Pilates Equipment Teaching Techniques
Seasoned Pilates professionals share tips for new instructors about how to teach safely and correctly on apparatus.
Pilates, like any fitness discipline, can be challenging to teach—especially for new instructors. After all, there are many aspects of teaching that take time and experience to improve, including motivating students, sequencing exercises and getting clients to follow verbal cues.
Pilates, however, offers a significant additional hurdle: teaching on the various types of Pilates apparatus, including the reformer, tower, cadillac, chair and barrel. Not only are there exercises unique to each piece of equipment, but each piece also has its own setup requirements and safety issues. Instructors must choose from a wide variety of resistance options depending on the client, the exercise and even the way the student is facing or the angle of the desired movement.
For new instructors, particularly those who teach small-group sessions on the reformer or tower, the sheer number of things to remember, check and communicate can be overwhelming. “In a mat class, you’re just cuing the movement,” says Joy Karley, education annex director at Pilates Reforming NY in New York City. “On a machine like the reformer, however, you have to take the body position, spring weight and setup into account as well.”
So how can new teachers make equipment classes and private sessions successful for clients? Here are some “dos and don’ts” for teaching on a few different pieces of Pilates apparatus.
DO practice, practice, practice. Knowing how to teach skillfully on equipment takes time and experience. Therefore, even if you’ve completed a long training period, you will still need a number of teaching hours under your belt before you feel completely comfortable juggling it all, says Karley. “There’s a misconception among some would-be instructors that a weekend of training is all you need, but there are just so many variables. On the reformer, for instance, is the footbar up or down? Do you use short straps or long? Is the headrest up or down?” That means practice is essential, she explains–both on yourself (so you become familiar with different spring weights and angles) and on students. “It’s a whole other set of skills to cue someone else into the right setup and body position,” she says.
DON’T lose control of your class or your clients. Teaching group classes on equipment (e.g., the reformer or tower) can be reduced to chaos if you’re not confidently in control of the pace, the cuing and the decisions about spring resistance and setup, says Valentin, founder of Pilates Body By Valentin in Dublin, California. “A lot of people just want to get on the machine and move,” she explains. “But if you have several people moving at the same time, you can’t let it turn into bedlam. I’ll cue with a lilt in my voice so that everyone is moving in sync.”
You must be specific about cuing directions—whether it’s foot placement on the reformer (on the footbar or footplate, or in front of the shoulder rests, if standing on the carriage) or how high the springs are on the tower. “Everyone needs to be on the same page regarding equipment anatomy,” she says.
DO take care of your own body when making equipment adjustments. When you teach on Pilates equipment, you’ll likely spend a lot of time bending over to change springs, lift heavy boxes and props, and adjust straps. This presents a lot of opportunities to strain the back, neck and shoulders, says Amy Alpers, owner of The Pilates Center in Boulder, Colorado. Alpers says it’s important to slowly get clients accustomed to doing more of the heavy lifting themselves, particularly in a group setting.
“[Ask] clients to change pads, props and springs,” she says. In addition, she reminds teachers to use proper movement mechanics and posture as they make adjustments—even being careful of thumb strain from manipulating extra-duty clips and springs. “Check in with yourself and notice habits you’re developing,” Alpers says. “For example, I noticed I was always leaning my knees against the reformer.”
DON’T overlook transitions. In a private session, how you transition from exercise to exercise isn’t so important—you can quickly add a box between movements while your client takes a breather, and you can move from chair to cadillac without much fuss. But in a group class, transitions are crucial, says Karley. “Many things you would do in a private [session] wouldn’t work in a class because of lag time.” Even with private sessions, giving advance thought to transitions can improve efficiency. “I try my hardest to make the most of a certain prop or setting,” Valentin says.
DO incorporate different pieces of equipment to keep clients coming back. There are many opportunities to get new clients excited about the method and keep them coming back with various apparatus options, says Alpers. For example, you can challenge athletic clients with press-ups on the chair, she suggests. Senior clients will get a balance challenge doing single-leg presses on the combo chair with handles. Beginners can handle roll-downs on a spine corrector using the cadillac, and more advanced movers can use the cadillac with the push-through bar to do the teaser from above. “Everyone loves mermaid on the chair, or barrel stretches,” she adds.
DON’T forget to educate clients about equipment usage and safety. From the push-through bar on the cadillac to the pedal on the chair to the reformer’s moving carriage, the same things that make Pilates apparatus unique and exciting can also make the equipment dangerous if it is not used safely. “I post safety rules in my studio,” says Valentin, who suggests making time at the beginning of class to go over safety rules and then reinforce them as often as necessary. “I have been in the hospital because of the push-through bar, so I take it very seriously. My students know their feet shouldn’t be on the base of the chair, for instance, and why they need the daisy chain when bottom-loading the push-through bar.”