Group Fitness vs. Private Training: What’s the Difference?

Discussing the pros and cons of group fitness versus private training is never complete without a wide array of opinions on the subject.

Which one is better?

Which one makes the most sense?

Which one do clients get the most out of?

For starters, let’s define the two.

Group fitness is an exercise performed by a group of five to 45 people led by one instructor. This model is programming for the masses and therefore, generally not specified to each athlete’s weaknesses, strengths, pre-disposed injuries, former injuries and the like.

Private training is programming aimed at an individual’s training, life, health and fitness goals. Clients typically work one-on-one with a coach or trainer who creates a training program specifically for them.

Both have been around for quite some time, but most recently, the group fitness model has seen a surge in popularity, particularly over the past 30 years.

Group fitness dates back to the 1970s and 80’s with Richard Simmons and Jane Fonda-inspired aerobic workout and Jazzercise classes, succeeded by spinning and cycling, Body Pump, Silver Sneakers, and Tae Bo classes in the 1990’s. Then, yoga, Pilates and Zumba became a hit at the turn of the century, closely followed by boot camps, and later, CrossFit group classes.

No matter what camp you, or others, fall into, there is no getting around the unity that group training provides for fitness lovers to come together (leg warmers, headbands, stretch pants and all) and get their sweat on alongside one another.

And there is no question that group fitness classes have promoted (and encouraged) fitness for many around the world, who otherwise may have viewed the gym as boring, monotonous or intimidating.

In the same breath, however, as wonderful as the group fitness model has been as a gateway into fitness training and metabolic conditioning for many, it is equally worth noting the less-than-optimal benefits of the group fitness model for the general population at large in particular circumstances — namely the higher-intensity, strength and conditioning, and skills-based group classes. Some of the possible downsides of exercise conducted within a group fitness model may include:

  1. Scaling movements

Participants may find they have to continually scale the movements and weights prescribed in group workouts because they are not on the same page as the coach or class in their abilities, mobility, strength or fitness capacity. Coincidentally, this promotes a sense of defeat, or even a plateau in one’s personal fitness journey because they can’t meet the weight, load or work-capacity expectations of the class, and the time is just not there to adequately further develop the skills, strength or work capacity needed to keep up.

  1. Lack of time

For those athletes who genuinely want to improve, there may be a lack of time in a given class for quality instruction, skill practice and strength development. This piggy backs off of point No. 1. Group fitness classes only allow so much time for personal fitness growth and development (typically 45 minutes to an hour to get in and out of the class). There’s not enough attention given to the individual’s personal development in group exercise to truly see improvements past a certain point in one’s fitness and strength.

  1. Pushing too hard

Group fitness participants may find themselves pushing their limits to meet the challenge of the prescribed workout or coach’s orders with little regard to their true abilities and their own mobility. You will always have your “die-hards” in a group class — the ones who just want to work hard and get their sweat on, no matter the cost, poor form or pain they may feel. This especially happens in workouts with high-reps. Think: snatching a barbell 20 times then running around the block for five rounds as fast as you can. Or 100 kettlebell swings, followed by 100 squats, followed by 100 pull-ups, followed by 100 pushups. Body breakdown is bound to occur with the pressure to keep up with the class or beat the class, regardless of the amount of times the coach continues to correct. Often, there isn’t any follow-through from the client, which then leads to injuries.

  1. Hitting plateaus

On the flip side, if people are used to doing the same group fitness classes over and over again, they are likely performing similar routines. Plateaus are of course inevitable, as the class structure is pretty much by the book, and in turn, participants’ fitness level stays the same.

With some of these caveats of group training, there is an even greater need to dig deeper into what private training really means and the impacts it can have on fitness, performance and continued progression, for both the trainer and the client.

As a coach or personal trainer, you are really more than that. You are a life coach on the front lines with your clients every day at the gym.

The individual training model allows you to truly give the people you work with a leg up and direction toward their personal goals as well as the betterment of their own health and well-being.

40-year-old mom who wants to “get her body back?”

Instead of having her spin her wheels doing chronic cardio in a group class or slaving away on a StairMaster, you structure a plan for her with a balanced approach to some weight training, varied midline stability exercises and a little mix of some high-intensity training.

21-year-old former superstar athlete who still wants to maintain his competitive edge and game?

Instead of thrusting him into a group class to complete countless reps of snatches with poor form, you help him deliberately attack his weaknesses and further develop his strengths with a progressive squat cycle, some overhead stability work for enhancing his overhead strength, and the just right challenge of anaerobic and aerobic work throughout his week.

65-year-old senior who wants to stay fit for life?

You have the time to teach her how to perform a proper squat, and really focus on correcting her nagging knee pain she’s had for years. You teach and prep her body how to confidently carry her own groceries, get up and down off the toilet, and continue to remain active in her daily life through a structured program, specifically for her.

With the individual design model, your goal as the trainer or coach is more than just holding a client’s hand through the training process. Your role is to be the teacher to your clients on:

  • How to confidently train and navigate the gym
  • How their body works and functions — from their own mobility issues, to their strength abilities, to what it takes to dig deep in a tough workout
  • What their body needs for optimal health and wellness (how to fuel their body appropriately for exercise, proper rest and recovery, etc.)

All in all, it’s a win-win-win training method.

OPEX (Optimum Performance Experience) is probably one of the best companies out there that I have seen teach other coaches and trainers a holistic, comprehensive approach to training and being an excellent coach.

More than just a piece of paper you earned from taking an online test or weekend-long seminar, OPEX teaches coaches how to be better for this individual design model through their Coaches Certificate Program.

Over the course of a self-paced six months to one year, coaches learn the art of:

  • Comprehensive assessment
  • Program design
  • Nutrition
  • Lifestyle coaching
  • Business systems

You can never have too much education, and over time, in the business of fitness, if people truly want to progress and experience optimal health and wellness, the individual design model is the way to get there.

While group training can and does provide a unique sense of community, as a coach and trainer, you can still create this sense of community or socialness within your gym environment. Be a connector. Host gym gatherings. Hold open gym times for your clients to come follow the programs you’ve created them. Build community along with smart training and you have all the pieces of the puzzle.

Ultimately, be confident in the unique services that you offer for individuals, and if anything, educate your clients, and your potential clients, about the enormous benefits that a personalized approach to their fitness provides them.