Going Vertical: Hiring a Great Aquatic Exercise Instructor

Lori Sherlock, Ed.D, ATRIC, AEA Training Specialist, CSCS, WaveMaker Coach

West Virginia University

Link to:            https://waterexercisecoach.com/



            Group exercise, including vertical aquatic exercise, is one of the most popular leisure-time activities among adults (5).  Studies support that 65-90% of adult exercisers prefer group exercise over exercising alone (2, 3) and classes can drive revenue.  The right classes paired with a great aquatic exercise instructor can build your membership, provide a service to the community and grow your program offerings.  Moreover, the instructor can help construct a community that yields membership longevity.  Selecting the right instructor for your members and facility is an important task that should be given time and energy for many reasons.  Let’s dive into what to look for in the perfect instructor for your facility.

            First and foremost, aquatic exercise instructors should have credentials and/or certifications necessary for the job.  As aquatic specialists, we know that moving in the water is different from moving on land, leading us to believe that aquatic exercise instructors should have aquatic-specific certifications.  Programs such as Water Exercise Coach and the Aquatic Exercise Association offer nationally recognized programming that are backed by education.  Certifications such as these should be included in the job requirements to assure that your instructors are staying up to date while lessening your liability risk.  Moreover, your facility can use these certifications in marketing strategies to illustrate credibility and differentiate your facility from others.  Additional credentials, including pursuant or achieved degrees, may add to the integrity of the instructor.  Degrees that are focused on exercise, physical activity, and movement such as exercise physiology, kinesiology, or exercise science not only add to the knowledge of the instructor, but illustrate interest in helping people to exercise better.  Programs such as these may also offer areas of emphasis in coaching, fitness and wellness, and even aquatics.

            While degrees and certifications provide a minimum standard, other attributes of a group aquatic exercise instructor should be examined.  There are two arenas of consideration 1. impact on the facility and 2. impact on the patrons.  Even though aquatics facility managers are overseeing programming and in charge of the facility as a whole, the aquatic fitness instructor will design and implement the classes.  For this reason, a self-motivated team player is an ideal candidate for the job.  Instructors should come to class with an exercise plan that may require some set-up of equipment and technology.  Though instructors appreciate help with set up and tear down, a self-motivated instructor will arrive early with their lesson plan in hand, set up the needed equipment for class and get the technology ready without needing a vast amount of assistance from the  facility staff.  The independence of your aquatic exercise instructor is helpful but you also need them to know, appreciate, and understand that they are part of your facility’s team.  Including your instructors in the conversations about your facility will help them feel included while also keeping them educated about what is offered.  Instructors can be a tremendous resource for referral to other programs and offerings at your facility. 

Patrons look for instructors that are dedicated, educated, caring, and motivational.  The instructor should be adaptive in their approach to instruction, learning from their participants and responding to their needs.  Additionally, instructors should have a positive demeanor towards both their clients and facility.  This positive approach can have a tsunami effect on programmatic outcomes and facility success.  Last, but certainly not least, the instructor should be effective.  Being effective could be viewed in many different ways.  It could refer to a bolstered membership, increased exercise adherence, positive impact on fitness, or enhancement in social engagement. 

Membership longevity and exercise adherence can also be developed and fostered by the aquatic fitness instructor. Both the design of the program and the support of the group environment have been noted to improve exercise adherence (1, 2).  One scholarly review article noted a nearly 70% adherence rate with group fitness in older adults (1) with others highlighting the importance of the group dynamic on involvement and attendance (4).  What does this mean?  Building a community within an aquatic fitness class is important.  Community can organically form over time, however, the instructor and the facility can help progress the process.  Instructors can include get-to-know-you activities throughout the class and, both instructors and facilities, can promote social gatherings outside of class (ie: walk and talk group or coffee talk).  The added opportunity for social engagement will help build relationships which can, in turn, increase enjoyment of exercise, motivation, and exercise quality (6).    

            So how can you find the perfect aquatic exercise instructor for your facility?  There are a few tactics that can help to acquire great aquatic group fitness professionals.

  1. Develop a Clear Job Description.  Within the job description, note requirements including specifications on degrees, certification and experience.  If you are looking for a specific type of instructor (ie: arthritis or HIIT, shallow or deep) this should also be included.  
  2. Construct the perfect interview scenario.  Interviews provide an important opportunity for interviewers and interviewees to make a first impression.  Group interviews may serve as both a time saver as well as seeing how the applicants interact with one another.  Develop questions that will give you insight on how the instructor will fit into the culture of your facility and the patrons that it serves.  In addition to a Q & A session, a group workout is recommended.  This is an opportunity to see the instructor’s teaching style and communication within a group dynamic. 
  3. Host an audition.  Having the candidate teach a portion of, or full class at your facility as an audition is a great way to see if they are a good fit.  While the instructor is teaching, note their level of preparation, communication style, and how the patrons are responding to their instruction.  Additionally, note if  the instructor is able to pivot if modifications are needed.  You may even choose to have the participants complete a survey that rates the instructor and how likely they would be to attend the class.

If finding the right instructor with the best qualifications proves to be a challenge, consider seeking out an individual that has the personality and traits that your facility is looking for and sponsoring their certification.  In this scenario, it is ideal to draft a contract that the employee would agree to teach classes at your facility for a specified duration after receiving the certification and training. This may also be a great opportunity to grow your aquatic staff’s depth.         

Hiring the right fitness professional for your facility can boost your membership while creating new opportunities for your community to get involved with aquatic programming.  While group exercise is not a new concept, it has been steadily on the rise for the past 20 years, and expected to continue to drive the fitness market (7).  Add to your facility and your community by tapping into the potential of this growing market with the help of a great aquatic fitness instructor. 


  1. Farrance, C., Tsofliou, F., & Clark, C. (2016). Adherence to community based group exercise interventions for older people: A mixed-methods systematic review. Preventive Medicine, 87, 155-166.
  2. Heinzelmann, F., & Bagley, P.W. (1970). Response to physical activity programs and their effects on health behavior. Public Health Reports, 86, 905-911.
  3. Spink, K. S., & Carron, A. V. (1992). Group cohesion and adherence in exercise classes. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 14(1).
  4. Beauchamp, Mark R. Promoting Exercise Adherence Through Groups: A Self-Categorization Theory Perspective, Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews: January 2019 – Volume 47 – Issue 1 – p 54-61.  doi: 10.1249/JES.0000000000000177
  5. Gilbert M, Chaubet P, Karelis A, Dancause KN. Perceptions of group exercise courses and instructors among Quebec adults. BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med. 2017 Dec 7;3(1):e000278. doi: 10.1136/bmjsem-2017-000278. PMID: 29259811; PMCID: PMC5728298.
  6. Characterizing Relationships with Exercise Partners: Communication, Closeness, and Performance. Int J Sports Exerc Med. (2020).
  7. Phillips, Jak.  (2021) Club Industry. https://www.clubindustry.com/sponsored/group-fitness-trends-set-to-shape-next-decade
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