The best Pilates cueing formula

Cueing with accuracy and making instructions easy to understand is one of the hardest parts of teaching Pilates!

Have you ever…

Felt like you have too many ideas in your head at one time?

Had the feeling that your students simply don’t get what you are saying?

Found yourself scrambling to find something else to say and then you lose your train of thought?

Felt rushed to get your words out, only to find it is time to move on because your students are tired or bored?

We have all been there, and we understand the frustration that cueing can produce. That is why we developed the Body Harmonics Pilates Cueing Formula. We introduce the cueing formula in our Mat Work Certification and revisit it at every stage of development with our teachers-in-training. The formula gives teachers a way to organize complex thoughts into easy-to-understand words.

Cueing formula for Pilates exercises

Step 1: Set up neutral

Step 2: Anchor and get moving

Step 3: Add breath cues

Step 4: Add core cues

Step 5: Fine-tune and teach people how to feel the sensation of movement

Like I said above, the formula is meant to be a guide, not a rigid script. We never tell teachers-in-training to instruct using only certain words and phrases. We want you to develop your own style and create classes that work for your clients. On top of that, we know that there are no magic words that work best on everyone!

What we do know is that you need to be clear when you cue movement. Laying out information step by step works wonders. Being methodical with the order of your cues also helps. On top of that, because there is usually more than one piece of information you want to share, you need a simple way to layer your cues without confusing your clients. Our cueing formula simply helps you get organized in your head so you can express the words in a way that makes sense.

How to use the cueing formula

Step 1: Neutral set up for the body is pretty cut and dry.

Basically, in any position (supine, side lying, seated, kneeling, standing) you want to offer some quick landmarks for your clients so they know how to get into the optimal position. We strongly recommend that setting up in neutral take only 10 to 30 seconds. Why? Because the point is to get moving!

Step 2: Anchor and get moving

Anchoring means support and it is the step that gets missed most often. The most effective way to make this concept work is to observe which body parts are touching the floor in any given exercise or movement sequence. Then, you simply ask your clients to press those body parts into the floor. This creates a connection to the ground and provides an anchor to the rest of the body. The example we like best is quadruped, or hands and knees. Let’s say you want your clients to be in the quadruped position while lifting one leg. Before you ask them to lift a leg, ask them to press down with the other limbs so they have a strong base of support. This helps with stability and automatically activates the trunk muscles for core support. It also helps train the idea that you need support to move well.

Of all the steps of the cueing formula, anchoring is your best bet to keep people safe and moving from the right place!

Step 3: Add breath cues…sparingly

Breath is vital to movement, but at the beginning (and especially with new clients) we suggest using these cues sparingly. The reason is simple: people obsess about when they are supposed to inhale and exhale.  They can’t focus on movement and they feel confused and like they’re falling behind. The whole experience becomes frustrating and they start to think: “Pilates is not for me”.

If the movements you are teaching are slow and if breath cues can help people be more fluid, add them. You can also add breath if you are planning to cue core activation (i.e. draw lower belly to spine). Activation of deep core works best and most naturally on an exhale, so it makes sense to use breath cues when you are asking people to “find their core”.

Step 4: Add core cues

Core cues are a favourite of Pilates teachers. When we say “core cues” at BODY HARMONICS we are referring to deep core muscles like diaphragm, transversus abdominis, multifidus and pelvic floor. This is a group of muscles that has been shown to provide intersegmental support to the spine through low-grade support. In other words, engaging this part of the core should feel subtle. We all have an outer core too, but these muscles are primarily activated through movement.

Deep core cues are particularly important to beginners. These folks don’t have a connection to their inner core and therefore don’t know how to find support from the inside. The challenge from a teacher’s perspective is how to get people to engage the inner core without over-engaging and becoming rigid.

A simple way to ensure appropriate core activation is by deciding when it is most important to incorporate such cues. The question to ask yourself is:  “Do my students need deep core activation for this or that exercise?” If the answer is yes, add core cues!

As an additional rule of thumb, add deep core cues in exercises where spine stability is important. Below are lists of key exercises where the use of deep core cues works. Notice that the pelvis remains stable and supported in each example.

Classical Pilates Mat exercises where deep core cues are beneficial.

  • Single leg stretch
  • Double leg stretch
  • Spine twist
  • Side lift
  • Bridge with leg arc
  • Side lying leg series
  • Side kick kneeling

Mat Foundation exercises where deep core cues are beneficial:

  • Neutral bridge
  • Ab curl
  • Oblique ab curl
  • Side bridge
  • Side lying hip abduction
  • Quadruped arm/leg reach

Step 5: Fine-tune and teach people how to feel the sensation of movement

Step 5 is where Pilates starts to come alive for people when they start to experience the magic of this incredible conditioning system. People are feeling things happen in steps 1 – 4, but it is in step 5 that you ask them to actually take a moment and focus on sensations. For example, you can ask about their position and get them to adjust if need be. You can ask them to pay attention to their breathing and how the torso expands with each inhale. You can ask them about how different areas of their bodies are lengthening or contracting.

By following steps 1-4 you have provided your clients with the best set of circumstances to feel their bodies working in a new way. Anchors are in place. Breathing is in the background. Deep core is on. They are now free to really pay attention to how they feel.

Take it one step at a time

Don’t worry if these five steps sound too complicated to do at once. Try focusing on one step for a couple of weeks and see how it goes. See how your clients respond. And notice how you feel as well. When it comes to effective cueing, less is more.

Question for You

Do you include other steps in your cueing? What parts of this cueing formula do you find the most challenging? Please share your experiences below!