Should You Be Friends With Your Fitness Instructor?

Photographed by Andi Elloway.
Taking a SoulCycle class taught by one of the top instructors can be like going to a gig. The super fans line up to get in the door first. If a rider gets a shout-out from the instructor during class, whoops and hollers ensue. There might be tears if they play a favourite song. And afterwards, sweaty bodies patiently wait by the podium to thank the instructor, or share how moving their message was. It's kind of like church, but with more sweating.
This type of fandom is a trend in fitness: People spend a lot of time with their trainers or workout instructors, so they end up becoming intertwined. But at SoulCycle, close-knit relationships between clients and instructors are encouraged. "What's unique in our classes [is] I feel like the instructors offer a lot of themselves, and a lot of our genuine personality and life experience," says Sydney Miller, a senior SoulCycle instructor in New York City. "You're like opening up your world a little bit more, and there's a little bit less of a line from business to real life," she says. It's only natural that people would feel like they know their instructor, or are able to relate to the superhuman athlete who guides them through difficult exercises.
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During a SoulCycle ride, instructors often get on the mic and weave in vulnerable anecdotes about their own relationships, stressful family situations, or struggles with anxiety between reps or intervals. For example, Miller says she went through a bad breakup a few years ago, and would talk about it in class. "I had so many people come up to me after and tell me how class got them through their worst breakup, or an abusive relationship that they got out of, because coming to class gave them the strength to get out of it," she says. "Stories like that are very impactful."
Bevin Prince, a senior SoulCycle instructor in New York City, says she likes to think about each of her classes as a conversation between her and other people, rather than a performance. "I'm just the one that's guiding the physical part of the workout, and hopefully allowing them enough space to explore their own mental stuff on their own, and kind of compartmentalise, think, and face challenges in a safe space," Prince says. Once after a class, a rider told Prince that she was feeling burdened with thoughts about her mother's death, but disclosed that she was finally able to forgive herself after the ride. "That to me is the ultimate," she says. "When people take the time to write to you, or tell you how they have grown or been affected by this, you'll never quit — there's no greater high."
Comments and praise often trickle in on social media long after the workout has ended. In fact, Miller's dedicated group of riders uses the hashtag #SydSquad to tag their posts. And sometimes, she gets recognised on the street by riders who want to tell her how she changed their lives. "Stuff like that makes me so happy to hear," Miller says. "Because when you're teaching to a group of 65 people, you hope that somebody takes something away, but you never know for sure." Prince says sometimes it feels odd to be seen through a "celebrity lens," because people may assume that instructors are untouchable or perfect. "I think that it gets shattered really quickly in a good way, because we get to really humanise ourselves," she says. "It’s really less of being a celebrity, and more you just have a wide network of friends."
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Of course, staying so connected and feeling so responsible for clients' lives can get a little heavy or burdensome at times. (The scene in Bruce Almighty when Jim Carrey's character, God, is bombarded with messages from people who need things comes to mind.) "It really is a fine line, 100% that's one of the hardest things about the job," Miller says. "You want to be vulnerable, and you want to open up, but you also do have to create a barrier just to like protect yourself."
Not all trainers foster such intimate connections with their clients, though. It's true that building rapport with clients is one of the most important skills in becoming a trainer, but some might argue that the constant contact and reliability goes beyond what's expected of a trainer-client relationship. But this is part of the job for SoulCycle instructors. "I feel like I accepted the responsibility when I decided that this was something I wanted to do," Prince says. "The thing I'm working on the most every single day is to just be more open, and honest, and vulnerable about my personal life. The more honest and the more open I can be, I think allows people to do the same. And we have to set the standard, we have to walk the walk."
Beyond the emotional benefits of having a solid relationship with clients, befriending riders might seem like something that's good for business, and it definitely is. When people like a class, they often come back and bring friends. Miller has been to dinners, attended bachelorette parties, received wedding invites, and gone on vacation with her riders. "I'm very involved with a lot of people who take my class; we’ve become very close friends," she says. Prince affectionally called her riders a second family.
Personally, I've been to many a SoulCycle class, and creeped on instructor's Instagram pages, but never had the urge to go say hello after class. So, I had to wonder if these relationships are strictly business. Do these instructors really care or remember who comes up to them after class? Or are these interactions just a matter of ego-stroking? When I mentioned this to Miller and Prince, they both shut down my hesitations, and encouraged me to say hello the next time I take a class, because the instructors do care. "It helps keep perspective, and keep me motivated, and I want to know you. I want to know everybody," Prince says. "Let them know for them, it’s not about you."
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