Updated: Oct 13, 2020
If you’re planning on being in the fitness instructing game for the long haul, it is an absolute must to maintain a high level of professionalism throughout your career. Simply put, if you cannot maintain professionalism with your attitude, interactions, and appearance, your gym or studio will find someone who can. Point blank period.
This might seem like common sense, but more often than not, when I am training new fitness instructors at a workshop, and their group ex manager is present, he or she will ask me to reiterate the points I have detailed below. So here it is, louder, for the ones with their earbuds in, in the back...
My 10 Commandments on Fitness Instructor Professionalism:
1. Thou Shalt Give Credit where Credit is Due
One really amazing thing about working in the fitness industry is that it is very easy to find inspiration online by instructors who post their routines, ideas, and programs. However, getting “inspired” by someone and blatantly stealing their routines, ideas, and programs are two totally different things. It is definitely okay to get inspired. It is definitely not okay to take another instructor’s hard work and tout is as your own. Plagiarism comes in many forms and routine-stealing is just one example. Promise me that if you’re going to use someone else’s ideas in your class that you at least credit the creator. Along those same lines, if you have to constantly beg, borrow, and steal ideas and routines for your own freestyle classes, it may be time to think about switching to pre-choreographed fitness classes, where you pay a licensing fee to use a pre-designed routine to your heart's desire.
2. Thou Shalt Start on Time and End on Time
If you really want to tick off your fellow instructors and cause workplace tension, go ahead and let your class spill over into the next time slot while another instructor and her class are waiting outside of the group exercise room. We’ve all seen it happen. Maybe you’ve even been the victim of this terrible crime... or maybe you’ve even been the guilty party. The big issue here is respect. If you do not respect your own time, that’s on you, but it is so unprofessional to show a lack of respect for others’ time. Likewise, when you start and finish on schedule, it shows respect to your class participants and fellow instructors without even saying a word. Your actions speak for you, and they say, “Hi, I know time is valuable and I respect yours.”
I should also add that ending on time is just part of the battle. You also need to scooch on out of the group exercise room (and encourage your participants to do so as well), so the next class can set up and get going. This means that you might have to say, “Great job, everyone! Thank you for coming! Let’s quickly put our equipment away and bring all conversations outside so Cardio Mix class can get started on time” while modeling that exact behavior.
3. Thou Shalt Not Bad-mouth or Gossip about Other Instructors
It can be really hard to keep your mouth shut about your colleagues... especially when they do not start or end on time, break the rules, do questionable things in class, or are just plain unprofessional themselves. I understand. I truly do. But I’m just going to remind you that no one gets in trouble for being 100% professional all of the time, and plenty of people do get reprimanded, written up, or even fired, for bad-mouthing or gossiping about other instructors in front of gym members and class participants. Behind closed doors, away from the ears of the general population, I get it girl, vent away. But do the professional thing and never let your class participants see you badmouthing or gossiping about one of your own. This makes you look like a Mean Girl. This does not mean you have to be fake; please do not mistake my words. You can be professionally cordial without being fake, condescending, or rude, while protecting the longevity of your job at the same time.
4. Thou Shalt Use Social Media Wisely
Using social media is a great way to build your tribe. I highly recommend using social media as a means to build a loyal following, create accountability and/or support groups, promote upcoming classes, fundraisers, and themed events, give shout outs your participants, and build relationships with your class members. You do not even need to create a different, separate profile for these purposes, AS LONG AS you follow these four mini-commandments:
Mini-Commandment 1: Thou shalt not post too many politically divisive posts.
I know, oh Lord believe me, I KNOW that this is a very interesting time, politically-speaking. We are all absolutely entitled to have our own political views and be passionate about them. I am passionate, too. But if you cannot keep your passionate politics off of your social media page, go ahead and create a separate profile dedicated to your fitness following. We teach and welcome people from all walks of life, and your classes should be a safe space where everyone forgets about the stress of the world and has fun getting some endorphins running through their bodies. It is guaranteed that, no matter where you fall on the political spectrum, you will inevitably offend someone if you constantly post divisive comments, memes, etc., and if you are trying to build a loyal following, you are just hurting yourself. Save the politics for your personal page!
Mini-Commandment 2: Thou shalt keep it clean.
While we’re talking about offending anyone and everyone, I may as well add that avoiding vulgar or lewd language, lots of cuss words, and things of that nature is the way to go. Not only do you want to make a professional impression on your class members, your boss can see what you post, too.
Mini-Commandment 3: Thou shalt not hijack a social media post for your own gain.
When a fellow instructor is posting to promote his or her upcoming class, DO 👏 NOT 👏 HIJACK 👏 THE 👏 POST 👏 FOR 👏 YOUR 👏 OWN 👏 SELF-PROMOTION.
Mini-Commandment 4: Thou shalt use correct punctuation, spelling, and grammar.
I’m so passionate about this, I wrote a whole blog post about it. You can find it here.
5. Thou Shalt Stay Current on Certs
This should go without saying, but it’s on this list for a reason, folks. You HAVE to stay current on your certifications. Otherwise, you are teaching illegally and can get yourself or your gym in a heap of trouble. Listen, I know we all have busy lives, and I know sometimes expiration dates can sneak up on us. However, it is literally a part of your job as a fitness professional to maintain your certifications and any necessary liability insurance.
For AFAA-certified (and other similar) professionals, this means continuing your education. Education is so important, you guys! You simply cannot continue to do the same things you did in 1996 and expect to have a full class. Earning your CEUs guarantees your re-certification and keeps you and your moves nice and fresh!
For most pre-choreographed formats, staying current on your certification is the only way to receive new releases. Your class participants will start to get a little suspicious if you continue to rotate the same 4 or 5 releases over and over and never bring them anything new. Your gym will, too.
Staying up-to-date on your CPR/AED/First Aid certifications is also a must. Over the past 15 years, the rules of giving CPR/AED/First Aid have continually evolved. Rescue breaths or no? How many compressions per cycle? Staying current helps you to remain calm and confident in case of emergency, which is literally a part of your job description. Of all the commandments, do not break this one!
6. Thou Shalt Behave when Attending Another Instructor’s Group Exercise Class
It is a “best practice” for fitness instructors to attend and participate in other fitness instructors' classes. It is always a good idea to see how others put together choreography, cue, and transition throughout class. You can emulate those who impress you and take mental notes on what doesn’t feel exactly right so that you can avoid making the same mistakes in your own classes. I highly encourage taking a wide variety of classes with instructors of all teaching styles, especially if you are brand new to the group fitness world.
However, please, please, PLEASE promise me that you will behave in class. Sometimes teachers make the worst students. It’s true, guys. Sometimes fellow instructors don’t listen when the instructor is talking, sometimes fellow instructors have bad attitudes (and it shows), and sometimes fellow instructors even do their own thing instead of doing what the rest of the whole class is doing (.e. doing their own choreography instead of what the instructor is showing). This is TERRIBLE behavior. TERRIBLE! Please be respectful and act how you would expect your own ideal participants to act. Fitness instructors support fitness instructors!
7. Thou Shalt Show Up and Show Out
As with many things in life, consistency is the pathway to success. Want to lose 10 pounds? Consistently work out and make changes in your daily diet. Want to start a healthy habit like gratitude journaling? Set your alarm for 10 minutes earlier than usual and consistently wake up to do it. Want to be a rockstar Group Fitness Instructor? Consistently show up to teach your classes and show out while teaching. If you are fortunate enough to get a class on a schedule, avoid calling in frequent subs or cancelling class. Poor attendance kills your following and is just plain unprofessional, in any setting.
Along with showing up, though, you need to show out! People come to your classes as a means of stress relief, socialization, and development of healthy habits. Even if you don’t feel like it, you must consistently put your best effort forward. Every. Single. Time. Let me reiterate, I’m not saying that you need to be fake. Sometimes you have to go right into a class after receiving terrible news... or a death in the family... or a huge fight with your spouse... and getting up in front of people pretending to be peppy or zen seems like the LAST thing you want to do. You can absolutely be real with your class members, but throw a positive spin on it. “Whoa, today has been stressful! I can’t wait to shake it out with you guys tonight! We are going to dance the stress away!” Not only does that set a good example for your participants and allow you to remain professional, you will most definitely be feeling better by the end of class.
8. Thou Shalt Look Professional
Along the same lines as showing up and showing out, you must also look the part. I’m not talking about having the “perfect” body (what is a perfect body, anyway, amirite?). I’m talking about dressing appropriately for the class you are teaching. Teaching a hip-hop dance class? Throw on some baggy joggers, a baseball hat, and some high tops! Teaching yoga? Form-fitting clothing that shows your body in proper alignment is best. No matter what you’re wearing, however, make sure it’s always clean (please don’t show up in the same tennis shoes you mowed the lawn in), tidy (check for the occasional hole on seam lines), and non-restrictive (you gotta show out, remember?).
I also personally wear makeup when I teach, as a means of showing professionalism. I’m not saying that you have to, by any means. However, I do believe that it shows my class participants that I take my job seriously, and they respect that.
Also, I hate to break it to you, but if you teach in the same community where you live, it is very likely that you will see your class members out and about while you are running errands, going out to dinner, and attending community events. You are entitled to live your life as you see fit, of course, but I would highly suggest keeping unhealthy behaviors (i.e. smoking, getting completely wasted and flashing the bartender, honking the horn and flipping off someone in traffic, etc.) to a minimum when in public. Just a thought! Whether you realize it or not, you are a role model to many.
9. Thou Shalt Protect Participants’ Confidentiality
Because you are an awesome instructor who consistently shows up and shows out, many class members will feel like they know you personally, and on a very deep level. You put your personality out there every week, and even if a class member has never said a word to you, he or she may feel very connected to you and may even consider you a friend. This is great news; it shows you are impacting lives and building relationships. (Some of my very best friendships started in the classes I was teaching or taking!) This connection can also lead members to reveal personal information about themselves - injuries, pregnancies, hardships, relationship woes, disordered eating, to name a few. It is your responsibility to keep sensitive information 100% confidential, and to do so in a professional fashion. For example, say you have a class member who tells you, in private before class, that she is pregnant and ten weeks along. She is telling you so that you can offer suggestions and modifications for class, as her doctor said it was okay to keep attending class, but she is not ready to tell the world that she is pregnant, especially because she has miscarried in the past. It is your responsibility to then be sure to offer options in class that she can discreetly take. Something along the lines of: “You guys were amazing in cardio kick tonight! As we move into our core work this evening, I want to remind you that if you’d rather not lie down for crunches, you can do the same moves that we do on the floor, while standing. This is a great option for anyone who is experiencing lower back or neck pain, anyone whose heart rate is still quite elevated and you’re not ready to lie down yet, or anyone who just prefers standing ab work.” Then, model your core work on the floor and again while standing. Not only will your pregnant member not feel “outed,” many others will join her while she does her standing ab work.
Another scenario in which you must respect confidentiality is protecting your participants’ identities online. Many people love to get tagged in workout photos on social media, but there are many who absolutely do NOT want their names, photos, or whereabouts to be known. You never know what is going on in someone’s personal life; restraining orders, stalkers, relationship issues - they all exist. There’s an easy fix for this one, though! Post your sweaty class selfies and encourage participants to tag themselves. It’s a great way to put faces to names while also giving an easy out for those who do not want to be tagged.
10. Thou Shalt Advertise Truthfully
This commandment should also go without saying, but again, here we are. While you are advertising for your next bootcamp, new class, or accountability group, make sure that you are not making any lofty promises about weight loss, calorie burn, or booty gains. Be honest about what you can offer with your certifications, and know what you legally can and cannot offer to your clients.
Also, make sure you are labeling your classes correctly with the proper name. For example, if you are not Zumba-certified, you may not call your cardio dance class a Zumba class. Call it Dance Fitness, Cardio Dance, whatever the heck you’d like!
Along the same lines, if you go wildly off-script in a pre-choreographed class, you will want to change the name of your class. For example, if you are calling your class Les Mills BodyPump, you need to actually teach Les Mills BodyPump and not some wild variation that slightly resembles Les Mills BodyPump. Capiche?
And there you have it! My 10 Commandments on Instructor Professionalism. What are your commandments? Feel free to drop a comment below!
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