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How to Evaluate a Pilates Instructor

Effectively assess an employee’s teaching skills even though you yourself are not a Pilates expert.

Today’s fitness facilities offer a dazzling variety of activities, exercises and subspecialties. But all this diversity can make it difficult for fitness directors to evaluate instructor performance and safety, especially when it comes to a detail-oriented method like Pilates. Even if you don’t possess a strong working knowledge of Pilates principles, you can still make sure instructors are providing a high-quality Pilates experience for members. This article covers basic assessment concepts and provides a comprehensive evaluation checklist.

The Warm & Fuzzy

It may seem like common sense, but the first directive is that instructors arrive to teach class at least 10 minutes early to greet students. This gives new members an opportunity to open up and discuss any problems or concerns with their instructor. As participants arrive, instructors should introduce themselves and encourage attendees to bring up any recent injuries or physical challenges. This is especially helpful in large-group mat classes, because instructors can make personal recommendations regarding modifications before class starts. This is essential in Pilates, more than in other types of classes, because Pilates moves are intimidating to some people.

Just Say Aaaah . . .

Teaching “proper” Pilates breathing can be confusing, to say the least. Even Pilates master instructors use several different breathing styles and techniques. Pilates instructors should not expect or ask everyone in the group to breathe at the same time or in the same way. For example, some participants prefer to exhale on the exertion, whereas others like to inhale. You don’t want an instructor to demand that the group breathe in unison or insist that participants inhale and exhale only through the nose or mouth. This kind of strict cuing can become overwhelming for the average fitness enthusiast, especially for someone still learning the exercises.

Instead, ensure that instructors emphasize the importance of breathing throughout each movement. For safety’s sake, they should remind participants not to hold their breath during exertion, since this could make them lightheaded, dizzy or nauseous. Nor should they cue students to breathe for a specific length of time. For example, during the hundreds exercise many instructors cue to inhale for a count of five and exhale for a count of five. However, many people have difficulty holding this deep of a breath. The better cue is to ask participants to inhale as deeply as they can and then exhale for the same length of time. This allows everyone to work at his or her own pace, which leads to feelings of success.

Neutral Spine Alignment

Every Pilates instructor should begin class with a simple explanation or review of neutral spine alignment. This review takes less than 5 minutes and gives participants time to prepare physically and mentally for the workout. A good Pilates instructor will cue participants to align themselves in neutral spine at the start of class and will then reinforce the importance of alignment throughout the workout with simple reminders. As a fitness director, you don’t need to have an in-depth knowledge of Pilates to understand neutral alignment—in fact, neutral spine is not exclusive to Pilates.

Instructors can have participants align themselves at the beginning of the class while in the seated, standing or supine positions. However, the seated or standing positions allow students to view their bodies in the mirror and also enable them to engage more directly with the instructor, neither of which is possible in the supine position. When seated or standing, it is easier for participants to use the bony landmarks of the pelvis and rib cage to align the spine correctly. These two positions are also easier for most people to use as reference points to reachieve neutral spine later in the workout.

To further enhance your evaluations, also familiarize yourself with imprinting and how it relates to cuing and neutral spine alignment. Understanding the nuances of this technique, along with many others not covered in this article, is integral to proper Pilates instruction. Ensuring that staff members follow certain protocols will ensure safe, effective workouts for everyone.

Exercise Progression

When evaluating Pilates instructors, keep in mind that they do not have to teach particular exercises in a prescribed order every time. While there is a set sequence to the original Pilates exercise progression, it is usually used by new Pilates instructors who are still learning how to construct
a safe and effective workout. Once instructors have honed their teaching skills, they should be able to progress a workout without relying on an ordered list of exercises.

Instead of focusing on the order of the exercises, make certain that instructors design and teach classes that work certain body positions before others. For instance, it’s perfectly safe to start a workout with standing exercises—like Pilates footwork—in order to align the spine, and then to begin warming the rest of the body. However, an instructor should never start with prone exercises, such as swimming, because the body is not properly warmed up, and performing spinal extension before the body is warm can cause strain or pain in the low back. When evaluating an instructor’s class, remember that the basic group exercise teaching principles also apply to group Pilates.

Make sure that instructors are skilled enough to teach more than one variation of most exercises. Ideally, instructors should start with the most modified version of each exercise and then progress by gradually cuing the group to stop at any point if they cannot maintain good alignment. For example, when teaching the side plank, instructors should cue all participants to start the exercise with their bottom leg bent beneath them. At this point, students who want to progress the exercise can be cued either to extend the bottom leg or to stack the feet on top of one another. Participants can return to the modified version if the movement becomes too challenging.

Coaching, Cuing & Correcting

One hallmark of a good Pilates teacher is the ability to teach a multilevel group using only verbal cues (versus relying heavily on exercise demonstration). It is certainly understandable that a beginner teacher may need to physically demonstrate some exercises before walking around the room to coach. However, ensure that instructors do walk around, check alignment and provide encouragement. What you don’t want is an instructor performing the entire workout without providing some interactive coaching.

If done properly, hands-on cuing can help students learn the exercises faster and can also increase retention. This is important because members who attend a class regularly are more likely to keep their membership—the ultimate goal of any fitness facility.

Making the Grade

Evaluating a Pilates instructor’s skills is not rocket science, but it can be challenging. The Pilates Instructor Evaluation Checklist (see the sidebar) delineates different areas to focus on. You can use the “comments” section of the checklist to add any specific information you want to share with the instructor later.

At the end of each evaluation, meet with the instructor to determine the reasoning behind his or her exercise modifications, progressions or selections. You want to find out whether the thinking that guided each choice was reasonable and safe; for example, “I showed Ms. Smith how to perform a modified plank position because she injured her shoulder recently.” You never want an instructor to tell you, “Well, I do it that way because that is what I was taught.” This indicates a lack of critical thinking and an inability to teach based on students’ abilities and limitations.

A Testing Ground

During the review process, one way to test an instructor is to participate for part of the class, to assess technical issues, and to spend the rest of the time observing, so you can objectively evaluate the instructor’s interaction with the participants. Any fitness director who regularly evaluates Pilates instructors should also consider attending a Pilates mat class or two. This would give you another helpful weapon in your assessment arsenal. In a basic mat course, you will learn Pilates alignment, breathing and other basic principles that can be applied to any exercise or even to your next instructor evaluation. l

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