The Hybrid Instructor: A Vital Link in Today’s Fitness Continuum

Don’t typecast yourself as simply a personal trainer or a group exercise instructor. Today’s clients demand a mix of fitness products from pros with diverse skillsets. Blurring the lines can help your business thrive in these changing times.

by Shannon Fable


The lines between personal training and group fitness instruction have all but vanished as trainers teach more classes and instructors deliver more personalized services. If you’re still labeling yourself as one or the other, you’re probably limiting your professional and financial potential.

As far as our customers are concerned, fitness is fitness—whether we’re helping them one-on-one, one-to-few or one-to-many. Meanwhile, technology and broad social trends are accelerating vast changes in the way consumers want to experience our expertise. We need to be sure we are evolving with them. That means shifting to a hybrid style of defining, designing and delivering our fitness services. While we don’t need to be jacks-of-all-trades, we do need to develop new strategies to increase our earning potential over the next 3–5 years and adapt to the changing marketplace. Amazing opportunities await those who are prepared to take advantage of them. That starts with getting rid of labels and widening your perspective.

Rethinking the Roles of Fitness Pros
Getting people fit for the sake of a dress size or better 10K time will never go away. But our concept of fitness must broaden to counter the effects of sedentary lifestyles, chronic disease and ever-expanding waistlines. More than ever, fitness has to work with life and become a sustainable daily practice. Thus, the roles and the products of trainers and instructors must shift as well.

The critical first step is to explain what we do versus who we are. You are more than your job title: a personal trainer or a group fitness instructor. You are a fitness professional specializing in delivering a service to a target market to achieve a goal.

Personal trainers and group instructors used to work on opposite ends of the fitness spectrum—which defined training as the elite product and group exercise as the product for the masses. But these days, large groups aren’t always free, and training doesn’t always mean high-priced, one-on-one services.

Consumer tastes are changing. Not everyone wants one-on-one attention, but some do want personalized programs. And not all those opting for complimentary group fitness are interested in the giant, mega, dance-based, beat-driven classes—but they may still want the community. That’s why it’s so crucial to rethink what we provide and to whom we provide it. In the end, we deliver products. How should they be positioned, and how can we ensure we are prepared to provide the best fitness experiences?

Redefining (and Adding More) Fitness Products
It’s time to stop defining offerings by the professional—personal training versus group ex—and start basing our goals on what clients want in a fitness experience. It’s better to think of fitness products on a continuum with low-touch, lower-priced options on one end and high-touch, higher-priced options at the other. For example, we can envision our products served on a spectrum from virtual…to large group…to small group…to private/semiprivate (see table Continuum of Fitness Products).

We also can think in terms of which services have the lowest risks and smallest barriers to entry for consumers and which have the highest. And we have to think about how to add these products to our portfolios. Here’s a look at how these common product categories fit in the changing fitness landscape—and the skills required of the fitness pros who provide them.

Computers, mobile devices and wearable technologies enable virtual training, which has the widest potential appeal because it poses the lowest risk and smallest barriers to entry for consumers. So, it’s no surprise that virtual is the fastest-growing segment of our industry. Some professionals fear virtual could replace live options, but learning to embrace and work with virtual also creates an opportunity to increase our reach beyond our four walls. Virtual training can include:

Accountability. Virtual accountability is a great starting place for new exercisers and an excellent add-on for current clients, regardless of whether the accountability partner is a pro providing nudges and insight—or an app built on artificial intelligence or algorithms. End users get powerful benefits from being able to log and analyze data or generate reminders to drive improvements.

Programming. Virtual programming is a natural first step for new exercisers because it provides guidance without perceived judgment. Design and delivery of programming options are diverse; with an app, the diagnostics may be algorithms or features the consumer chooses. Fitness pros can add assessment elements and create customized workouts. Or they can repurpose workouts and programs they’ve created by aggregating the data on a streaming service and offering digital downloads or subscriptions.

Skills you’ll need: Virtual training requires technical knowledge and written communication skills. If you’re looking to provide accountability, you’ll need to learn more about behavior change. While you may provide advice on exercise, you may also provide information on nutrition, lifestyle and healthy choices. The programming side requires more exercise-science knowledge and, depending on your delivery, on-camera talent. It’s important to remember that our customers live increasingly unstructured lives. They’re traveling for work, using flexible work schedules and participating in a raft of children’s activities. That makes it tough to be in any one place frequently. Finding ways to “meet them where they are” will add to your bottom line.

As far as our customers are concerned, fitness is fitness—whether we’re helping them one-on-one, one-to-few or one-to-many.

Typically, large-group training is a moderate-risk, lower-barrier-to-entry option, meaning participants have a more diverse risk profile than those who go virtual. Even so, the rise of studios, boutique fitness, outdoor boot camps and the like have reinvented large-group training. You can no longer assume that one-to-many fitness is free (such as a perk of membership), as many large-group classes have fees these days. Price alone does not determine risk in the minds of consumers, who use the power of choice to get more autonomy. They choose when they come and what they do with the programming you provide.

Those who enjoy large-group training are looking for community, accountability and either the ability to blend in or to enjoy the push they get standing next to others doing the same workout. All these ingredients make large-group training a great choice for a wide array of people.

Skills you’ll need: Large-group training requires the ability to create memorable and personal experiences without individualized touch points. Of course, hands-on corrections are included from time to time, but your global cuing needs to create the magic. Managing large groups while allowing participants to feel “seen” is a different talent. You also must learn to program so people cannot fail, which requires sequencing exercises that can be easily progressed, regressed or modified on the spot.

Though small-group activities have larger risks and more barriers to entry for consumers, they also provide more opportunities for fitness professionals to satisfy clients’ specialized interests and provide personalized guidance.

Small-group training is changing rapidly; it can look very different depending on the provider. The nature of small-group training makes it easier to help clients progress based on their specific goals and abilities. Small-group training should feel more like traditional, one-on-one training but with extra layers of community, accountability and fun.

Small-group scheduling can be tricky. Facilities should offer small-group options throughout the day allowing members to sign up and come when it’s convenient (like large group). The price point is typically higher compared to the first two options, due to more individualized attention.

Skills you’ll need: Small-group training requires time-management skills and the ability to provide individual attention while not excluding others. Members seeking a more intimate environment may have additional concerns that you’ll need to program around, requiring deeper knowledge in exercise science and program design. You’ll also need to have skills in harnessing the energy of the group and creating meaningful connections.

Finally, private/semiprivate personal training has the highest perceived risk and barriers to entry for consumers. But clients may also get the greatest benefit, which is reflected in the higher prices.

If you hope to transition into private/semiprivate fitness, bear in mind that the experience is much more personalized. Many trainers start by conducting a fitness assessment and having clients fill out intake forms to develop goals and provide options to meet them. Scheduling is much more complex because both the trainer and the client need to align their calendars. You may have to rework your schedule and change where you train.

Skills you’ll need: Private and semiprivate participants are looking for white-glove service. You’ll need to be able to create the feeling of personalization and exclusivity, while maintaining a professional distance. Keeping the session moving and fun is a special skill.

Small-group training should feel more like traditional, one-on-one training but with extra layers of community, accountability and fun.

Transcending the Fitness Hierarchy
It’s tempting to rank product categories by the prices we charge, valuing personal training and devaluing virtual, for instance. But if we start looking at each of these products as equal options and get away from the price-implies-quality hierarchy, we’ll be better able to match more people with professionally guided experiences to help achieve their goals.

Today’s clients need a mix of virtual, group and personalized training. Expanding our professional portfolios by putting more than one product on our shelves can enable us to meet a broader range of consumer needs while boosting our professional and business prospects.

Before you decide to add products to your portfolio, make sure you understand the skills you’ll need. Just because a product looks lucrative doesn’t necessarily mean that every personal trainer should jump in or that group exercise instructors should stay out. Indeed, just because it’s a free product in the main studio doesn’t mean it’s naturally suited for a group ex instructor and not for a trainer. We’re all fitness professionals who can offer one or more of these products.

Ultimately, we have to meet people where they are from a risk and financial perspective—serving the right option at the right time with the right professional. Making that happen won’t be easy, but perhaps a good place to start is to begin focusing less on hierarchy, seniority or popularity, and more on matching specific skillsets and talents with the customers who need them.

Valuing Each Other’s Work

Just as we need to transcend the hierarchy in products, fitness pros need to value the people and the work we do in every facet of the business. Take, for instance, the roles of programmers, program leaders and program supervisors. Each one requires a specific skill to give the customer a specific benefit. Walking through all these roles makes it clear that none of them is inherently better or worse than the other. These, too, are additional areas that fitness instructors and personal trainers alike may want to explore and potentially add to their resumé.

Programmers use in-depth knowledge of the body, movement and assessment to create top-notch workouts and programs. They enjoy the intricacies of uncovering the perfect formula for success in a wide variety of settings. Programmers create the recipes, taste the food to ensure the right temperature and flavor, then put it on a plate to be served. But a programmer might not be best suited to delivering the product.

Program leaders implement the creations of programmers. They’re naturally skilled at communication, cuing and pivoting in real time to make participants feel successful. They may not be the best person for putting together workouts or developing programs, but they may know how to deliver amazing programs and communicate the what, why and how of the offering. Not all chefs can wait tables, but a good waiter can describe the chef’s special.

Program supervisors want to motivate and inspire. Movement is part of their DNA, and their communication and social skills make it easy to lead a group. They appreciate fitness and the way the body works, even if they have less knowledge of biomechanics, programming or cuing. Program supervisors are like the aspiring swim coach who starts out as a pool deck supervisor. Sure, the qualifications are lower, but so are the expectations. A programmer or a program leader can be the mentor who guides them to new roles with more responsibilities and challenges.

All three of these jobs are crucial to the fitness industry ecosystem—but not every fitness professional must be all three. Yet many fitness professionals feel pressured to “move up” the so-called career ladder even when their skills are valued where they are now. Again, viewing fitness roles on a horizontal continuum instead of vertical tiers can help fitness pros better match their skills to their own personal strengths and, more importantly, to clients’ changing needs, which is what the entire industry wants.

Continuum of Fitness Products

Meeting the increasingly varied needs of today’s consumer requires fitness professionals to think in terms of a continuum of potentially equal products versus a hierarchy based on price or personalization.

Meet our experts

shannonfable Shannon Fable, Shannon Fable is a business/programming consultant who has helped brands such as Anytime Fitness®, Schwinn®, Power Systems® and BOSU®. She is also a certified Book Yourself Solid® business coach and owner of Balletone® and GroupEx PRO®.

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