As a Pilates instructor today, it has become more important to be able to explain the reasons behind your work than ever before. I remember when I first began teaching Pilates exercise. It was prior to the trademark being lifted from the word “Pilates,” so many clients at that time knew very little about the exercise method. As a teacher, I wasn’t challenged on my technique or teaching ability then because consumers weren't as educated as they are today. Now the climate in the fitness center is very different; our clients are bombarded with Pilates from mass media such as television commercials and popular magazines printing stories on this method of exercise. More than ever, fitness professionals need to be prepared with educated answers to clients' questions.
Spine Curvature and the Posterior Pelvic Tilt
It’s not enough to have clients who trust your every word; you need to be able to explain the reasoning behind your techniques. Some clients may take other mind/body disciplines and group exercise classes in addition to Pilates, thus questioning the differences. One example of these differences is a posterior pelvic tilt. For many years before Pilates became popular in the fitness industry, fitness professionals were teaching a posterior tilt when performing the abdominal work in a group exercise class. As a group exercise instructor, you learned in certification courses to have class participants press their lower backs into the floor before they perform an abdominal crunch. The reason for this was to make sure participants were not flexing their spines to perform the abdominal curl, thus potentially compressing the discs of the lumbar spine. Making our participants posterior tilt before hand discourages spinal flexing and is a safe and effective method to teach a large group in a short period of time, because in a traditional group exercise class, the abdominal work or floor work may encompass only 10 minutes of a 60-minute class workout.
In a Pilates class, the difference is we have 60 minutes to reiterate the same concept, which is neutral spinal alignment. Neutral alignment places the spine into good posture, allowing the natural curves of the spine to exist. In neutral alignment, there should be normal cervical lordosis, thoracic kyphosis and lumbar lordosis. The curves of the spine are not out of balance as many of our postures become due to aging, injury or poor postural habits. In a Pilates class or session, we teach participants how to find the spine's neutral alignment, then move through this alignment in the exercise and come back to find that same alignment. This is one of the fundamental reasons Pilates is a therapeutic form of exercise, because it teaches good postural alignment and helps the participant to learn new body awareness.
When someone takes a Pilates class after taking years of traditional fitness classes, he may become confused as to why he is doing neutral spine in Pilates but he hasn't been doing that for other similar type exercises. When someone attends a Pilates class, the first exercise he experiences is the Hundred, which to the average person looks exactly like the basic abdominal crunch. The difference between an abdominal crunch and the Hundred is the Hundred is performed in neutral pelvis with the spine flexed into a c-curve. The abdominal crunch is traditionally taught by beginning in a posterior tilt then curling the spine. Posterior tilting is not wrong; it is just not as effective at strengthening the abdominal muscles and increasing flexibility of the spine as maintaining neutral pelvic alignment. However, with that said, if a participant in a Pilates class cannot hold neutral alignment or is experiencing back pain during an exercise, a slight posterior tilt is always a good modification to encourage proper recruitment of the abdominal muscles and help to move through the exercises pain free.
Confronting the "No Pain, No Gain" Myth
When teaching Pilates in a fitness environment, it can be hard to rein in our clients' desire to keep advancing through the exercises. For years, the common mantra relating to exercise has always been “no pain, no gain.” Many of our clients interpret as they need to keep moving forward to harder exercises in order to “feel” the workout. They are accustomed to walking out of a fitness class or session and feeling pain for a day or two after. In Pilates, this is the opposite of what should be achieved. In fact, you should not leave feeling any pain. Most people who attend Pilates or yoga classes regularly leave feeling relaxed, limber and centered. The goal in a Pilates session is to progress through the exercises, maintaining good alignment. This singular focus is what makes Pilates exercise extremely functional as it teaches us to align the body in many different positions and to move out of this alignment only to come back and find it again. Learning to master this aspect of Pilates can help clients to function better in their daily activities. If your clients exhibit poor posture during their regular routines because of learning Pilates exercise, they hopefully can develop a better understanding of how to return their bodies to neutral alignment. By honing their body awareness through mind/body disciplines, your clients will help to reduce their likelihood of injury and postural-related muscular imbalances.
Alignment vs. Movement… Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Muscles
Many fitness center clients come to a Pilates session with a lot of exercise experience. They may have been used to moving their bodies with very little understanding of how the body should move or what muscles should be worked. When they come to Pilates, they find the alignment of the exercise is more crucial than the movement, and working the deep intrinsic muscles is more important than the larger extrinsic muscles. This may be why new participants to Pilates don’t like the method of exercise. They are learning new motor patterns and can become frustrated at their inability to achieve success in one session. A good instructor needs to be mindful of the client’s ego, but also work to keep making the changes to keep the best alignment possible. Allowing the client to move on to more difficult exercises - in which they cannot maintain good alignment - delays their ability to master Pilates. It can be hard for our clients to understand how important it is to stay at the same level for an extended period of time. As a fitness leader, try explaining that by working at lower levels using precise movements, you are retraining the body’s muscle memory so it can properly execute the exercise and recruit the deeper intrinsic muscle groups.
The Power of Breath
The breath is another part of Pilates exercise where clients who take the mind/body disciplines can become confused. In Pilates, the ribcage is expanded laterally on the inhalation, pressing the air into the back. In the exhalation, the navel is drawn to the spine, knitting the ribcage back together while maintaining the spinal alignment. This breathing style can be difficult for many reasons - for example, it is different from what they are learning in other mind/body disciplines or physically their posture may inhibit this type of breathing pattern. How do you explain why you teach the breath the way you do? One way to discuss this is to explain the benefits of the inhalation in Pilates. This type of inhalation draws more oxygen to the largest part of the lungs and thus to the working muscles; it also improves posture by strengthening the muscles that surround the ribcage. The exhalation works to strengthen the deep abdominal muscles and is a wonderful relaxation technique. You should not feel the need to defend your way of teaching the breath as a right or wrong option in comparison to other disciplines. What is most important to convey to your clients is they should always breathe with movement, keep the inhale and exhale equal in length and work toward using the Pilates breath a little more each session. Once clients achieve the movement, then you can begin to challenge their abilities by changing the way they are using the breath. For example, if a client always needs to exhale on the exertion of the exercise, we can then challenge him by asking him to inhale at this point. Most importantly, we need to acknowledge all types of breathing from all disciplines and have scientific reasoning behind what we ask our clients to do.
The Power of Diversity
As a Pilates instructor, learning other types of fitness and mind/body disciplines can only help you to understand your clients better. If you have never done any other exercise but mind/body disciplines, it can limit your understanding of exercise movement to a client who may include Pilates as an addition to other training. Learning all types of fitness can only serve to make you become a better well-rounded trainer. It is important to strive to assist your clients in understanding how to place their bodies in space properly; however, it is also important to allow your clients to progress at their own pace so they are not discouraged. First time attendees to a Pilates session can either love it or hate it, and a lot of this feeling has to do with how the instructor interacts with them in this first session. Sometimes instructors are so concerned that the participants perform the exercises correctly, they fail to realize that their class is not enjoying the experience. Keeping this in mind will help you to become a Pilates coach who gives individual advice and support to each client.
For the most part, many clients will not challenge you to defend your teaching methods. But as a teacher, it pays to be prepared with the knowledge to back up your words. An informed, educated trainer who takes the time to understand their clients will always have job security in the fitness industry.