Becoming a Groupie: A Guide to Choosing the Right Gym and Thriving in Small Group Training

By Lisa Rhea


Terrance, the head trainer at American Sled Dogs Coronado, gave me the confidence to try a box jump that I would NEVER have tried on my own. I was so proud when I faced my fears and made it!

Group exercise classes have always been a popular workout option – from Zumba and step aerobics to circuit training and bootcamp-style classes.

I tried my hand (or feet rather) at step classes back in college – with uncoordinated failure, which led me to completely pass on any other class that requires rhythm. I’ve enjoyed bootcamps and actually found my passion for weight training in a BodyPump class back in 2002.

But in the past decade a new beast was born – concierge gyms offering small group training classes. Much more intense than your pink weights and 6” step, these gyms specialize in weight training and helping clients reach new levels of fitness.

For a long time, I shied away from these gyms, and their often exorbitant monthly rates, mainly because I have the knowledge and experience to train on my own with success. And I’ll admit, the idea of letting go of the control over my training was difficult for my Type-A self. But as my training goals changed, and I decided to focus more on strength and conditioning than just aesthetics, group workouts became much more appealing.

Let’s face it – it’s hard to push yourself to that next level alone. I’ll always run faster when I have someone to chase.

After my baby was born, group exercise just became a lifesaver – it provides a social element, as well as a great workout. I began exercising by myself, but being sleep-deprived and with an infant in tote, it was hard to stay focused.

In a group setting, I have a time to be at the gym, others who are expecting me to be there, and a workout that I don’t have to think about. Not to mention, I have a great trainer and an awesome group of people to train with who make it fun.

Even experienced athletes can benefit from small group training – with a good trainer. While training at SICFIT San Diego, I worked with Johnny Griffiths, who completely overhauled my squat and deadlift. I’m now lifting more than ever, even after having a baby, simply due to a good coach who knew how to make those small tweaks to improve my form.


I finally hit my goal of squatting 135 after working on my squat form.

I began training at American Sled Dogs Coronado about four months postpartum, initially drawn in by their free child care, and found an amazing community. I am lucky to spend my mornings sweating next to some great people, most of whom are moms of young children, like me. And we really sweat.

The head trainer, Terrance Williams, keeps us working harder than I ever thought I could. Each day I’m challenged, and each day I walk away feeling a sense of accomplishment. There’s something to be said for a coach that can push you and build you up, while keeping your best interests in mind and preventing injury. Williams is the real deal.

Finding a good gym and then acclimating to group training isn’t as easy as it would seem, though. I was very critical and careful about where I chose to train. Here’s my guide to picking a gym and how to make the most of training in a group setting.

Choosing a Gym

As I mentioned, concierge gyms are everywhere these days. Many of these gyms are Crossfit or Crossfit-style gyms, which have beginners tossing heavy barbells around and are practically synonymous with injury. Most are staffed with trainers who have nothing more than a weekend certification. Workouts of the day, or WODS, are pre-written, not individualized to the group that’s actually working out, and weights and exercises are prescribed without consideration to each person’s abilities or goals. This is where the injury part comes in.

That’s not to say you can’t find a good Crossfit gym, and there are plenty of group fitness gyms that are completely non-Crossfit, but this brings me to my first point – ask about the training staff’s qualifications and the programming. Part of the high cost of membership is that you’re paying for small group personal training, essentially. So make sure the trainers are legit and are able to explain exercises, make modifications for any limitations you have, and are willing to personalize workouts to your individual needs. Don’t be afraid to ask about certifications and experience. Find out the style of programming and if it matches your goals.

Next, attend a class and pay attention to the others in the class. Let’s be honest, if the training is any good, there should be fit people in the class. Yes, we all start somewhere, but if no one looks great, chances are you’re not going to look great either. Watch how the trainer interacts with everyone, not just you, during your class. Talk to the other members, if you have the chance, and see how long they’ve been attending class and how frequently. All these factors will help you determine if the gym is a good fit.


The morning crew at American Sled Dogs Coronado.

Look for key factors that will make a difference in your attendance. A gym is only good if you actually go. For me, having good childcare was essential. Also having a class time that would fit my needs – I like morning, but not too early. If you need to shower before work, be sure there are facilities. Do you want to train some on your own, as well as classes? If so, make sure they have open gym hours.

Lastly, don’t get trapped in long-term contracts. A good gym won’t try to lock members in, because they won’t have to. Even if a long-term contract is less expensive, try it out for a month first, before committing. Because, as you’ll read on and see, there are still several more factors to consider that will determine if group training and the gym are a good fit for you, but you won’t know this until after you’re a member.

You’ve Signed Up, Now What?

You liked the gym, the trainers, the programming and are now in class, surrounded by some pretty fit people and probably some other beginners. Regardless of your level, there are some things to keep in mind when you’re training in a group.

First and foremost, check your ego at the door. Group training is great for giving you an extra push, but don’t let your desire to be the best, hang with the group or even just keep up, drive you to injury. There’s a difference between working hard and going too far, and generally common sense can dictate which is which. Seeing stars or feeling nauseous? Don’t be afraid to sit down or take a break. Does the exercise feel wrong or something hurts? Don’t just work through the pain, stop and get help.

If you are unfamiliar with an exercise, or don’t think you’re doing it properly, ask for help. Don’t just look at the person next to you and go from there. You should always know how to properly execute an exercise – and that includes bodyweight exercises. A good trainer will explain how to do the exercise, what the exercise is meant to accomplish and cues for doing the exercise properly. Oftentimes, just knowing the muscles that should be doing the work will help you connect with those muscles, and that leads to better form and better results.

This brings me to my next point – never sacrifice form. The trainer will generally recommend what weights to use, but if you can’t do the exercise with proper form, it’s better to drop weight down than to continue and risk injury. When you let form go for a certain number of reps or attempting to reach a time goal, you’re no longer getting the full benefit of the exercise, and you could wind up hurting yourself.

Remember, you’re paying good money to have a trainer to help you achieve your goals. This means you need to provide feedback. The only way your trainer will know what’s going on with you is if you tell him or her. Are you having pain? Say something. Are you feeling especially beat up? He won’t know unless you tell him. Do you have a goal that’s not being met? Ask how you can work on it. Your trainer can’t read your mind, so be sure to fill him in.

Lastly, don’t judge others and encourage everyone. The great thing about small group training is the collaboration – being able to push and help each other and the sense of accomplishment as a team. There’s no feeling quite like it and it can be hard to find a good gym environment where people truly want to see each other succeed, rather than simply compete with each other, but they’re out there.

Like anything, you can make all the difference. The right attitude in a gym setting is contagious. Show up with a positive attitude and ready to work. Cheer each other on, encourage those who need it and celebrate the little victories together.

Group training is a great option, providing community and guidance for beginning and advanced athletes. If you’re in a rut, it’s a great option to shake things up. Keep these guidelines in mind and give it a try. You might just find yourself reaching a whole new level of fitness.


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