PT vs. Group Ex – Fitness Industry Disconnect

As a personal trainer and Movement Therapist for years I made sure people knew I was a trainer first and a group exercise instructor second. I kept this distinction until I could no longer differentiate which title made more sense to describe what I did and how I could utilise my skills. Everywhere I look in the industry there is a disconnect between ‘serious coaches’ and ‘group exercise instructors’. I want to take the time today to demonstrate why all trainers should try to be a group exercise instructor and vice versa.

The blurriest distinction between group exercise instructor and trainer as pictured above

I always wanted to be a strength and conditioning coach working with elite athletes. Being the stubborn perfectionist that I am, I achieved this goal at the age of 20 working at AFL level in Victoria. High pressure, lots of practical science, applicable research and constantly on the go. I hated it (for a myriad of reasons). I remember someone saying to me, “You should just keep your PT job and make it full time.” I thought personal trainers were clueless, and working with general populations would be the most boring application of my knowledge. So I resisted until I fell into the right setting.

I hesitantly stepped into a full-time role as a personal trainer and sometimes group ex instructor for a big box gym. It was highly active, I could apply lots of practical science and research and I was constantly on the go. I loved it. I realised how much I didn’t know and went in search of the right education for the people I was working with. The members were friendly, they struggled, they triumphed and I flourished the more I helped my clients. I was the keen bean PT who did every CEC course they could find and was eating up the information. I tried everything. So naturally I tried teaching classes.

Again, being the person I am I dived into learning all things group exercise. Aqua, gymstick, freestyle, as well as anything else I could feasibly fit into my schedule. Without realising it I became a hybrid – but one who was too proud to call herself a group exercise instructor. My business boomed. I had referrals coming from everywhere, members from my classes who wanted to train 1:1 with me, semi-privates and full classes. I was getting a reputation in the gym as the ‘rehab trainer’ for complex health problems, chronic pain & injury, disability and ‘weird mobility’ movements.

I struggled to understand why ‘serious’ S&C coaches would diminish what I could accomplish because I sent my clients to group exercise and because I loved teaching it. Trying to convince coaches of the scientific benefits of what I was using with my clients was like banging my head against a brick wall – I had blurred the lines and nobody really understood what I did. I wasn’t a trainer or a coach anymore. I did all the things. Unknowingly I kept this phrase for a while, even as I started being asked to coach trainers on a national and international level, because I couldn’t pinpoint my job description. My ability to present and stimulate a room of people came from my ability to teach group exercise exceptionally. My attention to detail and explanation of scientific theory came from my ability to educate myself and implement strategies with my 1:1 clients. To me those skills are inextricably linked and I would not be where I am today without having a solid foundation in both.

Which is why I see this divide between group exercise and personal training as a gaping chasm in our industry currently. Our group exercise instructors are our least educated members of our industry. With many yoga and pilates instructors not requiring a Certificate III or IV in Fitness to teach to 30+ people. The push for our group exercise instructors to become more educated and raise the standard of that education is virtually non-existent at a government level. So our instructors who are extremely influential in the way they present information unknowingly send out misleading or risky movement information to big groups of people. Which we all know can have very damaging effects. It is not their fault – you don’t know what you don’t know.

On the flip-side we have very educated trainers and coaches, who in the desire to work less and earn more, start with semi-privates and then move into group classes. These coaches have never been taught how to lead a group, or how to re-structure exercises, sets and reps to create safety and flow in a group of people. They also don’t believe that any group exercise education will benefit them as it is below their current expertise. And hence we have the PT vs. Group Exercise disconnect.

I would love to say I have a quick fix and a solve to this chasm that I can see. I don’t have all of the answers but I believe that beginning to call ourselves an industry of movement coaches is a start. Another starting point is educating your group exercise instructors and/or getting them a 1:1 coach. Conversely, getting trainers into group exercise to experience the classes, the benefits and the pitfalls so they can adjust their sessions and help their clients enjoy group exercise safely.

Exercise to Experience was founded as a way to up-skill all group exercise businesses and their staff to try and create a bridge over this chasm. Anyone can be a coach or a group exercise instructor if you have the passion. However, it takes the whole industry to start breaking down stereotypes, create more inclusivity and higher standards so we can entice more members of the population to engage in exercise. When there is an industry led ‘US vs THEM’ (group ex vs. pt) mentality it carries over to those buying into our products. How can the population get a clear message on what is best for them if we throw them mixed messages? My answer to what is best, group exercise or personal training has always and will always be BOTH!

Written by Vanessa Leone. For more information about what services Exercise to Experience can bring to your Group Exercise Business please check our Services & About Us pages.

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