Working Out the Kinks

This month marks my 20th year as a group fitness instructor. Losing 82 pounds while training to teach in the Bay Area and teaching in the best studios and gyms in San Francisco during the mid 90s was how I got started. Primarily studios. Yep, when I got to New York, I studied at Jane Fonda's studio on Maiden Lane. Boy have times changed, except for the leg warmers, which are back (not unlike the 90s).

I've noticed over my years of teaching, that the instructor-class dynamic has gotten worse. I believe it started with the gyms' "more is more" mentality. Like a big box store, I think health clubs tried their own versions of being everything to everybody. In the pursuit of convenience (or not losing members), they offered as much as they could fit on a weekly schedule, which wound up diluting what was working so well. A club's motivation was—do what it takes to "fill the room". Nothing was featured because EVERYTHING was featured. To no one's surprise, the attitude and the professional focus all flat lined. The niche feeling was no more. It was a health "club" in name only.

When gyms decided to include classes in the price of membership, I think it took a toll on the caliber of fitness offered. Having a fitness studio provide challenging workouts with exciting innovative instructors stopped being the primary focus. Sadly, those in charge of classes were not always certified. It was better to have a gimmick "signature" class, even if it meant incorporating dangerous plyometrics that may eventually cause one's joints to suffer. Combine a bunch of catch phrases and some celebrity trainers' fitness moves and... you're hired! Fat-burning Ballet, Pilates Fusion (not to be confused with Pilates Sculpt), Bosu Kickboxing, and whatever the next new thing is—Pole Dance Rebounding? I especially marvel at how many ways "Strength Training" has been packaged as something NEW! And I often shake my head at how many new pieces of equipment get stacked along the studio walls from month to month. And how many disappear once the "craze" has passed.

And that quality shift trickles down to the members' being less engaged in class (except with their cell phones). I've found myself saying things like, "Let's not be mediocre, let's be outstanding", "Challenge yourselves, make this hour yours", and "You're here! Don't waste it." Unfortunately, that's exactly what happens. The faces I see say— "I'm here. That's enough." Generally, it takes a lot more to get my students motivated. But I refuse to accept their malaise. I continue to push them. Which pushes me too. It helps me remember why I got into this profession.

I got started teaching because I wanted to help people as I had helped myself. The challenge was to work out hard, not to just show up. Back then, being on point with the instructor was the most fun part for everyone. I continue to look for ways to recapture that feeling, especially as more and more of everyone's interactions exist solely on a computer. The gym should be a great place to interact, to spend an hour together, sharing a goal, and getting fit together, not just to mark time!

Finally, the tide is turning back. With places like Barry's Boot Camp and Soul Cycle— people are paying $35 a class. One hour, $35. What kind of energy goes into your workout when you're actually paying per class compared to this all-inclusive idea? How much more "on" is that instructor going to be, knowing those are the kind of people in his or her room today? In my experience, large gym chains aren't equipped to harness this energy. They're not even looking for it necessarily. That is precisely the aspect of gym life that I crave—there is a goal in mind. Use your mind to help your body and everybody around you get there.

I realize mine is not the only profession which has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. My frustration is with what has become the new normal and wanting a newer normal! Ideally, I'd like my fitness goal to become an inspiration for gym members to take back their work out. To rethink the notion of "showing up" and make it meaningful to them. If you step into a class for a workout, that you're stepping forward to be the best you could be!

Stephen Charles Lincoln