Just for “Starters”—Four Strategies to Welcome Newcomers

First impressions are important to new participants. By finessing your approach, you’ll help them answer the question “Should I stay or should I go?” and make them more likely to become one of your regulars.

by Amanda Vogel, MA

Points of improvement: Step back and critique your physical and verbal cuing to become a better instructor.

The easy part of being a fitness instructor is welcoming regular participants into class each week. They’re familiar to us and to each other. We see them often enough to know a bit about them—perhaps their history with exercise and injury, their fitness goals, and their occupations. We’ve seen them perform exercises often enough to know what they’re good at and what they need to modify.

The trickier side of teaching groups is connecting with those participants who attend infrequently or are stepping into class for the very first time. You don’t know anything about them. What they do next may give you a glimpse at their ability and personality. But even then, your first impressions may not be correct.

My Story: Sarah’s First Day

I teach a HIIT (high-intensity interval training) class once a week at an all-women’s gym in my neighborhood. Most of the women who come to my class are there every single week. They represent a wide range of ages, body types, fitness levels and abilities. One morning, as I was setting up, I noticed someone new slip into the studio.

She positioned herself in a back corner (basically, as far away from my spot at the front as possible). Visually, this woman had an obese body type, but I always hesitate to make assumptions based on a participant’s appearance. Did she exercise regularly? I didn’t know. Did she like exercise? I didn’t know. Was she anxious about the class? I didn’t know. These questions would apply to any new student.

Teaching to groups isn’t like training one client at a time, where you can dig into the person’s history and mindset at your first meeting. When someone enters a group setting just minutes before class, you’ve got to “read” that person quickly and adjust your hello-welcome-to-class spiel accordingly.

As it happens, this new participant was obviously averting eye contact, giving me the distinct impression that she did not want me to fuss over her with a peppy, one-on-one introduction. As an introvert, I get that. Some people prefer to be anonymous or fly under the radar until they know the teacher and/or the exercise environment better. It’s their comfort zone. So, I smiled, introduced myself, briefly advised her on what equipment she’d need for class and asked her name (I’ll call her “Sarah” in this piece).

During class, I was careful to provide lots of options for each exercise (as always). I observed that Sarah was doing well with the modifications. However, much to my disappointment, she left about halfway through the workout. Why? Again, I didn’t know.

I wanted to chase after her, encouraging her to please stay. But I still had a full class to manage and, of course, I didn’t want to embarrass her. Looking back, I realize I could have done more to help Sarah transition into the class as a newcomer.

Prep Right for Many Happy Returns

Instructors have limited time to set up for class and greet participants (see below for how to minimize this challenge). Still, we must find ways to deftly and swiftly integrate new participants into the class while conveying the message that we want them to be there—that it matters to us. When you’re dealing with people who, seemingly, would rather be anywhere but your class and might not want you to draw attention to them, this task can be tricky indeed. Here are a few strategies that can help.

EXPLAIN WHAT TO EXPECT
If a participant has never tried your class before, she might be wondering what she’s getting herself into and whether she will be able to “measure up.” First, it’s hard to define how a person is supposed to measure up in group fitness. There’s no such thing. Everyone has different challenges and abilities. Still, a new participant might anticipate that everyone else will be miles ahead.

With that in mind, consider what you might say in your preworkout introduction to the whole group. You could explain that you will be watching for people to go at their own pace and try out modifications when needed. Advising participants that you actually expect them to tailor the workout to their needs can take the pressure off. Key message: We don’t all have to be doing the workout in the exact same way.

DON’T BE A STICKLER
Fitness pros can be pretty particular about which workouts are best for which clients. Is an advanced, high-intensity class the best place for a newbie exerciser to start? Maybe not. But not everyone has to attempt full-on intensity, even if that’s what the rest of the group is doing. In fact, an interval format—with its short challenges and frequent “breaks”—might be just what some people need to build up confidence. I’ve seen it happen multiple times in the HIIT class I teach.

Besides, as the instructor, I’m not about to boot a new exerciser out of class because it’s labeled as advanced. When someone makes an earnest effort and shows up, the last thing you want to do is tell him he made the wrong choice. Friendly reminder: Accept that some people will self-select your class even when it’s not the ideal intensity for them. No matter what your session is called, plan for and teach to a range of abilities.

SET THE STAGE FOR A “NEXT TIME”
Some new students might naturally be a “flight risk,” meaning they could feel frustrated or embarrassed and leave before the end of class. You can’t force them to stay. But you could say something like the following in your preworkout intro, making sure to address the whole class so you avoid calling out any one individual:

“I recommend that you stay for the entire class. But if you must leave early today or are unable to stay for the whole class, please take a few minutes to cool down before leaving the facility. And please be sure to come back again next time. I want you to be here, so just know I’ll be looking for you next week! We’re here to support each other.”

I wish I’d given this little preclass speech on the day Sarah left my class early.

DON’T WAIT TO MAKE A PERSONAL CONNECTION
Another misstep I took with Sarah was to make our initial interaction a little too businesslike. I sensed she was uncomfortable and so I didn’t want to pry. Truth is, I had planned to approach her again after class. I would have asked her how the workout went for her and told her I looked forward to seeing her again the following week. But I didn’t get the chance. And guess what? She still hasn’t returned to my class. Sometimes you only get one opportunity to reach out to someone new.

Lesson learned: Take advantage of the time you have before and during class to establish some sort of personal connection right off the bat.

Roll Out the Welcome Mat—Your Way

These are just a few ways that instructors can encourage brand-new students to feel comfortable in class and come back next time. My suggestions may spur other ideas on how you can connect with new members, based on your own teaching style and workout routine. Every little effort can make a world of difference in the eyes of people who are new to your class—and can help them feel that their decision to be there was a good choice.

Meet our experts

AFM_Author_Vogel Amanda Vogel, MA, human kinetics,, is a fitness instructor in Vancouver and a presenter at numerous fitness conferences. She reviews gadgets and gear on her blog www.FitnessTestDrive.com. Reach her at @amandavogel (Twitter), @amandavogelfitness (Instagram) and @FitnessWriter (Facebook).

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