4 Fitness Red Flags to Watch Out for as an Instructor

It’s the final song in my favorite cycling class. The final push that will send us into the cooldown, and the energy is high. I no longer care about wiping the beads of sweat from my face; my priorities are to ride this endorphin rush all the way through until the end of class, and my neighbors to my left and right seem to have the same idea. Their good energy is palpable, too. And then, out of left field, the instructor shouts into the microphone, “Alright, y’all, let’s finish strong so we can party later!” 

Buzz kill. 

I’ll take my post-workout celebration sans guilt, please and thank you. The idea that fitness is a means to an end, or that we have to “work for” the right to celebrate any way we’d like, is just one glaring example of a fitness red flag.  

But even if you aren’t as primed to notice those kinds of cues as I am (they really do get under my skin), I’m sure we’ve all had that “ick” feeling somewhere in a group class setting. Sometimes it’s plain as day, and other times it’s hard to put your finger on just what felt off. All you know is you leave feeling less stellar than you could have from your workout hour.

Before I dive in further, I want to make a note that I’m a coach and a student. I’ve both led and participated in hundreds of small and large group fitness classes from HIIT to running to spinning to strength to CrossFit to yoga. Anecdotally, I can remember classes that literally sent me home in tears because of words a teacher used. I can also remember saying things like “hey guys” to welcome a diverse group of people into a class and cringed immediately as soon as I said it.

I will (pretty much) always give a teacher and a studio more than one chance because I know we’re all human. I know that I’m doing my best and will continue to learn more and better ways to make my classes, students, and clients feel welcome and at ease when they walk through the door. 

I also know that intent doesn’t always equate to impact. Over time, I’ve come to recognize a few fitness red flags that signal to me a person isn’t thinking critically about the impact they might have on their class, even if the intent was entirely benign. And in the interest of taking small steps every day to better ourselves, I’ve outlined a few helpful tips that have helped me as a coach to turn those red flags green. 

P.S.: I’m speaking from what I’ve experienced in the past, but that’s just been my experience. If you have other fitness red flags, please add them to the comments through a lens of constructive criticism so we can all help each other become just a little bit better every day. 

fitness instructor sitting in front of class

Red flag #1: Outcome or aesthetics-driven “encouragement”

I call this fitness as a punishment, not as a gift. A personal hot take here…there’s nothing more demotivating to me than thinking about what a single workout is going to do to change how I look. Sure, I love to feel strong, but do I think doing one more squat before the buzzer goes out is going to give me buns of steel? Definitely not. And thinking about what I look like on the outside takes me away from the experience of feeling connected on the inside, and I end up moving way less mindfully. 

As a coach, here’s what you can do to avoid finding yourself in this trap:

  • Avoid phrases that connect solely to burning calories, working something “off,” or phrases that generally speak to the negative versus the positive.
  • Stay present with your cues. Focus on what’s happening in the room. Instead of thinking about what comes next, what can you share with your students or clients that’s motivating about the present moment you’re in? 
  • Feelings, feelings, feelings. When in doubt, close your eyes and ask yourself, “What do you feel?” Try replacing the word “look” with “feel” while cueing one day and notice what cues you can come up with.

Red flag #2: Assuming a person’s fitness experience and/or skill

I took a strength class earlier this month in a new gym. The coach didn’t know me. After the warm-up, they suggested a set of weights for women and a set for men. Based on the movement, though, I knew I wanted a heavier weight. The coach didn’t say anything immediately, but after starting the workout, they offered me a “compliment” by saying, “Oh, you’re actually strong.”

Womp, womp. The intent may have been fine, but the impact was that I felt like that coach was judging me the minute I walked into the room. 

On the flip side, pushing a person harder can be just as detrimental. The truth is, we never know what a person is walking through the doors with, what kind of day they had, or what they need out of their workout hour.

And this is a tricky red flag because a positive intent may be underneath the action, but it all comes down to the approach.

As a coach, here are a few things you can consider:

  • Ask questions (many of them!) before making an assumption. If you think a student needs to modify, approach through a lens of offering an option just for reference, versus a command.
  • In a group setting, speak to the group before singling a person out on a form correction. The whole class would likely benefit.
  • If you’re working one-on-one, make sure you know the person’s style of working out. Ask them what feels motivating to them. If they’re motivated by being asked to work harder in an uplifting way, then you’ll know you can go that route. If your client is like me and just wants to quit immediately at the sound of someone telling me I have to do something, learn that and find new ways to speak the language of motivation.
  • Avoid phrases like “if you need to take a break,” and “try X if you can’t do Y” — any phrases that lead you to think you’re less than if you can’t complete the movement or set.

Red flag #3: Hierarchical class structure

This is another sneaky fitness red flag. The way classes and even movements are labeled and described can carry a connotation with it. It’s quite common in yoga studios, for example, to list a class as “Level 3-4 Vinyasa.” 

While this isn’t an outright terribly glaring red flag, it leads to a culture of putting people in boxes or students and clients putting themselves in categories. While it doesn’t explicitly say that advanced equals better and beginner equals worse, that notion can often seep into the culture of the fitness space.

On an individual level, coaches can monitor the language we use to describe movements.

 For example, in my yoga classes, I stopped using language like “modification,” “easy,” “advanced,” and “peak pose.” The moment we start communicating a hierarchy of skill from easy to hard, we’re one skip away from our students thinking there’s such a thing as better or worse. And when we go down that path, self-esteem and self-efficacy are at risk. 

As a gym owner and/or coach, here are a few things to consider:

  • Have inclusive vocabulary handy and practice using it. For example, instead of “level one” try “variation A” or “option A.” It’ll take time for it to become second nature, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth practicing it diligently when a person’s self-esteem is at stake.
  • When offering a modification, offer it to the whole class versus singling one person out. Try demo-ing the “basic” version of a movement first rather than a more complex one so people know the “basic” version is just as solid a choice, not secondary or less-than.

Red flag #4: Speaking in absolutes

“This is the only core exercise you need.”

“You need to do this _____.”

“Never do ____ because it’s bad for you.”

“Always make sure to do _____ because it works for me and it’s good for you, too.”

The truth is, every individual body is different. We all need different things. What worked for me a year ago isn’t what I need today. When I’m focusing on one thing, that might mean I’m choosing to not focus on something else on purpose. When I squat, sometimes I let the squat be more of a hinge, and other days I elevate my heels, narrow my stance, and keep my position more upright. 

It all depends. The moment a coach or trainer tells me I have to do something one way, my spidey senses go on full alert. I’m always open to hearing a suggestion, but I want to know why, and I want it to be offered to me, not demanded.

Coaches, try on these considerations in your coaching to avoid absolutes: 

  • Ask questions (again!) and suggest a new cue with the focus on offering an idea, not a command. 
  • Remember that you’re unique; so too are your clients and students. We only ever know our own experience in our own bodies, but that doesn’t mean we can’t ask questions and learn from how another person is strategizing their movement.
  • Remember that people’s bodies are intelligent and resilient. If someone is moving in a certain way that seems out of the norm, remember it’s a strategy that person has come up with to accomplish their goals. Celebrate them for it! There might be room for subtle or even big shifts over time, but those changes will happen through positive reinforcement, little by little, over time. In other words, meet your students where they are, not where you think they ought to be.
Move Studio Fitness

About Maggie Umberger

Maggie moved to Chicago from North Carolina in 2014 with a degree in Journalism and Spanish, a 200-hour yoga certification, a group fitness cert and a passion to teach and to sweat. It wasn't until she found aSweatLife that she really started to feel at home. Here, she's incorporated her passion for health and wellness into her career as she helps to build the network of Ambassadors, trainers and fitness enthusiasts that exist within the aSweatLife ecosystem. You can also find her coaching at CrossTown Fitness and teaching yoga classes at Bare Feet Power Yoga, Yoga Six and exhale.