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How to Teach a Multi-Level Reformer Class

Photography by: Rebekah O’Shields
by: Devra Swiger
When I first started teaching Pilates back in the late 90’s, there was really no such thing as a multi-level reformer class. The Pilates studios where I taught or took classes all had beginner, intermediate and advanced level classes, taken in that order. Before signing up for group reformer classes, a student had to take anywhere from 5 to 10 private sessions in order to be deemed ready for a group class. Now, most of the classes I teach are at multiple levels. I may have a student who has been practicing Pilates for 5 years and sharing a class with someone who is just learning the difference between a yellow and a red spring. I also may have someone who does a flawless Long Spine, right next to someone who is still trying to figure out where to put the straps. It’s a challenge even for the most experienced instructors.

In the age of Groupon and social media marketing, all the rules have changed. The weak economy combined with the huge number of discount advertisers and internet specials has made many studios think twice about how they want to manage and charge for classes. Hardly a day goes by where I don’t receive an email about another studio offering a package at a greatly reduced price. It would be nice to be able to ignore the concept of cut-rate Pilates, but given the nature of business today, we don’t have that luxury. What we can do is learn how to deal with and effectively teach reformer classes with students of varying levels of experience.

What is the best way to teach a multi-level reformer class so that everyone feels like they got something out of class?

Make sure everyone knows that it is a multi-level class
Don’t be sure that everyone realizes this. Even though there may be a new student in the class, the rest of the class doesn’t necessarily know that he or she is inexperienced. Remind everyone to only do what they feel comfortable with and not to focus on their neighbor. You may have to say this again and again. I once had a client who always looked at what her neighbor was doing even if he or she was not doing the movement correctly. Instead of having one person do the movement incorrectly, I then had two. Cueing to listen to the instructor and not look around is very important.

Photography By: Rebekah O’Shields

Go over Basic Principals with Everyone
When I teach a reformer class no matter how advanced the students are, I always start with a few pelvic tilts and some breathing exercises, followed by classical footwork. While doing the footwork I repeat some of the basics like breathing, neutral spine, precision of movement etc. Even advanced students can use a refresher course in basic Pilates principals. I also tend to stand near the newer students - another tactic in a class with many reformers is to keep the newer students close to each other making it easier to offer corrections.

Use lots of modifications and variations
I might have the newer students start by doing The Hundred with their head down and or knees in table top, or they may use lighter springs for some of the arm work. This way everyone is working together, but the beginners are able to keep up.

Make sure that the advanced students have some challenging variations to the movements. For example, I was breaking down Short Spine Massage for a newer student and needed to spend several minutes with her. I told the two more advanced students to try SSM with a lighter spring and/or by bringing the arms up and off the carriage. While I was spotting and working with the new student, they were engaged with a newer and challenging variation. There will be times when the more advanced students are working on their own while you are breaking things down for the newer student.

Have the newer students do different exercises when necessary.
Some moves are just too advanced for new students and it would be a mistake to allow them to continue. I have several more basic moves that I have my beginners do, while the more advanced students are working on more challenging exercises. A repertoire of fun but relatively easy movements can be used such as leg circles, frogs, arm arcs, and etc. These can keep them feeling involved with the class while the more advanced students are doing Russian Splits or Tendon Stretch.

Photography By: Rebekah O’Shields

Encourage newer students to try a few privates.
This is the best advice I can give, but it won’t always work. So many people enroll in group classes because they cannot afford private sessions. Some studios offer a discount on private Pilates sessions when a group package is purchased. A studio that I know requires three privates and then a discount on a package of 10 reformer classes. This makes it much easier on the instructor and much safer for the student; however, you may not always have control over what discounts are offered or how the studio is managed.
New instructors and even more experienced instructors have to learn how to deal with this new business model. Most Pilates certification programs don’t prepare new teachers with how to cope with multi-level instruction.
One of the most important aspects of being a successful instructor and having a steady Pilates clientele is that all of the students benefit from the class. They should all leave the class feeling both challenged and good about themselves. Everyone should feel like they had a great work-out and were not held back, nor was anyone pushed beyond his or her abilities. It can be done successfully with careful planning and keen observation skills. Good luck!

Photography by:
Jill Castanga
Bio: Devra Swiger is trained through Polestar Pilates and Alternative Fitness (classical). Her training experience includes Fletcher Pilates, Physical Mind and Colleen Glenn. She teaches at her home studio in Huntington Beach, California and also works at Yogaworks of Orange County and Physical RX. Devra has been teaching Pilates for 12 years.

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    How to Teach a Multi-Level Reformer Class - Pilates Pro - Pilates-Pro.com: The Pulse of the Pilates Industry
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    How to Teach a Multi-Level Reformer Class - Pilates Pro - Pilates-Pro.com: The Pulse of the Pilates Industry

Reader Comments (2)

I've run into this quite a bit lately. I've also found that I can get my experienced students started with a few items they know well while I am helping the newbies understand the basics and then bring us all together again for the next item. I want to make sure the experience students don't feel their class suffers. I also call on my experience students to be role models demonstrating a move and they seem to like that.

April 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterlucie

HI Lucie.

Exactly! I think everyone needs to benefit from a class and feel good about themselves and that's our challenge to make sure that happens.

April 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDevra Swiger

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