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How I Became a Group Fitness Instructor at a Top Gym

MK Hurlbutt

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SoulCycle instructor, San Francisco, CA
Her 180-degree career turnaround: “I had been working at a bank and was considering business school. Then, about a year ago, I had a mini quarter-life crisis and realized the job wasn’t true to my passion. I had been riding at SoulCycle and some of the instructors had asked me if I ever considered auditioning. When I decided to make a life change, this felt like a natural move.”

A career turning point: “On Valentine’s Day 2014, I went to a 'Heartbreak Hotel' ride and they wanted an extra bike in the room. I rode on the podium. It was the first time I had that perspective and it changed the way I viewed classes going forward. You see how happy it makes everyone and you see the energy. That was really special.”

How she built her following: “I use humor a lot. A little goofiness helps people relax and I find that riders are less likely to notice I’ve kept them jogging their hearts out for four-plus minutes if I make them laugh a little while they do it.”

Photo: MK Hurlbutt

Astrid Swan

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Master Trainer at Barry's Bootcamp, Los Angeles
How she got started: “I started modeling when I was 14. People had eating disorders, and chose to smoke cigarettes, but I really wanted to make myself healthy and give myself energy. As a model, your window is limited. I woke up one day and was considered old, and I went full force into training. I was working out at Barry’s and they offered me a job if I got certified. I took that seriously, I studied, and I believed in continuing education, including taking every class. The best teacher is a student.”

Her first time in front of the room: “The first class I taught, I was subbing. You don’t just get put on the schedule. They told me, ‘Oh, there’s never more than one group in this time slot.’ That day there were two groups, and it was a very full class. It was a sink or swim moment. You have to look at the time and watch what the people on the floor are doing. That day was huge for me. I was sweating profusely. But I loved it! I subbed as much as I could. Then I got my first class on the schedule, an 8:15 p.m. timeslot, and there were only two people in it. I was okay with that—you have to make it great for two people or 40 people. It started to build, and soon 8:15 became a great time!” (Here's an exclusive Exclusive Barry’s Bootcamp Full-Body Workout.)

Photo: Astrid Swan

Aleah Stander

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Flywheel Master Instructor, VP, and Creative Director, Dallas, TX
Her life-long passion: “I always wanted to work in fitness. I played a lot of sports in high school and started working out at a gym when I was 16. That’s when I started figuring it out. I became interested in how the body works and how it can change, so I went to college for kinesiology. I started training athletes and teaching indoor cycling and group fitness. After, I moved to New York City and was training private clients and teaching classes for three different gyms.”

On being recruited for Flywheel: “Before Flywheel opened in 2010, I was recruited to train for the first studio. They found instructors in the city who were popular, scouted them, and asked them to audition for [Flywheel co-founder] Ruth [Zukerman]. The concept of a studio that focused only on indoor cycling was foreign to me—it was so new. A revolution started with Flywheel and boutique fitness.”

How she connects with clients: “I’ve built followings in a bunch of places—first in New York City, then again at Flywheel, then in Miami, and now in Dallas. You have to teach a great class and have great music, but talking to people, making personal connections in and out of the studio, is huge. People who started as clients have become my best friends! It’s so cool to connect with people through Flywheel.”

Photo: Aleah Stander

Catie Fahrner

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Barre3 Master Trainer, Portland, OR
A big career change: “I always loved health and fitness, but I was working as buyer for a footwear company in Portland. I was a client at Barre3 and became an instructor, and realized that the people there were my people. I loved the workout so much. I decided to quit my other job and let the director of training know that I was available. She was able to pull me into more training projects, and after a few months offered me a position as a corporate master trainer.”

A favorite part of the job: “I work with new studio owners, and I love going to see a new owner open her studio. It’s such a special time. I see them through the process—auditioning, coming out to Portland for training—and I love seeing them in their own community. Seeing the passion of our owners around the country motivates me to learn and grow and push and teach better classes.”

On getting over stage fright: “I’m very involved with our online workouts, and for a while I floated under the radar. I was directing workouts but dodging being in front of the camera. Recently I got over that fear, and realized that being in front of the camera will make me so much better at writing choreography and directing.”

Photo: Catie Fahrner

Cynthia Sharp

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Head Trainer at Orangetheory Fitness, Florida
Being pushed to the head of the room: “When I was 16, I belonged to an all-female gym and would take aerobics classes there. One day, the instructor didn’t show up, so the manager said ‘Cynthia, you can teach the class! Put on whatever music you want!’ I went ahead and did it, and they offered me a job. I got certified, and I was going to high school and in the mornings or afternoons training by myself and with a group of pro body builders. I knew it was what I wanted to do.”

On figure competition: “When I was first getting into fitness, competitions only had bodybuilding and fitness categories for females. But then figure opened up. It was a new category—you walk in heels, you have to be muscular and lean—and I thought, 'OK, I’m in.' I did my first competition when I was 26, and as I started to get more experience competing and training people, I got more titles and started getting more clients that wanted to compete in figure.”

On coaching a group: “My husband and I were training people in Miami, but we left it to come on board to coach in Orlando at Orangetheory. I love it—I love connecting with all the members. It’s a very different, dynamic way to train people. You have to really multitask. For me, it’s incredible.” (Have you tried Orangetheory Fitness? It's one of our 5 Up-and-Coming Fitness Studios.)

Photo: Orange Theory Fitness

Lauren Williams

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Head Coach at Tone House, New York City
A ballerina turned model turned trainer: “I grew up dancing, and ended up in New York City taking classes at Broadway Dance Center. People were looking for models at the studios I was dancing for, and I fell into the modeling world. Since I was athletic, I would do fitness shoots every now and then, and one day I was on a fitness story and found out about fitness modeling, and got into that. I was surrounded by trainers and editors, learning so much, and decided I wanted to get into the business.”

From boot camp to Tone House: “I got certified, and started doing my own boot camps in the park. I had a bunch of friends who wanted to do a Tough Mudder and I trained them for that. Seeing them complete it together, how powerful they felt, and the camaraderie they had built was amazing. I realized I wanted more of a community so I applied to Equinox and started training there, and then from there I transitioned to Tone House.”

What keeps them coming back: “In group fitness, you feed off everyone’s energy and the instructor has a lot to do with that. The energy they carry comes out in the class. I have a positive energy, a bubbliness and playfulness that comes out in my classes. In an environment like Tone House…it’s so difficult, so if you can have fun and be smiling, enjoy yourself despite working so hard, it’s an awesome combination.”

Photo: Tone House

Kiley Holliday

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Instructor at Pure Yoga, New York City
How she became a yogi: “In my early 20s, I started having trouble sleeping and was feeling depressed. I read in a magazine that Bikram yoga was great for your mood, so I decided to try it. It was crazy hot and really intense, but right after I passed out and slept like I hadn’t in years. After a few years I decided I wanted to try more than those 26 postures, and started taking Vinyasa classes as well.”

On changing life paths: “I had planned on being a professor, and was in grad school for diplomatic history. I wanted to do teacher training, and figured I’d be able to get free yoga while in grad school. For whatever reason, people gravitated towards me and I started to get a lot of private clients and teach a lot of classes. Somewhere along the line I decided not to pursue the Ph.D. anymore. I thought, why go back to school when I love what I’m doing now? It just sort of took off from there.”

Photo: Kiley Holliday

Lyndsey Makovsky

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Instructor and choreographer at Physique 57, Los Angeles
On following her passion: “Growing up, I was an athlete and dancer, and I always knew fitness would play a role in my career long-term. When I moved to New York, I heard about Physique 57 through a friend and fellow dancer. She told me about this new, life-changing barre class that she taught, and encouraged me to try it. I was immediately hooked! More than six years later, I’m still with the company.”

Why clients love her:“Making a personal connection with each and every person in class is so important. I make it a point to remember their names, where they went on vacation, how their children are doing… my clients love that! I enjoy learning about people beyond what they bring to class.”

A game-changing move: “Going from New York to LA was a huge turning point in my career and my life. The opportunities here in the fitness world really gave me the chance to thrive. The competition in this city is strong, so it makes you want to up your game.”

Interviews have been condensed and edited. (Psst: Physique 57 is one of the 15 Boutique Fitness Classes You Can Do at Home.)

Photo: Lyndsey Makovsky

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