5 Tips for Teaching Multilevel Classes

by Portia Page on Dec 13, 2013

Teaching Skills

Use a tested protocol to motivate all your Pilates students.

Learning to teach multilevel Pilates mat classes can challenge even the most seasoned pros because we have to master so many specific movements and breathing patterns.

To simplify things, I devised the PESTT protocol—five tips for developing a plan that uses specific cuing and demonstrating techniques to keep classes challenging, engaging and safe at every level. PESTT has the following components:

  • Purpose
  • Exercise
  • Script
  • Teaching
  • Transitions

So go ahead, make a PESTT of yourself! Not in the annoying way . . . but in a way that will persuade your students to look, feel and move better.

1. Purpose: State It and Show It

Your students must know what they are working on and why. Therefore, state your purpose at the start of class and reiterate it often. You’ll get reinforcement if your exercises remind students of your purpose, which should be simple and direct—a word or phrase that reminds everyone why Pilates mat exercises are so beneficial. Keep it concise, with terms such as “flexibility,” “mobility,” “strength,” “range of motion” or “core stability.”

Example: “Create strength and balance through full-bodied, flowing movement.”

2. Exercise: Use Variations for Everyone

Once you have planned your exercises, write out variations for all the levels in class. Make sure each exercise has two to six iterations that modify and add challenge to the basic move. That way, you start with the easiest variation and progress to the most difficult. Throughout class, reassure students that they can stay at the level most appropriate for them.

Example: For a single-leg stretch with head lifted, keep one knee over the hip while the other stretches to a 45-degree angle. Arms reach on either side of the bent leg.
Modifications: Keep the head down and knees bent throughout each level. Reach the leg to the ceiling with a slight knee bend.
Challenges: Reach the leg out just above the floor; reach the outside arm to the ankle and the inside arm to the medial knee; and add breath challenges.
Teach the above in order, moving from one level to the next smoothly and easily, using simple cues.

3. Script: Create Cues in Five Phases

I script my classes in five phases:
a. setup
b. movement sequence
c. muscle activation and joint safety
d. motivation
e. transition

Here’s a look at each of these phases:

A. Setup

Use simple, direct cues to set up the class safely and appropriately. Choose a body part and tell the class which direction to go or where it should be placed. I usually start with the part of the body that is touching the floor and then move up. For standing exercises, I set up foot placement and alignment, and proceed to knees, hips, ribs, shoulders and head.

Example: “Place the feet under the sit bones, and point the toes to the front of the room (like the number 11).”

B. Movement Sequence

Describe how to do the exercise using imagery, the breath, or words that express the “shape” of the movement. This helps students identify with something familiar. They can then apply what they know to the movement.

Example: “Create a C-shape as you roll down from head to toe. Feel the abdominals pull up and in to support and flex the lower spine.”

C. Muscle Activation/Joint Safety

Use clear, direct, short and sharp cues. Tell the class what muscles they are working or what body part they should be feeling and how they can keep related joints safe during the movement.

Example: “Soften the knees and activate the upper-leg muscles front and back to feel the kneecaps draw up to the hips.”

D. Motivation

Once the class is in motion, it’s time to motivate and encourage students to move efficiently and safely until the end. Do not give them too much time to think about when the class is ending or how hard they are really working; just keep them focused. Use cues that emphasize the benefits of rhythmic movement and the exercises in general. If you give too much explanation without letting them move, they will cool down and their minds may start to wander. Focus and motivate.

Example: In the introduction and warm-up for standing tall, cue the setup by having students place their hands on their abdominals and feel the activation there, or place their hands on the low back while flexing the spine. As you are telling them to bring the feet under the hips, take your hands to your waistline and show that you are activating the muscles there. Have them do something simple like a heel raise so they feel the body’s response to the movement and can sense the abdominals engage and support it.

E. Transition

Transitioning from one exercise to the next creates a rhythm that eases students into the next level of effort. Transitioning with flow makes the class feel seamless and effortless; students are aware they are working hard without clenching or overworking unnecessary muscles.

Example: In the sample class below I start with the standing roll-down and then move to the all-fours position on the last standing roll-down.

4. Teach: Demo, Watch & Listen

In a mat class with several people, you’ll need to demonstrate each move, showing at least part if not all of the foundational move or level for each exercise. Once you’ve used the first two phases of cuing (setup and movement sequence), watch and listen to be sure these early cues have “landed” with your students. If they are doing what you’ve asked, then move to the next level; if not, use the same cues with different words or emphasis and direct your cues to the people who need them.

Example: You look out after giving the two cuing examples in B and C and see a few people are not articulating their spine on the roll-down. Bring everyone back up to standing and then show a squat, cuing, “Bend the knees to sit back and down; bring the hands to the thighs.” Then teach a modified cat-cow in this squat position to facilitate more lumbar flexion.

5. Transitions: Choreograph Rhythm and Flow

Smooth transitions create a continuous flow, easing your class through a workout that feels and looks good. With transitions, it is also simpler to build a class, as you can choose fewer exercises and get creative with the transitions. When a class flows, it seems effortless and students feel more successful. If they are more successful and feel the class’s benefits, they will come back for more.

Example Workout With Transitions

  • standing roll-down (heel raises and knee bends, arms and breath)
  • all-fours prep work (sternum drops, chest/triceps press, cat-cow)
  • prone (swan prep, swimming)
  • side-lying (leg lifts, circles, kick, stretch)
  • mermaid (stretch, side bend)
  • seated (roll-backs, obliques, roll-down, abdominal series I)
  • side-lying (leg lifts, circles, kick, stretch)
  • mermaid (stretch, side bend)
  • prone (swan dive prep, swan dive, single and double leg kicks)
  • supine (abdominal series II, roll-up, roll-over)
  • seated (spine stretch, saw, teaser variations)
  • standing (finishing stretch and breathing).

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About the Author

Portia Page

Portia Page IDEA Author/Presenter

Portia Page is a faculty member of Balanced Body® as well as the Education Project Manager and a STOTT PILATES®-certified instructor. She has been in the fitness industry for over 20 years and...