Body Knowledge: Successful Cuing for Pilates

Dec 04, 2006

How often have you given a cue and had a client respond, “Oh, now it makes sense!” or “Wow, that feels totally different!” or of course my favorite, “No one has ever told me that!” A well-directed cue that hits the mark can bring about a change immediately. In many cases the client has been taught the move before and has been corrected many times, but hasn’t grasped the point. A good cue changes more than an exercise experience; it also changes the client’s outlook. An unconvinced potential client suddenly becomes an ardent devotee.

Yes, of course, mastering the skill in question is important. I spent the first 10-15 years of my Pilates career learning and practicing the entire repertoire of exercises from fundamental to master level, integrating the movements into my body and becoming one with this mind-body system. But experience in a discipline-while crucial-is not enough; a good teacher must also be able to communicate effectively.

These days, I continue to practice Pilates with great discipline, but in the past 10 years I have focused more and more on honing my teaching skills, particularly my cuing. In the final analysis, the one ingredient that can become better with time and maturity is cuing. Our bodies age, and even with diligent practice some physical deterioration is inevitable. But like a fine wine, our teaching can improve over time.

The Art of Cuing
The art of cuing is a complex process based on experience, experimentation, understanding and intuition. Perhaps this is especially true of a mind-body discipline such as Pilates. Sometimes the learning is highly cognitive, and other times, information must be conveyed, received and integrated in milliseconds. As awareness develops and the process of fine tuning and correction becomes almost subconscious, the time delay between a cue and the correction can be very short indeed.

To facilitate this process, it helps to know what kind of learner a client is. Most people lean toward a preferred type of learning. They may be primarily visual learners, auditory learners, experiential learners or tactile learners (although no one belongs exclusively to one group). Choosing the best type of cue for a client in a given situation speeds progress and makes the experience more fulfilling for both client and teacher.

Four Pilates Exercises Showing Different Cuing Options

Knee Stretch Round Back

Objectives: pelvic lumbar stabilization, shoulder stabilization, hip disassociation
Cuing Method: tactile
The most difficult aspect of this exercise to master is keeping the trunk (including the pelvis) still as the legs move freely forward and backward. I find tactile cuing the most successful approach.

Place one hand firmly on the sacral area of the lower back/pelvis and the other hand on the lower abdominal/pubic symphasis area. Essentially, create a clamp for the pelvis to help keep it still. Note: As with all tactile cuing, but particularly when touching the pelvic region, the touch must be professional and confident; in addition, a trusting and comfortable relationship must already exist with the client. Each individual who uses tactile cuing has the responsibility to follow professional guidelines at all times.

Short Spine
Objectives: spinal articulation, lower back stretch, hamstring stretch
Cuing Method: verbal (analytical)
The Short Spine is a complicated exercise requiring a high level of coordination and control. Because the body is in an inverted position most of the time, with the feet in the straps, this movement is difficult to demonstrate (the client would need to remove the straps and get off the Reformer, allowing you to get onto the Reformer and place your feet in the straps, followed by you getting off the Reformer and the client back on . . . very time consuming). I find that the most efficient form of cuing for this exercise is verbal.

Describe the movement as the person goes through it. Make the directives simple and to the point. It is easier if you break the move down into short segments that are coordinated with the breath pattern:
Exhale: Starting in a frog position, straighten the legs and point the feet.
Inhale: Bring the legs overhead.
Exhale: Roll up onto the shoulders.
Inhale: Bend the knees to a frog position.
Exhale: Articulate the spine down, keeping the feet over the face.
Inhale: Flex the feet, draw the sacrum down and return to the starting position.

Roll-Over
Objectives: spinal articulation, lower back stretch, hamstring stretch
Cuing Method: demonstration
I am very specific about the unique execution of this exercise, and I find that the best way to convey the correct action is through demonstration. No matter how much explaining I do, the point is often missed.

Emphasize this key point: On the way over, the movement must be created by flexion of the trunk, with the hip joint remaining at approximately a 90-degree angle. This eliminates the tendency to use the legs as a long lever arm to create momentum. However, on the return, emphasize the stretch by keeping the thighs as close to the chest as possible.

Swan on the Step Barrel (Spine Corrector)
Objectives: back extensor strength, hip extensor control, abdominal stretch
Cuing Method: verbal (imagery)
Recruiting different parts of the back requires intricate control and body awareness. I find verbal cuing using imagery (coupled with tactile cuing when specific muscles must be accessed) the best way to recruit the back with the necessary control and awareness.
In the case of the Swan on the Step Barrel, look for intravertebral control of the back extensors. Initially ask the client to reach out from the crown of the head. This immediately elongates the spine. Following that, ask for a reverse spinal articulation, moving from the head down the spine to the mid back. This completes the first phase. In the second phase, the lower back and hip extensors are recruited as the legs lift. Now suggest the shape and feel of an archer’s bow. This provides the image of a consistent and powerful arc through the body.

Skillful, Focused Teaching
Ultimately, the effectiveness of your cuing will determine the effectiveness of your teaching. No one is just a visual learner or just a tactile learner. In the best-case scenario, you will be well versed and competent in all modes of cuing and able to combine them in subtle ways for the best effect. To achieve this level of skill as a Pilates teacher, you need to practice the work, integrate it into your life and gain experience in teaching the movements.

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