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Manager, owner and trainer Christie Ness leads a small group class on a Gravity workout machine at Toronto's Union Fitness.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Kristin Foster knew she needed to get stronger to improve her posture and help combat an aching back. But the Toronto photographer's experience with group classes at the gym had been a turnoff. "I find them to be too low impact or convoluted to be beneficial," she says. And regular one-on-ones with a personal trainer were a stretch for her budget. So last summer she signed up for twice-weekly kettlebell classes at a studio near her home, taught in groups of no more than eight.

The 45-minute sessions are challenging, Foster says, and worth the effort in more ways than she'd expected. Not only is her back "better than ever," but her mind is clearer, she has more energy and she actually looks forward to her workouts. "I've developed friendships within the group of regulars that I see," she says. "People who intimidated me at first, some who are swinging twice the weight I am, have ended up being people I joke around with in class."

Small-group training sessions are a growing trend on the fitness scene. As Vancouver trainer and Lululemon staffer Robert Tubajon says, "People want the personalization of having a personal trainer, but they can't necessarily afford the cost on their own." To meet this demand, trainers and studios – he cites Vancouver's EJ Elements and Studeo55 as examples – are offering more small or semi-private group-training classes, where students get a cut on the cost while still receiving personalized attention. At Vancouver's Steve Nash Fitness Clubs, for instance, where all locations now offer small-group training, participants pay from $20 to $45 per session, compared to $65 to $105 for one-on-ones.

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According to Nathalie Lacombe of national fitness group Canfitpro, the percentage of personal trainers offering small-group classes has doubled in the past decade.

Toronto's Union Studio, for example, which opened with great fanfare in the fall due to its partial ownership by members of Our Lady Peace (and location in the band's former rehearsal space), has had great success with its small-group classes, which include those on Gravity workout machines and men-only Ripped Training classes. Co-owner and manager Christie Ness says that many clients have shifted from personal training to small-group classes, partly to save money, but also for the social environment, and the competition. "People like going to the gym with a friend, and they want to push harder," she says.

One-on-one personal training is still ideal for beginners or anyone doing rehabilitative work, says Jonathan Farber, owner of Toronto cycling and fitness studio Bspoke Athletics, where small-group classes run between $27 and $30 a session. But he adds that once people get comfortable with lifting weights, training in a group can offer that extra incentive to keep going, whether it's for competitive reasons or because you don't want to miss out on seeing your friends.

"If people are enjoying strength training, they'll do it more often," Farber says. And by sticking to a small group – he defines it as six or less – you're ensuring that you're working out safely while still challenging yourself. "The beauty of small-group personal training is it has found the balance point" between individual attention and group motivation, he adds. "It really is about personal attention. We're looking to maximize your workout so that it's efficient and safe and is best for you rather than for everyone else in the room."

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