want to “look amazing,” I’ve found that an emphasis on exercises that target the glutes is never a bad thing.

Undoubtedly, there are many ways to skin a cat, and I will continue to borrow others’ ideas and experiment with my own as I develop as a trainer. However, for now, the aforementioned strategy works very well for my clients and in a manner that is manageable from the viewpoint of the person in charge. I encourage anyone looking for a practical way to conduct group sessions to give this a shot and, if you do, by all means share your experiences!