Updated: Aug 29, 2020
A substantial portion of the Steele Pilates Mat certification is spent teaching students how to cue their clients verbally. I have never been a fan of teachers who give themselves a class while they teach, even though I now teach and perform all of my classes online. I acknowledge that some of the more choreographically dense exercises are much easier to demonstrate a few times in order for people to get the gist of an exercise sequence and I often find that to be an incredibly valid tool. In general, however, I feel it is important to develop strong verbal skills in order to get the best results out of my students. Verbal cuing forces the client to take in the information mentally and apply it directly from within versus seeing the movements and copying them. It is the difference between putting moves onto your body and creating them from the inside out. I have seen with my students that this type of learning yields a deeper understanding of the exercises in a way that allows them to repeat the work on their own and even translate the concepts into other movement experiences as well (which is my ultimate goal).
For private sessions and small groups, touch cues are always extremely effective. I walk around the studio in my large group classes and give touch cues as I see fit, while simultaneously verbalizing what I am doing with that individual in a way that everyone can benefit from the information if they are listening. But right now no one is touching anyone, so verbal cuing skills are more valuable than ever, not only for the client to have a positive and productive experience but also for the instructor to maintain a following.
So what are the elements for verbal cuing and how can you teach effectively just with words? Let’s start from the basics and move forward. I believe there are three main ways that I conceptually address movement - Muscular, Energetic and Skeletal. All are able to give information and the ability to enhance your student’s experience and performance of the method. When and why they are applied will be up to you as an instructor and should be based upon what you observe in your clientele.
For those who come to Pilates with previous movement experience like athletes, dancers, yogis, etc., they tend to move from a muscular place. They have heard people tell them to “engage their quadriceps”, “feel the burn” or “squeeze your inner thighs”. This type of mover has an understanding of where effort should be felt and which muscles can be used to create certain types of movement. Such an attachment to this style of moving can cause overthinking and overdoing in Pilates. A great teacher of mine described over-muscularization during an exercise similar to “calling in the whole army to do the work of one soldier.” Brilliant! That made such sense to me because as a dancer, I was always trying to feel movement certain ways and when I began my Pilates practice, there are plenty of movements that approximate dance moves. So of course I naturally expected to be able to do them (and feel them) in that familiar way. I found Pilates via an injury, so for me, approaching Pilates the same way I had approached my dancing was exactly what I should not have done. It was that over-muscularization of certain movements along with the presence of specific overused muscular patterns in dancing that created my injury in the first place. Although this was the easiest way for me to approach Pilates, it was in fact not what was going to aid my recovery. There are plenty of people who will benefit from muscular cuing, but I (and most active people for that matter) was not one of them.
Energetic cuing encompasses all things creative and textural. Focusing on the quality of the movement, using counts or descriptions like “moving through water or sand” is a great way to accomplish tempo and flow. For people who are rigid and stiff in their movements or those who are not paying attention to your instructions, using counts to establish tempo or giving them images to think of can help bring more nuanced quality into their practice.
In my 20+ years teaching Pilates, I have found that skeletal cuing is the most effective. It requires an understanding of the skeleton, as well as how it moves during each phase of an exercise. Why is this so effective? Most simply, because it is not how people who exercise usually think. Quite frankly, people have a very hard time getting out of their predominant patterns - not only muscle patterns, but mental patterns. So if they think they know what you or an exercise demands of them, the way that they are used to thinking typically kicks in - i.e. "this will make my abs burn” or “I can’t do this movement because my legs are tight”. Whatever they mentally bring to the party, whether it is hubris or lack thereof, skeletal cuing works because it requires them to think in a new way. They have to pay attention. Because most people have an idea of what their skeleton looks like, they are willing to give it a go. You are not speaking a language they don’t understand. You are simply talking about moves arising from a new way. It works because it allows an approach from their own bones and thus makes the exercises uniquely appropriate for each individual. This removes the issue of over-muscularizing the movements and takes the work from “sending the army in to do the work of one soldier” to “only bringing the number of soldiers needed”. It is more efficient and allows for each mover to experience the proper muscular actions required to perform the exercises. For those who have the ability to listen to their bodies, they will find a softening of the joints while the work moves into the correct muscles effortlessly - no more, no less. And although this approach might reduce range of motion for a while, eventually for some if not most, skeletal cuing may lend itself to a much greater joint freedom and thus an increased range of motion. Im not saying it makes the exercises easier. Im saying it makes the exercises easier to do to the best of their current ability. Your clients may feel it more, but in the right places. They will hate you for all the right reasons!
I will go through an example of layered cuing next week. If you have a specific exercise you wish to review, let me know!
Stay safe, healthy & fit.