Archives For pilates teacher


Or: ‘Should your Pilates teacher be able to do a pull up?’

(If you’re time-poor, or just don’t have the patience to read all that follows, the answer is: Yes, they should.)

Hopefully we can all agree that Pilates, the movement practice, as conceived by the man himself, is about health. The integration of mind, body and spirit (if our thinking is reductionist enough to conceive of them as separate in the first place). What does a healthy body look/feel like? Depending upon our starting point with Pilates, it might be a pain-free body. That’s a great beginning for a lot of us, but is it healthy?

If a body isn’t able to express the full available range of movement in all its joints, is it healthy? Not yet. Is a body that’s able to express the full range of movement without strength (control, you might say) through that range, is it healthy? Not really. Perhaps this scenario is even more problematic than the first one.

What is Pilates good for if it is not carrying you along the arc toward expressing your joints’ full range of movement, with control? If it is not helping you to become stronger, why are you bothering? Real suppleness and agility is a product of strength – the flexible spine that Joseph Pilates held up as a marker of ‘real’ age (I’d prefer to classify as mobile) is a product of motion at each of the joints coupled with strength.

As Jaap van der Wal says “You do not have a body, you are a body.” Isn’t it a basic human capacity to be able to move your mass through space? A pull up, or chin up (pronated or supinated grip) is an expression of the ability to manipulate your mass in space. And in certain circumstances that capacity could be a huge factor in survival. The capacity to pull up will make you more human.

Perhaps my arguments haven’t been sufficiently persuasive, and it still seems unreasonable to expect your Pilates teacher (or yourself) to be able to do a pull up. In that case, how about a push-up? Should you/your Pilates teacher be able to do a push-up? Without equivocation the answer is “Yes, absolutely.” How about 5 push-ups? Maybe check how many repetitions Joseph prescribes in Return to Life. If you’ve ticked that box then maybe we can debate the pull-ups.



What are your goals, or your clients’ goals, when practicing Pilates?
‘Pain free’ almost certainly incorporates ‘stronger’. ‘More toned’ definitely means ‘stronger’. ‘More supple’ had better mean ‘stronger’. You get the picture.

Your words DO matter!

August 4, 2016 — 1 Comment

A while ago I posted an article whose title asked Pilates teachers not to use the word “core”. Setting aside the appropriateness or otherwise of someone with no status in the Pilates world making such requests, I found some of the responses very interesting.

“Meh…core, powerhouse, whatever. They are just words, some work better with some clients than others.”

“Semantics are over-rated. As long as you can get your client to understand & move from the right places, you can use any words in existence. (or make up your own, who cares!)”

“I’m sick of semantics.”

More significant events in the wider world have also caused me to reflect on the significance of the vocabulary we choose to adopt. The news in the UK this morning was dominated by a knife attack in which one person was killed, and four other seriously injured. Reports focused on motivation – mental illness was referred to, but police weren’t ruling out the possibility of terrorism. I’m sure it was terrifying for the people caught up in it but, to me, labelling an attack like this as terrorism is redundant, except to make the population at large more fearful. You can easily find the statistics of how many people are killed in car-crashes, compared to the number killed in ‘terror’ attacks. Car crashes are significantly far more significant but our choice of words, or the media’s choice of words has a powerful impact on how we think and feel. I bet that the average Londoner feels more at risk of a terror attack than a car-crash – and that is a product of language creating fear.

In the same way that we may be manipulated, if not controlled, as a society, we might also manipulate the people that we teach by our use of words. The outcome won’t be a life or death situation but I believe I’ve met people who’s self-belief has been affected for years by the way that Pilates teachers and/or physical therapists have spoken to them.

Some people may be motivated by the thought that their “core is weak”, or their “glutes are weak”, or that their posture “is terrible”. Fine. But what of the people for whom this sort of language reinforces their sense that they have failed, or that (worse, perhaps) these are things that are beyond their control? For example, if I’m told that my glutes are weak, and them becoming weak has been beyond my control, might I not feel that I am not in control of how my body behaves? And thus powerless to help myself?

Anyone who teaches in the studio that my wife and I run is vigorously discouraged from using words like ‘hurt’, ‘painful’, ‘damage’, ‘dangerous’, ‘protect’. We now know that pain is a response to inputs to our nervous system, once our brain has filtered the inputs through its vast library of previous experiences – felt, seen, heard etc. If someone is told that, for example, they must “protect their spine” while doing an exercise, and they then feel an unfamiliar sensation in their back, how easy will it be for them to feel that they must have failed to protect their spine? And what might the consequences be for an unprotected spine? It sounds as though they might be rather fragile – is it safe for them to do normal activities outside their Pilates class if they’re so bad at protecting their spine?

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs provides a very useful model for teaching anything, not least Pilates. In our studio the goal for any student (I’m trying to break the habit of saying ‘client’) is self-actualisation – the fulfilment of potential – and I imagine and hope that this is true throughout the Pilates world.


Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Esteem could be interchangeable with self-belief, which I would interpret as ’empowerment’. Our job is to empower our students in order that they can achieve their potential – we cannot achieve it for them. The words that we choose are critical for student empowerment.

When teaching, do you ever say “I want you to…”? I know how easy it is to do, but what has what I want got to do with it? It’s not about my experience – it’s about the student’s experience!

If you give instructions throughout the course of every repetition, does the student ever feel that they can do the movement alone? More importantly, does my choice of words make my student feel that they need me with them in order to do something well? If that’s the case, then self-actualisation will be very hard to achieve. If a student says that they don’t want to be taught by anyone else (rare, but it does happen), then I will have to reflect on what about my behaviour, and most likely the language that I’ve used, has led them to this disempowered conclusion. To me, creating this belief in a student might be a financial success, but is a teaching failure.

Another respondent to the ‘core’ article I wrote before said “Sometimes I think teachers over-think too much.” I agree, I’m sure that I might over-think but I would prefer to do that than to under-think. Especially as someone who is trying to be a teacher of movement. By being thoughtful about the words that I use (and intonation, rhythm etc), perhaps I can help my students to not over-think the movement.

To imagine that language is simple, or that words only ever mean what you intend them to is, at best, naive and, at worst, irresponsible.


The line above is paraphrasing Jaap van der Wal, who is an embryologist, and anatomist. (If you want to go deep into his theory, you can watch “The Architecture of Connective Tissue as a Functional Substrate for Proprioception in the Locomotor System“, or you can go on a slightly easier ride here.) I like this line a lot, perhaps because it resonates with my somewhat contrarian nature, and because the lecture by Dr van der Wal that I attended was both exciting and compelling.

I have used this idea to argue, in a workshop entitled ‘Pilates Made Simple’, that Pilates teachers should be cueing movement rather than muscles. This seems to be a widely accepted idea in the world of strength and conditioning, but not so much in the world of Pilates teaching. I was presenting this workshop last weekend and, as expected (because of the company I was in), whilst the idea of cueing movement instead of muscles wasn’t contentious (I think), the ‘brain doesn’t know muscles’ line met with some reasoned resistance. Specifically, someone with a much deeper understanding of anatomy than mine pointed out that brain’s homunculus – its representation of our body – is partly formed by feedback that it receives from receptors within muscles. This caused me to revise my thought process – or perhaps I should say think a little more deeply/carefully about what I mean.

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far. ‘Our brain knows that you’ve got muscle, but it doesn’t know that you’ve got muscles…’ – that is to say, the ‘picture’ that our brain has of our body (which van der Wal says is based upon ‘fascial architecture’) is nothing like the pictures of muscles that we see in anatomy books. So, your brain knows that there is muscle tissue in the area of your arm that is responsible for moving your wrist closer to your shoulder because it knows the area to stimulate to produce wrist-toward-shoulder movements. Your brain does not ‘know’ that you’ve got a bicep brachii muscle, and a brachialis muscle etc. Again, our brain’s representation of our body is based around fascial architecture, and muscle fibres can be viewed as ‘just’ the elastic parts that move the parts of that architecture in relation to each other.

It follows, for me, that any notion that we can selectively fire muscles is largely an illusion. I know when I fire my bicep, because I’ve learned my musculosketal anatomy, and I can see the bit that’s called biceps changing shape. However, I don’t know what else is working, and I doubt that I’m able to isolate my bicep to make that movement. In other words, if I think ‘shorten my bicep’, my brain ‘knows’ what that looks like, translates it into a movement, and sends the message out ‘move wrist toward elbow’.

396px-Transversus_abdominisIt seems that one of our favourite muscles to work in Pilates is the transverse abdominis. It’s function is apparently so critical that you can find plenty of online instruction on how to isolate it. ‘HolisticSam’ of  presents one such example on YouTube. And yet, according to Grays Anatomy “It may be more or less fused with the Obliquus internus or absent.” So it could be that HolisticSam is training  someone to isolate a muscle that they don’t possess. And if that person doesn’t have an identifiable transverse abdominis, does this mean that they cannot stabilise their lumbar spine? Of course not, because their brain doesn’t know how to ‘contract transverse abdominis’, but it does perhaps know how to ‘stiffen lumbar spine’, or maybe ‘ maintain relationship of ribs to pelvis’.

It also seems to me that if we had full conscious control of our individual muscles, then there ought to be far fewer problems with imbalances, asymmetries, and movement disfunction – and those problems should be easier to sort out. This may need further consideration, and it also seems to relate to another bald statement (this one I will claim as my own): ‘Poor muscle balance doesn’t cause poor movement, poor movement causes poor muscle balance’.

As ever, I’d be very happy for a debate to ensue…