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Borrowing From a Master

Joseph Pilates often spoke of “principles of movement.” Over the years, Pilates enthusiasts and students have cited many principles. Six have remained consistent through the years, acting as pillars of practice. They are concentration, control, centering, precision, flow and breathing. These powerful precepts are relevant not solely to Pilates moves, however. They can be valuable tools for ensuring a safe, efficient, results-oriented workout in any type of exercise or group fitness class.


In reference to movement, concentration refers to bringing undivided attention to an exercise and performing it with full commitment. It’s about focusing on the end result or on the muscle being worked and then moving with intention in order to obtain maximum value from each movement. This focus on concentration can increase body awareness and lead participants to greater results, while also helping them steer clear of injury.

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. It takes a vigilant professional with exceptional cuing and connecting skills to successfully engage a large group of people and encourage them to “think before they do.”

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. The movement is smooth and controlled—think of drawing your kneecaps up to your front pockets. Squeeze through the buttocks and thighs without locking the knees.” By cuing in this manner, you “force” people to focus. Use this time to share safety tips as well. Some participants may respond to these “heads-up” cues and focus even more. For example, let participants know that the knee joint is compromised when the body weight shifts forward, or that they risk injury to the lower back when they do not maintain neutral spine during a loaded squat. These may be the sparks that fuel concentration.


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. Simply put, control involves quality movement in which proper alignment is maintained. Imagine your body is a car. If a car is driven out of control, there is a likelihood that it will crash and burn. If your body is “driven” out of control with forceful movements, it can crash and burn, too.

Controlled movement is often neglected in fitness. We have become a society that believes that in order to gain results, we must beat ourselves up and constantly push harder and faster. We work with reckless abandon, often going beyond the boundaries of safety.

Group Exercise Crossover. There tend to be various control issues in an indoor
cycling class. Many flock to this format because of its perceived simplicity—you don’t have to worry about having two left feet; you just need to pedal. But is it that simple? Some of the key elements outlined in 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. Often, riders who use very light resistance pedal so fast they bounce around on the saddle. In contrast, you see people who use too much resistance and cannot maintain a smooth pedal stroke. 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 creates a safe experience.


Pilates believed 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—or more simply put, holding a strong, stable center—can allow the muscles in the extremities to function more efficiently. Many people mention their backs as a point of discomfort when taking a fitness class. This is often because of an inability to focus on a strong, stable center. We tend to move everything at once instead of holding one area still while recruiting the appropriate muscle group.

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 to align the spine in neutral position prior to performing an exercise. For example, for a barbell chest press, remind participants to avoid arching and rounding the back, keeping it still throughout the movement. Begin your alignment cues from the head, and move through the shoulders, rib cage and midsection down to the hips and buttocks. 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. Participants might find that they lift more weight and feel less strain on the shoulders and back while moving. Let people know that by simply holding their middle still and strong while moving the arms and legs, they are getting the additional benefit of core strength and conditioning.


Pilates encouraged his students to focus on doing one precise and perfect movement, rather than many halfhearted ones. With today’s “drive-through” mentality, the art of precise movement can be lost in fitness classes. Eager to get in, get done and move on, participants may let slide one of the most important principles of movement. Many people have enjoyed an abundance of benefits from Pilates exercise, and some experts will point to precision as a primary means to success.

Group Exercise Crossover. Step classes were once the most coveted on the schedule. Many regular steppers now avoid this 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. Emphasize working the leg during a repeater by pushing off the bench and not the floor. This will alleviate knee pain and also help avoid injuries to the Achilles tendon.

In addition, encourage participants to engage their core muscles and stand tall and strong while stepping. When good posture is maintained during a step class, participants may find that they experience less strain throughout the body—including the knees and lower back. The goal eventually is for precision to become second nature and to carry over into everyday life as grace and economy of movement.


Pilates realized the importance of smooth movement without tension or jerking. Fluidity, grace and ease of movement can be applied to all exercises. The energy of an exercise connects musculature and flows through the body.

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. Even when tempos are varied, smooth movement through full range of motion is a must so that elbow joints are not compromised and maximum muscle recruitment is achieved. When an exercise is performed smoothly as one continual loop of movement, the muscle remains “on,” creating strength and stamina.

Flow can also relate to transitions.
In a yoga class, for example, a skilled
instructor will map out a sequence that allows participants to move easily from one pose to another. Taking a class that cues frequent position changes without rhyme or reason can be quite frustrating. 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. We typically think that cuing breath is reserved for mind-body disciplines, but it can be incredibly useful during all forms of group exercise. Effective breathing not only oxygenates the muscles but also reduces tension in the upper neck and shoulders. In addition, it can support the spine by recruiting core musculature.

Group Exercise Crossover. Many people hold their breath while lifting weights. This can create a rise in blood pressure and cause dizziness, blurred vision, nausea and, in extreme cases, fainting. During 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! You might also have participants count down repetitions. Try teaching breath as part of movement
execution, in the same way a Pilates
instructor would. This approach is very effective for teaching abdominal and core work in “general” classes. During a cycling class, cue the breath with imagery—this allows the rider to think more inwardly. Used at the beginning of class, this helps create overall focus for the journey. As participants’ muscles are getting warm with movement, you also warm up their minds. Cue riders to inhale deeply through the nose and feel the breath move all the way down through the body and finally out of the mouth. A full breath will also help them maintain or build cardiovascular strength and stamina.

Putting It All Together

The beauty of these six principles is how they interact with one another. For
example, while teaching precision, you inevitably help to strengthen participants’ concentration skills, and so on. The principles all tie into one another and are simple to incorporate. They are
applicable to any movement form and are not unique to Pilates or other mind-body exercises. 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.

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