Which is better for your fitness center: pre-choreographed group exercise programs, or freestyle classes? Here are the pros and cons of both.

Right now, many group exercise programs are at a turning point, since fitness centers are increasingly buying into pre-choreographed group exercise programs. Les Mills offers its Body Pump, Body Combat, Body Step and RPM classes. Body Training Systems (BTS) has Group Power, Group Kick, Group Step and Group Ride. Specialty programs like Jazzercise and TurboJam are making a strong showing, and Silver Sneakers is showing up everywhere.

These types of classes are pre-formatted and pre-choreographed. The companies train your instructors how to teach the classes, and the classes are outlined and set to music, with each beat planned and written. Trained instructors are sent "releases" at regular intervals. Releases contain the exact materials they will use in class until the next release. They are expected to teach the class exactly the way it is written, every time.

Some of these companies require the fitness center to sign on as a carrier of the program; some even charge a monthly franchise fee to offer their classes. And some will train any instructor who wants the training and leave it up to them to decide how and where to offer the class.

So, should you offer these types programs at your facility? Here is a look at the strengths and weaknesses of pre-style vs. freestyle group exercise options.

Quality assurance

People want a sure thing. They are not going to invest an hour in a class unless they know what kind of return they will get. If they cannot be assured they will get specific things out of a class, they will perform their own workout on the equipment - or, they won't come to your fitness center at all. Only about 13 to 25 percent of members who walk into the average fitness center use the group exercise resources available.

There are two ways participants will know what they are getting into before walking into class. They either know the instructor or they know the format. If participants are coming to a class because they know the instructor, they are there because that instructor is fun and/or motivating. They trust that instructor either because they have taken their class before, or because they have a stellar reputation. And, if a substitute shows up, participants are usually disappointed.

If participants know the class format, they have learned to trust that, at this facility, any class called by a specific name will contain certain elements and objectives, regardless of who teaches it. Body Pump (Les Mills) is always a weight lifting class that follows an outline: warm up, squats, chest presses, etc. Participants can depend on the workout, even if the instructor varies.

"Pre-choreography allows me to deliver a safe, effective and exciting workout every time," says David Spence, national trainer for Les Mills, and 33-year fitness professional (20 spent as a group fitness instructor). "I was resistant when I first heard about the idea of using choreography that was written by someone else and music chosen by someone else. But, these workouts are researched and developed by qualified fitness professionals and physiologists long before they ever get to me. It allows me to concentrate on my participants - inspect their technique, coach them to better performance, connect with them individually and as a group, and create some 'fitness magic' by blending the music and movement with my teaching style."

Pre-style classes prescribe to standard outlines that are the same from class to class, instructor to instructor. This means that whether you are a participant or program director, you can be reasonably sure of what is being taught.

The quality assurance point goes to pre-style.

Training

Most group instructors receive a primary certification, which can be quite good. However, some of these certifications were developed outside of the group fitness arena, and were retrofitted to include group fitness classes. These certifications train instructors in anatomy and physiology. They list indicated and contraindicated movements, and ask instructors to learn anatomical terms and theories. The primary concern is ensuring a safe workout.

Pre-style trainings are about teaching an instructor how to teach a class, not just how to avoid injuring anyone. No matter which pre-style company you choose, these programs are a business. If the program fails to train instructors on how to deliver a superior class, the program fails. So, the training covers more than anatomy and physiology.

In a pre-style program, there is no concern that the instructor may use contraindicated or ineffective movements, since the exercises are chosen for them. Other key components to teaching an excellent class can be stressed during training - things like personality, coaching and entertaining. This type of training can shorten the learning curve new instructors face, and can help to strengthen weak instructors.

Since pre-style programs require instructors to go through training before teaching their classes, and all instructors receive the same training, your instructors will be more united, prepared and well-versed when you are running a pre-style program.

One more point for pre-style.

Ease of scheduling

One of the biggest headaches for any group fitness director is the schedule. Instructors have lives outside of the facility, and participants have needs and wants that don't always jibe with instructors' lives. Programs sometimes lack balance between cardio, weight and specialty classes because of instructor availability or participant requests. However, the group fitness schedule should be a product of your members' needs, not random suggestions or instructors' schedules.

The uniform training that instructors receive from pre-style programs, combined with the quality assurance that is built in to the program, tends to effectively level the playing field between your weakest and best instructors. Therefore, scheduling instructors should be easier, since any instructor can teach any class (and substitutions are easier, also).

Scheduling is never easy; however, the ease-of-scheduling point goes to pre-style.

The "I" factor

The better the instructor, the more time and effort they put into preparing for class. This is true regardless of whether they are teaching pre-style or freestyle.

The big pre-style companies emphasize the idea that one instructor teaching their program is as good as any other instructor teaching their program. This is one of their main selling points. However, in practice, this does not prove to be the case. Twenty-year instructor Vicki Beatty says, "It takes a real teacher to take the time to plan each class and change the choreography from class to class, ... which I enjoy. I spend many hours a week planning choreography for my classes."

Your most dedicated instructors are more involved than your average/poor instructors. They take more time to plan their classes, they spend extra time rehearsing their classes and learning about their participants, and they are more present for their participants during and after class. Their extra effort and dedication will always show in the number of loyal participants who come to their classes.

The "I" factor point goes to freestyle, because instructors get the credit when their classes are succeeding.

Cost

Most pre-style programs cost something. Les Mills and BTS are contract-driven. This means that they require a contract and a monthly fee from the facility. When instructors are trained to teach the program, they are sponsored by a contracting fitness center. They sign an agreement stating that they will stay current by purchasing new releases every three months, and agree not to teach the program at any facility that is not contracted. If they break that agreement, they risk their ability to purchase future releases, which effectively renders them unable to continue teaching the program. Therefore, in contract-driven pre-style programs, both the fitness center and the instructor carry the cost.

TurboJam and some others only require individual instructors to go through the training, and then purchase the releases. In this case, the instructor carries the cost of the program. The instructor is free to teach the program at any fitness center.

In either case, the cost of releases (equal to the cost of purchasing about six cardio CDs a year) can be burdensome to instructors. Factor in the cost of clothes, shoes, batteries and gas, and, if instructors teach more than one format or only teach once a week, they may barely break even.

Pre-style classes are meant to bring more participants into the group exercise room, and more potential participants into the facility. The fitness center piggybacks on the pre-style program's existing marketing and brand recognition. Add to this the fact that group exercise participation has been known to increase to higher than 40 percent of the members who use the facility. If the right program is brought in with the right implementation, the fitness center should profit in the end.

Because there is an investment required for both instructors and the facility, the cost point goes to freestyle.

It's your choice

Whether you choose to contract your entire program with a pre-choreography company, implement a few piecemeal pre-choreographed programs or go it entirely freestyle, your program will benefit from structure. Spend some time really looking at your group exercise program. Do some research and talk to other program directors or facility owners. Make sure your program makes sense, both financially and for your members' needs.

Sound Intensity Levels of a Typical Group Fitness Class

By Dr. Jeff Burnett and Dr. Fred Britten

In almost all cases, the acoustical background in fitness centers is music that would be judged as "loud." A study by Hull (1991) found that 80 percent of the facilities studied played music that poses a serious health risk (105 dBA). In 2006, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association listed fitness centers as facilities that commonly exceed the desired decibel level of 85 dB SPL. This excessive intensity level directly relates to an increased risk for hearing loss. Smaldino (1998) and Munson (1995) have studied the effects of fitness levels and hearing loss, but little research pertains to hearing loss possibly resulting from the noise level within a facility.

As the popularity of fitness center exercise continues, facility managers must consider the effects of audio systems. Aaberg (2006) stated that the fitness industry has released more research in the last decade than the last five decades combined concerning fitness levels. However, this same industry has ignored important components of hearing health. As such a study was developed to investigate the sound intensity levels of a group exercise class.

Study Method A descriptive methodology was developed to investigate the sound intensity levels of a group exercise class in a university fitness-based facility. Sound level measurements were taken in a group exercise room during a quiet time (no music or activity) and an active time (when patrons were using the facility). A Quest Technologies Model 2700 sound level meter (SLM) was used to measure sound intensity levels on both the A-weighted scale and the C-weighted scale. Measurements were taken for a quiet environment when the audio system was turned off with no patrons. For the music-on condition, measurements were taken while patrons were not participating in a class while the audio system was on. The active condition was measured while the audio system was on with active participants while the instructor used the audio system microphone. Measurements were taken at specific locations (north, middle and south) during each condition.

Study Results Results of this study showed an average sound intensity level of 56.4 dbA and 62.8 dbC in the quiet condition with no activity. During music-on with no activity, the average sound intensity levels were measured at 64.4 dbA and 71.9 dbC. During the active condition, in which the music was on with active participation by the patrons, the average sound intensity level reached 86.0 dbA and 92.9 dbC. These sound intensity levels are above the acceptable levels recommended by American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Conclusions Based on the results of these data, it was determined that the sound intensity levels in this particular facility did exceed the safe level of 85 dB SPL during the active condition. The results would concur with those of other studies (Hull, 1991; Yaremchuk, 1999) that audio systems can create a potential hearing health risk.

However, it should be pointed out that, in this fitness center, the instructor always set the audio system level, and it was at a safe level before activity began. With the inclusion of a microphone during the active condition, sound intensity levels reached an unacceptable level. Instructor and/or fitness center directors should offset the microphone usage by lowering audio system levels during activity.

Professionals within communication sciences and disorders should take a more active role in the collaboration with and education of directors of fitness centers and group fitness instructors about the increased risk for hearing loss when audio systems are played at an unsafe intensity level. When this collaboration occurs, it is possible to present an environment that reduces hearing health risks while still promoting physical fitness.

References
Aaberg, E. Resistance Training. Human Kinetics: Champaign, Ill., 2006.
Growth and Attrition tab. International Health, Racquet, & Sportsclub Association website: http://cms.ihrsa.org/IHRSA/, accessed March 15, 2007.
Hull, R. High volume is high risk: Noise-induced hearing loss. American Fitness Jan-Feb. 1995.
Munson, M. Earobic boost. Prevention 47, 32, 1995.
Smaldino, J. Influence of fitness on susceptibility to noise-induced temporary threshold shift. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 30, pp.289-293, 1998.
Yaremchuk, K.L. Noise levels in the health club setting. Ear, Nose and Throat Journal 78(1), pp.55-57, 1999.