First Time Teaching: How To Get Started

Saturday morning was the big day…I got to co-teach my first group exercise class!

Last March, I began my journey of becoming a certified group fitness instructor with the American Council on Exercise (ACE). The material is no joke, and I pulled heavily from the anatomy, kinesiology, and physiology knowledge I learned in massage school. I took the computer-based ACE certification exam on June 30, 2014 and passed! Around the same time, I found an open position in member services at my beloved gym, and was able to create a dream schedule that allowed me to primarily remain a stay-at-home mom; working 10.5 hours a week, with free childcare in-gym or with my husband.

However, a couple weekends after that I learned I was pregnant—the day before my Zumba certification class. And so began an emotional Summer of loss, heartbreak, and lack of motivation.

Fast-forward to December/January, I decided that my goals for 2015 included (finally) utilizing my group exercise certification. I still wasn’t really sure how to go about it. ACE Fitness does a great job of teaching you the science, but leaves you high-and-dry when it comes to building confidence in the classroom, or even getting real life experience. I had been going to Zumba classes, and my favorite teacher let me on her stage a few times to dance next to her, but every time I got up there I felt…dare I say it…kind of cheap. Between the music, booty shaking, and the intense preparation it takes to fully choreograph a class, I just felt God strongly telling me that teaching Zumba wasn’t the right format for me.

I was left with now what? but then an amazing opportunity happened. On a random Saturday at the end of January, my family and I went to our gym (also where I work.) It was packed! My husband managed to score a treadmill, but I couldn’t deal with the crowd. I glanced up at the tv screen scrolling through the group-ex schedule that morning and saw “10:30, Lean Conditioning, studio D.” I had taken that format many times when I first joined our gym a couple years prior, so I figured why not. I walked into class and the instructor, who I know from working at the front desk, announced that she was just substituting today because they’re currently trying to find an instructor to take over the class! A ballet barre-inspired class that uses light weights, Pilates balls, and own body weight to lengthen, strengthen, and train core muscles. As a dancer for most of my life, this was the perfect class format! No booty shaking required. As soon as I got home that afternoon, I emailed the group-ex director and expressed my interest. I was also very honest about my complete lack of classroom experience.

I met with her that Tuesday. My expectation was that she was just being nice to her fellow colleague and would kindly give me ideas on how to get some experience. Instead, she told me how excited she was to receive my email, and that my certification, as well as my background as a dancer and Licensed Massage Therapist really put me in a great position. She proposed that an audition with her and a couple of other instructors would help them to determine whether they would invest in training me to take over the class. We scheduled my private audition for the following week, and then I took her Les Mills BodyFlow class. Truth be told, I quite intentionally took her class immediately following that first conversation so she could see my technique and that I was “legit.” But, if you’ve seen my announcement earlier this week, attending that class led me to getting certified to teach BodyFlow in April! Not only did I fall in love with that class, but she has been very encouraging since they’ve been wanting to add another BodyFlow instructor or two to the team. Win-win!

I have continued to receive such incredible support, encouragement, and constructive feedback. She set me up with an additional mentor, and both women have been an open book for all my questions about class planning, adjusting the plan mid-class, and preparing for other “behind the scenes” events that are not mentioned in the textbooks. I have been attending as many other Lean Conditioning classes as possible to see styles and get ideas.

This all culminated to this past Saturday when I got to teach the first 15 minutes of Lean Conditioning class! Aside from being intimidated by the microphone and stumbling over my words a couple times, it went really well! I get to co-teach again this Thursday! At this point, the plan is to gradually increase the amount of time I teach so I can eventually take over the Saturday morning class mid-to-late March!!!

I’m including all this detail because I want others to see that having a piece of paper in your hand that says “certified” doesn’t mean you’ll get a job right away. But! There are opportunities to be had if you know where to look, and more importantly, whom to speak to.

Here are a few ideas to get started:

1. Finding a mentor is KEY. Although I hear stories of some fitness instructors forbidding other instructors to take their class for fear of stolen ideas (sadly, this really is true), I’d like to believe the majority of instructors are excited to help each other out. You better believe that someday I will pay it forward, and help someone else garner classroom experience by teaching portions of my class. Start first by approaching your favorite instructor; one who you respect, and who teaches a class format that you are interested in teaching too.

2. Figure out where you want to work and apply for a job there, even if it’s not group-ex. I love my gym. I love it even more since working there for the past 8 months. It’s where I wanted to work even 3 years ago when I was massaging (they also have a spa.) When that member services position opened up, I jumped on it. I wanted my foot in the door because I knew the potential opportunities I could have there in group-ex, massage, etc. It enables you to meet the right people. What I didn’t know was just HOW much they love hiring in-house, and how awesome this would work in my favor.

3. Contact the directors of group-ex at your local gyms. Even if they don’t have an open position, they will hopefully be a great source of ideas, encouragement, and support for how to get started. Most director-level instructors have been doing it for 20+ years, so they know a lot! Plus, once you connect with them you will now have a reason to contact them every couple of months to check in. Ideally, they’ll remember you when it comes time to hire!

4. Take a variety of group-ex classes. I really thought I would be great at teaching Zumba. And I started focusing on my intimidation of teaching Zumba, versus how I felt simply teaching. Turns out I’m uncomfortable with the Zumba format, but that’s not to say I’m not going to be great at teaching something else. I think sometimes we back ourselves into these corners and allow that to define our experience, but if we’re open-minded and really examine ALL potential opportunities, we can find our correct path.

And finally, I just want to say glory to God for creating all these amazing opportunities for me! I don’t believe in chance/luck/irony/coincidence/etc. so He is most certainly at the forefront of making this happen for me according to His will.

Please leave any questions you have about ACE Fitness, group-ex certification, becoming a group-ex instructor, etc. in the comment section below! 

Meridith Oram
Meridith Oram is an ACE-Certified Health Coach at Below the Fork where she encourages women to love themselves towards healthy. She is married with two boys, and lives outside of Philadelphia. She earned a B.A. in Communications from Villanova University. Meridith writes about FASTer Way to Fat Loss, fitness, nutrition, Celiac Disease, and easy (but delicious!) gluten-free recipes at Follow her @belowthefork on all social channels.
  • lee

    thanks for the tips. Great suggestions.
    Finding time to work out is really difficult when you have nothing to motivate you to jump out of bed and pays a visit to the gym. I am lucky for having a husband who loves motivating me and drawing the best out of me . He bought and set up a mini gym at home and we work out together. It is our favorite place at home now where we do all our sweaty activities and everything in between 😉

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