The Art of Cueing Pilates Exercises

A big topic many of my teacher trainees asks about is cueing and how to get a large group flowing  without touching the participants. I tell them, the first thing is to practice the moves before class to know what students will be experiencing and second is to get them moving as quickly as possible by not mincing words. This method taps into a students external focus of attention which has been shown to get students to not over analyze the task at hand but focus on the basics of completing the task. Seeing the students as marionettes and you as their puppeteer will get them started quickly.

External Focus Of AttentionInternal Focus of Attention (FOA)
Lie down on your back,
bend your knees 90 degrees and place your feet on the floor.
We are going to gently bend our knees
and have a seat on our mats, then lie down
on our sides and move to our backs with our knees bent. Next place your feet on the floor and
pull them close to your buttocks.
Come into a plank on top of the reformer with your hands on the foot-bar and feet at the shoulder blocks. Slowly push the reformer open and pull closed. Place one hand at a time on the foot-bar. Then place you heals at the shoulder block. Come into a plank. Brace your core, grip tightly with your hands then on your exhale push the reformer open with your feet. Pull back to the stoppers with your Lats.


Most people over the age of 2 can do all of these things with having someone explain what to do with everybody part. A teacher can also convey all of those kind sentiments of the internal FOA statement through vocal modulation and tone rather than words. Getting the student doing what they came to class to do it the name of the game. Speaking clearly by using fewer words at a moderate pace will reach a person and reduce confusion especially if they have low awareness. All the little details can come later as they dive into their practice.

After everyone gets positioned, knows how to start and finish the exercise, and the contraindications the cueing really starts. You will see those who are stars and those who are struggling. This is when what they are doing or not doing gives you an opportunity to talk about the nuts and bolts of the exercise. This is a moment to guide them into their ideal form within the exercise and shift to an internal focus. Direct them to pick one or two concepts to focus on doing really well and see it as a scaffolding process. When cueing I like to speaking to some of the following:

  • Breathe
  • Positioning
  • Angles of Pull
  • Articulation
  • Tightness/Laxity
  • Engagement/Relaxation
  • Flexibility
  • Mobility
  • Strength/Weakness
  • Distance
  • Feeling
  • Awareness
  • Connectivity
  • Internal vs. External Focus
  • Benefits
  • Contraindications
  • What they may be feeling
  • The next exercise level

It is necessary to acknowledge that people absorb new concepts and information in many different ways so it’s best to not be overly picky with bodies that are new to you. I view guiding students as a layering process and employ auditory/verbal directions, visual demonstration, then tactile/hands-on cueing.

Verbal Cueing:

Within each type of teaching there are nuances as to how they can be delivered. For instance when using auditory/verbal directions, a teacher can name anatomical parts (glutes, hamstrings, buttocks), directions (up, down, left, right, inferior, superior, proximal, distal), planes of motion, sensory clues on how/want they may be feeling and imagery to ilicit an action (Spread your arms like eagle wings).

It’s all about gauging your audience too. If you have a room full of physical therapists and Pilates teachers, using anatomical terminology is 100% okay but if you have a room full of fiction writers imagery is probably a better way to go. I personally blend all of them together and see each one of them as a tool to help the client build awareness.

Another thing to think about is age, gender, and culture when choosing imagery comparisons. A senior crowd may not get your imagery if you reference something only teens use or vice versa making a reference to a phone booth to anyone born past 1995 may not land. Imagery must resonate with your audience or your class may turn into a hot mess full of people not moving or understanding what you want them to do.

Verbal cues rely heavily on vocabulary and choosing action words like:

  • Slowly
  • Push
  • Pull
  • Lift
  • Descend
  • Elevate
  • Rotate
  • Pump
  • Pulse
  • Quickly
  • Float
  • Explode
  • Up, Down, Left, Right
  • Stop

These action words take the student out of their mind and allow them to connect to the externally focused instructions you are giving. Once they get those then they can work on refining and moving into the internal focus.

The following action phrase have students connect to the internal focus of attention rather than the exercise as a whole. When students are first starting I like to focus on the exercise as a whole and not the nit picky stuff. 

  • Lengthen your spine by contracting your transverse
  • Flex your hip to 90
  • Straighten your elbow
  • Squeeze your buttocks
  • Push into your right  thumb
  • Micro-bend your knees
  • Pull in your pelvic floor
  • Imprint your spine on the way up and down

Doing it this way makes people feel accomplished even if their form is not perfect. Not to mention, perfect is different for everyone, everyday. This also keeps people coming back to class. I promise you most people are trying their hardest to do well and not ignoring your instructions.

Demonstration:

If a student is unable to find the move after receiving the verbal cues I begin demonstrating/conducting the move in a standing position using my arms and body if I am in an equipment class. I never kick student off their piece of equipment to demonstrate an exercise, instead I have another student demonstrate the move or just tell the struggling student who to observe. If it is a mat class it is easy enough to get down and demonstrate the move myself but I tend to shy away from demonstrating because my 35 years practicing movement may not give them an accurate view of how it will look on there body. In this case I will limit my range-of-motion to mirror theirs.

Hands-on Cueing:

The last thing I personally choose to do is individual tactile cueing because it takes my attention away from the whole class. It however, is the most effective way to get someone to go deeper into a move if done properly. Instead, I teach self palpation and utilize props to build awareness. I save the individual stuff for long time students who need a little tender care, level-up or variety.

One thing to think about when utilizing touch is it’s personal nature. When asking permission to touch you are asking for someone to invite you into their being. They are placing trust in your capable hands. They can tell if you are apprehensive, unsure, frustrated or checked out so be wary of transferring your baggage onto them when they are in a vulnerable place. I always use a flat palmed, two handed technique with a moderately firm touch to insure they feel my confidence. This technique also allows me to feel the push/pull created when guiding someone’s body. Tactile cueing is like being the lead when dancing with a partner, they need to follow your guidance. Tactile cuing can give assistance, resistance, stretch, feedback, and build awareness quickly but the rapport between instructor and student needs to be solid.

  • Ask permission every time! Consent will keep them from being caught off guard.
  • Avoid tactile cueing when someone is doing balance work on a piece of equipment.
  • Use verbal cues to let them know where you will be placing your hands.
  • Warm your hands or let them know if they are cold.
  • Start off gently (individuals with fibromyalgia may feel pain from even light touch)
  • Give imagery, anatomical and directional cues during the process.
  • Never push someone beyond their limits. When the body signals stop, listen.
  • Work within your scope of practice. If you have been trained and practiced in tactile cueing, manual therapy, massage therapy and body work then you are within your scope.

Wrap-up:

Be mindful about getting too caught up in the work, especially if you are a new instructor. Students coming to your class don’t need to know everything you know. That’s why they are coming to an expert. They are trusting your ability to guide them safely and give them a fun experience. Take a breathe and put yourself in their shoes. Learning how to read the room is helpful too, but when in doubt ask your class how they are feeling and if they have any exercise requests. Not everyone will speak up but the one or two who do will get to experience the workout they want and everyone else can thank them for the burn. After all it is their workout not yours.

While coming to class with a set plan of exercises is always the best practice, don’t be married to it. Let the bodies in front of you speak to you and guide your decisions. The warm up will tell you everything you need to know about your students ability the level up. Utilizing progression will also help you gauge a students abilities as well as let them choose their own adventure. Next weeks post will dive deeper into how I approach progressions.

Tip: Avoid using phrases like “We are going to…” and just be direct with your instructions because when you say what they are going to do they will wait until you actually tell them what to do it.

Similarly, saying “prepare with an inhale” is usually not necessary because most people are generally breathing. For example just saying “exhale into your chest lift” is fine.

August 17, 2020

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