Inject Creativity Into Your Pilates Program

Work with your instructors to spice up mat and reformer classes and keep students talking about their progress.

By Cathie Ericson
Nov 12, 2014

When you added Pilates classes to your schedule, you took the time to find the best instructors and invest in the right equipment. Sometimes, however, simply scheduling a standard Pilates class isn’t enough to get members to fill the studio. So, once you have a foundation you can trust, why not add flair? A great way to make workouts interesting and challenging is to constantly mix it up. The following ideas will help keep your classes compelling.

Vary Props and Sequencing

Katherine and Kimberly Corp, owners of Pilates on Fifth in New York City, estimate that some of their clients have been attending their studio for nearly 14 years. “Keeping mat classes stimulating is key,” they assert.

“We regularly use props such as stretch bands and small balls. Props can intensify an ‘old’ exercise, making it new again, and can facilitate modification. We also vary the sequencing so that the pace keeps changing and the class feels vibrant. For instance, we’re fond of a ‘rotisserie plan,’ which involves sequencing the exercises—from ones the class performs on their backs, to their stomachs, to their sides—so that by the end of the workout, participants feel they are ‘cooked on all sides’!”

Additionally, to make sure they meet their clients’ needs at all fitness levels, in their mixed-level classes the Corp sisters offer what they call an “accordion plan.” Basically, this involves teaching the simplest version of an exercise first and instructing the class through a few reps, then teaching a more challenging version of the same exercise so that those who feel comfortable can take on the challenge. “In some cases, we add a third layer of difficulty,” they say.

Unconventional Lighting

As a savvy program director, you’ve likely already thought about ways to refine the environment in your mind-body studio. Perhaps you installed special flooring or chose a soothing paint scheme. While you have probably already toned down harsh fluorescent lighting, Tara Gillespie, of Harmony Mind Body Fitness in Chicago, uses special lighting to take her Pilates participants on more of a journey.

“I want my clients to leave Pilates feeling happy, so I use HappyLight® energy/light therapy lamps—to simulate natural-spectrum daylight—during my Pilates sessions,” she explains. “Many people use energy lamps in the winter, when the amount of available daylight is low, to replace the light they’re not getting naturally. It’s easy to incorporate this into my classes.”

For her 6:30 AM classes, Gillespie turns the lights on when clients enter the studio and keeps them on through the warm-up to help “get good morning energy going.” She turns them off for the bulk of the class and then turns them back on at the conclusion to help students happily transition to their days. She uses a different tack for her evening classes, using the lights only at the beginning. “The lights basically become a tool for me to try to trick my clients out of remembering they just put in a long workday,” shares Gillespie.

While you might be tempted to use conventional lighting—and let’s face it, budgets aren’t exactly brimming—Gillespie advises that it wouldn’t work the same way. Conventional lighting is harsher than an energy lamp, which is a special kind of diffused light. “To me, it’s well worth the investment to offer my clients something extra that makes Pilates even better.”

A Mixed Bag

Especially if you serve members who have been doing Pilates for a long time, classes can get a little dull and repetitive. Don’t let that happen in your facility! Carrie Minter of Carrie Minter’s Pilates Plus in West Hollywood, California, has several ways to keep her students engaged and energized.

Play music. Because Pilates requires focus and concentration, many people think that music is distracting. “A lot of studios stick to nature sounds such as birds chirping or rain falling,” Minter notes. “However, spicing up your sounds can actually help with balance and movement, and it provides a positive vibe.”

Minter suggests syncing body and breath with the beat or using it to shift focus during particularly hard positions. “Popular hits such as ‘The Scientist’ by Coldplay and ‘Someone Like You’ by Adele are fun and familiar but have an ideal, slower pace,” she offers. “If you think students might be easily distracted, choose something soothing and instrumental.”

Try interval training. Interval training isn’t just for boot camp classes. “It’s the definition of mixing it up!” advises Minter. “Usually, people practice interval training by lifting weights or doing strength training and then incorporating brief cardio bursts, before returning to an anaerobic exercise. With Pilates, it may be challenging to break focus so frequently. So change things by switching from mat to machine, from horizontal to vertical positions or even from upper body to lower body.”

Fuse formats. If you’re not focusing on a traditional, classic style, why not introduce elements from other classes? “Pilates and yoga have much in common, such as stretching the body, but one tends to focus more on strength and the other on flexibility and breathing,” explains Minter. “Why not mesh the two? Once students are in a great position, cue them to hold and take a deep [yogic-style] breath. After a great workout, stretch your mind as well as your body with a little meditation.”

Get creative with chairs. Minter advocates using chairs in class. “One of the best mat exercises isn’t on the mat at all,” she declares. “Let participants use a stable chair to help support the body in unique, hard-to-balance positions. You can sit in the chair, use it to prop your legs while lying on the ground, wrap a rope around it to help with resistance—and so much more.”

Pick your props. You don’t have to invest in Pilates-specific equipment to offer a variety of options. Use foam rollers, resistance bands and medicine balls to help participants with resistance and control. Minter also suggests using a simple towel. “Towels are similar to yoga straps in that they can help not only with resistance, but also with movement stabilization to balance the stretch.”

Keep Your Pilates Program Practical

While the ideas presented in this article are fun and creative, what’s most important is to provide programming based on sound education and efficacy. Make sure that your staff is well-trained and that you have a good, solid baseline—before you introduce elements that might confuse or frustrate participants. (For example, it might be inappropriate to use too many different props in a level-one class.) Above all, support your members on their journey to mind-body health and wellness with programs that inspire, educate, progress and motivate.

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Cathie Ericson

Cathie Ericson is a Portland, OregonÔÇôbased writer and fitness enthusiast. You can find her running, boot camping or kickboxing when sheÔÇÖs not protecting her online reputation @cathieericson.

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