Small Group Training Vs Group Exercise

Dec 14, 2020 | by AIF

What’s the difference between Small Group Training and Group Exercise? And why are personal trainers allowed to train small groups without holding a group exercise qualification? Group Exercise Coach Robin Glass answers some common questions.

What is a Personal Trainer?

A qualified personal trainer possesses the knowledge and practical skills to prescribe exercise to their clients (individuals or groups) to help them achieve their health and fitness goals. The AIF’s Master Trainer Program™ includes a module on instructing group personal training programs.

What is a Group Exercise Instructor?

Group Exercise Instructors are trained to lead groups of people in exercise in a safe and effective way, often to music. The most common qualifications include a Cert III in Fitness, which qualifies an instructor to teach groups inside only (as you need a Cert IV in Fitness to train groups outside) and a Group Exercise Leader (GEL). The GEL qualification allows the instructor to teach only pre-choreographed classes, such as Les Mills programs, rather than design their own group workouts.

The AIF’s Fitness Coach qualification (Cert III in Fitness) includes specialisations in instructing group exercise, as well as gym instruction. Fitness Coach is also included, along with the Personal Trainer Cert IV qualification, in the AIF’s Master Trainer Program™.

What Constitutes a Group?

When you are training two or more people it is considered a group. For personal trainers who want to train groups, therefore, it is a good idea to learn how to do so safely.

What’s the Difference Between Training one, six, or 26 People?

The basic difference is how much you know about your clients. As a personal trainer you should know everything about your client’s health, fitness, abilities and limitations. A Group Exercise Instructor, on the other hand, does not know this information and must be able to cater to a variety of needs.

Most SGT sessions will cap numbers at between six and 10 participants. The trainer will ask about any fitness restrictions prior to the session commencing, but they will not have an in-depth knowledge of each participant’s fitness abilities and health history, as they would do with 1-on-1 personal training.

Group Exercise Precautions

When training a group of any size, you should start with the lowest common denominator. It is safest to assume that everyone in the group has an injury, has low or high blood pressure, is inexperienced with exercise, and is unfit. Start low to aim high until you know more.

It’s important to closely monitor your group: constantly watching and analysing what you see. Are they performing the exercises correctly? Has fatigue affected their performance? Are they struggling to keep up? Should they really be running or should they be walking? Do you know the difference between a high and low impact move? Some people shouldn’t do, or are uncomfortable doing, high impact moves. Even a light jog is a high impact move.

You then need to adapt and offer options to those who need them. Your session plan needs to have a plan B, and sometimes a plan C, for everything you prescribe. This requires forethought, knowledge, flexibility, and the skill to implement change on the spot. Is 10 jacks in a row OK for one person, but not another? And what can a person do instead of jacks, or instead of push ups on their toes?

Evaluating to reduce risk

Evaluating exercises is a great way to reduce risk. Ask yourself these questions when prescribing exercises for your sessions.

  • Can the exercise go beyond a safe range of motion?
  • Is the exercise executed at a safe speed or is it too rapid, therefore leading to potential loss of control?
  • Can the exercise create too much loading to a joint or muscle group?
  • Can the exercise place a muscle group or joint under sustained stress?
  • Is the exercise too repetitive?
  • Does the exercise or routine work one muscle group without working the opposing group?
  • Does the exercise work a muscle group other than the one intended?

If every exercise you prescribe is executed perfectly by every member of your group then you will never have a problem – but that’s unlikely to happen.

Want to Know More?

The safest Group Exercise Instructors are those who have qualifications in both Personal Training and Group Exercise, such as AIF’s industry-leading Master Trainer Program™.

Contact your closest AIF campus to find out when the next face-to-face Master Trainer Program™ Course commences, or click here for information on the online version of the course.


Robin began as a Group Exercise Instructor in 1992, and was one of the first people in WA to receive a personal training certificate. She later moved into the business of training the next generation of fitness professionals in her role with the AIF.



At the Australian Institute of Fitness (AIF), we are no stranger to the competitive and evolving nature of the fitness industry. That’s why we remain the #1 fitness educator since 1979. We continuously raise the bar by providing the best education and resources through dynamic and hybrid training methods that mould to your lifestyle. We are strong believers in evidence over fads, so you can be assured your training with AIF will solidify your career for the long-term.

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