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McFitness: Are Fitness Classes Going the Way of Fast Food?

These types of classes I'm talking about are known as "pre-choreographed." It's the same concept as McDonald's. Wherever you go to and take this particular class, you'll be getting the same exact routine anywhere in the world.
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First there was McDonald's, then Burger King then, almost overnight, dozens more following the same franchise business model sprang up. Seems like this is what's happening in the fitness world now too, only not as fast. Let's face it, more people east fast food than go to gyms (sigh).

Imagine you're a member at a gym and you decide you're going to start taking some sort of group exercise class that interests you (it could be a kickboxing, weightlifting, yoga, dance, indoor cycling, whatever floats your boat). Your instructor has been teaching the exact same workout for a few weeks, and you've gotten it down almost to memory.

Now imagine you have to travel out of town to a few different cities. As luck would have it, the gym you're a member of has locations nearby. You notice the same class you've been taking at your local gym is on the schedule here, so you venture in and lo and behold, it's the exact same routine you were doing back home. Are you the kind of person that feels like you've hit pay dirt? Or, do you feel gypped because you were secretly hoping for something different and new? If you're the less adventurous type who doesn't like to venture off the beaten path, especially when it comes to your fitness, then you're probably relieved. You're probably also the type of person who prefers chain restaurants when you travel because you know what's on the menu and what to expect. If this describes you, then you're exactly who a new trend in group fitness is setting their sights on targeting.

These types of classes I'm talking about are known as "pre-choreographed." It's the same concept as McDonald's. Wherever you go to and take this particular class, you'll be getting the same exact routine anywhere in the world. The first company I saw bring this McFitness concept to group exercise classes was Les Mills out of New Zealand 15 years ago. Every Les Mills class, whether it's strength training, cardio or flexibility is choreographed by the company from start to finish. All the instructor does is memorize the routine and teach it as is. Every three months a new routine with new music is released. No room for deviation or for an instructor to adapt the routine as they may see fit.

In the early 90s, when I already had a handful of years of teaching experience behind me, I was offered to take a Les Mills certification for their class called, "Body Pump." I was mortified when I found out they wanted me to be a Stepford Wife and follow their routine soup to nuts. I called someone at the company and read them the riot act. "I know the people in my class better than you do!" I snarled. I continued on my rail saying, "When I see people are falling behind, I go back a step and give people a chance to get the exercise right, when I see the majority of the class ready to progress, then I move on. You want me to just follow the choreography whether people are getting it or not... whether they're ready for the next move or not? That's ridiculous! People may as well just follow a DVD at home if they want the same workout and consistency!" But that's exactly what they want and exactly what they do. Much to my complete and utter surprise, they've created a pretty successful business model.

As someone who spent countless hours in my novice years taking classes and workshops from more experienced instructors, who toiled over creating new routines and choreography, and practiced, practiced, practiced, it seems like a cop out to have a scripted workout just handed to you. My method of teaching is now referred to as, "Freestyle," meaning I create and design my own workouts, from boot camps to indoor cycling, to Pilates and bar methods, rather than buy pre-canned goods. I'd understand if these new instructors were working smarter rather than harder, but it's hard to make a profit if you teach pre-choreographed classes. If you're a Les Mills-certified instructor for example, you have to pay a few hundred dollars for the certification (unless your gym pays for it), then you have to pay for the newly-released workouts every three months. If you teach more than one type of Less Mills class, you have to pay for the new release for each format. Plus, going to their workshops are another added cost. Les Mills also makes money on the other end as well. Each gym that offers any type of Les Mills class pays a licensing fee to the company for advertising and other support.

There are other brands of pre-choreographed classes are not as stringent or as costly as Les Mills. Zumba, a type of high energy, Latin-based dance class, which is probably the hottest group fitness trend right now, only requires the instructor to get certified, stay licensed (paying a twice-yearly fee) and buy new music from them occasionally. The Zumba Academy classes gives you the basic moves you can use and tools to create a class for yourself. They don't require gyms or facilities to pay a licensing fee. They seem to make plenty of money selling DVDs and branded apparel.

There's no doubt that more and more of these branded, pre-packaged classes are cropping up every year, and it's easy to see why. In 15 years, Les Mills has grown to 90,000 instructors teaching millions of people a week in 14,000 health clubs in 80 countries. And in 10 years, the Zumba program claims to have 12 million devotees attending classes across 125 countries in 110,000 locations and also boasts having thousands of certified of instructors.

It makes me wonder if the "Freestyle" instructor is becoming an endangered species.

The difference between taking a class from a "Freestyle" instructor versus an instructor who teaches a "pre-choreographed" format is like the difference between eating at a fast food or chain restaurant vs. a gourmet or fresh from the farm restaurant.

Petra Kolber, the creative director for a new brand of "semi" pre-choreographed workout called Batuka says, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. "When you are presenting at conventions year after year, and you see more participants signing up for pre-choreographed formats and branded formats than 'freestyle,' you can do two things, dig your heels into the ground and not change, or see that perhaps there is a way to try and make a difference." Kolber is a preeminent force in the group fitness industry. Although her primary love is to create her own programs, she says she also realizes that, "for many instructors, they either do not have the time or are just overwhelmed by the process to do that for themselves." Batuka's premise is to "bridge the gap between freestyle and pre-choreographed classes." It began in 2005 in Spain, sold more than 1.6 million DVDs and is now just reaching U.S. soil. Unlike some of the other programs where you buy licensed music from the company, Batuka uses all original compositions by musician Kike Santander.

What worries Kolber about pre-choreographed classes is that the industry may be creating, "a generation of instructors who no longer know how to create and to make choices." Pat Soley, another veteran of the group fitness industry and the Group Fitness Manager at what was formerly Sports Club/LA (now an Equinox) echoes Kolber's sentiment. Soley doesn't agree with stripping a class of it's uniqueness which comes from the skill set and imagination cultivated by an instructor. In the case of Les Mills classes, well that cookie-cutter style wouldn't cut mustard at Sports Club / LA or Equinox for that matter. Soley says, "most experienced instructors balk at being that limited and most members (at least at SC/LA) would get bored and not take the class." However, she says, it's fine for a rookie instructor who hasn't "found their voice" yet.

According to Steven Renata, the CEO of Les Mills West Coast and one of the original partners of the company, says that's why Phillip Mills, the founder of Les Mills classes, created this model to begin with. He says Phillip noticed when it comes to freestyle instructors, "there was a huge variety of talent and quality, with only a handful of really great instructors." Phillip's goal was to "raise the bar." "Standardization is key," says Renata.

It's that word, "standardization" that gives me the heebie jeebies and conjures up the image of McFitness for me.

Renata knows that freestyle instructors see their "system" as creatively stifling. To that point he concedes, "there is still an important place for the talented freestyle instructor." But, he says, many instructors appreciate the support, training and global community" they get with being part of the Les Mill "tribe." And, as I've come to realize, "not every instructor wants to do everything on their own."

I just hope they remember to take off their training wheels.

Have you taken any of these or other brands of "pre-choreographed" classes? Please share your experiences, likes and dislikes with me.