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Overcoming Challenges in Gym-Based Pilates

As a popular boutique fitness experience, Pilates has shown a lot of staying power, which has led to amazing growth and diverse offerings. When teaching or managing Pilates programs, have you noticed a divide between people who experience Pilates in a dedicated studio and those who try a mat class in a fitness facility?

Unfortunately, it’s hard not to notice that Pilates classes offered in fitness facilities don’t always measure up to classes offered in studios. Instructors often find themselves defending Pilates to people who took a class or two at a local gym and then stopped, claiming it was too easy, too difficult, caused a neck or back strain or exacerbated a previous injury. Empirically speaking, I’d say participants who have had the benefit of smaller classes or more concentrated attention from a well-educated, experienced instructor tend to give more favorable feedback.

If you teach or manage at a club but don’t have resources to offer private sessions and personal attention, how can you deliver “studio-quality” Pilates?

Clientele Challenges

A lot of gym-goers make the same mistake—they bring the same mentality to a Pilates class as they do to a boot camp or the average step class. They’re often not interested in slowing down their pace and learning the fundamentals. Pilates requires a lot of concentration and attention to detail. An advanced indoor cycling participant, for example, may not like the idea of being a beginner in a mat Pilates class. It’s just another workout, right? Not necessarily.

“The biggest problem I’ve faced instructing in gyms is that members often don’t care about the technique, breathing and form,” says Carly Porrello, director of the Regeneration Institute of Pilates in Warren, New Jersey. “They just want to sweat and get a workout.”

Make sure participants understand the technique and that you understand them so you can address their expectations up-front. Check out the following ideas for addressing this concern:

Offer beginner-level classes. Beginners often attend a mixed-level class and leave feeling overwhelmed or, worse, injured. Schedule beginning Pilates classes on a regular basis. This allows new people to experience the movements at a slower, safer pace and keeps advanced members from feeling bored or underchallenged.

Require a Pilates 101 meeting. Many instructors start class with a quick reminder of Pilates essentials, such as breathing, posture and modifications. In a gym setting, however, attendees are often late and miss the introduction. Request that all members meet with the assigned instructor prior to their first class for a brief overview of fundamentals. “I tell [participants] about the importance of learning the technique,” says Porrello. “It takes time and patience to build a real Pilates practice.”

Instructor Challenges

Group fitness instructors often teach three or more types of classes (yoga, indoor cycling, circuit, etc.). While this approach may be efficient, it means instructors divide their focus, and some essential Pilates principles can be lost in the mix. If this describes you or your staff, think about isolating specialties. Mat work alone can offer more than 100 different variations. Specialized instructors have concentrated knowledge and can consistently alter and progress a class as needed. Here are suggestions on how to address instructor challenges:

Earn a high-level certification. Mat Pilates certifications are not hard to obtain. However, that doesn’t mean you should settle for a weekend of basic education. Even if your facility doesn’t require an advanced certification, it behooves you to have the best education possible (the benefit to members goes without saying). A highly qualified Pilates instructor knows how to modify movements for injuries and different abilities. If you’re in a management position, audition potential Pilates instructors for at least 30 minutes to ensure they exhibit confident knowledge of the movements.

Be on the same page. Regardless of teaching style and approach, stay like-minded with other staff on essentials. Michele Dorney, group fitness director of Workout World in Wall, New Jersey, agrees it’s important to keep Pilates instructors on the same page.

“It’s hard because there are so many quick certifications out there,” she says. “We have some Pilates instructors doing tons of reps in classes and saying things like, ‘Does it hurt yet?’ and others teaching the opposite [approach].” Delivering a consistent message and instruction style keeps members happy and safe. The alternative may create confusion and turn people off to the method.

Class-Specific Challenges

One of the biggest perks that studio Pilates offers is personal attention. Give your fitness center Pilates classes the same personal touch by keeping classes intimate and inviting. These tips will get you started:

Cap class numbers. It’s difficult for instructors to watch every student for correct form or to properly assist with movement in classes that have 20 or more people. Cap Pilates classes so clients receive the attention the method demands. Another option: Offer a 6- to 8-week class that progresses in difficulty. This allows you to control class size and challenge members over time. Instructors get to work with the same people on a consistent basis, which is an added benefit.

Offer the right mats and props. Many fitness facilities equip their classes with just one type of exercise mat. For Pilates, a cushioned mat is essential. This type of mat takes pressure off sensitive resting points such as the spine, wrists and knees. Provide mats that keep people comfortable and injury-free.

There is a wide array of Pilates props that add extra challenge and variation. While studios factor this in and are usually well equipped, gyms don’t always budget for specialty items. This is a mistake. You can improvise, however, by using resistance tubing, straps or bands. These simple and inexpensive props help deepen movements, allow you to add more variation and can also be used in other group fitness classes.

Create a special environment. Having a separate mind-body room is preferable, but it’s not always possible. If you don’t have one, make your general group fitness room an equally good place for Pilates. Place dimmers on overhead lights, keep the temperature comfortable and insulate the room from outside noise and distraction.

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