Pilates Principles for Group Exercise

Mar 22, 2010

Joseph Pilates often spoke of “principles of movement.” Six principles have remained consistent through the years, acting as pillars of practice. They are concentration, control, centering, precision, flow and breathing. These powerful precepts can be valuable tools for ensuring a safe, efficient, results-oriented workout in any type of exercise or group fitness class.


For Mr. Pilates, practicing concentration meant giving undivided attention to an exercise and performing it with full commitment. Concentration is the cornerstone of fitness fundamentals. Consider group strength training. During a barbell squat, concentration on proper alignment, execution and technique is crucial in order to avoid injury.

Group Exercise Crossover. Help participants focus and concentrate by using cues such as “Imagine lowering your buttocks into the back seat of a car while keeping your chest in the front seat.” To help people tune in, use consistent alignment cues, such as “Keep your weight in your heels, chest open, knees in line with your second toe. Squeeze through the buttocks and thighs without locking the knees.” By cuing in this manner, you “force” people to focus.


Mr. Pilates believed in both muscle and mental control. The ability to maintain control in the body during movement is more important than intensity or repetition. Controlled movement is often neglected in fitness.

Group Exercise Crossover. Some of the key elements outlined in indoor cycling programs are pedal stroke and body alignment. Instructors cue participants to do a smooth pedal stroke in which the foot is flat and the knees stay in line with the toes during a full revolution, avoiding external rotation from the hip or knee joint. They also have riders check their speed to ensure efficiency of movement. Lack of controlled movement greatly affects a rider’s ability to maintain proper alignment.

Always begin class by explaining the importance of spinal alignment. Also be sure to emphasize pedal stroke and speed control. Repeating these reminders throughout class helps participants understand how important they are and promotes an injury-free cycling experience.


It was Mr. Pilates’ view that strength and support initiate from the center of the body (the powerhouse), or what we refer to today as “the core.” In classes such as indoor cycling, group strength and kickboxing, “centering” the body can allow the muscles in the extremities to function more efficiently. Many people mention the back as a point of discomfort when taking a fitness class. This is often because of an inability to focus on a strong, stable center.

Group Exercise Crossover. During cycling and kickboxing classes, focus on proper spinal alignment and stability. This will encourage multiple muscles in the legs and glutes to fire, while creating less wear and tear on the back. While leading a strength class, cue participants to align the spine in neutral position prior to performing an exercise. By starting at one end of the spine and working your way down, you create a checklist for participants to follow. Once they are in the right position, encourage them to maintain it during the press.


Mr. Pilates encouraged his students to focus on doing one precise and perfect movement, rather than many halfhearted ones.

Group Exercise Crossover. Many regulars now avoid step class, noting that it has wreaked havoc on their knee joints in recent years. A greater focus on precision through sharp cuing skills and safety reminders may make for a pain-free workout. Remind participants that the entire foot should be on the bench when stepping up and that the heel should not hang off the back of the bench. When stepping down, the foot should land close to the step in toe, ball, heel succession. The goal eventually is for precision to become second nature and to carry over into everyday life as grace and economy of movement.


Mr. Pilates realized the importance of smooth movement without tension or jerking. Fluidity, grace and ease of movement can be applied to all exercises.

Group Exercise Crossover. The principle of flow can be applied in a variety of ways. It can refer to the flow or smoothness of an individual movement, such as a biceps curl in a strength class. Flow can also relate to transitions. Transitions between poses or body positions should be seamless and logical.


Since breathing is an involuntary function, we often overlook it in relation to exercise, but Mr. Pilates recognized the importance of effective breathing. It not only oxygenates the muscles but also reduces tension in the upper neck and shoulders.

Group Exercise Crossover. During a group fitness classes, you can try several techniques to encourage participants to breathe. Ask, “Are you breathing?” or “Do you know where your quads are now?” This type of banter forces people to breathe, as they need to open their mouths to answer you! Try teaching breath as part of movement execution, in the same way a Pilates instructor would. A full breath will also help students build or maintain cardiovascular strength and stamina.

Incorporating these six principles into your classes allows you to grow as an instructor, puts the emphasis on the participants’ experience and boosts your value.

For more information, please see the full article, “Borrowing From a Master” in the online IDEA Library or in February 2010 IDEA Fitness Journal.

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