Return to Ross Collins newsletters.

Return to Ross Collins Home Page.

Fargo fit. Ross's FargoFit.

Becoming an aerobics instructor: A guy's perspective

Note: I wrote the account below based on my first experience learning and teaching aerobics. Since then I've had more luck teaching to a university-aged audience. I've been teaching cardio mix and cardio kickboxing at the North Dakota State University Wellness Center since 2009. Check out the video! Go to Fargo Fit.Ross in t-shirt.

By Ross Collins

On a whim I signed up for an aerobics instructor training program, based on a flyer taped to a wall in my gym. I had participated in aerobics for about 15 years, and thought it was fairly fun. I always wondered, though, why it seemed to be nearly exclusively a women's fitness routine. The guys just don't seem to leave the weight room very often, maybe for the occasional spinning class. I hoped that taking the aerobics training course myself might help me to answer this question. It certainly did.

Class One: The lonely guy

March 5, 2007

Four people signed up for my aerobics instructor class--I being the only guy, of course. We introduced ourselves. I reported "single, no kids, in aerobics for 15 years." I presume everyone's gay-dar went up. So what. We talked about aerobic instructor styles, which included choreography, add-on, and freestyle--the last is hardest, kind of like improv.

We identified 18 arm patterns and 19 leg patterns in floor aerobics (no step), although there are probably more than that. We had an exercise in which we took turns trying to think of patterns and ways to work between them. You can't, for instance, go from shuffle directly into lunge very easily, without a transition. Most instructors work in 32-segment patterns, each corresponding to four beats, reflecting standard music style. We talked about music possibilities: oldies, hip-hop, techno, country. One of the students said she hated country.

This week's homework: go to at least three aerobics classes, analyze in writing each move, music choice, instructor style.

Visiting an aerobics class: Striptease aerobics

March 10

I attended a striptease aerobics class last night, likely the first guy in the entire history of striptease aerobics. It was fun, friendly, and amusing. The instructor tries to emphasize the fun, dancing aspect of the professional striptease dancer, without actually embarrassing anyone by, oh, taking off clothes and such. We do pretend, though. Every movement was unlike anything in aerobics. Most movements come from the hips. They included:

As this was nothing like anything I had ever done before, I was not very good at it. In any case, you have to be particularly graceful, unusually flexible in the hips, and probably with a dancing background to pull this off. I have none of that. Generally we were not strictly in tempo with the music. I don't think very many men could help but look awkward doing what is obviously mostly a woman's role at a strip bar, but I have seen a few men pull it off. The Chippendales ( do it very well.

I didn't feel as silly as I thought I would, mostly because no one was looking at me. In fact, everyone did the best they could to avoid any eye contact at all, probably because they didn't much appreciate a guy in a class of women perhaps even practicing to please someone? I did position myself at the back and right next to the break in the front mirror where it's blocked by a wall so that no one would see me in the mirror. I didn't think my hips, butt or cleavage would attract much interest, although if I had actually taken my shirt off it might have elicited mild alarm.

Strengths: Very unusual, fun, worked parts of body probably seldom touched in any other kind of exercise. Gives you an appreciation that real strippers really do need some skill beyond youth and looks. Not everyone can do it, because you move right on the edge between looking sexy and looking silly. You're slightly off, and you tip into the silly side, so it takes some guts to do this in public. In a class like this, though, why not have fun? It might even come in handy someday, although I'll let you imagine how that might be.

Weaknesses: Not much aerobic workout. Requires some skill. Some people will just never pick it up. There is no way in the world that a normal guy would ever join this class (I'm not normal?). Nor do the other students seem to want one there.

Becoming an aerobics instructor: Getting to the core

March 18

Today we examined options for ab workouts. Most aerobics classes include ab workouts, so we considered a variety of exercises to hit those core muscles. Also important to add obliques and lower back. Abs are different from other muscles, because you don't have to wait between workouts for them to rebuild, and you can benefit from more reps. The challenge is keeping the correct form, so you have to keep reminding students not to pull their neck up, not to rest between reps, and breathe!

In the studio we each demonstrated our own homeworked warm-up sequence, with the microphone. The instructor said the warm-up is crucial, because that's where you build your camaraderie with students and set the tone for the rest of the workout. If you don't seem happy and full of energy, why should your students? "If you get the warmup, the rest is easy." I'm not a smiley kind of guy, so need to work on that. I found out my cueing wasn't as good as it might be, because it took the "class" (other students) a couple beats to pick up my move from march wide to grapevine. I also tended to get a little monotonous with the marching.

The warmup music moves a little faster than the aerobics portion, because it's meant to be done on the floor and not the step. So you have to avoid doing hard things on the step. One of the students clearly has a gift for this sort of thing, or practiced more than the rest of us. She even did double-double-single knees into grapevine, tricky, without a pause. The rest of us tended to be a little clunky. We borrowed aerobics music because next week: prime time! We apprendice in real classes leading warmups of 5-7 minutes. I wonder what I should wear? It's a physical thing, and everyone is looking at you. That means mostly women. Eeee! Loose t's look baggy and frumpy, but tight t's emphasize every ounce of fat, of which I have more than a few. And my legs are not all too attractive, so probably sweats.

Becoming an aerobics instructor: Where are all the men?

March 25

This week we work as understudy to a "real" aerobics instructor, in a real class, handling the warm-up. It's only about five minutes, but during that five minutes everyone's eyes are on you, copying your every move, literally, sense of rhythm, quality of your smile, fitness, probably outfit, and definitely mellifluous voice (or not).

The biggest problems seem to me to be, one, cueing in time so that people know when you want to make a change, and two, keeping in time to the music. We observed again that you need to start out on either the right or left foot on beat one. If you start with the right, you can't do a move to the left, as we discovered when one of us tried to lead it. Everyone just completely fell apart. Worse, if you somehow get off just one beat, you're starting everything on beat two, and it feels so weird that again, everyone falls apart. Three, you need to set your patterns in four-bar increments. If you do something for three, you start something new in the middle of a phrase. While that’s do-able, it feels weird. I'm discovering that music background is even more important than high physical fitness. We signed up to conduct warmups in three classes. Our training instructor will warn the other instructors that we'll be there, "but they're really looking forward to it."

I wondered if they are looking forward to me, however--after attending 10 aerobics classes in the last three weeks, not a SINGLE class had even ONE man in it. C'mon guys! I'm feeling lonely here. We also have to create a cool-down stretch for next week, and five-minute patterns for high-low--that is, aerobics without a step. When I started aerobics 15 years ago, most classes dispensed with the step, but today it's the opposite. We analyzed stretches for each muscle group. What, for instance, would you choose to stretch hamstrings? Glutes? Triceps? Holding for 10 seconds is a good minumum. We also talked about intensity.

You need to give at least two options for each move, one higher impact, one lower impact, but the instructor doesn't have to do the higher impact. In fact, people will tend to follow whatever you do, so if you go low, most people will follow that, perhaps to the benefit of their joints. Many longtime aerobics instructors have joint issues, so avoid too much high impact stuff. We also had to present the ab workout we created. I had what I always called the "canoe" in mine. Nobody knew what that meant. Turns out it’s really called the "boat," because both legs and shoulders are up, curving the body like a boat. I still like canoe. Then you can do my favorite obliques exercise. Called the "Russian Twist" for reasons unknown, but I may google it this week.

Becoming an aerobics instructor: First view from the bench

April 2

My first actual aerobics teaching: assistant in charge of warm up in a real class (five minutes). It did not go well. First, I forgot my shortie gym socks! I can't believe I did that, but they were in the wash, and I got distracted. So I had to wear my street socks. Street socks with Nikes. This is aerobics. What does everyone watch? YOUR FEET!

So with that nice initial impression, I then told the class to do grapevine while I did step touch. What do you do when an aerobics instructor says one thing but does another? Generally people follow what you do, and not what you say, but by the time I figured out I was doing the wrong thing, and made a change, everyone was befuddled. My cueing always came too late, not leaving people enough time to make the change, so everyone was behind me by a couple bars. Instructor's tip: "Start talking just when you are coming down on your right foot at the beginning of the fourth measure." So, like, you have to have real presence of mind here? I'm a professor, hence, absent minded. I'm not sure I can do this....

This week we examined muscle routines. We need to at least identify the main muscles, biceps and triceps, abs, lats, glutes. But isn't that last one just your butt? "I try to avoid describing any body part in a way that might offend someone," said the instructor. I guess that means "ass" and "booty" are also out. We tried our five-minute routines. Mine was too easy, so I have to pump it up a notch. My cueing is getting better, though. We also had to go through everyone's ab routines. By the fifth ab routine, well, most of us had had enough of crunches for the night. It's easy to use incorrect form doing ab work, so we constantly have to remind people, "don't pull on neck! Pretend tennis ball between chin and chest. Don't go all the way up!" We also talked about making our patterns fit 32-bar music. Several of the class didn't know there was such a thing as 32-bar music. We were told to analyze music on the radio this week, to count the 32 measures. Next week: a real 10-minute routine, and cool-down, in a real class.

Becoming an aerobics instructor: Weights and dropouts

April 15

The week's assignment was to apprentice teach cooldown, abs, and stretch. I screwed up by making my ab segment too short. But I came back by improvising a nice set of everybody's favorite, push-ups, "down the river" style. That is, start with set of 10, then 9, then 8, then.... I incorporated child's and cobra pose from yoga into the stretching, hoping to impress the very tough instuctor into giving me a more positive eval than last time. She did allow that I "showed improvement," but still dinged me for getting off beat a couple times and poor transitions. I also didn't cue enough. This is not a program for those looking to boost self-esteem.

Ross in NDSU t-shirt.At the instructor's meeting we demonstrated our 15-minute strength routines. Everyone found squats to be a favorite. By the time we hit the fourth demonstration, quads were screaming, so we were saying things like "okay, now I'd do 10 reps with weights here, but let's just do one for now." Our instructor said that if you get tired doing a weight routine, "just walk around and help people work on their form. They won't know you're really taking a break." On my routine, I told everyone to grab dumbbells. "They're hand weights nowadays," one of the students pointed out. "Calling them dumbbells is old fashioned."

I also found out the heaviest body bar is 24 pounds. Serious weight seldom sees an aerobics studio--but I bet I could get more guys into these areobics classes if I dragged over a few 45-pound bars and plates for them to squat with. Maybe they'd want to show off for the ladies? Did you know guys actually believe the ladies care about that stuff? Did you know that women do not call their bicep muscles "guns?"

We were short one student. "Oh, just to let you know, she dropped out," said the instructor. Several instructors told me at the beginning that dropout rate is high for aerobics instructors classes. I can see why. You have to be fit, look reasonably trim, be able to keep time to music, think fast, have no chronic joint issues, and smile! You also have to be super-reliable--in more than a decade of aerobics classes I've never once seen an instructor not show up--and be able to take carping from students who don't like your voice, your patterns, your jokes, whatever. How many more of us will drop out before it's over?

Assignment for next week: design a routine of precisely 32 bars, at four beats a bar. Some movements take four beats. Some take eight. A few 16. Can I sort that out? If I don't, I'll be the next ex-aerobics student.

Becoming an aerobics instructor: Behind (32) bars

April 22

I scrambled together this week's homework, a 32-bar pattern, late last night in an Oklahoma City hotel room. It's hard to find time for mundane things like conferences and banquets when you're an aerobics instructor trainee. The problem with skipping your homework here is that everybody knows right away. I demonstrated my untried pattern ripped right out of a spiral notbook page. Fortunately it was not so fancy-schmancy: no mambos, no pivots, no walk around the bench, no straddle. Just some corner knees and lunges off the bench. I'm not a quick learner of fancy patterns, and would rather make something easy to follow but a harder workout. "It's up to you," said the instructor. "Some people come to an aerobics class, say, after work, and they just want a plain old workout. They don't want to think about learning new stuff."

Written evals of my warm-ups and weight routines last week perked up some, although I still need to work on timing to the music. "He strays off the beat sometimes" said one. Some of us are just not getting the idea of making our patterns fit 32 measures, which aims to match the usual phrasing of typical pop music. If you make one little mistake, say, add an extra basic step, you are now off four bars, so your pattern doesn't end neatly at 32. One of the students said another instructor told her to think in eight-beat phrases instead of 32, and let the larger segments take care of themselves. Every movement in aerobics is built on the basic eight-beat unit. One of the students--thankfully not me this time--skipped a beat somewhere and ended up starting every movement on beat two. I found this terribly disconcerting, but she didn't seem to notice. The instructor told her she skipped a beat somewhere. "This week you’ll have to practice, practice, practice your patterns," she told us. "Because I'm expecting you to take a bigger role in the team-taught classes--and whole classes by yourself for sculpting and toning."

Sculpting and toning is what aerobics people call squats, lifting and ab work. I have a really wicked squat routine lined up, heh-heh. This is, after all, THE basic exercise on which you hang your entire resistance routine--not to mention the nice butt (oops, I mean glutes) you'll get.

I'm somewhat concerned that my back is a bit sore, my knees are a bit stiff, and my feet hurt a little. It's not much, but could get worse--I've heard many stories about people a lot younger than I am sidelined from aerobics by overuse injuries.

Becoming an aerobics instructor: The final step

April 29

Ross in junior high t-shirt.This is it, the proof, the reckoning, the final exam. The eight-week training program has ended. Next week we must teach three entire aerobics classes all by ourselves, in three categories: cardio, interval and toning/sculpting. The first is anything goes, for 45 minutes, as long as it's cardio workout. You have to put together your patterns of step and hi-lo (floor aerobics) for a solid 45 minutes, without pause, without forgetting, without moronic comments, but with a (possibly) moronic smile. "If you don't look like you're having fun, your students won't either. Smile! Snappy movements. Get those arms up there." The regular instructors will observe, evaluate and compile written reports.

After the final, we will have private consultations with the training instructor, who will tell us if we passed. If we do well enough, next step is to get CPR certification, required for aerobics instructors in case someone needs desperate measures. I wonder what they would do in case the needy person was the instructor? We demonstrated our new patterns, the training instructor critiquing our form. "Be sure to put your entire foot on the bench, not just the toe" she told me. "Others will do what you do, and if you show bad form, they'll follow bad form. And it causes calf pain." She also said my cueing was late several times, "but it's a lot better than it was." Another student got knocked for consistently starting on the wrong beat--she must have no music background--and a third included a pattern with awkward transitions. The fourth included a fairly elaborate choreography that needed more careful cueing. None of us was perfect, but no one absolutely stank. We also got a short list of great web sites for ideas ( and a place to order aerobics CDs. I bought three books--all on the remainder racks!--at Barnes and Noble to get ideas for butt work, ab work and my favorite, weights on the Swiss ball! It's really amazing how many books out there aim to help you get better abs, or, as we professional aerobics instructors like to say, a flatter tum-tum. Nothing about exercises to control back hair, alas. I'll be practicing, practicing this week, and taking bets on whether I pass the final step to teaching step.

Becoming an aerobics instructor: Did I pass?

May 14

I thought probably it was a good sign when I met with the aerobics director privately last week: She had a sheaf of papers with her. But I found out some of those were critiques from aerobics classes I had practice taught the week before. "You were only on beat half the time in your sculpt class," she said. "You need to work on that." I said it was hard to set up weight-lifting routines on the Swiss ball and still keep to tempo, and that my idea to do squats balancing on an overturned BOSU didn't please a lot of the class (Jeez, what a clumsy bunch. I didn't tell her that. Bad attidude.) "Then you need to adjust the tempo of the music. Turn it down to maybe 125 beats a minute, see if that works better. In any case, we've decided to take you on." She thrust a bunch of forms my way. "We're going to give you a three-month trial starting June 1. You'll only be scheduled for one class a week, but likely you'll also be called on to do some substituting. By the end of summer we'll need to see that students like you, that you've smoothed out some of the problems, and that you're flexible enough to fit into the schedule."

I started filling out employment forms, was surprised when I discovered I needed to present an actual Social Security card or birth certificate. What, I look like an illegal immigrant? "We can't put you on the schedule until you show that." I promised to bring it in, pending my turning the house upside down to find it. How many times do you really need your SS card? "You'll get paid per hour for teaching, plus free club membership." Cool! I wasn't even thinking of pay. "Pay is $7 an hour, and we count the 15 minutes you need to get here before it starts." But the majority of aerobics classes don't last an hour. "We pro-rate it. After your probationary period, pay goes up to $7.50 an hour." Well, nobody said they do aerobics for the money.

Meanwhile I need to keep practicing my routines so that I don't get rusty between now and the beginning of next month. But now that I'm a "professional aerobics instructor," feel free to consult me for fitness advice. Heck, I've been trained, you know!

And the rest of the class? All surviving four of us were hired.

Becoming an aerobics instructor: Ross, a failure

February 11, 2008

As it turns out, the guys in the weight room were right.

Some of you may have followed my Facebook Notes last year about becoming an aerobics instructor--the first male aerobics instructor in the club, and one of the oldest, probably the oldest. I signed onto an eight-week training course last spring. But I didn't get a lot of encouragement from other guys, none of whom attend aerobics classes. "Man, you don't want to do this," seemed to be the consensus of the weight room. "Those women will never accept you." But I thought, heck, what does that bunch of no-necks know?

On Monday I resigned as an aerobics instructor, after a little less than a year of experiences that I'll admit were new to me--a white male from the majority culture.

Misgivings I had almost immediately, before I even met many aerobics students. The aerobics staff, strictly female and generally under 30, responded oddly to my joining their group. They avoided eye contact. Avoided conversation. Nodded, smiled quickly, and moved away. Once when I suggested some special cool-down music, Katie smirked, "well, YOU might choose that...." To be sure, some of the instructors were nice, but I had the feeling the group really felt uncomfortable with me around. Have you ever had the feeling you're not welcome, just from people's body language? Male and middle-aged: double freak!

But I had passed the aerobics trainer's tests, and so was declared competent to teach. I was issued a logo jersey (for which I paid). I had my picture taken. I thought I was in. It did seem strange no one bothered to put my picture up with the other two dozen aerobics instructors' photos, but it was probably just an oversight. It did appear, finally.

The first complaint from an aerobics student came last summer. Someone told the director I "didn't have good form on the weights." The director hastened to join two of my classes to evaluate my performance. She couldn't find much to criticize. "Maybe you could push your gluts back farther on the squats," she offered. "Guys tend not to do that."

I pushed my gluts 'way back. Throughout the fall I taught Wednesdays while substituting occasionally for other instructors. In January it was announced that all group fitness instructors were off probation and all would get a raise (25 cents an hour, I believe).

But then it happened: another complaint! "We got a complaint that your patterns don't flow very well," said the director. She removed me from the schedule. What about substituting now and then? "Mmmmaybe we'd better not do that either for a while."

I reminded her that I had gotten several compliments. One liked my "tougher workouts." Another liked my comments instead of "boring" stories from the 20-somethings. The Silver Sneakers group loved me! I said "patterns don't flow well" is pretty vague, sounds to me like "just don’t like him."

The aerobics director was not moved. "Why don't you try group cycling instead? Oh, that would be perfect for someone like you! I don't know why I didn't think of it before."

By this time the other aerobics instructors were getting kind of creepy in avoiding me. I was getting the message pretty clear. Despite some members who liked my classes, and some pretty vague criticisms, I was being squeezed out of aerobics, and into spinning. I attended a few spinning classes as a trainee. The contrast was obvious: many more of spinning participants were--men. Okay. So this is how it's going to be then.

No it's not. I quit.

This was supposed to be a hobby. Didn't matter anyway, right? Had no significance at all to my life, this aerobics stuff.

Or did it?

As a middle-aged white male from the dominant culture, I have never before been rejected, not for what I do, but for what I am. For the first time in my life, I could not break into a role reserved primarily for a different subgroup--young women. People could reject me just because I was the wrong sex! Or perhaps the wrong age. Could it be true? Sure, I knew women had been rejected for just that reason for hundreds of years. Still are. But while I knew it, intellectually, this time I felt what it was actually like happening to me personally. And what I felt was sad and frustrated. Angry too.

Ross from the back.I realized the routine isn't much different for, say, a woman trying to break into a male-dominated field. Take engineering. The dominant group at first seems excited to have you. We need you! We get so few of you! But then they don't really accept you, you never become "one of us." Can women become engineers? Sure, and men can become aerobics instructors. But they have to perform twice as well and work twice as hard to make it. At one of our fitness instructors' meetings, one younger woman was complaining about how much her back hurt, how she couldn't do this or that kind of class. I wouldn't have dared complain--because, you know, the least little excuse....

But I couldn't be twice as good. I couldn't even look twice as good--not without a hairpiece, anyway. Just as many woman, or minorities, can't be good enough, or put up with enough rejection, to break into the dominant culture of a profession, or a neighborhood, or even a whole culture. So we fail, and fall back on what is expected of us. I could teach spinning, because men do that. Women could become secretaries, because women do that. Blacks could shine people's shoes, because that's what black people do. But when blacks want to be doctors, and women want to be engineers and men want to be aerobics teachers--well, just ask the guys in the weight room.


I ended up as a group fitness instructor anyway, working for North Dakota State University's Wellness Center. Classes are not packed, but I've had modest success since I began teaching there in 2009. Perhaps I improved my teaching. Perhaps students are more open to variety. There's a research study in that somewhere....