Working With Overweight Clients

Uniting the Industry: Pilates teachers share how to be more inclusive.

How can the Pilates industry be more welcoming to clients who are overweight? We asked instructors how they create a comfortable and beneficial experience that keeps clients of all sizes coming back for more.

Modifying for All Sizes in One Class

“I encourage clients of all sizes to start with private or semiprivate sessions (with a friend or family member) so I can teach the principles and safely introduce clients to the apparatus. This way it’s easier to teach modifications, which can easily be transferred to a class setting. Pilates, especially on the apparatus, is an excellent program for overweight clients because the equipment supports them while they learn how to move correctly.

“I like to keep my clients in the same position as much as possible during class. To achieve this with clients of all sizes and abilities, I teach half roll-backs instead of full roll-ups; down stretch instead of prone for swan; arm work and twists while sitting on the long box; and low front splits (with padding under the knees, if needed) instead of having the foot on the foot bar or [working] in a full standing position.

“I do not include full flexion exercises, and I modify exercises that need to be done while lying on the stomach. Lying on the back for an extended time can also be an issue for some heavier people. Side-lying exercises (especially on the reformer) can be too restrictive.

“[My advice is to] slow down the transitions between exercises, as maneuvering can be an issue. Have everyone in the right position at the same time before instructing the exercise. While speedier clients are waiting for others, I usually talk about and show the muscles being used. When I see that everyone is safely in position, then I cue the exercise while offering verbal modifications.

“When advertising your studio, include a picture or two showing a variety of people doing the exercises—not just thin young women! Include testimonials from both men and women, and list their ages so you can show that both sexes and more than one age group attend your studio.”

—Ramona Bianco, owner, Focus Pilates, Richmond, British Columbia

Keeping Things on a High Note

“It can be overwhelming for overweight people to come to any exercise class. One way to help them feel welcome is to offer small-group introductory classes that move at a slower pace and where you explain the exercises in detail. Because of the extra tissue overweight people have, it is often difficult for them to find their muscles so they can engage them. As a result, moving at a brisk pace can be frustrating. Using a slower pace is more encouraging and helps these clients be successful.

“I constantly encourage clients, and I focus on what they have accomplished, which works well. I always try to start and end sessions with exercises everyone can perform, so the experience stays positive. This, I hope, keeps people motivated to move forward and not quit. They leave on a high note, and that is the memory they have for the next time.

“Another way to help overweight clients feel the benefits of Pilates is to give visual and sensory feedback as opposed to verbal cuing only. For example, telling clients to draw the navel to the spine may not work if they have difficulty finding the muscles. Instead, I have them hold the magic ring with one side pressed into the sternum and their hands on the other end. I cue them to inhale deeply, and as they exhale, I have them use their hands to press the outside of the ring toward the end that’s pressed into the sternum. They can feel the ring change from a circle to an elliptical shape and also see the ring change shape.

“[I’d say] avoid moving too fast through exercises. Instead, focus on repeating exercises they can perform before moving on to new ones. This helps clients feel successful and imprints proper form as well.

“Obtain personal testimonials from happy clients and also provide instructor stories to help humanize Pilates for everyone. Pilates is a lifelong learning endeavor for people of all sizes. Sometimes you go back to the fundamentals and you find an “a-ha” moment or feel something new. That’s the beauty of practicing Pilates.”

—Suzy Levi, Owner, Defining You Pilates & Fitness, St. Paul, Minnesota

How do you encourage and assist overweight clients? We look forward to hearing from you!

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Mary Monroe

IDEA Author/Presenter
Mary Monroe is a freelance writer in the Los Angeles area.
November 2013

© 2013 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

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Article Comments

Alice Hunter
On Nov 25, 2013
This article definitely brings up some valuable points. It is so important to make the client feel comfortable and let them know this is something that is doable for them. I like to stress the importance of moving safely, proper form and yes getting the basics before you move forward to quickly. I also find it helpful and reassuring for clients if you acknowledge that some of the movements are harder than they look, so they don't feel intimidated for example when their neighbor is doing pelvic curls with ease and they can barely get their bottom off the ground.
The addition of accessories also is priceless, in obtaining safer and proper form from this demographic who hasn't quite fount that "mind body connection yet!

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