The Group X Evolution

Navigating the current challenges and changes to keep classes thriving

Four years later, the pandemic’s ripple effects continue to influence group X. While participation in group X classes has returned to—or is approaching—pre-pandemic levels, clubs should not simply remain on autopilot.

"The pandemic definitely changed group X, and may even have put us back in some ways," says Anthony Wall, the senior director of global business development at the American Council on Exercise (ACE). "Operators must adjust to keep their programs thriving."

That means gyms should evaluate their culture, their perception of group X, and how they manage their teams. With staffing still a challenge, clubs and studios also must be more intentional in recruitment and retention efforts. This is particularly important as veteran instructors consider retirement and the pipeline is smaller and inexperienced.

Given the staffing squeeze and cost of living pressure, compensation cannot remain stagnant in an increasingly competitive industry. Plus, as millennials and Gen Z make up the biggest cohort of new members, gyms need to ensure that their group X programming appeals to this influential and loyal group.

CBI tapped some industry experts for insights on the evolution of group X and how clubs can excel today in this must-have programming.

Group X Selfie

A Smaller Pool of Instructors

When clubs were forced to close during Covid, many instructors had to find another way to earn income. Some gyms closed permanently, and even as others eventually reopened, a number of instructors didn’t return.

“Some instructors took the opportunity to reconsider their careers and gave up teaching due to the disruption of multiple club closures,” says Sean Turner, the CEO of Les Mills US.

Ellen de Werd, the fitness director at Downtown Athletic Club of Eugene in Oregon and the founder of WARRIOR Instructor Academy, notes that giving up wasn’t entirely voluntary. “Most instructors desperately wanted to work but faced not only closures, but also reduced opportunities as clubs reopened with fewer classes. They lost momentum, inspiration, and confidence that comes with routine teaching.”

This perfect storm led to a downward spiral. “Many instructors lost not just a job, but motivation,” de Werd adds. “They allowed their certifications to lapse.”

According to ACE and SCW Fitness Education, new group X certifications and renewals have decreased, along with attendance at educational conferences and workshops. This also may be affected by the proliferation of digital group X offerings, which has fueled social media fitness influencers. Those who post videos online aren’t required to hold a certification.

“In an unregulated industry, certification is no longer the end point for group X instructors,” Wall observes. “So we have to be creative in how we offer training, continuing education, and support for career and professional development.”

While the number of instructors that abandoned the industry is unknown, Sara Kooperman, the CEO of SCW Fitness Education, estimates as many as 30% to 50% of instructors have left.


Staffing Smarts

With growing awareness of the importance of exercise, along with a potential influx of new members taking GLP-1 weight loss drugs, the perennially popular group classes—and their leaders—are in demand.
Cross-training existing staff can be a win-win for clubs, employees, and members. Les Mills’ new Limited Edition programs make it easier for personal trainers to became group instructors by building on their
existing skills.

“Trainers can upskill in just half a day, eliminating lengthy certifications, and allowing them to market themselves to a new audience,” Turner explains.

Asking group X instructors for referrals is a convenient way to recruit.

"When I need instructors, I ask some of our veterans who also teach at other places," says Greta Fowler, the group fitness director at Hockessin Athletic Club (HAC) in Hockessin, Delaware, which runs more than 150 classes each week. "They know the type of instructor that is a good fit for us and have great recommendations."

Another fertile ground is classes themselves.

"I have recruited people who love group X classes, have great form and timing, and are already encouraging members to try new classes," Fowler adds. "Once these natural motivators start teaching, many pursue additional certifications so they can do more."

De Werd agrees. "The best place to find new instructors is in the front row of classes. These people know and love the facility and are quickly embraced by members."

Social media presents an additional, albeit unconventional, way to supplement staff, Kooperman suggests. Several clubs she has worked with mine Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn to recruit new instructors.

“If we want a younger generation to enjoy group fitness in our health clubs, we need younger instructors.”

Ellen de Werd

Downtown Athletic Club of Eugene

Money Matters

Many group X instructors are driven by their passion—and not their paycheck—so compensation has remained relatively flat.

“Financial recognition of instructors has barely increased in 20 years, despite 50% of members attesting that going to the gym is a ‘core part of their identity,’” Turner explains. “While pay is not all that instructors care about, it remains a significant motivator—and demotivator, if lacking.”

De Werd says pay raises are critical. “If health clubs want to compete with boutiques, attract the next generation, and see class averages return to or exceed pre-pandemic sizes, they must pay their instructors more. If they raise membership dues, they need to bump instructor pay accordingly.”

Compensation should not be a standard flat rate, she adds. “Take into consideration exclusivity to the club, years of employment, depth and breadth of expertise, and class size.”

It may be time to change the traditional per-class payment structure for a more compelling model, Kooperman suggests. “Incentivize instructors by offering a base salary plus $1-$7 per head. That motivates them to bring in and help retain new members and grow classes.”

Turner points to boutique models. “Traditional clubs have lost a lot of great instructors to boutiques, and should adopt how they reward top talent and add incentives to fill the studio. That could be implementing attendance-based pay or increasing wages for those that teach more classes.”

Rewards and Retention

Beyond money, health clubs should honestly evaluate their culture regarding group X. Historically, they have perceived group X as a cost center, versus personal trainers who are revenue generators. That has led to a widespread perception of not being valued.

“Group X instructors typically have been regarded differently than personal trainers and have never felt appreciated by employers,” Wall says.

De Werd says that group X is the “stickiest” part of the club and instrumental in retention. “Group fitness instructors are just as valuable to a club’s bottom line as personal trainers, and operators must understand this so that a disparity is not felt.”

A healthy club culture also makes it easier to acquire and keep staff. “If club culture is such that group fitness instructors feel truly valued and taken care of, then acquisition and retention are natural byproducts,” de Werd adds.

Clubs and studios also can support group X instructors with stipends or paying for certifications, CPR training, and continuing education.

“Club owners should pay for certifications, conventions, and workshops,” Kooperman contends. “Rather than an outright expense, it could be a monthly reimbursement when the instructor shows loyalty and commitment to a facility.”

Sunset Athletic Club in Portland, Oregon, has a unique approach. “We encourage our group fitness instructors to expand their teaching skills and modalities by offering $1 for every class they teach to be put toward continuing education,” says Carleen Prentice, the general manager.

Additional perks include personal recognition and discounts for club products and services. At HAC, group X instructors who teach at least one class per week get 20% off any club purchase.


Connecting With the Next Generation

Clubs also should not overlook the influence of Gen Z on group X. The Gen Z Fitness: Cracking the Code report from Les Mills found that 81% of this highly motivated group take part in group training.

“Clubs need to cater to what their audience wants, and that includes younger members,” Wall recommends. “Keep in mind that young people don’t necessarily want to participate in the same classes that their
parents take.”

They may not want their parents leading their classes either.

“If we want a younger generation to enjoy group fitness in our health clubs, we need younger instructors,” de Werd contends. “Pay your veteran instructors to mentor newbies so they can learn and be ready to lead.”

Pre-choreographed classes from Les Mills, SCW Education, and other providers can help younger instructors get started quickly and provide turnkey programs for clubs. These also tend to feature the latest music and creative movements, which appeals to Gen Z.

“For the group X industry to continue growing, connecting with the next generation is essential,” Turner says. “A slick group offering can deliver a routine-driven, addictive fitness experience that helps win and retain members. And group fitness fans form the backbone of any great club’s community.”

These vocal fans can attract even more members as well. The viral moments that create a buzz for facilities are mostly the result of great coaches and instructors who make a connection with class attendees.

"People don’t tend to post on social media about their favorite treadmill or resistance machine," Turner points out. "They rave about the killer class they’ve just done with an awesome instructor and share their sweaty victory selfie."

This article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue of Club Business International. View the full digital version of the issue online.

Jon Feld

Jon Feld is a contributor to