Including the Pilates Principles in your classes
Using the Pilates principles is part of layering and teaching. Here are a few tips on how to ensure they are embedded into your teaching style.
The principle of precision can be applied to yourself. As the instructor you must be precise about what you want your participants to do and how you want them to feel. This comes with time and from your own body awareness and practise. If you know your exercises inside out and really understand what they are for and what they are trying to achieve, then this will be easier for you to explain to others. If you are not yet familiar with the reasons behind some of the exercises, take some time to research this as with your precision comes your participants precision and with that comes results. Let’s use the One Hundred as an example. Once you have your clients lying in supine set-up, the first layer would be to lift one leg to Table Top (90° knee bend, knee above hip, shin parallel with the floor). For an average Pilates teacher this would be all the information they would give. However, for a really precise instructor they would let you know that as you lift the leg your hip will lower, meaning your pelvis has twisted. You now have a room full of clients with a perfect neutral spine and a wonky pelvis. In order to stabilise this you need to make your clients aware of it. They can place their hands on their hips to monitor the stability and work really hard to stabilise the pelvis. As the instructor it is really important to let them know that this is not easy but the effort and additional stability makes a huge difference to their body awareness, understanding, control and overall results. Telling your clients to “keep your hips stable” is not enough. Be precise about what you want, why, how it feels and what benefit they will get.
Control is another principle we can apply to you as the instructor. You need to control your class at all times - which way they face, which layer they are doing and the speed in which they do their options. I’m often asked what to do with participants who just want the hardest options. I’m honest with them and explain how important it is to get the basics right. I help them to understand the point of each exercise (often the control rather than the movement itself). I point out any errors in their execution and give them a way to feel it on themselves. If I have clients on a one-to-one basis then, with their permission, I film their technique and play it back to them. They need to understand their technique faults in order to improve them. This massively helps me to keep people on the layer they should be on and to keep overall control of the group.
The principle of breathing can be difficult to explain to your participants. While it is an important part of Pilates, would you rather they breathe perfectly with incorrect technique on the exercise or perform the exercise well and occasionally have to remind them to breathe? I prefer the latter, but if I could have correct technique as well as perfect breathing, that would be my ideal (although those participants don’t seem to come to my classes)! Breathing patterns can be confusing when you initially start teaching and it’s difficult not to fall into the trap of ‘in two three four, out two three four’ counting their breathing for them. This means you can’t give teaching points, you can’t verbally correct and all your participants are forced to do the move at the same time, giving no room for adapting or progressing using speed for variation. As an instructor, breathing patterns are low on my list of what I need my participants to do correctly. Breathing itself is of paramount importance, but if they confuse when they breathe in and when they breathe out, as long as their technique doesn’t suffer as a result then this is okay. Taking the Roll Up as an example, the fitness instructors amongst us would always want to breathe out on the way up, breathe in on the way down. Joseph Pilates encouraged breathing in on the way up and out on the way down and Personal Trainers would want to breathe out on the effort, which you could argue is all of it! So what are the options for breathing patterns on a Roll Up?
- From seated - inhale to prepare, exhale and begin to roll down. Inhale and return to the start position
- From seated - inhale to prepare, exhale and roll down as far as comfortable. Inhale at the bottom and exhale to return to the start position
- From seated - inhale to begin rolling down, exhale to return to start position
These are all safe and they’re all effective. As an instructor you are encouraged to advice on breathing patterns and encourage breathing (to avoid participants holding their breath). Sometimes their breathing will dictate the speed of the movement, so an alternative breathing pattern may be needed if they need to slow the movement down or work on stability further.
Participants need to be aware of lateral breathing and this will have been taught in detail in the mobility warm-up phase but should be applied throughout. We use the term ‘lateral thoracic’ breathing although in actual fact all breathing is thoracic. We can only breathe into our thorax. We can’t breathe ‘lumbarly’ or ‘cervically’ so the ‘lateral’ part is the important bit. Breathing in to the sides of their ribs is the feeling they need, so to come back to the principle of ‘precision’, make sure you demonstrate and explain this well.
Anyone who has participated in a Pilates class would be able to tell you that they absolutely needed concentration all of the time. Pilates is like multi-tasking. I need you to know where your feet are in relation to your hips and knees at all times. I need you to know where your neutral spine is, what it feels like and how to tell if you’ve come out of it in any position I put you in. I need your neck and shoulders to be in alignment and in a suitable position posturally. I also need you to have a 30% contraction in both your TVA and your pelvic floor, neither of which you are really sure if you’ve got the hang of. Then on top of all that, I’m going to give you a movement to do.... You can easily see why concentration is a principle. If your clients can’t give you concentration, you will struggle to help them get results. Pilates is the one class where they just can’t be thinking about what they need from the supermarket. They need every ounce of their brain powering their body awareness to give them the precision and control they need to be successful at the layer of the exercise they are doing.
Centering is important to your clients as this will bring their awareness back to their stability and their core, rather than the movement. Movements are done with our mobility muscles. Centering and core control is done with our stability muscles. These are the muscles we are mainly concerned with in Pilates, so as is the case in most Pilates moves, it’s not about what’s moving. It’s about what shouldn’t be. If we take the Side Kick as an example, your clients are trying to improve their core strength in a range of positions and challenge it in a variety of ways. If we wanted to encourage hamstring flexibility we have many ways to do this, none of which would be the Side Kick. We can safely and effectively stretch our hamstrings lying supine with a band for support. So the movement of the kick is not there to encourage hamstring flexibility. It is there to challenge their side lying core stability. Once they realise it is about stability, not mobility, they can use control and precision to limit the movement so they can achieve good stability and gain the benefits they came for in their core centre. This requires a lot of teaching points and instruction for your clients to understand the aim. It is important to note that if they bend their supporting leg or have their supporting hand on the floor, then their stability muscles are not working as hard. To progress, eliminate these supporting limbs first and encourage their core to stabilise in this position before increasing the kick movement.
The final original principle is flow. This relates to how you make each exercise flow and how you make the class as a whole flow. Planning your transitions will really help with this, as will layering and teaching towards mixed ability. A bad example of flow would be to demonstrate a Push Up and finish with mobility and then demonstrate a ¾ Push Up and expect your clients to follow suit. After a rep or two, when it becomes clear that some cannot manage it, offer a lower option and then towards the end offer a higher option. You might think that sounds okay. It is okay but it’s not great, and it could be so much better.
To really appreciate flow we need to think about the transition before and after as well as the layers. We can assume that if you are teaching Push Up you would do it at the beginning of the class as it starts in standing. It also starts with a roll down, so make sure that this in your final mobility move. So your class is performing roll down all at different times for mobility. Ask them on their next rep to come to their hands and knees. Once they are there, Cat and Cow, then find neutral. When they have this, activate their TVA and pelvic floor, bring the shoulders away from their ears and their eyes in line with the floor. Lift the knees (both of them) an inch from the floor and hold for 2 breaths. Then lower the knees, walk the hands back towards the feet, lift the hips and roll back to standing (in perfect posture) where they are all in a great position to see your demo of a Box Push Up. As they roll down, explain that if they would prefer to do the knee lift today that’s fine, and if they would like to do the Push Up, keep the hands in line with the chest and wider than the mat. When they have done one rep, roll back to standing (in perfect posture) and observe you doing a ¾ Push Up. When they are on their way down, again talk through their options and allow them to be at different levels. From here they can work at their own pace and their own level. As the instructor you need to demonstrate great technique, breathing and alignment. When you have observed and corrected and the class have completed sufficient repetitions, instruct them to come into a Child’s Pose after their next Push Up. This will create a transition to the floor. From here they can do a Seated Chest Stretch while you demonstrate the next movement, creating flow throughout the class.
Remember that the principles are what make Pilates unique, effective and challenging. Without them I don’t know what we would be doing, but it wouldn’t be Pilates!
Written by Heather Oakes