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The SIMPLE Secret to a Successful Exercise

This article expands on my previous article, “The Essential Cue: Reformer” [April 2010 IDEA Pilates Today], in which I detailed how to break down and deliver reformer cues. To help my clients benefit as much as possible from their experiences with me, I devised an acronym (SIMPLE) that has developed into a teaching technique. This technique is very helpful when preparing a client for an exercise.


Using an easy-to-remember word as a “checklist” is a fun way to set up your client for success. Here are the six steps I go through when teaching the Pilates repertoire. I’ve found this checklist covers it all—from fundamentals to higher-level exercises.

S = Set Up
It’s critical to set up your client safely. Discuss the proper way to mount the equipment (particularly in standing exercises); body placement; where to stabilize; spine and pelvis positions; and so on.

I = Initiate
Before beginning any movement, your client must know where to initiate it. Without this step, the client may embark on a faulty movement pattern.

M = Move
When the client can initiate the exercise properly, allow the breath and movement to begin, and watch with a keen eye.

P = Prompt
Here’s where your unique cues (kinesthetic, visual and auditory) are crucial. Frequently provide friendly reminders and diverse types of cues. You won’t sound like a broken record. Clients yearn for reminders and appreciate creativity and thoughtful touch.

L = Lift Up
Use voice intonation and positive feedback to encourage proper movement patterns and help the client go deeper into the exercise. Add any prompting you might have missed in the previous step.

E = Experience
Share your understanding about what helped you execute the same exercise. Many clients will love to hear your story and to imagine they are working out alongside you.

Here’s how to apply the SIMPLE acronym, along with some of my own creative cues. I’ve selected a few well-known exercises that many Pilates instructors regularly teach as part of a comprehensive program or client session. As a friendly reminder, always assess client limitations and modify the Pilates repertoire appropriately.

Abdominals: Pike on Chair (Round-Back Variation)

Muscle Focus: abdominals and serratus anterior
Objective: deep posterior abdominal strength and scapular stabilization

S = Place the tiptoes on the depressed pedal (turned out or parallel), heels of hands on the wide back portion of the chair and shoulders over wrists; keep scapulae stable.
I = Deepen into the abdominals and allow the spine to round and the pelvis to tuck.
M = Allow the pedal to rise on the exhalation and lower on the inhalation.
P = Stand behind the chair, facing your client, and use your hands on the client’s shoulders to cue scapular stabilization and to provide security with the uplifting pedal and heavier load.
L = Imagine you’re rounding your midline around a big stability ball and remember that you are lifting the pedal with your abdominals&mdas;the pedal is not lifting you.
E = I often try to blow at least 20% of my air out of my lungs first, like I’m blowing bubbles in a thick milkshake through a straw. This helps me access and recruit my abdominals and control the upward pike movement.

Lateral Flexion: Side Lifts on Ladder Barrel

Muscle Focus: abdominal obliques
Objective: oblique strength and lateral flexor functional elongation

S = Step inside the ladder barrel, facing sideways. Place the bottom foot against the forward base of the ladder, and the top foot against the back base of the ladder, hips stacked against the barrel and fingers interlaced behind the head (or holding a dowel, with arms straight, for a more challenging variation).
I = Inhale and lower laterally over the barrel, feeling the intercostal muscles of the upper obliques and rib cage lengthen.
M = Exhale into the abdominal wall to protect the lumbar spine and lift back to the starting position.
P = Stand behind your client and help guide the pelvis, hips and shoulder girdle with your hands so that they retain a stacked configuration.
L = Promote lifting and length; encourage nice high arching movements. Discourage crunching by lengthening from the crown of the head and elbow to achieve a beautiful, long diagonal at the top of the movement.
E = When I’m executing this exercise, I think of growing tall from the top of my head, lengthening as if I were a turtle. Next I lift my elbow toward the ceiling, imagining that it is coated with something very thick (such as marshmallow crème!) and I’m scraping through it.

Spine Articulation: Tower on Cadillac

Muscle Focus: abdominals and hip extensors
Objective: spinal articulation and functional elongation of hamstrings and calves

S = Lie supine on the cadillac, head on the push-through bar side, arms fully extended and heels of hands pressed into poles above. Toes are parallel, legs hip width apart on the push-through bar with bottom-loaded spring tension. The tailbone reaches into the table toward neutral pelvis.
I = Inhale: flex and point the toes to accentuate hamstring and calf flexibility, and then begin deep lumbar flexion.
M = Exhale: continue into deep lumbar flexion and roll up onto the shoulder girdle. Inhale: pause, or bend and straighten the knees slightly. Exhale: roll down to starting position.
P = For safety, I like to stand next to the cadillac near the loaded push-through bar to help my client feel secure. You may also use touch to help with the spring tension factor here, keeping a hand free to support the spine on the uptake and downtake of the movement pattern.
L = Support safe spinal articulation by focusing on deep posterior abdominal wall contraction (use the “blowing through a straw” cue here). Keep the movement pace consistent and slow.
E = This is one of my favorite spinal articulation exercises. I enjoy thinking about my spinal column as a strong yet fluid wave as I roll onto my shoulders. On the way down, I envision the vertebrae lying down onto the table in sequence (dominoes in slow motion), with more length between each one and the next.

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