How to Go Beyond the Exercises In Class Planning


Do you ever feel like you by the end of the Pilates class you taught, you have more questions than answers?I’m not exaggerating when I say that I love sitting down with teachers to talk programming. I literally could talk about it for hours and hours. I’m fascinated by it. So here’s a recent conversation where I sit down with Nicole to dish class programming. We talk everything from class framework to language, and try to shift further towards programming success.

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N: When I think about my ideal class, I want to give clients a good workout; I want to teach them something new — whether that’s a new exercise or a new way to do the exercise; and I want to give good cues so clients walk away thinking, “Oh, I didn’t know I was doing that!”  I feel like giving clients a good workout is the easiest part. But I struggle when I try to know to do something new or innovative.

How do I balance the desire to give the clients something new with losing momentum because I’m trying to teach a new exercise? And how do I make sure I’m adding newness for a reason not just throwing it in because I feel like I should?

Holly:  That’s an important distinction! I think the really good teachers say why they’re doing the exercise most every time they give it. And it happens while the clients are moving and doing the exercises so you’re not losing momentum with the class.Anyone can just throw some exercises together. That’s not programming. It’s just a bunch of exercises. The really great teachers design the workout to achieve specific goals for the clients, posture, and to balance the workout. I love that you’re questioning your motives for adding something new to a workout. You should! I still do. You should be able to explain the new exercise in 1-2 sentences, like an exercise elevator pitch. If you can’t do this then look back at your manuals and give it a bit more thought.

N: And then there’s the issue of flow. How do I maintain flow during the class while trying to do all this?

Holly:  Check out my article Pilates Teachers Must Learn Flow (and How to Teach It), because it answers this question perfectly. There’s a simple practice that will help you maintain flow. First, get the clients moving. It won’t be perfect but just get the overall shape of the exercise going. If you need to correct an individual, go for it but keep the rest of the group moving.  Once everyone is more or less doing the exercise, layer on all the additional information that you want the clients to focus on like breath pattern, movement correction, special focus or a principle. Then relate it to clients everyday lives. “We’re doing this because most of us have to sit at work and our hip flexors are short/tight...and these are the muscles that counterbalance the hip flexors….do you guys feel the back of your legs working?” Asking questions to engage your class. This is the kind of information that gives them a new experience or deepens understanding.

N: That makes sense. I bet that will help with my worry about clients getting bored doing the same exercises.

Holly:  You can do the same exercise a lot before clients get bored IF you engage them in learning and deepen the experience. Often what seems to be an expression of boredom from the clients is actually a reaction to the loss of flow.  The information isn’t coming out quick enough; the clients aren’t engaged in the experiential aspect of class; or they’re waiting around while the teacher resolves an issue with someone else. But it’s rare I see clients truly bored of an exercise.

N:  Yeah, that’s a good point. How you portray or deliver the exercise is going to make a huge difference.

Holly:  So I would go back to what I just said about getting the cues out quick enough that the clients get moving and keep moving. If someone in class has done it a million times, they will start moving. Then that you’ll have time to talk the others into moving. You can layer in all the information that you want to share with the group or offer specialized corrections for individuals.

N:  Building from that, sometime I feel like getting people into the next exercise is hard because I want them to do many things at once. For instance, put the footbar down, change the springs, and get out the longbox. And I realize that I’m saying things in a way that may not be the most natural for them to actually do it. So then I repeat myself.

Holly:  Transitions are such key moments to pay attention to in a class! We can only process so much information at once. When you give transition directions as a big laundry list, often clients tune out. You really have three choices:

1) The clients do their own equipment adjustments,
2) You do the adjustments for the clients, or
3) while the clients are finishing one exercise you begin to make some equipment adjustments for the next exercise.

Typically I’m doing #2 or #3.It’s difficult to make adjustments for a big group. So usually clients are going to need to be  making the adjustments for the equipment. The one exception to this is when I have a group of older/new/slower clients and I know I can do the adjustments faster than I can direct the clients.  Keep in mind a few things when working on these transitions. Give the instructions with very succinct directions. Be brief. Be clear.  

“Get the longbox out.” Then pause. Once they’re about halfway done completing the first task, give the second instruction. “Put the footbar down.” Then pause.

The people that are more equipment savvy and have more experience will be quicker than the newer students. So help out where you need to keep things moving. I typically am saying the instruction and doing the adjustment on the reformer in front of me — like a flight attendantIf anyone’s lagging behind and moving slow, help that person and give the group some encouragement, “Come on guys, let’s go. Lots to do.”So here’s how I would cue a class into a longbox exercise:

“Okay we’re going to do “Arms Pulling Straps Plow” on the longbox. Grab the box. Put it on top of the Reformer in lengthwise. This is why we call it ‘longbox.’Put the footbar down.Adjust to one red spring. Those of you who are ready slide onto the box, chest over the box, head towards pulleys.Grab the ropes in your hands.If you’re ready start, pull the ropes back towards your hip and extend the upper spine.”

N:  Yes I see what you mean. I think I’m just using too many words and lumping instructions together.

Holly:  That’s likely and also very normal to do at first. Absolutely feel free to use incomplete sentences. And try to get away from the Pilates jargon as much as possible. In that last example, clients have to know what the “longbox” is. If they have to think for a second, interpret, then start to move. So as much as possible define your Pilates terminology so you’re starting to build a language. For new clients, you’ll need to be slow and deliberate with your language.

I always have this experience walking around downtown San Francisco listening to tech people’s conversations. It can sound like a code language. The jargon they are using makes sense if you are in their industry.  If you think about that applied to the field of Pilates, you don’t want your clients feeling like you’re speaking an insider language and they’re outsiders. So I’m consistently identifying terms throughout class. It might even take identifying the box. “See that box next to the reformer? That’s the box. Grab the box…” It sounds silly but it really helps with maintaining flow through transitions.

N:  That makes sense.

Holly:  Is it easier for you to program sessions for privates than groups?

N:  It is and it isn’t.  It is in the sense that when they come into a private I can give really specific cues. I don’t have the distraction of other people to watch. And I can keep the session moving which leads to what seems like a harder or maybe more focused workout.And in private sessions I feel more successful at telling them what I’m going for or the goal of teaching the exercise. The clients show me that they are listening more by having reactions to my corrections like, “Oh yeah, I really feel that.”It feels easier to wow people in a private.

Holly:  Yeah completely. When Programming for a private you can be so much more selective of the exercise. And you can say things like, “...I know you want to run that marathon and this will help your running by…”Part of it is figuring out the class participants’ goals. So maybe one week a regular comes early for class. That a perfect opportunity to spend a minute asking the kinds of questions that will get the client to articulate their goals. By knowing just one clients goals, you can design a class to address them. You’ll “Wow” that one person. Over time you can figure a little bit out about each client.  

N:  Yeah. I think that’s hard because some people are really expressive and say, “Oh I like that.” While others are more expressionless. I get tripped up by people’s reactions.

So, I wonder if I should continue to do things because one client said they liked it?

Holly:  That’s a hard one. I would have to see that happen in the moment. You’re really talking about non-verbal communication. It is hard to read people. Two thoughts:Be sure to ask questions. I say this over and over. You can check out this video that gets more specific about asking questions.  Say you see someone’s facial expression in class and you have no idea what it means. Simple solution:  ask them. “Hey, Kim what are you feeling? What’s happening?”

N:  Ahhh yes that’s a very non-judgmental way to find out what clients are thinking.

Holly:  The other thought I had is that you should give a really clear explanation of what the class will be focused on at the beginning. It can be really general (the breathe) or super specific (getting clients to feel their gluteus medius). By giving a focus at the beginning it satisfies that part of the brain that wants to know ‘where we’re going’ or ‘is there a plan’ or ‘what is this teacher all about.’N:  I like that idea.

Holly:  And then your tying cues into that focus. Say your class goal is strengthening the hips to improve the support for the spine. When you’re teaching Hundreds, you cue things like:

“Squeeze the inner thighs together to feel the support they provide for the inseam of the leg, into the hips, through the pelvic floor and into the transverse abdominis that deepest layer of abdominals that supports the lower back.”

By stating at the beginning of class what you what to give them, you’re more likely to be able to deliver it.N: Yeah yeah, totally.

Holly:  You’re honing in on what come across throughout the class as a very clear focus. It really can happen in one minute. It’s that fast and simple.

N:  I think that would make me feel better. It feels strange to just say, “Hi guys. Let’s go into footwork.”

Holly:  Try writing the goal/focus/synopsis on a post-it note. Stick it to your class plan. Then whenever you don’t know what to cue, you’ll see that goal staring you in the face.

N:  Yes, sometime there’s so much I could cue or correct. Other times, I’m searching for something to say.

Holly:  Going back to the class focus will help you and the clients. Circling back to boredom. If you’re cueing the exercise in a new way that directs attention to your class focus, the client will have a new experience without needing to do a new exercise.

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Hope this was helpful to share. Let me know what’s your biggest takeaway and how can you might put that insight into action now. Leave a comment below. Your story may help someone else have a teaching breakthrough.

Holy Furgason


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