For years, I’ve been mumbling about getting certified as a group exercise instructor. I’ve been addicted to group fitness since I was about 16 years old, hoofing it over to a local studio to take dance and strength training classes. I’ve taken just about every format — hip hop, yoga, step, water aerobics, spinning — and have not yet met a class I didn’t love.
I don’t know what exactly caused me to move this particular goal from the dream list to the reality list, but as I heard myself say for the 1,000th time:
“One of these days I’m going to sign up to become an instructor…”
I decided to just do it.
I asked my fellow IDEA Advisors for their advice, and also read these posts:
- AFAA Group Exercise Certification from PB Fingers
- AFAA Primary Certification Day from The Chic Life
- Hittin’ the Books: AFAA Group Fitness Certification from Confessions of a Former Couch Potato
- AFAA Primary Group Exercise Certification from Nutrition Nut on the Run
- What to Expect the Day of Your AFAA Group Fitness Certification from Fit Mama Real Food
- AFAA Group Exercise Instructor Certification from Geek Turned Athlete
And after all of that homework, I decided that AFAA was the best certification for my particular needs. There are other programs, including ACE, ACE and NAFC, but AFAA seemed to be highly recommended by both professionals and gyms. And as it happened, AFAA was running its discounted APEX program in Orlando right when I was looking to sign up.
IMPORTANT UPDATE: since I originally published this post, AFAA has had some major changes and it appears the APEX program is no longer offered.
The posts that I linked to above do a fantastic job explaining the process of the certification day itself, so if you want a breakdown of what to expect in terms of a timeline, check those out. I wanted to take some time to share a few of the takeaways that I have from my experience, and a few tips that I think may help you if you’re currently preparing for the exam yourself.
Study For & Pass the AFAA Group Exercise Instructor Exam
The Written Test
When you sign up for the exam, AFAA mails you a study guide. USE IT. The exam day is split up into a review of the guide and a review of the exercises that you’ll demonstrate in the practical section, but it really is designed to be a recap of what you worked on at home. In my case, the trainer did a great job of focusing the review on what was actually on the test — in some cases, saying “This will be on the test, so listen up!” and that was very helpful. But had I not spent 2-3 nights a week over the course of 6 weeks reading the guide, taking the practice test, using flash cards (printed out from this site and this site) and actually committed some of the more difficult terms to memory, I really think I would have had a hard time.
(I ended up getting 100% on the written test — and I know that would not have happened had I not spent that time at home. It also helps that I’d actually been studying for the NAFC exam, covering similar material, for several months before AFAA.)
A few key points:
- Know your anatomy and kinesiology — up and down, front and back. You WILL need to know where your trapezius, rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, erector spinae, deltoids, gluteus maximus, etc. are and how they work. You’ll need to know the difference between inferior, superior, anterior and posterior, as well as the planes of your body. You’ll need to understand joints and ligaments and cartilage and more.
- The test is multiple choice or matching, so you don’t need to worry too much about memorizing terms — I’d spend your time trying to understand them instead. There were several questions where I think I would have had a difficult time writing out the answer, but could easily choose from the most likely correct answer, based on context clues.
- You’ll want to get a good grasp on AFAA’s recommendations for leading a safe and fun class. I spent a lot of time — too much, I now know — memorizing the equations for measuring heart rates, the list of suggested beats per minute for different formats and other complicated formulas. You’ll need to know that those things exist, but the exam really focuses more on keeping your clients/class participants SAFE, so go over the study guide sections on dealing with special populations and health risks.
I expected the written test to be hard. So when it went smoothly, I breathed a sigh of relief. As it turns out, the practical was the real challenge for me. That surprised me, because I’ve been taking classes for so long — I thought working out would be second nature. But it was the end of the day, I was actually the very last of 100+ students to go, and I was absolutely fried. Mentally and physically, I felt like overcooked spaghetti.
I passed, obviously, and while I had a few bad moments worrying about my results in the weeks after the exam, I took heart in knowing that the proctors really only failed you if you did one of two things: demonstrated a move that would be so unsafe as to potentially hurt one of your students (a plyometric jumping jack into splits during the warmup section, for example) or demonstrated a move that was inappropriate for the section or the muscle without correcting it (demonstrating a lunge during the pectoralis major section, for example, or doing ballistic/bouncy stretches during the warmup).
Thankfully, ALL of this was demonstrated and reviewed during the morning and early afternoon sessions, and we were told exactly what the instructors would be looking for. The hardest part, again, was keeping it all straight in my fuzzy brain — keep in mind that you’ll have worked out for most of the day AND will have to work out through the practical exam, serving as the students for all of the other people taking the test.
For the practical, which is done as a group for the first half, the proctor would call out a muscle: “gastrocnemius! deltoids! hip adductors!” and ask you to perform one or two exercises appropriate for that muscle, followed by an appropriate stretch for that muscle.
There were many options to choose from, and since everyone is moving at once, there’s really no time to look around and make sure that you’re on the right track. But for example:
- Pectoralis Major
- exercise: Chest Fly, Chest Press, Push-Up
- stretch: Clasp hands behind back and gently press down, press chest out
- Upper Back (Trapezius, Rhomboids, Latissimus Dorsi)
- exercise: Bent-over row
- stretch: Clasp hands in front and gently press away from body and round back
- exercise: Calf raises
- stretch: Lunge back, press heel gently into the floor
My advice to you — advice I wish I’d taken myself, because I would have been less stressed! — take a deep breath and KEEP IT SIMPLE. The exercises are pretty obvious. You know that a lunge is not working your shoulders, and a push-up is not working your gluteus maximus. So don’t over-think!
Also, when it’s time to give your individual presentation, remember: SMILE! Speak slowly and clearly. Introduce yourself and the exercise you’re demonstrating. Show multiple levels for different populations. AND USE ALIGNMENT CUES: shoulders down and back. Abs engaged. Spine in neutral. Your neck is a natural extension of the spine. Etc. Use your five AFAA questions to determine whether something is safe for your class.
Make sure that you come prepared to work out, all day. You’ll get some breaks but they’ll be short, because there’s so much to do before the exam. At my exam, we were able to leave for lunch, but I am glad I brought a cooler so I didn’t have to go far. I was able to eat, stretch, go to the bathroom, do some quick studying and be ready to go for the afternoon.
As it turns out, I’m already teaching — yay! — but even if you’re just interested in exercise science and may not ever want to teach, I think this is a very valuable learning experience. My grasp of anatomy and kinesiology has already helped me in my individual practice, because I understand the way my muscles and joints are working in combination with each other.