As a Pilates instructor, you have a responsibility to help students and clients extrapolate every ounce of joyful challenge from each exercise. You’re also constantly multitasking as you calculate safe setup, initiation and movement pattern and apply appropriate cues. One skill that can take your Pilates repertoire to the next level is knowing how to create a trajectory. From this line, you instruct the anatomical and energetic points of opposition.

Before and during any Pilates exercise, go through a mental checklist of the following questions:

  • Is this an active or a passive movement?
  • Have I safely set up the client for success?
  • How will I provide proper modifications, assists, progressions and regressions according to the client’s level?

Active vs. Passive Movement

Many Pilates exercises require active movement utilization. The progressive spring tension on the equipment is often light, so in order to enhance and implement the exercise, you must treat the air around you as something much thicker. This allows for proper muscle recruitment and makes each exercise and movement pattern deeper and more challenging. Cues such as “Imagine the air is the consistency of mud, mashed potatoes, peanut butter, etc.” work well.

Revisiting the Planes of Movement

We work in a multiplanar and open-chain world. Make this a high-priority teaching moment when using gliding equipment. Let’s revisit these planes and tie in simple, creative cues.

Sagittal Plane

This is a vertical plane that passes from front to rear, dividing the body into right and left sections. Exercise example: walking.

Sagittal Plane Exercises

  • pelvic curl
  • roll-up
  • chest expansion
  • pulling straps
  • spine stretch

Featured Exercise: Spine Stretch or Sitting Forward on Trapeze Table With Push-Through Bar

Setup. Sit with spine in extension, legs straight and shoulder width apart, feet dorsiflexed, arms reaching forward, parallel to floor, palms facing.

Muscle Focus. Abdominals and back extensors.

Objective. Spinal articulation and hamstring elongation.

This is a wonderful, functional exercise, especially once the body is approximately halfway into a session and muscles are warm. Optimally, knees are straight and toes are dorsiflexed; however, if a client has limitations in the hamstrings or hip flexors, use a yoga block, a small box or a BOSU Balance Trainer® to help him achieve the exercise objective and use the proper muscles.

Points-of-Opposition Cues

Latissimus Dorsi and Spine. Although the bony structure of the spine runs through the midline, in this exercise it is nice to create a root or anchor, depressing the lats down the back while elongating the spinal column to the ceiling. I often cue, “Imagine you have a pair of jeans on your upper back and you’re trying to slide two wallets into the back pockets.” Oppose with, “At the same time, imagine my fingers are on the top of your head and I’m pulling your spine upward.”

Fingertips and Sacrum. To promote the line of extension on a diagonal, use the fingertips-to-sacrum line: “Think about streams of water coming out of your fingertips while reaching on a diagonal into extension, as if you were power-washing the top of my studio walls.” Oppose with, “Connect the sacrum to the floor and visualize the vertebrae lengthening and creating more space, as if you were stretching out a beaded necklace.”

Coronal or Frontal Plane

This vertical plane divides the body into ventral and dorsal (belly and back) sections. Exercise example: side bending.

Sample Frontal Pilates Exercises

  • side lifts
  • side stretch
  • side splits
  • skating
  • side bend

Featured Exercise: Side Bend

Setup: Sit on one side with weight on pelvis and supporting arm. Bend knees at 45 degrees, top foot slightly forward.

Muscle Focus. Obliques.

Objective. Oblique strength and flexibility; shoulder strength and stabilization.

Side bend is a more advanced oblique exercise. Perform during a well-sequenced mat work session. The beauty of this move is that it uses your own body weight and requires functional movement in gravity. If the client has wrist issues, this exercise can easily be performed on the forearm with the elbow directly below the shoulder.

Points-of-Opposition Cues

Upper Arm, Fingertips and Hip. Once your student has initiated the movement pattern and hit the side plank or “T” position, cue the arm-to-feet trajectory: “Reach the fingertips toward the ceiling and imagine it is coated in marshmallow cream as you arc over.” Oppose with, “Reach your top hip toward your feet and imagine you are my marionette doll and I have a string on your top oblique that is pulling you upward.”

Transverse Plane

This plane divides the body into superior and inferior parts. It is perpendicular to the coronal and sagittal planes and involves rotation. Exercise example: swinging a golf club or a baseball bat.

Sample Transverse Plane Pilates Exercises

  • spine twist supine
  • saw
  • mermaid
  • corkscrew
  • side reach

Featured Exercise: Spine Twist Supine

Setup.Lie on back with arms at “T” position, palms up and legs in table-top position.

Muscle Focus. Abdominals and obliques.

Objective. Functional spinal rotation, abdominal control.

This fundamental Pilates exercise is excellent for assessing your client’s spinal rotation and mobility. Spine twist supine is also fantastic for opening the pectoral muscles, which are often tight from our modern, internally rotated lifestyles.

Points-of-Opposition Cues

Shoulder and Knee. As the movement pattern initiates and the knees begin to tip to one side of the body, promote functional rotation by cuing the same-side shoulder and knee: “As you tip the knees to the left, think of your right kneecap as a flashlight that you want to shine on the wall.” Oppose with, “Reach the left scapula into the floor and when returning to your starting position think about rolling across the back bony structure of the pelvis.”

Erika Quest

"Erika Quest, owner of Studio Q Pilates Conditioning in Laguna Beach, California, is an honored Balanced Body® master instructor, part of the BOSU® and Hedstrom® elite team, and a BASI® graduate. She is a visiting instructor for Pilates Anytime, and a premier presenter, curriculum developer and international educator at many fitness and wellness conventions, including Pilates on Tour, Pilates Method Alliance, IDEA, ACSM, SCW, AFC, Pilates in Asia and many more. A former corporate marketer for Fortune 500 companies, she now has the great joy of sharing her passion of integrated movement daily."

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