Pulsating beats and elevated heart rates. A full array of step platforms or stationary bikes. An instructor working as hard — or harder — than anyone in the room while exhaling instruction into a microphone headset.

For decades, group exercise didn't stray far from this model, and while such classes remain popular, there's another trend taking shape — one that addresses multiple pillars of fitness: cardio, strength, power and endurance. A modern-day circuit might include biking, hand cycling, rowing, running on a treadmill and reps on a suspension rig. Group exercise has become group training.

"We have now seen a group training environment emerge," says Erica Tillinghast, global education manager at fitness equipment manufacturer Precor. "Group training environments are typically led by a coach — a personal trainer rather than a group exercise instructor — and often have different equipment stations that exercisers rotate through. Rather than participating in the workout, the coach manages the flow of the workout, provides cues to exercisers at different stations, and offers some personalized coaching."

"We've found the circuit format to be an increasingly popular trend, especially in the U.S.," adds Marco Zambianchi, president of Technogym North America. "Trainers and fitness facilities are embracing the variety that group fitness classes can offer."

"We've found the circuit format to be an increasingly popular trend, especially in the U.S.," adds Marco Zambianchi, president of Technogym North America. "Trainers and fitness facilities are embracing the variety that group fitness classes can offer."

"Nearly a third of club members tried a small group training session last year."

Even the "group" in "group fitness" is evolving. "Generally, that means four to 12 people," as opposed to upwards of 60 in some traditional group exercise settings, according to Ashley Haberman, marketing manager for the U.S. commercial division at Matrix. "Because there are fewer people, it builds the community a little more. It provides more personal attention from the trainer, so it's a good blend of personal training but in a group training format. You're still getting assistance on the proper movements. You're getting the programming direction. And then you also have the camaraderie, because you have a smaller group and you're holding each other accountable."

Most importantly, Haberman adds, "You're still getting results."

The movement comes equipped
Entire franchises — most notably CrossFit and Orangetheory — have been launched from the group training platform. But many of today's best-recognized fitness brands have brought to market their own group training products and turnkey programming solutions.

"Facilities are seeking to do more with bodyweight training and simple training tools. These tools are often less costly and take up less space than more traditional equipment," says Tillinghast, whose company offers 19 models of Queenax modular functional training equipment — one with two functional and suspension stations, another with 28, and just about every configuration in between. "Functional equipment can be attached or removed in seconds, and can accommodate different training styles — whether that's circuit training, partner or team circuit training, or class training."

Cybex offers PWR Play, which the company's website describes as "a flexible and configurable strength and functional training solution for individual, personal and group training. It can be configured for traditional cable-based training, functional and bodyweight workouts — or a combination of both." PWR Play comes with 27 add-on options, including storage solutions.

But even this "back to basics movement," as Tillinghast calls it, has room for technological assistance.

Technogym introduced a digital product called TEAMBEATS™ earlier this year specifically to enhance the group training experience for patrons and providers alike. "TEAMBEATS allows operators to create an engaging and fully connected experience with the brand's fully connected equipment, or without," says Zambianchi, adding that the tool "tracks your heart rate in real time and allows the trainer or instructor to customize the timer for warm-up, work time, intervals, rest time and cool-down, allowing users to follow their progress."

Moreover, trainers can manage their classes using Technogym's UNITY™ SELF kiosk, which allows for control of timing, music and large-screen display of participants' performance metrics.

Matrix, meanwhile, has connected pieces of its existing product line — a rower, a self-propelled treadmill and a crank cycle, to name a few — into a self-contained package called The MX4 Training System, which debuted in the U.S. last year and rolled out globally this past March. MX4 programming and goals are communicated by coaches on equipment-mounted chalkboards and, when classes aren't in session, on magnetized workout cards that coaches can leave behind. A higher-tech complement to these tools is Matrix's Personal Trainer Portal, which allows trainers to communicate workouts and track clients' results through any internet-connected device while inside or outside the class setting. "We're seeing a lot of YMCAs and other facilities repurposing racquetball courts, and this system fits right into a racquetball court," Haberman says of MX4. "Just put this product in there, and then you have a whole new revenue stream for small group training."

Profit center
Group training can improve the financial health of fitness providers, with certain advantages over the traditional group excercise format.

"It's flexible in that we have the programming to offer classes, but that space can also be utilized as a zone-training or personal-training area," Haberman says. "If you look at an indoor cycling class, that space is largely unused unless there's a class going on, whereas if you're using floor space for this, you can run classes but you can also offer it as an additional level of VIP access."

Access to instruction is key. "Equipment is being designed not only with group training in mind, but also with coaching capabilities in mind," says Tillinghast. "Nearly a third of club members tried a small group training session last year, and products that require additional instruction and allow the fitness professional to provide added value are very important."

Make no mistake, establishing a group training environment requires commitment by the club and its personnel, Tillinghast adds. "Most instructors find it more difficult to manage circuits, where each exerciser has a unique piece of equipment and is performing a unique exercise, versus a class environment, where each person is performing the same exercise and where variability comes in personalization cued by the instructor," she says. "However, we are seeing circuit programs being used in many clubs because they require less equipment and therefore less investment."

"Retention rates surge when members feel a sense of belonging within a community, find their routine fun and challenging, and are achieving results."

Selecting the right equipment is no less important. "Equipment that is easy to get on and off, highly adaptable and scalable to different ability levels is ideal for group training," Tillinghast says, adding that safety is paramount, but the "cool factor" can't be discounted, either. "Is it new? Does it challenge me? Would I want to share the experience on social media?"

Such questions can inform providers on just who they should target with their group training programs. "People want to be a part of the latest exercise craze, and in many cases are willing to pay more money to be involved in a program," she adds. "Millennials, in particular, are looking for a personalized, unique experience and not just exercise. Members of this generation have a large fitness wallet, and they seek experiences that encourage community, camaraderie and variety. Additionally, mid-market facilities need to continue to offer compelling program alternatives to retain members as boutiques and boutique programming offerings continue to grow."

Whether provided as part of membership — the model of many big-box clubs — or sold separately, group training is now viewed as vital to remain competitive in today's fitness marketplace. The old adage that "it's less expensive to retain a member than attract a new one" still applies.

"Group exercise offerings set clubs apart from each other by creating unique user experiences that keep members engaged," Zambianchi says. "Retention rates surge when members feel a sense of belonging within a community, find their routine fun and challenging, and are achieving results. We find it is common for members to go to a certain club specifically for the group classes the facility offers. If members are not engaged with their routine and their progress, they will look to other options."

This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Group training pulling its weight in the marketplace" Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.


Paul Steinbach is Senior Editor of Athletic Business.