How to Build (or Expand) Your Small Group Training Program

SGT is a retention and revenue powerhouse. Here’s how to get the most out of it.

By now, health club operators and fitness programmers shouldn’t have to be convinced that small group training (SGT) plays an important role in building a solid non-dues revenue base. If you don’t have an SGT program, you’re missing out on a proven moneymaker. IHRSA research shows that SGT is one of the leading profit centers at most clubs.

According to the 2018 IHRSA Health Club Consumer Report, SGT (a class with 6-20 participants) is twice as popular as personal training. As the report bluntly states: “Small group training is the preferred activity of members when it comes to personalized instruction.” More than personal training and more than regular group X programs.

“Small group training is the preferred activity of members when it comes to personalized instruction.”

2018 IHRSA Health Club Consumer Report

Those who participate in SGT are a diverse crowd, both ethnically and economically. SGT participants skew more female and younger than those using traditional personal training services. The IHRSA Fitness Training Report found that Generation Z had the highest participation rate for SGT in 2016, as 45.8% of consumers between the ages of 6-17 engaged in SGT. The report further states that SGT has near-equal penetration rates across most income brackets.

SGT participants pay an average of $33.96 per session, which is less than PT rates, but the numbers add up. IHRSA’s Profiles of Success found that fitness-only clubs enjoyed a median of 8.7% total revenue from SGT, only slightly less than the 8.8% for personal training.

Clubs that don’t have an SGT program or who have a limited one due to practical issues (e.g., lack of club space, not enough suitable instructors, etc.) should still make the effort to launch or expand SGT. These intimate group classes can not only help build a reliable revenue engine, they can increase retention. A recent study by The Retention People found that 88% of group exercise members retained their membership during the duration of the study.

Chances are you may not have a lot of extra capital to invest in an SGT program, but you don’t have to break the bank to launch or expand SGT. Let’s take a look at ways to bring the magic of SGT to your club for maximum ROI.

Creating a Studio Within Your Club

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One of the great features of SGT is that it’s a manageable way to offer functional training to your members. Everything from CrossFit-style workouts, boot camp, and HIIT can be grouped under functional fitness.

With such a wide variety of options, you need to make sure you have the right type of functional SGT for your membership. How do you discover their preferred style? Ask them.

Marisa Hoff, general manager of Stevenson Fitness in Oak Park, CA, has created a thriving SGT and group X program at her club by researching what her members desired through surveys.

"What owners think members want and like isn't necessarily the case," Hoff said. “You have to continue to survey; that will allow you to keep your programming fresh and cater to the needs of the members.”

“You have to continue to survey; that will allow you to keep your programming fresh and cater to the needs of the members.”

Marisa Hoff, General Manager

Stevenson Fitness - Oak Park, CA

According to an IHRSA e-book, Group Exercise Training: How to Create a Program That Works for Your Club, after you decide on the type of SGT for your club, you should keep these issues in mind when creating your program.

  • Make it easy to participate. Don’t overburden your members with requirements to invest in expensive wearables or other costly items. Try to make it easy to join a class by removing obstacles that may intimidate or price out members. Offer free first-time class sessions to get members interested.
  • Don’t get too locked into an individual trainer. He or she may leave, and a chunk of your membership may follow that trainer out the door.
  • Foster a social environment. One of the reasons SGT has been so successful is due to the social bonding of the group experience. This is one of the great advantages for clubs who may be lacking a mechanism for social connection among members.

SGT was created and popularized in the studio boutique space. It may help to think of your SGT offering as a boutique experience within your club.

“There are a lot of different aspects to boutique studios’ popularity, but I think the first and foremost is they provide a real social [and] community aspect to the experience, and people are really looking for that these days,” said Hoff.

Affordable SGT Systems for Busy Club Owners

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Still, some clubs resist launching SGT in their clubs. They worry it will be too expensive and swallow up too much floor space, or that some of the equipment used in functional training will clutter up their workout areas.

Fortunately, many equipment suppliers have responded to the demand by offering a number of plug-and-play systems for clubs that provide three crucial elements of SGT: multiple equipment options, space utilization solutions, and workout programs.

For years, Life Fitness has taken the lead in creating group X systems and equipment for health clubs who don’t have the time or budget to create them from scratch. One of the most comprehensive of these SGT systems is SYNRGY180. The strength of SYNRGY180 is in its wall unit design that maximizes space for clubs who have limited room, while offering the vast array of training tools that functional fitness demands.

“Our customers said that they needed a unit that would not only store a lot of accessories but different types of accessories, while at the same time incorporating today’s most popular functional training exercises on the product,” says John Lindemeier, Life Fitness’ senior product manager for strength.

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The SYNRGY180 system features the following:

  • a space-saving wall functional training system that offers nearly limitless training possibilities without taking up valuable square footage;
  • can be configured and built into a size that accommodates small or large areas, depending upon the needs and space availability of a health club;
  • offers nearly limitless training possibilities provided by the ample storage of accessories like kettlebells, medicine balls, and more (you can also order add-ons like suspension straps, a Power Pivot, rope pull, stall bars, and heavy bags);
  • has 24 storage and attachment options.

The eye-catching modern design of SYNRGY180 will give your club a boutique feel, which is one of the attractions of SGT. It will also eliminate clutter that sometimes results from all those medicine balls and kettlebells used in functional SGT. With Life Fitness’ wide variety of training equipment, your instructors can create a nearly endless selection of SGT concepts that perfectly match the demographics of your membership.

But even if you have problems hiring or retaining instructors, Life Fitness has a solution with Digital Coach. Digital Coach is on-demand video instruction, streamed on a flat-screen monitor, that contains hundreds of instructor-led video workouts for guided classes or for members to do on their own. It’s truly a plug-and-play SGT system.

To learn more about the SYNRGY180 and other SGT options from Life Fitness, visit Life Fitness' website or send them an email.

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Jim Schmaltz

Jim Schmaltz is a contributor to IHRSA.org