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 would 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. 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 your students moving as much as possible (Cakmakci 2012).

One lesson at a time, help your clients learn that 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.

Making the Method Accessible: Mat Work

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.

The Reformer

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.

For tips on training larger exercisers using reformers, as well as key principles for training heavier clients, please see “Pilates for Larger Bodies” in the online IDEA Library or in the April 2014 print issue of IDEA Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at (800) 999-4332, ext. 7.