There’s an art to teaching a fun, well-designed Pilates class. It doesn’t matter if it’s a mat class with or without small props or an equipment-based class—there are key points I always consider when teaching a group. If you’ve been working one-on-one with clients and want to teach groups, the following will assist you in making the transition as smoothly and successfully as possible.
Teach to the Beginner
Be aware of who is in your class. This is one of the most important factors when teaching to more than one person. It sounds obvious, but group dynamics can cloud awareness. Always teach to the least experienced person in class. Don’t regress the class, but carefully consider the positions in which you’ll be placing people. Here are key points to think about:
- Are members able to achieve proper spinal sequencing? Can they perform the exercise correctly and safely, staying true to its essence? For example, if a participant cannot do a roll-up without jerking through the spine or if the legs are lifting off the mat, then roll-up is not safe for that person’s spine. The solution: use a modification—with or without a prop—that adheres to the essence of the exercise and supports the client in eventually reaching its full expression.
- Teach an appropriate modification for all levels of ability. This is helpful for class flow and safety. If the roll-up isn’t smooth with the legs long on the mat, bend the knees to allow the hip flexors to relax and the abdominals to work more.
- Avoid complicated choreography—it usually doesn’t work in a group setting because there are too many things to worry about. Keep the class simple, and keep it moving. Provide a movement experience that people will understand and be able to internalize.
- For safety, move around the room while you’re teaching. Giving verbal instructions is good, but again, keep them simple. Mimic half the movements on your own body. Do not stay on a mat in front of the room. Clients can’t see you and will place their necks and bodies out of alignment to get a glimpse of what you’re demonstrating.
- Use tactile cues if you feel comfortable and you know how and when to use them—but only if members give you permission.
Embody the Essence
The second key to successfully putting a class together is to be very clear about the essence of each exercise. Here are some guidelines:
- Know the starting position, the execution and the muscles used.
- Don’t overwork a particular muscle group.
- Include forward flexion, extension, rotation and lateral flexion.
- Ensure that one plane of movement does not dominate the class.
- Always ask yourself, “What do members need to be more functional and fluid in their everyday lives?”
Transitions are a key component in the group experience. People have different reasons for practicing Pilates, but it is your job as the professional to make sure participants move correctly. One way to promote focus and precision during class is to monitor talking. This was one of the hardest things to cut out when I first started teaching groups, and here is how I did it: I didn’t give any breaks between exercises. When I approached the end of one exercise, I simply transitioned to the next one.
Here’s a sample cue: “When moving from legs tabletop for the hundred to spinal twist, keep your abdominal wall flat, place one foot down on the mat, then the other, and then roll over to your side to come to a sitting position, legs in tailor cross. With your spine tall, shoulders over hips and arms out to the sides, keep the back and front of your body engaged and feel your sit bones on the mat, head reaching to the ceiling.”
To cue this style of transitioning properly, you must know the moves inside and out. If you tell participants to do one movement after another, they will stay engaged and pay attention to you. Always cue stabilization between exercises (see above). This will not only make class safer but also provide a more engaging and intense workout—and that translates to higher numbers in your classes and a more profitable Pilates program.
Open and Closed Chains
Another way to stay safe when teaching groups is to select mainly closed-kinetic-chain exercises (feet, hands or body down on the mat or on a nonmoving equipment surface). Closed-kinetic-chain exercises allow the body to engage muscle groups simultaneously, thereby adding the right amount of compression to each joint. In doing open-kinetic-chain exercises (hands, feet off the mat or equipment surface), the body doesn’t always find optimal joint compression and support.
Examples of closed-kinetic-chain exercises in mat work are
- hundred with feet down;
- half roll-back;
- side leg series; and
- push-ups—in demi or full position.
Examples using the reformer are
- single-leg footwork;
- knee stretches;
- hip rolls; and
- single thigh stretch (Eve’s lunge).
A discussion on successful group training isn’t complete without a review of cuing. Often we try to describe too much too soon. I adhere to the KISS rule: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Start with the basic actions and then layer on movement ideas and concepts. Stop clients from moving only if they’re doing something that is putting them in harm’s way. It’s okay if the exercise isn’t perfect, but fine-tune your description with each repetition. Let’s continue with spine twist after the setup: “Inhale and grow taller through the back spine; exhale and begin to rotate the spine to the right, allowing the arms to move with the torso. Do a slight recoil, then rotate more to the right. Another slight recoil, then inhale and return to center.”
Save your abstract cues for when you teach one-on-one. Use concrete, easily understood terms and concepts for groups. Use words of action: sense, connect, feel and think of connecting this point with that point. Words of inaction: release, relax and drop will make it harder for participants to reconnect their minds and bodies and gear up for the next exercise. Words like squeeze and grip will cause people to overactivate their muscles and overcompress the joints, so use these terms infrequently.
Pilates can be serious, so most importantly have fun! There are ways to stay focused while keeping things light and showing your personality.
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