The Pilates Language: Laying the Foundation

The Pilates Language: Laying the Foundation

An internet search of the benefits of Pilates reveals the following:

“…Women strengthened their rectus abdominis (the muscle responsible for six-packs) by an average of 21 percent, while eliminating muscle imbalances between the right and left sides of their cores, according to a Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise study.”

Okay, your abs will be amazing and a stronger core will help with everything.

“Researchers believe that by stabilizing the core's lumbar-pelvic (lower-back) region, Pilates alleviates stress on the area and ups mobility.” 

If you have back pain, Pilates will help.

“Pilates elongates and strengthens, improving muscle elasticity and joint mobility.”

If you have joint pain, Pilates will help.

“You'll learn to control the movement of your body.”

You'll need to think and pay attention.

“Pilates: It's amazing for sex.” 

From “Look better naked,” all the way to claims I'm blushing too much to offer here on the blog. 

“…you can learn moves that mimic and improve performance in your sport of choice.”

You'll get better at your chosen sport, even if that sport is life itself.

Gain long, lean muscles and flexibility.” Pilates will give you “a dancer's body.”


The Art of the First Lesson

Despite the accuracy of the above claims, that's a lot of language.



Eliminate muscle imbalance. 

Yes, please.

But this language is not actionable.

Who really knows what we're talking about in their first lesson?

What does “improving muscle elasticity” mean to a first time student trying to learn to do a Roll Up?

The First-time Student

Pilates has a different point of view on exercise than traditional fitness. We also have a language – that we all desperately want to use – which will be unfamiliar at first.

As a teacher, I consider efficient communication to be one of my main jobs.

With any beginning student, even an athlete, we must lay the foundation.

How can I effectively communicate to Mr. X in his first lesson?

Consider the difference between asking someone to “lengthen the back” in a seated position.

I'm not suggesting these words would be used in this situation, but it's what we all want to see as a result, yes?

Yet who knows what this means sitting on the Short Box for the first time?

We must lay the foundation.

We also must never underestimate the power of silence. Communication does not imply a lot of talking.

Pedestrian Language

I like to think in ordinary, everyday words. The exercises will feel foreign enough on the first lesson. Elaborate language will not be helpful at this point.

Let's use words we all understand and things most people can figure out how to do:

“Sit up taller.”

“Pick your head up and reach your arms forward.”

“Roll up off the Mat and reach past your toes.”

“Lower your heels slowly.”

“Use this.” accompanied by a poke of my finger.

“Lie down.”

“Sit up.”





Occasionally even these directions may misfire.

Relax…it's not a sin to get up and show Mr. X what to do.

“Oh yeah, I can do that…” the visual learners will love you.

The Collection of Cues

The word ‘cue' is not a favorite of mine.

cue 1 |kyo͞o|


  • a thing said or done that serves as a signal to an actor or other performer to enter or to begin their speech or performance
  • a signal for action
  • a piece of information or circumstance that aids the memory in retrieving details not recalled spontaneously


In progressing students toward autonomy, I prefer to think in terms of making ‘suggestions' or ‘corrections' rather than prompting them into action.

What you say vs. What you SEE

My formal education is in the theatre. I absolutely love the craft of acting and I enjoy a good narrative almost more than life itself.

As an actor, the skills you cultivate in your training and through the rehearsal period will serve you well in performance. All the preparation is built into you until the curtain goes up and you are live and in person.

At this point in the process, you must show up and respond to your fellow actors.

Similarly our years of Pilates training, CECs, weekly lessons and countless observation hours prepare us for anything and anyone to show up at our studio.

We are thoroughly prepared and now we must show up and respond.

Even crazy can be effective…

Through the years I've uttered things that work perfectly yet really shouldn't. Clients also contribute to the dialogue with suggestions that work beautifully for them but which would mean nothing to anyone else.

I've used the following bizarre directions with great success:

“You need to slouch more.”

“More parenthesis here.” (to elicit the Round shape of a new exercise)

Fielding the question “Am I to squeeze the asshole?” giving it a try and then responding, “Yes.”

“Pretend you are round.”

“Yes. Now do that forever.”

“Can you be taller upside down?”

The Experience of the Exercises in our Bodies

I firmly believe our intimate experience of the Pilates exercises in our own body serves us immeasurably as a teacher.

How the exercises feel and how they perform in the body enables us to choose wisely for our students.

The order of the exercises also informs us about the exercises.

  • What are they doing for the body?
  • How do they progress us forward in our workout?
  • What are the demands on the body that show up later in the order?
  • How are we being prepared for them in the early exercises?

Get your own personal workout on a regular basis and cultivate depth in our Pilates exercises. Your endeavors will reward you tenfold!

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  1. “Oh yeah, I see!” and the visual learner and I are back in love! Lol. Sometimes I just have to show them. Great article Andrea ❤️

  2. i love your response to ” you’ll learn to control the movement of your own body”. The first time client is really in for a surprise! Paying attention and thinking is probably the last thing on their mind lol.
    it’s true the more you practice and get in that daily workout the better it will get communicating corrections to first time client and all clients.
    Great article Andrea and I Always enjoy your bizarre directions! They do work!! X

    • Hi Noor,

      Thanks so much for reading and for sharing your thoughts here. It is always funny the things that we say that yield the best results… usually I preface any truly bizarre things I say with the promise that they will be esoteric in nature ha ha. Keep up the fantastic work and yay me! I get to see you in just a few hours 🙂

  3. Alessandra says

    Great post! Language is such a personal thing! I often find myself giving bizarre instructions ???? This morning I asked a client to ‘imagine your sacrum is velcro-ed to the carriage ‘ – I’m not sure that’s even a verb???? And to ‘roll yourself up like a carpet’ !!! Yikes! ???????????? They worked though!
    Agreed words like ‘lift’, ‘lengthen’ and ‘reach’ don’t always give us the desired results!! I still struggle with them myself sometimes!! Must admit I do demonstrate quite a lot… then wonder if I demonstrated correctly ????
    Ha ha!! This Pilates thing is such fun???? #rockon Andrea❤️

    • Ahahaha, spot on Alessandra. I sometimes come up with words that just existed at the moment. I agree with you tho, these typical exercise words like ‘lift’, ‘lengthen’, ‘reach’ are so stiff and boring, it makes us feel like we are really doing some hardcore exercise rather than enjoying it and making it fun 🙂 🙂

      • Alessandra says

        Such fun!! Now we’re chatting Justine!! Ha ha we’re in the Andrea Pilates geek club! ????????????????????????❤️
        I love it!! ???? #pilatesgeeksunite ????????

        • I know! I am really excited that we are all chatting together now – woo hoo! A geek haven if you will, right here on the blog. AWESOME! Thanks so much ladies 🙂 #pilatesgeeksunite #weallrockon

      • Justine!
        Hello there 🙂

        You are correct – in the moment we come up with some good ways to communicate what we want to see happen in the client’s body. We can be playful if necessary – fun always goes a long way in a Pilates lesson… LOL. Thank you so much for reading and chatting here! xo

    • Oh yes, velcro and nailing yourself into the carriage are a couple of my favorites!! You bring up a good point, the word ‘lengthen’ can be confusing to people at first…or for a while… And yes, sometimes you must demonstrate or you’ll be there forever. I feel like there is a good part of the ego of the person that gets involved when you show them. They usually feel capable and think – oh I can do that… whether they find out later when they try that they can or not LOL. Thank you so much again Alessandra for our lovely weekly chats here. This Pilates thing IS fun. I’m obsessed! I mean… dedicated ha ha. xo

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