The Fun Part of Group Training

Group Training Program Design: Setting Up your Clients for Success (Part 3)

This is a 3-part series on Group Training to help ensure your (and your clients) long-term success.


We’ve discussed the basic programming variables in Part 1 of this series, and in Part 2 we covered the program layout as a whole to ensure you are getting the best possible results for your clients.   That information alone will have you well on your way to creating great group training programs. Now in the final part of this series we have a chance to bring it all together to discuss some mistakes that most group training programs make and a few tips, tricks and techniques that can keep your group training fun and exciting.

What about the other stuff?

Most group training programs are set up and designed around metabolic conditioning. Which usually means timed work and rest periods vs repetition based programming. There are two big issues that occur in group training program:

  • Using a negative work to rest ratio with no reasoning and use it too often.
  • Clients want to sweat and feel like they are working so trainers feel like they need to go 110% all the time.

In a perfect world a beginner level or deconditioned client would be a on a 1:3 or 1:2 work to rest ratio. This allows them to perform the exercises at the highest level of intensity that their current skills and abilities allow while providing adequate rest to maintain that intensity for the duration of the workout and keep them safe.

As clients progress to an intermediate level and conditioning improves moving to a 2:1 or 1:1 work to rest ratio is acceptable.

There is one little issue…

Clients don’t really want to work for 20s and then rest for a minute. They need to be moving and feel like they got in a great workout.

Oh, and there is also this little bit about most deconditioned or beginner clients not actually being able to push themselves to the absolute limits due to either inexperience or their current fitness levels/abilities.

To overcome those issues if you are working with de-conditioned clients it may be best to stick to longer work periods and include lots of mobility fillers during rest periods to keep them moving.

An example of a mobility filler (you can also check out the article linked above):

A1) KB Goblet Squats x 30s

A2) Hip Flexor Mobility x 15s each leg

A2) Rest 30s

That’s a solid 1:2 work to rest ratio using part of the rest period as a mobility drill.

What about Negative Work to Rest Periods?

You are probably asking “when is it okay to use a negative work to rest period?”

And it’s a great question!

These are reserved for the most advanced clients and should be used infrequently. Doing tabata style training 3-4 days a week isn’t the best idea and it would be nearly impossible for your clients to actually put forth the effort needed to get results from the program.

When programming your negative rest periods or even equal rest periods understand that the more intense the work the shorter the workout needs to be.  Most individuals that are training with you won’t have the capacity physically or mentally to push the intensity for more than a few minutes (and that’s with short work periods)

However, there are a few tricks and techniques that you can use to get around this ‘rule’.

You can use supersets or giant sets alternating movements or muscle groups that do not compete against each other to keep a positive or equal work to rest ratio while still getting the overall metabolic/conditioning impact of the shortened rest periods.

For example a tabata style set up using 20s work and 10s of rest for 8 rounds using alternating muscle groups may look like this:

A1) KB Swing x 20s

Rest 10s

A2) Push Up x 20s

Rest 10s

Repeat for 4 total rounds

Using the work to rest ratio rules will allow you to keep the training truly HIIT vs an extended moderate aerobic workout. Eventually if you are going for 50s of work and 10s of rest over a 30 minute workout it’s going to turn into an aerobic workout because it would be impossible to keep the intensity levels high.

Even by using the superset or giant set technique to overcome some of the obstacles with a negative work to rest ratio the body is working as a unit and it will become fatigued.  If you choose to use these methods place longer rest periods in throughout the workout, for example after 2-4 minutes of work using negative work to rest ratios program in a 60-120s rest period for recovery.

The best time to include them is often in the finishers section at the end of the workout where your clients can put forth all of their effort and remaining energy to cap off the workout for the day.

As long as you understand the principles and have a good reason for applying certain work to rest ratios in your workouts it’s perfectly acceptable to program them in as needed.

Just be aware of what you are training and why!

Creating Your Circuits

kettle-bell-592905_640Typically group training is done in circuits as well. As you create your circuits I always liked to program out the basic movement patterns…

  • Hinge
  • Push
  • Squat
  • Pull

Using those four basic patterns you can also implement core training and metabolic movements in to create a 5-6 station circuit.

My favorite additions include ropes, carries, crawling, calisthenics, and locomotion drills.

Examples would be farmers carry, goblet carry, bear crawl, sit thrus, skip in place, jumping jacks, rope waves, medicine ball slams, band lateral shuffles, band sprints, jumping, etc.

It’s also important to know when to program and who needs unilateral training, and not just for the lower body. While it’s important to train unilateral lower body (single leg) movements not everyone is prepared for them in this environment so prescribe cautiously and carefully for beginners, sticking to basic progressions done with great technique.

A huge benefit of unilateral training is the metabolic effect it can have on the workout when used properly.   For example prescribing a single arm DB press could be done for 20s on each side with no rest between and only use a 20-30s rest period. Your heart rate stays elevated during the entire work period but you are able to push yourself on each side individually. It’s a great way to ramp up the metabolic demand while protecting your work to rest ratios.

Mastering your programming comes with experience. You need to consider the layout of the facility and your equipment and do your best to balance lower body and upper body movements as well as push vs pull movements.

It won’t always layout perfectly and you can mix and match your stations as needed. Instead of trying to look at just one workout when programming look at your entire month or programming to make sure you have balance in the layout globally and understand that if you choose to not have balance (place two lower body movements back to back for example) how that impacts the workout.

This is another area that you get to have some fun with as long as you understand the outcomes you want to get and the impact your decisions have on the overall workout for the client.

Density Training, Tempo Training and More!

As you progress as a trainer and coach you want to create fun workouts that are outside of the norm for your clients.  This is especially true for your clients that have been with you for a long period of time.  It’s one thing to provide as solid training program for someone, it’s another thing to keep it exciting.

Arguing semantics over what clients want and need is pointless!  People choose to go to Zumba, Barre, Group Ex classes and all the stuff that you probably make fun of because it’s appealing to them and it’s fun for them.  You need to be able to do the same with your training sessions.

My friend Ben Bruno is one of the most creative and innovative personal trainers that I know.  You can find his creative exercise variations all over Youtube and on popular fitness/strength blogs.  During one of our conversations we discussed the issue of proper, simple programming vs creative programming and how the don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Let’s face it, most of your clients aren’t competitive athletes performing at the highest level.  If you change up programming frequently, especially modifying the exercise variations, it won’t kill them.  Most of them just want to be in better shape, look better, and feel better.

To you and I a DB Reverse Lunge, Slider KB Reverse Lunge and Landmine Reverse Lunge all train the same movement pattern.  However to a client they are perceived as a completely new exercises and keep things exciting.   When programming take off your trainer hat and put yourself in your clients’ shoes for a minute as you review the program you’re writing.

A few fun ways to mix up training without changing up your exercises daily is density training and manipulating the time under tension.  But even those can get boring if you train them the same way over and over.

Density Training

Density training is typically done by establishing a work period and then selecting a certain number of movements to perform for prescribed reps during that time frame.

For example:

5 Minute Density Set

A1) DB Floor Press x 8

A2) KB Swing x 15

Complete as many rounds as you can with good form in the 5-minute period

Density training as laid out above can get tricky in a group training setting.  You have to have enough equipment for the exercises selected and you need to be able to coach on the fly because inevitably people will forget what they are doing.  The other big obstacle is selecting the right weight for the density sets so that you are accomplishing the desired outcome of the training session.

Density training has become AMRAP (As Many Rounds/Reps As Possible) for many people and they blow through the sets as fast as they can trying to acccomplish a higher and higher number of rounds.

That’s one way to do it, but not the best way!

Using density training well you will focus on hypertrophy or strength setting a goal for total volume during the workout for the movement.  So if you want to train in the 40 rep range for your push movement in the above example you need to complete 5 total sets in the 5-minute period or average a set a minute. That might be tough for a client to complete that many sets using a higher weight.

I would coach it to set a goal for total reps or sets completed in a density set and then instruct the clients to pick a weight.  If they meet or exceed that number of sets or total number of reps in the work period the next time they do this workout they will pick a heavier weight or tougher progression.  Then they will attempt to hit the goal again with the higher intensity. You can repeat this progression for a long time before running out of options.

Most of the time due to equipment restrictions I would pair an equipped movement using a KB, DB, TRX or Ropes with a bodyweight or band movement.  That allowed you to be flexible with your programming.   The movements selected would be noncompeting movements and I did my best to program upper/lower, upper/lower/core or upper/lower/locomotion density sets.

A 60-120s rest period can be given after each work period that will give you time to transition your clients through stations and explain their movements again if needed.

This is one of my favorite programming strategies because it allows clients to really challenge themselves.  However, you have to watch your beginner clients or those with movement issue so they don’t try to do the toughest progression right out of the gate.

Time Under Tension (TUT)

Typically tempo training is done using timed eccentric, isometric and concentric phases of a movement. It’s easy to teach if you match your tempo counts to the work period.  For example if you are using a 30s work period and 2s eccentric, no isometric and 1s concentric tempo you can tell your clients that they should be completing 10 reps or less in that time frame.  If they are getting more than 10 they are counting too fast.

With tempo training you are increasing the time the muscles are under tension, but it does get a little boring and for some of your clients they don’t want to count tempo when they come to workout.

Using mechanical drop sets, countdowns and other tricks you can easily increase the time under tension for the muscle groups/movements without having a client count.

An example of a mechanical drop set would be having a client perform a Goblet Squat for 20s with the heaviest weight they can hold and then lowering it between the legs to do a KB Deadlift/Squat movement.  Holding the KB at chest height is usually the limiting factor, so by lowering the weight it will allow the client to continue with a squat or hinge movement pattern using the same load to increase time under tension.

Here’s a video example of a mechanical drop set from Ben Bruno:

Countdowns are another great way to add time under tension.  To prescribe a countdown you can select a number of reps and then isometric holds.  You will countdown using the starting reps and iso holds.  So an example is:

  • 6 Reps Goblet Squat
  • 6s Iso Hold at Bottom
  • 5 Reps Goblet Squat
  • 5s Iso Hold At Bottom
  • 4 Reps Goblet Squat
  • 4s Iso Hold At Bottom
  • 3 Reps Goblet Squat
  • 3s Iso Hold At Bottom
  • 2 Reps Goblet Squat
  • 2s Iso Hold At Bottom
  • 1 Rep Goblet Squat
  • 1s Rest at Bottom

That’s 21 total reps and 21s of isometric holds.  It’s a real quad (and lung) burner.  These work great for self limiting movements like a TRX Row, Push Up or even goblet squats.  Prescribe them with movements or tools that are safe if the individual fails a rep.  It’s gonna happen using these protocols in a group training program.

If you want to use time to complete this you can us a 60s work period and go like this:

  • 15s work
  • 15s iso hold
  • 10s work
  • 10s iso hold
  • 5s work
  • 5s iso hold

It’s not quite as fun as the other countdowns but serves the same purpose 🙂

Get creative in your programming, remember your training principles. It makes things much more fun for your clients.  Which leads me to our final point…

Keep Your Training Fun and Exciting

If we are going to be brutally honest about programming then we have to address the fact that you will likely get bored by running the same system over and over. And it’s likely that your clients will too!

Most of the time the trainers get bored before the clients, but when you’re bored the clients will feel your energy and they will follow suit.

Having a system for programming is key to being able to run a scalable program and being able to predict results for clients. But, that doesn’t mean your training can’t be fun

Mix in some fun sessions here and there to your programs where you go outside of the box but still apply the basic principles of training.

You’re a smart trainer, if you weren’t you wouldn’t have read this far!

Step back and take a look at your programs. If the changes you want to make or need to make help your clients get to their desired results faster or more efficiently and you can justify the changes to fit your principles of training then MAKE THOSE CHANGES! Experiment with new training methods and techniques in a workout or two a month. Try them out on yourself and see how you feel doing them. Getting outside of your comfort zone and exploring training can be a fun process in itself and will make you a better trainer and coach.

Remember this one rule: Always be able to know why you would make the change and how it helps your clients.

If you enjoyed this blog series let me know in the comments below and feel free to share it on social media.  You can also pick up your FREE Group Training Cheat Sheets by clicking the image below.

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