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The Art of Pilates Cueing

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Effective cueing can make the difference between a great Pilates session and a mediocre one. In a Pilates class, where body awareness and proper technique are crucial, good cueing skills is essential. Here, Devra Swiger, owner of Ab-Solutely Pilates in Huntington Beach, California, shares her tips on clear cueing.

The goal in teaching Pilates is to communicate with the clients or class so they understand just how they need to move. Carefully chosen words can often convey the quality of movement you’re looking for. For instance, Teaching Pilates “lift your head off the ground for The Hundred” just doesn’t have the same feel as “float your head off the ground.” Clients immediately respond to small changes in vocabularly like these. When a cue works, the client responds and your job as teacher gets easier.

I’m a linguist by education, so selecting and using just the right word has always been important to me. I could debate the value of using one word over another for hours on end. This obsession with language has evolved into my concern with proper cueing skills. I always feel a lot better about my classes and client sessions when I have successfully communicated via concise, clear cues.

I break cues into four categories:

Directional cues: Use the facility to orient the client. For example, ask students to circle the leg towards the clock or away from the stereo, lengthen the leg towards the ceiling or reach the pinky finger towards Main Street. Instead of simply saying Left and Right (and you’d be amazed at how many people don’t know the difference) use reference points both inside and outside the studio.

Anatomical cues:
Stick with what people know. Few clients know where their anterior serratus is, but everyone can relate to abs, arms and legs. As clients become more familiar with Pilates lingo and more aware of their body, it’s okay to introduce more technical terms. However, use them sparingly. A few examples of effective anatomical cues: Feel space between each vertebra; soften through the sternum; or feel the ribs pull gently together.

Analogous cues:
These are the fun cues and require a bit more creativity. I find that these are the cues that really seem to be effective. For example, when teaching neutral spine I ask students to imagine a glass of wine balancing on a very expensive white silk shirt to remind them to stabilize the pelvis. This cue works because clients can relate to it—who wants to stain a perfectly good shirt? In Short Box with a round back I suggest a softball in the belly to reminding clients to scoop. In Short Box with a straight back I tell clients to imagine they are wrapped in mummy tape to prevent the ribs from poking out.

Sound cues:
Clicks of the tongue, snapping of the fingers or whooshing noises can be used to create a sense of flow in the class. This particular way of cueing is not as easy to describe in writing, but it adds a nice element so the class hears more than just the instructor’s voice. For example, when teaching movements that involve spinal articulation each click of the tongue represents the sound of one vertebra touching the mat; or snapping the fingers while clients perform The Hundred can keep the rhythm going.

Your inspiration for creating cues can come from anywhere. Books and DVDs are a source, and taking class is another way to find new material. However, keep in mind that sometimes borrowing cues from other instructors doesn’t always work. For example, I once took an early morning mat class in Chicago and I thought the instructor had some great imagery. I tried some of her material on my students and it sounded funny coming from me. Why? The class understood what I was saying but it didn’t flow. I wasn’t comfortable with the cues and I know the students picked right up on it.

Even if a cue makes perfect sense to you, watch your class closely to determine if it works. If you are met with a handful of confused looks, it might be time to reconsider your words and find another way to articulate the quality of movement you want. Keep in mind that not all clients respond the same to all cues. I’ve had cues that worked wonders on my female clientele and then fall flat with my men. One of my favorite cues for back rowing is to let your finger nails scrape the floor as you push back with your hands. Most men can’t relate to long fingernails. Of course any cues relating to female body parts like ‘boobs off the box’ for the long box series should not be used with men. If you see one client just can’t relate to a cue, have a good back-up ready to go.

When thinking up new cues, keep your wording to-the-point. Cues that are too technical or too complex cause confusion rather than understanding. Throw out cues that are too long. Don’t get too flowery with your images and be sensitive to your audience. Cues with a touch of sexual humor may be funny for some but offensive to others.

Some of the cues that I like and have been successful with are as follows:

For bringing awareness into the center:
Gently knit the ribs together
Slide your ribs down toward your pelvis
Feel your navel kiss the tailbone
Feel the pelvic floor lift like an elevator when exhaling

For spinal articulation:
Roll your spine like rain drops on soft ground
Slowly massage each vertebra before rolling to the next
Peel yourself off the mat like a piece of tape
Feel the energy flow through your body and out through the crown of the head

Side bending:
Lift toward the ceiling and then bend to the side
Increase the space between your ribs and pelvis
Reach long to the side as if rolling over a big beach ball
Take the longest possible curve

Good cueing is like good writing; you may not know what it is that sets it apart but you know when you hear it.

Devra Swiger has been teaching Pilates since 1999. She is certified with Polestar, Alternative Fitness, Colleen Glenn and PhysicalMind. She is also an ACE certified Group Fitness Instructor and Personal Trainer since 1996. Devra is the owner of Ab-Solutely Pilates in Huntington Beach, California. She also teaches group reformer classes at Physical RX Physical Therapy in Huntington Beach.

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Posted on Thursday, May 15, 2008 at 10:33AM by Registered CommenterJessica Cassity in | Comments6 Comments | References1 Reference

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Reader Comments (6)

Pilates is a system of corrective exercises that are designed to correct, restore and develop the postural weaknesses that occur in the body as we go through our lives. It has been my experience that cues and images may sound fancy, but they are ineffective in developing the musculature needed to hold up the body. No matter what our mother's told us, crossing our eyes does not make them stay that way the same as holding our navels to our spines doesn't make our abdominals stay flat. Gentle words are a guarentee that a client is going to sink into the mat, collapse their bodies and not understand how you soften and lengthen at the same time. It may sound pretty, but our job as Pilates teachers is to develop bodies, not to teach a movement class.

I believe we are confusing the product with the end result which may explain why I see a lot of clients from "other" Pilates studios that only have "the moves" without the muscular development to back it up.

I have found it is much easier to teach a client Pilates first so that the exercises make more sense to them. I do not rely on images or scripted cues because they are not universal to all people and most of your clients only pretend they know what you are talking about. Keep it simple. It is OK to say lift your head.

Keep in mind a good Pilates teacher is able to give the same postural results that Joe showed in his many before and after pictures he took throughout his career. The proof is always in the posture not in whether you know what exercise comes after Roll like a Ball.

May 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterStacey Dreisbach

As an instructor who deals both with private classes and groups I am always appreciative of any technique that helps me to connect better with my clientele. These cuing tips give clients and students an 'ah ha' moment when everything seems to make sense. Of course there are tactical cues and corrections that help to further help the client understand the movement.

For the few hours a week that we have the clients in class, all we can do is help them to further understand their bodies and increase their awareness. We are also there to to help then achieve their goals which tend to fall into three categories: To look better, feel better and to have a better body. I am sure there are more, but those are the ones I hear over and over again.

Oddly enough, in the 10 years that I have been teaching Pilates with a certification from 'another' studio; I've had some amazing results. I've helped clients to lose weight, increase their strength and even to get rid of back pain. I attribute some of that to good cuing skills, but mostly I thank the excellent training I've had along with a good understanding of human nature.

Good cuing skills is just one of the many aspects of a good Pilates instructor. There are many more including movement knowledge, understanding of anatomy, common sense and empathy but I think that goes without saying.

May 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDevra Swiger

Dear Devra,
I really enjoyed this article. It is clear that you have developed a model that works for you and for your clients. I especially like your inclusion of sound cues as a category—quite insightful and articulate. It shows that as an instructor you are sensitive to the client’s learning style and kinesthetic sense, which is very important. Years ago, I had a client that was visibly irritated when I snapped my fingers. I noticed that his body tightened up and stopped breathing, so I asked him if he was OK. He continued to share about his reaction and had a momentary emotional release. Along with it, came a softening in the texture of his muscles, which allowed me to help him access a more balanced dynamic as we progressed with the session. Perhaps even more importantly, we shared a moment that validated my intention: I teach and reach people and movement is the context I use to do so. Empathy is the skill I hold in the highest regard.

I believe in a reciprocal learning environment. I instruct, facilitate, model, as well as train my clients. I believe that teaching pilates is much more than attaining a perfect posture. Again, your categories about this show that you are listening to your clients…a valuable way to learn about what is possible with pilates.

As a dancer, I view the evolution of pilates much like the evolution of dance. We needn’t pigeon-hole pilates into one set teaching style. Different schools for different people. Your skill as a linguist is something that is needed in our profession. We need more individuals like you who are willing to share their personal models of movement so that we can come to a common language that is helpful to the public. Nice work!

October 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCarole Amend

Thanks Carole. I am both pleased and flattered that you enjoyed reading my article. I totally agree that there is more than one way to teach Pilates. I have taken classes and workshops from a variety of instructors and have learned something from all of them (although there are times when I have learned how NOT to teach but that's important too).

Thanks Carole!

October 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDevra Swiger


Loved your article. As I continue to develop as an instructor, your tips are insightful and really helpful. I so appreciate your energy and passion not only for Pilates but for overall wellness. I feel privileged to know you to have been trained by you. You inspire me.

Your Fan,

Lisa Healy, Epiphany Health Studio, Marietta, GA

August 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLIsa Healy

Thanks lisa!

August 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDevra Swiger

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