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Teaching Group Pilates Reformer Classes: 5 Steps to Success

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Nike Pilates StudioThe Pilates studio at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, OR
By Christine Binnendyk

With recession-strapped clients groaning at the cost of private Pilates sessions, you may find yourself thrust into a new style of teaching – group Pilates Reformer classes. The incentive for trainers is a higher per-hour wage, yet you’ll now find yourself challenged to make the leap from focusing on one or two clients at a time to observing, correcting and safe-keeping six, eight or more bodies at once.

I train 12 people at a time at the Nike World Headquarters. Any given group class can include professional athletes, people managing bulging discs, Olympic-hopeful runners, harried executives, new moms and pregnant employees. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about how to make these classes work. Follow my guidelines, and you’ll have a map for: 

  • Gathering a group you feel comfortable teaching
  • Choosing the exercise variations to keep that group interested
  • Keeping all learning styles engaged
  • Developing a successful communication style

1. Think about who you’ll be comfortable teaching.
The good news is that you don’t need to be a world-class expert to teach a group Reformer class. Think about the bodies and the mindsets of the people that you’re accustomed to teaching. Begin by branching into teaching duets, trios or quads. Teaching an intermediate class means they already know the basics, and they’ll be thrilled to learn new moves. Play to your strengths. If you’re a runner or a golfer, consider creating a sport-specific class that helps these athletes balance out their musculature.

2. Set a Baseline Criteria Level for Your Attendees
Decide what experience level and what conditioning level you want to require of group Reformer class attendees. This will help you be able to keep the group engaged while not leaving anyone behind. It’ll also feed your private training business during your off-peak hours; clients will want to fulfill those criteria for entering the group environment.

At Nike, we use a “Pilates Passport” system. To attend the ongoing Reformer classes, which can accommodate up to 12 people, fitness center members need a Passport. Most people earn their Passport in 5 private sessions; some people need additional sessions. Passport holders are all able to:

  • Set up their Reformer appropriately for their body
  • Execute neutral pelvis position, powerhouse engagement, efficient joint positioning and proper breath use
  • Perform a version of each of our 40 Passport exercises
  • Choose position or exercise modifications for their own body needs
  • Work out at an intermediate pace

3. Teach a Multi-Option Class
This sounds scarier than it is. Think about options for spring settings, body positions and ranges of movement. Begin with the simplest and easiest option for 2-3 reps, then offer the next option, and possibly a third option. Each variation should build on the last one, don’t offer three equally difficult moves.

For example, Long Stretch can be done on a lighter or heavier spring. The feet can tap the shoulder rest, sit in the headrest ditch or balance on top of the shoulder rest. Less-conditioned people can hold a plank position without ever moving. Athletes can open the carriage and hold the position for five counts before closing the carriage. Each attendee simply works within their own comfort range.

4. Accommodate Different Learning Styles
To keep a group of 12 people moving, I use cues that work for visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners. This keeps the class moving without leaving anyone behind, even when I introduce a new exercise.

Demonstrate on others’ bodies or your own, while you verbally cue. Scan the group for bodies going amiss. Over time, you’ll get a feel for which exercises are better adjusted with your hands instead of your words. Sometimes the brain understands but there is a lag in translating that into movement. For a newbie falling out of position in knee stretches, it’s easier if you hold their upper body still and have them move the rest of their body. No need to stop the class, no need to explain, simply assist them for a few reps. They’ll feel successful and the class keeps moving.

5. Develop a Simple Language for Important Concepts
In my initial training with Romana Kryzanowska, she coached us to avoid using medical-sounding terms. I don’t want my attendees to hesitate because they have to translate ‘medially rotate the femurs’ into “feet in a v-shape, initiate from the hip.” You will make your own choices on language, but be consistent in how you communicate so that your classes can learn over time, rather than expecting them to remember every concept.

I use three categories of comments in every class:

  1. Illegal Moves get corrected immediately, as they can lead to an injury. Example: “Watch out for pelvis pop in Knee Stretches; that’s an illegal move because it can lead to an irritated disc.” Translation: Maintain proper pelvis alignment; don’t allow the spine to move from flexion to extension or vice versa.
  2. Next, I cue on Body Geometry, which helps people perfect their positioning over time. If I haven’t uttered the phrase, “Good body geometry” or “Y’all are lookin’ good!” chances are I’m giving additional verbal or touch cues to get everyone moving properly. When I say “Good body geometry” during Knee Stretches, it means that I’ve scanned the group and everyone is hitting my criteria for body positioning. The start and end position has the hip joint farther back than the knee joint; armpits are drawn toward the hips, spine is in the correct position (scooped or flat) and the abs are executing the inward movement of the carriage. My classes live to hear those phrases, because they know the class is clicking along. Reward: New moves toward the end of class.
  3. Inefficient Move cues come in on an as-needed basis to help attendees understand which muscles to work. Example: “Lets NOT drift into Superman pose.” This is when a Knee Stretch becomes something else – the arms have extended up by the ears. Will my client get hurt doing this? No, but they’ve lost the benefit of the exercise. Some days I’ll allow some Inefficient Moves to creep into class without correction, because we’re focusing on perfecting something else that day. I keep a list though, so that we can come back to these habits that dilute the essence of each exercise.

Sometimes, life forces change upon us. How we step up is a metaphor for Pilates itself: Will you break because of rigid thinking? Or will you transform with flexibility, strength and focus? Joseph Pilates spun his time in an English internment camp into the opportunity to create the now ubiquitous Reformer and Cadillac. Teaching Pilates in a group format may open up more free time for many trainers. What will we create?


About the Author
Christine Binnendyk is a Pilates and yoga teacher in Portland, OR. She trains at the Nike World Headquarters and is a Mind-Body expert for the National Institutes of Health (NIH.) She is completing two books, Ageless Pilates and Yin Yoga Flows, both due out later in 2009.

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Posted on Thursday, April 23, 2009 at 12:19PM by Registered CommenterAmy Leibrock in , | Comments9 Comments

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Reader Comments (9)

A mention should be made about the fact that the reformers at the Nike World Headquarters are the Allegros that are not elevated on a base.
These reformers are designed for large groups, and are more stable then traditionl type reformer that require a lot of powerhouse control when proforming standing exercises, like elephant. That really changes the aspect of spotting and safety when teaching to a large group that is mixed with althletes and those managing bulging disks.
As a general rule in a class of this size,(12!) I think it's pretty dangerous to include individuals managing serious injuries like disk bulges as they are already fearful of movements that might produce pain and in most group situations, there is an element of competition to keep up with the group that would be risky for those with injuries.

April 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLA

Interesting article. I guess I just don't get it! I thought I was teaching Pilates for the last 10 years.

Apparently it is about the money, the moves and just "doing it"

April 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStacey Redfield

My experience with clients who have only done the group reformer classes at other studios is they have no pelvic stability. I would definitely recommend adding the basic mat work to the class to help with this.

April 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah McKeever Watson

Deborah, I use the reformer specifically to stabilize the pelvis. The reformer was a consolidation of several pieces of equipment that was originally invented by Dr Gustav Zander. The original machines came equipped with a leather belt to hold the pelvis steady while using the various pieces of machinery.

I agree that variety of equipment is essential for full physical development, but the mat should be the hardest of all.

April 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStacey Redfield

Re: Pelvic Stability
Yes, yes, yes! This is one of the areas to cover in "Set a Baseline Criteria Level for your Attendees." If you skip this step, your class can become a train wreck --- too many bodies to correct, some clients will get frustrated waiting for the others, etc.

Both the trainer and the attendees will be happiest when there are clear expectations from the get-go.

What other concepts do y'all think are a must before a client could be approved for attending a group reformer class?

April 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterChristine Binnendyk

If you've achieved a level with the client in previous private sessions, as mentioned in your article, and they've earned the "passport" for group classes, then I think you've got your bases covered. I also teach group reformer and the studio and gym where I teach requires either several private sessions or so many mat classes prior to joining a group reformer class. But, I've never worked with a group bigger than 6. Even in mat classes, I've only worked with as many as 12 people at a time. Any more than that is asking for trouble. Even the most competent student (or instructor, for that matter), can momentarily lose focus and pitch forward during kneeling work, or slip off a foot bar in split stretches (just happened today, as a matter of fact). I've even had one client slide off the box while doing climb a tree! Thank God for footstraps. 12 may be 2 too many, at least for my personal comfort.

April 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterluann

12 is way too many for one instructor teach safely.The baseline for an individual with an injury, especially a disk bulge is on the other end of the spectrum from an athlete training for a marathon! Even an experienced instructor would be hard pressed to spot and cue for modifications that would accomodate all those levels. The cues that Christine's mentions and the exercises she uses as examples would not be appropriate or helpful for anyone with a cervical disk injury! Aside from my own studio I also teach in a gym but I educated the management on the importance of safety on the reformers and we do not include anyone with injuries in a group. They must take a series of privates, and then be integrated into a beginner level group. In my own studio I never teach more than 6 on reformers as there can be accidents as you mentioned luann and if it happens to someone who is suffering from a bulging disk, they might be looking at surgery, not an icepack after class.

April 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLA

I think the issue at hand is one of ethics. When is enough enough? I would not be proud to admit to allowing 12 people in an equipment class. It is just not safe and it unfair to the Pilates teachers that choose safety and ethics over prestige and money.

If you break it down by minutes that means that each person gets approx 5 minutes of the teachers attention, if that. That is sad considering the expense to take the class.

If that is how someone chooses to run their program,fine. Please call it something other than Pilates.

April 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStacey Redfield

I agree. The maximum amount of people in a group reformer class should be 6.

I taught at a studio that had 9 reformers and it was an all level class. As an instructor, yes it was good money, but ultimately the clients suffered. There was no way I could create a class that had flow when I was trying to accommodate so many diverse skill levels and injuries. Often times, the beginner client would fall behind and feel frustrated, while the more advanced student would be upset having to wait for others to ask questions or understand the exercise. Not to mention that it was virtually impossible to correct form on so many bodies while maintaining an appropriate amount of reps per exercise.

The clients didn’t see the results they were paying for and I felt frustrated as an instructor having to witness so many people thinking they were actually doing Pilates. To me it felt more like a group fit class at a gym than Pilates. I left the studio soon thereafter.

May 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterND

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