Go to the Head of the Class

To ensure you have the most up-to-date training in your chosen group fitness specialty, take a look at all that’s new in the recent update to the AFAA Group Fitness Instructor certification. Staying current pays—literally.

by Shirley Archer, JD, MA

In 1983, some of the “Hot 100” songs (according to Billboard.com) were “Let’s Dance” by David Bowie, “Flashdance: What a Feeling” by Irene Cara, and “Maniac” by Michael Sambello (also, incidentally from the movie Flashdance). If you’re sensing a theme here—or you Jazzercized through that year in your off-the-shoulder sweatshirt and legwarmers—dance was the word of the day, including within the fitness industry. That was also the year that the Aerobics (now Athletics) and Fitness Association of America (AFAA) was established to give “dance exercise” (aka aerobics) instructors the guidance they needed to ensure their clients that “every move you make, every breath you take” would be both safe and effective. (And, yes, that’s from another top song from 1983, by the Police.)

An industry leader, AFAA was the first fitness organization to issue movement guidelines for the emerging fitness profession (see “The AFAA 5 Questions™”) an important step in elevating the industry to become grounded in evidence-based research and exercise science. Steve Myers, AFAA product manager, in Chandler, Arizona, says, “Our AFAA guidelines are still applicable, not only to moves, but also to formats. The AFAA 5 Questions will continue to meet the needs of fitness professionals and the future of the industry.”

Now, in its latest industry-shifting move, AFAA has launched its new Group Fitness Instructor certification. Qualified group fitness instructors today are relevant not only as leaders of exercise but as active advocates for preventive health care. This new certification is in response to the evolution of the group ex leader’s role, the fitness industry itself and individual fitness professionals seeking to enhance their knowledge.

In the spirit of “when one succeeds, we all succeed,” AFAA recognizes that all of us stand to gain when the professionalism of any industry segment is enhanced. Fitness facility owners and managers, program directors, aspiring and experienced group fitness instructors, and personal trainers all benefit from keeping in touch with how the industry continues to evolve. With its new certification—designed for today’s teaching methods, formats, trends and participant-centered focus—AFAA continues to elevate its educational standards and, with it, people’s expectations of and faith in our industry. Whatever AFAA accomplishes belongs to and lifts up all of us.

Here’s a look at AFAA’s latest certification launch and how it has evolved to reflect current research and the changing face of group fitness.

Training Industry Leaders

AFAA’s mission is to empower fitness professionals with the most respected and up-to-date solutions to set them apart as leaders in the industry. “The new certification provides a comprehensive, yet accessible, foundation for instructor education,” says Denver-based Emily Booth, a master trainer, AFAA-certified group fitness instructor (AFAA-CGFI) and national signature format lead for EDG CycleSM at Life Time.

AFAA’s educational philosophy is based on bridging the gap from theory to practice and helping instructors understand how to apply scientific and technical knowledge to create safe, effective and successful classes for diverse clients. AFAA recognizes how the industry has evolved and strives to continue to serve an ever-expanding client base—from young to old—including those with multicultural interests, chronic conditions or other special needs.

The updated certification acknowledges the many existing formats in today’s group fitness environment—from indoor cycling, boot camp and interval training to mind-body movement, dance, and strength and resistance training—and embraces the expanding definition of fitness to mean “having both an active and healthy body, as well as a positive mind and spirit” (AFAA 2019).

“AFAA’s [GFI] exam reflects the current state of the industry and best practices. It’s based on a recent job task analysis performed by an independent third party with industry leaders serving as advisers,” says Myers. The 2016 job analysis study was conducted to define the current knowledge, skills and abilities that must be demonstrated by entry-level practitioners and is the “blueprint” for the exam’s content.

The exam includes four performance domains:

  • fundamentals of exercise science
  • class design and planning
  • class instruction and presentation
  • professionalism

Going Hands-On and High-Tech

“AFAA is dedicated to creating successful instructors. They do this through their education and support,” says Kristen Sokel, an AFAA-CGFI in Columbia, Maryland. A hallmark of AFAA’s certification and educational legacy is AFAA’s commitment to providing hands-on practical training to aspiring and new instructors. Myers says, “AFAA continues to explore ways to bridge the gap between certification and hands-on experience that are sustainable and make use of modern technology.” It’s important for new AFAA-CGFIs to talk the talk (know the material), but they need to walk the walk, too. It’s important for you to know, when you seek employment, that you’re ready to go to the head of the class. And it’s even more important that your prospective employer knows that about you, too. The AFAA-GFI offers assurance that it’s true.

Though taking the AFAA certification preparation course is not required prior to taking the exam, it can be extremely helpful. In fact, it’s one of the most comprehensive ways to gear up for the exam. Myers recommends taking knowledge from the course and applying it to real-life situations to truly understand the what, the why and the how.

AFAA offers three different GFI course packages to accommodate different budgets and study preferences. Each level includes online technique and lecture videos, along with phone, e-mail and chat support (see “What’s in the AFAA-GFI Preparation Course?”). Booth says, “The new online tools and sample classes will set instructors up for initial success, while giving them plenty of opportunity to expand their knowledge at their own pace.” Myers notes that the course is interactive, providing opportunities to test knowledge, as well as a dynamic practice exam that mimics the quantity and time restraints of the official exam.

Once enrolled in the group fitness instructor course, a candidate has 180 days to prepare before taking the certification exam.

To further enhance career development after taking the certification exam, the AFAA-GFI course provides access to bonus materials. Myers says, “With AFAA’s new accredited certification, we have postcertification modules designed by top instructors in the industry to mentor newly certified professionals and help them develop the necessary skills to present in an authentic and genuine manner to each instructor’s personality.” These modules are at the end of the instructor training course and are titled “The Practical Way.” Myers adds, “We are actively testing different ways of offering guidance and support to meet the needs of both our instructors and the clubs that employ them.” Stay tuned for news on future developments!

Protecting Ethics and Legality

Another standout component of the AFAA-GFI certification: It’s geared toward ensuring the competency of fitness instructors who understand the boundaries and expectations that come with being a fitness professional. For example, it outlines the scope of practice regarding what a group fitness instructor can do, both legally and ethically. (Anything outside the scope of practice should be referred to other qualified professionals in the appropriate fields.)

Knowing where the lines are can help the new group fitness instructor avoid inadvertently crossing them. For example, it’s important to avoid offering one-on-one recommendations regarding health conditions, injuries, nutrition and remedies for pain. However, preclass assessments of participants (including observational, postural and movement assessments) are appropriate for recommending modifications to class movements. Understanding these nuances can make all the difference when starting down this career path—or seeking to take on more classes or a new job position.

Here are some roles that AFAA (2019) has identified as suitable for a group fitness instructor:

  • preparing and delivering science-based exercise content for groups of individuals with different fitness needs and capabilities
  • dynamically reacting to group or individual needs by providing modifications, progressions and regressions, as needed
  • providing adequate energy, enthusiasm and optimism to create positive associations with exercise providing adequate energy, enthusiasm and optimism to create positive associations with exercise

After the Exam: Nurturing Lifelong Careers

“The AFAA team is truly committed to the success of fitness professionals at every stage of their careers,” says Booth. “The new certification is just the beginning. AFAA is a community, and now that community is poised to grow and embrace a new generation.” The AFAA-GFI training course not only provides foundational knowledge to begin a group fitness instructor career, but also offers insight into how to develop a fuller fitness career, build a brand and a fitness community, and pursue additional opportunities in the fitness realm.

In the fitness industry, as in personal fitness, there’s always room for improvement. And, as in group ex classes, it’s instructors like you who serve as strong, persuasive motivators for positive change.

THE AFAA 5 Questions™

In the 1980s, AFAA was the first national organization to compile exercise standards and guidelines for Group Fitness Instructors and, with them, the AFAA 5 Questions, designed to help instructors evaluate the purpose of every exercise. According to AFAA (2019): “All movement can fall within safe guidelines as long as movements are evaluated from two viewpoints: effectiveness (benefit) and potential injury quotient (risks).” These AFAA 5 Questions are just as relevant today, and they serve as an example of the practical, applicable, actionable information included in the new AFAA-GFI course and text.

  1. What is the purpose of the exercise? Consider: muscular strength or endurance, cardiorespiratory conditioning, flexibility, skill development, and stress reduction.
  2. Are you doing the exercise effectively? Consider: proper range of motion, speed, body position against gravity, efficient posture and safe equipment use.
  3. Does the exercise create any safety concerns? Consider: potential stress areas, environmental concerns and movement control.
  4. Can you maintain proper alignment and form for the duration of the exercise? Consider: form, dynamic posture, stabilization and balance.
  5. For whom is the exercise appropriate or inappropriate? Consider: risk-to-benefit ratio; whether the participant is a beginner, intermediate or advanced exerciser; and any limitations noted by the participant.

Source: AFAA 2019, 2–3.

What’s in the AFAA-GFI Preparation Course?

The AFAA-GFI course is offered at three levels ($299, $399 or $499). Discounts are offered to NASM members.

    This training ($299) includes the following:
  • technique and lectures videos
  • AFAA Principles of Group Fitness Instruction e-book
  • study guide
  • practice exam
  • accredited certification exam
  • phone, e-mail and chat support
  • American Fitness magazine subscription
  • professional discounts
  • exclusive NASM discounts
  • The Practical Way postcertification activities
    This training ($399) includes all of the above, plus
  • GFI Self-Study Premium
  • the AFAA Principles of Group Fitness Instruction textbook (in print), and
  • a live group fitness instructor workshop (valid for 18 months from date of purchase).
  • a free certification exam retest (if needed), and
  • a job guarantee (terms and conditions apply).
  • For more information, go to afaa.com/courses/group-ex.

Before You Become an AFAA-CGFI

    Before taking your AFAA-GFI certification exam, you must have
  • a high-school diploma or equivalent, and
  • a current Emergency Cardiac Care (CPR) and Automated External Defibrillator (AED) Certification.

Note: The CPR/AED course must include a hands-on assessment. No CPR/AED certifications are accepted from online-only providers.

Meet our experts

AFM_author_Archer Shirley Archer, JD, MA, Shirley Archer, JD, MA, award-winning certified trainer and author of 15 books, taught water fitness for 20+ years. Reach Shirley at www.shirleyarcher.com, @shirleyarcher (Twitter), @shirleyarcher (Instagram) and @shirley_archer (Pinterest).

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