Pilates Cuing Is an Art

Inner IDEA: Industry leaders share their insights.

Proper cuing is the essence of teaching Pilates. The learned skill of communicating effectively to a client on all levels is a critical ingredient of top-notch cuing. Moira Merrithew, co-founder of STOTT PILATES® and its executive director of education, says that successful cuing has the effect of “getting [clients] to move efficiently through an exercise, so they get the most out of it. That could mean performing a movement with a specific intention quality or with the correct muscular engagement and muscle-firing patterns. A quality instructor will be well-versed in different types of cuing, which will help address each individual client.”

In addition to Merrithew, IDEA Fitness Journal interviewed five other professionals regarding their views on and methods of cuing. They were Rael Isacowitz, MA, author, and owner and founder of Body Arts and Science International (BASIPilates); Marie-José Blom, founder and director of Long Beach Dance Conditioning, Long Beach, California, and faculty member at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles; Nora St. John, education program director for Balanced Body® University; Ellie Herman, author of seven books on Pilates, licensed acupuncturist, and founder of Ellie Herman Studios in San Francisco, Oakland and New York City; and Moses Urbano, Romana’s Pilates® level 3 instructor trainer and owner of StudioMo Pilates, San Diego.

These experts agree that Pilates instructors need an extensive repertoire of cues, including the broad categories of tactile (touch), auditory (verbal) and visual (demonstration), and that each of these types can be further divided into relevant and useful subcategories (such as directional cuing, which makes use of the surrounding environment to guide the client, as in “Reach the leg toward the ceiling”).

Tactile cuing, Herman says, “is the use of ‘informed touch’ to help a student find the correct alignment and muscles while doing an exercise. It’s very important to know the exact location and direction of the muscle fibers so that the instructor’s touch encourages the muscle fiber to contract or release. Specificity is a key. Randomly touching students will only confuse them.”

Auditory cuing, Blom suggests, is often infused with imagery. The goals are to make complex biomechanics easy to understand; to promote movement coordination and efficiency; and to create a simple and lasting functional blueprint for normal daily activities. Isacowitz says that auditory cuing is all about sounds and that the instruction can be imagery based or analytical. Urbano cautions that when giving auditory cues, instructors should work out in advance how they plan to communicate with their clients. “My teacher, Romana, suggested that I record myself giving a mat session and then do the class myself following my own recording. This is an exercise that can benefit all instructors, but it can be a personally challenging experience as well as an educational one.”

Visual cuing, notes Isacowitz, provides a visual picture through actual demonstration of all or part of the movement.

Isacowitz believes people generally gravitate toward one type of cuing and which one it is depends on “life experience, learning experience and genetic makeup. However, this does not mean that a person only learns with one type of cue, but rather a combination of cues, sometimes offered simultaneously. Each type of cuing is different and relies on different senses of the body.” St. John concurs, adding that a good teacher develops a “cuing vocabulary” for each new student and should be constantly evaluating how the cues are being received and modifying them as needed.

Six Perspectives on Cuing

When interviewed for IDEA Fitness Journal, each of the six experts was asked to explain which cues they had found most effective and productive in their years of teaching and training. All of the participants expressed definitive viewpoints on this important and complex subject. Here is what these industry leaders had to say:

Moira Merrithew

Without question, the cues that are emphasized most in our training are those that relate to STOTT PILATES’ Five Basic Principles. These principles incorporate modern theories of exercise science and spinal rehabilitation and involve the following biomechanical theories: breathing, pelvic placement, rib cage placement, scapular movement and stabilization, and head and cervical placement. When these principles are introduced and reinforced through a workout, awareness of how the body moves is developed. This mind-body awareness ensures focus on precision and control to help realize the full benefits of an exercise program. Cues that are founded in these principles ensure clients are maintaining a kinesthetic awareness of the body.

Cues that relate to proper breathing technique promote effective oxygenation of the blood, focus the mind on each task and help avoid unnecessary tension during exercise. Encouraging deep exhalations helps activate the deep support muscles of the body.

Effective cues will also emphasize stabilization of the pelvis and lumbar spine both statically and dynamically in all positions and throughout all movements.

The abdominal muscles must often be recruited to maintain the rib cage and, indirectly, the thoracic spine, in proper alignment. Instructors must cue participants to prevent the rib cage from lifting up in the supine position or deviating forward in a sitting position, causing the thoracic spine to extend.

Cuing stabilization of the scapulae and shoulders is of chief importance during the initiation of every exercise. When stability is absent, there is a tendency to overwork muscles around the neck and shoulders.

Regarding head and cervical placement, the cervical spine should hold its natural curve and the skull should balance directly above the shoulders when sitting in neutral. This position should also be maintained when lying on the back.

Rael Isacowitz

It would take volumes of writing to describe the many cues I use or the multitude of modifications I employ. They are infinite because they are evolving all the time. I am continuously creating new ones. I believe giving set cues or modifications can stifle creativity. A cue that works for one teacher may not work for another, and what works for one client may have no meaning to someone else. Furthermore a modification that hits the mark for one client may actually be contraindicated for another. This is the formula I use:

Knowledge of human science + knowledge of the client + knowledge of Pilates + intuition and creativity = perfect cue/modification.

It is not simple to cue clearly. Cuing is possibly the most difficult element to teach teachers, but it is also the most exciting and stimulating. My word of advice to both young and seasoned teachers is observe! Become masters of observation.

Nora St. John

The first principle of cuing is that you must relate the cue to the person in front of you. For example, telling a new client to “engage your serratus” during arm work is not effective when they have no idea what the serratus is [or where it is located]. Instead, ask the client to widen their shoulder blades, press their hands into the floor or push the straps away.

I emphasize manual [tactile] cuing by the client to provide direct feedback to their nervous system. For example, I sug- gest clients use their hands or a small pad under their low back when lying supine, as a means of checking to make sure the low back is staying in position during an exercise.

I focus on positive, action-oriented cues rather than negative cues (the dos, not the don’ts).

Finally if a cue isn’t working, find a new way to say it. Rather than simply repeating a cue such as “Lower your right shoulder” several times, try “Relax your right shoulder,” perhaps with a tactile cue. Don’t beat a dead cue.

Marie-José Blom

The most effective cuing technique is the combination of tactile cuing and imagery. I teach a specific, diagonal, tactile two-point touch that follows the natural design of the movement via the neural pathways of the body. The touch is light and specific, and it becomes a language by itself. I call it “Diagonal Tactile Concepts,” which is movement and alignment cuing with a directional intent to connect to the body. Effective cuing is as essential to Pilates as a conductor is to an orchestra. The movement should feel harmonious and fluid, and all instruments (i.e., muscles, etc.) should be involved. Each movement is a whole-body experience.

To translate a cue into successful movement memory, the teacher should be able to answer three questions: Where is the movement initiated? Where is the movement controlled? and Where is the contrast in the movement (inner space creates tensile stability)?

My favorite formula to incorporate core control is to connect the “core players” (such as the transversus abdominis) into the movement, which makes the work go deeper in the body.

Ellie Herman

After many years of experience, I’ve found that the most effective cuing techniques include tactile cues. Examples include cuing the lower trapezius and the latissimus dorsi muscles to release upper-trapezius tightness and holding, and tactile cuing of the individual fibers of the abdominal wall while doing roll-downs, to facilitate articulation of the spine. I often place a folded sticky mat or small towel underneath a rigid area of the spine while clients are rolling down, or while they are lying supine in neutral. Bringing the mat up to the spine can be extremely helpful for people who have trouble finding their abdominal connection on the opposite side of those tight areas in their spine.

Additionally, an exercise demonstration can be a simple visual cue and is, for most people, the easiest way to “get” an exercise. Relying on words simply doesn’t work for most people—that is, unless they are trained movers or fitness/health professionals who [thoroughly] understand kinesiology and body mechanics.

Moses Urbano

My best cues have evolved from experience. I always use a basic formula when working with a new client:

First, I offer a clear and present greeting to the new person, observing closely their eye contact and their initial handshake. Next, I listen to what the person is saying and how they speak. Third, I listen to their body. Are they offering me an “open body posture” or a “closed body posture” with which to work? In addition, I observe the client’s response to both a verbal and tactile cue. Be sure you know why you are going to touch a client, because their safety is in your hands. They must feel confident following your guidance while you are working together.

In my experience the cuing begins the moment I acknowledge my clients, and it’s vital for me to remember that each day is a new opportunity to hone my cues with them. A positive, healthy attitude can set a tone for the quality of instruction that you have to offer. 

Some Final Thoughts

Without hesitation, these six professionals, who are among the best and the brightest in their field, share the firm conviction that good cuing is crucial to their work as mind-body instructors. There may be differences of opinion about various means and methods, but the advice from these educators is all based on sound Pilates principles. As Isacowitz concludes, “Remain open-minded at all times, become a master of observation, practice the work and be a role model, stay in touch with the latest research and professional developments and enjoy the exploration and creative process.”

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Rosalind Gray Davis

IDEA Author/Presenter
Rosalind Gray Davis is a dynamic and creative author and highly regarded health, fitness and wellnes... more less
November 2008

© 2008 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

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