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Teaching Essentials: Pilates Mat Work

by Christine Romani-Ruby, MPT, ATC on May 20, 2009

As a teacher of the Pilates method, your job is both a science and an art. You want to plan your class scientifically, with a warm-up, a workout and a cool-down. You also want to develop the art of engaging students—because if you can teach them to focus, to do more than just go through the motions, they will leave with a newfound sense of connection between mind, body and spirit. For new teachers, learning to engage students in this way is the most difficult task. The best advice is to seek out Pilates cuing techniques from experts and keep practicing.

This article addresses the science of instructing a mat class—the four steps to follow when teaching an exercise and the factors to consider when sequencing moves.

Teaching a Pilates Move: 4 Steps

When teaching Pilates mat work, follow these logical steps for each exercise:

  1. Lay the Foundation. Think of this as building the basement. Begin with alignment. I recommend employing verbal visual cues that stimulate the mind, rather than using your body. You want your clients to take in the information and process it—not just to mimic you. Be specific, be precise and expect perfect practice. Proceed quickly into the movement so that your students’ minds don’t wander. Keep talking to hold their attention. Avoid counting; instead keep the pace with your voice and your cues.
  2. Find the Center. Using the breath, bring attention to the powerhouse (the rectangular area of the torso). Discuss its position and the engagement of the abdominal area as well as the expansion of the rib cage with the breath. It is essential to involve the powerhouse in each exercise.
  3. Hold Still and Move. Think of a few familiar Pilates mat exercises. In each of them, certain segments of the body move, while others hold still. At times, the parts even alternate in their movement. This is the most important concept to focus on in a mat work class for beginners. Pilates teaches us to learn the movement available at each joint and how to isolate that movement to just that joint. Joseph Pilates described this as “moving without tenseness,” using only the muscle and joint needed for the task--nothing more. If you think of this as you build each exercise, you will have great success with new students and continue to challenge your long-term clients.
  4. Flow. Last but not least, flow. Connect to the foundation, to the center, to the movement, and go, go, go. . . . This is the fun part, but it takes the first three steps to get there.

Sequencing Guidelines: 4 Rules

You probably know that there was a recommended order for the original Pilates mat exercises. Today, whether you choose to follow the traditional order or not, you should keep these rules in place:

  1. Warm Up the Low Back Very Early in the Workout. The perfect low-back warm-up in a mat class is articulating bridge. Incorporate it early to avoid straining this area. In the general population, the back is often the weakest link.
  2. Avoid Maintaining One Body Position for an Extended Period of Time. The body can get very uncomfortable if left in one position too long. Keep the body positions flowing. You can always revisit supine later in the workout.
  3. Interrupt Supine Spinal Flexion With Spine Extension. Spinal flexion, as in the stomach series, can be stressful—especially for beginners. Interrupt the curled position with a quick, articulating bridge and then go right back into flexion. This will allow stress relief but keep the abdomen working.
  4. End the Class With Prone Extension. There is a lot of spinal flexion in Pilates mat work. Although good for strength and flexibility, it often places pressure on the disks in the spine. A spine extension exercise is a great way to relieve this stress.

To read the full article, “Teaching Pilates Mat Work,” which includes cuing suggestions to help your students integrate the mind-body connection, see the May issue of IDEA Fitness Journal or read the article online in the IDEA Library.

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About the Author

Christine Romani-Ruby, MPT, ATC

Christine Romani-Ruby, MPT, ATC IDEA Author/Presenter

Christine Romani-Ruby, PT, D.Ed., MPT, ATC, PMA CPT is a licensed physical therapist and a Pilates Method Alliance gold-certified Pilates instructor. She is a full professor in the exercise science program at California University of Pennsylvania and practices clinically at PHI Pilates Studio in Pittsburgh.