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movement skills

Unlocking the Power of Movement Skills: A Fresh Approach to Teaching Pilates

teaching skills Nov 14, 2023

Hey there, Pilates enthusiasts! I want to talk about something that’s been on my mind a lot lately - the idea that we should stop micromanaging muscles during our classes and focus on movement skills instead.

Let's begin by introducing you to two Pilates teachers, Alexandra and Elena, who have vastly different teaching approaches.


Alexandra - The Muscle Micromanager

Alexandra is a dedicated Pilates teacher with years of experience. She opened her own Pilates studio with the mission of helping her clients achieve their fitness goals. Over time, she's become known for her meticulous attention to detail.

One day, she had a class filled with eager students, including a newcomer named Olivia. Olivia had recently moved to town and was excited to explore Pilates. She had previously enjoyed yoga classes but had never tried Pilates before.

As the class began, Alexandra instructed the students to lie on their mats and prepare for an exercise called "The Hundred." Olivia was unfamiliar with the exercise but felt confident in her ability to follow directions.

Alexandra began cueing everyone with her signature precision:

"Engage your transverse abdominis. Good job! Feel your rectus abdominis working hard as you lift your chest and legs. Beautiful! Make sure you keep your glutes tight and don't forget about those hamstrings."

The class continued in this fashion, with Alexandra providing a laundry list of muscles to activate, trusting that her cues would help her students achieve "perfect form." She paid particular attention to newcomer Olivia, analyzing every muscle in her body.

Meanwhile, Olivia was feeling increasingly overwhelmed. Try as she might, she just couldn't keep up with all the muscle-specific cues. In fact, she felt defeated, like she was trying to solve a complex puzzle with too many pieces and no clue what the end result should even look like. Frustration crept in, and she started doubting if Pilates was right for her.

As the class ended, Alexandra noticed Olivia's bewildered expression. She approached Olivia with a reassuring smile. "Don't worry; you'll get the hang of it. It just takes time to master all your muscles."

Olivia left the class feeling disheartened and questioning whether Pilates was the right choice for her fitness journey.


Elena - The Movement Skills Advocate

At the suggestion of her new neighbor, Olivia decided to visit another Pilates studio across town, taught by a teacher named Elena. Elena had a completely different approach to Pilates instruction. She was known as the Movement Skills Advocate, and her classes were a breath of fresh air.

In her very first class at the second studio, Olivia had a different, more empowering experience. The moment Olivia walked into Elena's studio, she noticed a warm and inviting atmosphere. The room was filled with a sense of camaraderie among the students. It felt like a supportive community rather than an intimidating fitness class.

Elena began the class with a friendly smile and a simple instruction: "Let's start by finding our breath." She encouraged the students to take deep, mindful breaths, emphasizing the importance of connecting with their bodies before diving into the exercises. Olivia immediately felt more relaxed and at ease.

As the class progressed, Elena's cues were refreshingly different from what Olivia had experienced before. Instead of bombarding the students with a laundry list of muscles to engage, Elena focused on the essence of each movement. She used simple and relatable language, making Pilates feel accessible to everyone . . . Olivia included.

Elena guided them into the starting position for "The Hundred." Olivia watched closely, a bit nervous but her curiosity piqued. Elena's instructions were different from what she had encountered before.

"As we begin 'The Hundred,'" Elena said, "I want you to think about the gentle rhythm of your breath. Inhale for five counts, and exhale for five counts. Feel your breath as it flows in and out, grounding you in the present moment."

Olivia closed her eyes briefly, allowing Elena's words to guide her into a state of mindfulness. It was a stark contrast to her previous class, where the focus had been solely on engaging specific muscles.

"Now," Elena continued, "let's talk about the movement itself. As you breathe, visualize yourself floating gracefully on a river. Lift your head and legs above the water's surface. Pump your arms straight up and down as if you wanted to create a gentle current in the water. Feel the fluidity in your movements."

Olivia followed Elena's cues, and something remarkable happened. Instead of struggling to engage individual muscles, she felt her body responding naturally to the imagery Elena had painted. It was as if she was in harmony with the exercise, her breath and movement synchronized.

During one particularly challenging exercise, Elena noticed Olivia's determination and offered gentle guidance. "You're doing great, Olivia," Elena said with an encouraging smile. "Focus on the journey of this movement. Feel the strength building within you." It wasn't about perfection; it was about progress.

The class continued with this newfound approach, and Olivia was amazed at the difference. She felt a sense of freedom and grace in her movements. Elena's emphasis on the flow and rhythm of the exercise made it feel like a dance, an elegant expression of her body's capabilities.

As they reached the end of the class, Elena's voice was a gentle anchor. "Great job, everyone. Take a moment to appreciate the journey you just embarked on. Pilates is about moving with intention and grace, not about memorizing muscle names."

Olivia felt invigorated and inspired. She approached Elena with gratitude in her eyes. "Thank you for such an amazing class," Olivia said. "I've never experienced Pilates like this before."

Elena smiled warmly. "Pilates is about discovering your body's potential and enjoying the journey. Keep exploring, and you'll find joy in every movement."

Elena's teaching approach emphasized the holistic experience of Pilates, focusing on movement skills and creating a supportive environment that left a profound impact on Olivia, inspiring her to embrace Pilates as a journey of self-discovery and growth.


The Pilates Paradigm Shift

Olivia's journey highlights a crucial aspect of Pilates instruction - the shift from micromanaging muscles to nurturing movement skills.


Movement Skills Over Muscles

First and foremost, we should be teaching movement skills, not just exercises. Pilates isn't about isolated muscle workouts; it's about whole-body movement, whole body integration and whole body commitment.

Instead of saying, "Engage your hamstrings," we should be guiding our clients into movements (i.e. spine flexion) where multiple muscles work together seamlessly. As a shortcut, we've come to use terms like "C-curve" to describe not the action of a single muscle, but the collaboration of agonists and synergists as well as the yielding of the antagonists. Every one of these muscles is involved. But none of that is of any use without the nervous system. Motor control is the brain telling your muscles what to do. It's all part of and a requirement for the movement skill spine flexion (round back if you're classically trained). 

Think of it this way: when you're learning to drive, your instructor doesn't tell you to push the gas pedal with a specific muscle in your leg, right? They ask you to accelerate smoothly. With practice, your mind-body will get better at it.  Similarly, in Pilates, we should focus on the overall movement pattern rather than pinpointing muscles.


Progression is Key

One of the keys to success in Pilates is progression. Just like you wouldn't teach someone to do calculus before they've mastered basic math, we shouldn't expect clients to nail advanced exercises without first honing the movement skills that are required for the advanced exercise. Start with the basics and gradually progress to more complex movements. It's like building a solid foundation before constructing the rest of the house.


The Pitfalls of Internal Cueing

Internal cueing, where we ask clients to focus on sensations inside their bodies, can often lead to confusion and frustration. Imagine trying to explain complex muscle interactions to someone who's not an anatomy expert - it's like speaking a different language. Instead, opt for external cues, like "push against the floor" or "reach for the wall." These cues engage all of the target muscles most effectively while avoiding misunderstanding.


Understanding Muscle Synergy

Muscles rarely work in isolation. Most movements involve a synergy of multiple muscles. Focusing solely on one muscle (or even one muscle group) can lead to ineffective movement patterns. Instead, embrace the idea of movement skills, which consider the overall coordination of muscles for a specific movement direction.


The Real Deal: Shaping Movements

Here's the beauty of focusing on movement skills: it allows us to look at the shape of a movement. We can assess if it's smooth, if there are any flat spots, or stiffness along the way. No need for X-ray vision or electrodes; just our keen observation skills. We're like movement detectives!


The Big Picture

As Pilates teachers, we're not here to fix specific muscles or diagnose muscle health. We're here to coach our clients' brains to tell their bodies how to move. That's the real challenge. Our clients don't have our experience, so when we cue specific muscles, they might not get it right. Instead, we should focus on what we can see — their movement — and help them explore it.


Liberation from Micromanagement

The best part about letting go of muscle micromanagement? It eases the pressure on us as Pilates teachers. We don't need to stress about fixing a specific muscle. Instead, we can change the relationship to gravity within the same movement direction and let our clients experience the magic. Roll Over, Roll Up, Tower, Monkey, Cat, Teaser, Crab... are all spine flexion (C-Curve) exercises. Depending on the direction to gravity and spring resistance, some will be easier than others.

Knowing which exercise to teach first is crucial for your client's successful movement experience. How do you know when your client is ready for an advanced exercise? When you've seen them successfully perform all required movement skills in other exercises.

It's all about allowing our clients to have that kinetic, embodied experience . . . that’s what truly educates them.

In a nutshell, it's time to shift our focus from micromanaging muscles to nurturing movement skills. Let's create a Pilates experience that's all about the joy of moving well and feeling great. So, the next time you're in class, think more about shaping movements (and less about flexing muscles) . . . and watch the magic unfold.

Need help mastering those movement skills? We have progressions for all movement skills on all apparatus inside the Pilates Encyclopedia membership. Learn more...


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