Pilates is a great tool for every body and provides many benefits for the overweight. Ten years ago, my naturopath, Carol (who was obese), asked if I would teach her Pilates. I told her I had never worked with anyone so large, and that I would no doubt make many mistakes, but if she would go on the journey with me, I would be honored to teach her.
In the beginning, Carol would arrive out of breath from climbing the stairs, but as soon as we began, she’d settle in mentally and physically. After a few weeks, she said, “I didn’t know if this would work. But you know, before Pilates, when I moved I felt like I was dragging my body after me—and now when I move, it moves with me.”
All of the benefits that healthy, normal-weight clients gain from Pilates are also available to overweight and obese students (Cakmakci 2012). By learning how to think about larger bodies and how they relate to Pilates exercises, equipment and props, instructors can provide mindful solutions that will improve quality of life for a population
in need. This article offers real-life strategies and practical tips for instructors passionate about helping larger clients discover the joy of movement.
First Things First
One of the biggest hurdles overweight students must overcome is simply to walk through a Pilates studio door. You can help.
Be welcoming and compassionate. They may be afraid and unsure. Focus on what they can do rather than what they can’t.
Preserve their dignity. Teach with respect and love. If you are compassionate and aware of your clients in mind, body and spirit, you can’t go wrong.
Be present, and learn to anticipate needs. When you provide a prop or a variation, offer it as part of the work, not as a lesser option. Learning Pilates is hard; it is the language of the body, and as with any new language, becoming skilled takes time and patience; let students know this is normal so they do not get frustrated.
Understand that just as no two healthy students are alike, no two overweight students are the same. Consider each student’s fitness and Pilates experience, personal goals and weight distribution. Think in terms of the 4 S’s: stability, strength, stamina and stretch-ability. Many overweight students lack stamina, so plan ways to keep students moving as much as possible (Cakmakci 2012).
One lesson at a time, help clients learn they can do more than they ever dreamed they could. Do not assume students cannot do things they haven’t even tried. If the signs of readiness are there, go for it, and if students are not ready for the full version of an exercise, give them a part of it they can do. Mary O., one of our overweight students, was so dedicated to her Pilates she took four private sessions a week and went on to become a certified instructor performing the advanced work. She said, “You never let me think I couldn’t. You gave me things that I realize now marked the place for an exercise that would come in later.”
Making the Method Accessible
The mat work can be the most challenging, as it pits students against gravity. It is important to learn mat, however, as it can be practiced at home. These suggestions may be helpful when working with heavier students:
- Teach mat on a cadillac so they can easily get on and off.
- Make full use of props; they are a must. Wedges can make students more comfortable in the supine position, improve their alignment and give them an advantage over gravity. Placing a wedge under the head and shoulders for supine work helps students access the powerhouse, lifts the head (or improves its position, if left down) and facilitates better breathing. If you do not have a wedge, substitute a small barrel.
- Use small balls and yoga bricks to improve leg alignment, deepen into the powerhouse and develop inner-thigh strength.
- Keep an eye on faces for signs of overexertion, and listen to students’ breathing to be sure they are neither holding their breath nor overdoing it. If people need a break, switch to the fundamentals—such as breathing or stretching—until they are ready to go again; make the flow seem normal and seamless.
Pilates equipment helps to support and align the body (Coyle 2013). When students who are overweight get on the reformer, they often discover the joy of movement for the first time in their lives.
Include reformer work every session for quite some time. Note the following when working with larger bodies on the reformer:
- Help students enter the reformer by teaching them to sit and lower themselves sideways as if going to bed. To exit the reformer, they can reverse this process, or you can assist them by taking their hands or by giving them a short-box pole and pulling on the pole.
- Minimize movements on and off the reformer and up and down on the carriage; this promotes comfort, facilitates flow and builds endurance. Start with footwork and end with running and pelvic lift.
- For supine work, take the gear out one setting and lower the foot bar as needed. If students are smaller, you may need to bring the gear in for short box, elephant and other non-supine exercises.
- Use the short-box pole across the pelvis in supine exercises such as foot- work. This will support the arms if they do not fit on the reformer. Tell students the pole will help them work with a level pelvis.
- Consider spring settings carefully. For some exercises, such as leg work and elephant, extra spring loads can actually provide greater ease. To help you decide on settings, think about when springs are providing assistance versus resistance—and teach students this important concept.
- Place a stability ball on the springs to provide support for heavy-legged or less stable individuals in exercises like arm reach and pull and the hundred, where legs are held in the air for some time.
- Think creatively. Initially, for example, you may want to teach some of the short-box series sitting on the side of the reformer rather than on the box.
- Add extra reps to build stamina. In running, for instance, go out for a walk, come in for a stretch, go out for a jog, come in for a stretch, and take it out for a run. Each “set” will provide a slight tempo increase without sacrificing form.
- Learn a new way of “seeing the body.” Look for folds in clothing, and notice elevated areas that give away alignment faults. Look at the lengths of fingertips and the evenness of feet to gauge what is going on in the power-house. Ask clients questions such as, “Can you feel your spine lengthening along the carriage?” if you are unsure of spine positioning.
- Touch with permission and clear intention. Use steady pressure, so it is apparent what the touch is teaching.
- Keep reformer work light and fun. Let students enjoy the artistic sense of movement, the feeling of freedom in their joints.
The Rest of the Session
Devote the remainder of the session to other apparatus. Initially, the cadillac will be an important tool, providing reinforcement for working the limbs from a stable center and educating students on basic spinal movement patterns. Learning to “drive the cadillac” is usually an enjoyable part of the experience. Once students gain confidence and a bit of movement vocabulary, add in barrels and chairs as appropriate for ability and weight distribution.
Always end the session on a positive note, reinforcing what students are doing well and what homework they can focus on. Vertical endings allow an opportunity to focus on posture and balance. If you learn what your students like, want to do, or have enjoyed in the marketplace TM past, you can incorporate those things here and throughout the lesson. For example, one of my first overweight clients, Alice B., was studying ballroom dance and had knee issues that brought her in. She was afraid to learn a drop-back, and so toward the end of sessions we worked on one-leg balances (as well as chair) to help her gain confidence and strength. She was successful and so happy with her drop-back! Over time Alice lost over 75 pounds doing Pilates and dancing.
Don’t be afraid to get involved and learn new skills for working with the overweight. Be honest and loving, and reach out for resources such as articles, workshops and experienced instructors to help you. Most importantly, let your students be your best teachers.
Cakmakci, E. 2012. The effect of 10 week Pilates mat exercise program on weight loss and body composition for overweight Turkish women. World Applied Sciences Journal, 19 (3), 431-38.
Coyle, K. 2013. Pilates for the big and tall bodies. Peak Pilates News. Oct.
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Parfitt, G., & Hughes, S. 2009. The exercise intensity-affect relationship: Evidence and implications for exercise behavior. Journal of Exercise Science & Fitness, 7 (2), 34-41.
Shiri, R., et al. 2010. The association between obesity and low back pain: A meta-analysis. American Journal of Epidemiology, 171 (2), 135-54.