Pilates exercises at home

Helpful hints on how to plan a class

I have a love-hate relationship with class planning. When I carefully plan out a class, I end up stressing while I’m teaching, trying to follow the script. When I don’t create a class plan and ‘wing’ it, I stress that I will flounder through the hour, stringing exercises together with no clear purpose. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t, it seems.

To plan or not to plan. That is the question. Clearly, planning is ideal, but if you are teaching a lot of classes, that’s a lot of prep time. It becomes a time management issue. How much time should you spend, planning a class?

I put the question to other instructors. The answers ranged, depending on the instructor’s personal style and level of experience. No surprise. The more experience, the less dependent they were on a written plan, the less stressed they were without one.

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Ok, so it seems class plan stress is an issue for the newer instructor. Yet, one seasoned instructor told me, “I don’t always plan out a class, but it’s always a better class when I do.” Another instructor’s comment, “I may not write it out completely, but a few ideas on paper helps.” One instructor told me she never writes out a plan, but comes up with a theme for the week and focusses on exercises in each of her classes to support that theme. This led me to surmise that, whether craftily constructed and typed up, or simply jotted down on a napkin, or conceptualized and retained in one’s head, class planning is something all instructors do, to some degree, relative to their level of experience and personal style. So where did that leave me? I was spending as much time planning as teaching and desperate to find a more efficient process.

Almost a year ago, I expressed this love-hate sentiment to Larisa Makuch, Managing Director at Body Harmonics. “Write an article about it.”, she advised, knowing the topic would resonate with other instructors. Eagerly, I took pen to paper, scribbling out my rookie thoughts. But after several drafts, I didn’t feel I had any great revelation to share, at that point. I was still figuring it out, myself.

Keep it simple to build competence and confidence

A few months later, I attended our Body Harmonics staff meeting. Margot McKinnon’s theme that day was Competence and Confidence, and how being focused and keeping things simple can help develop both. Her words stuck with me. Competence and confidence. How much of each did I have? Clearly my love-hate relationship with class planning had something to do with this. Though I hated the time and energy class planning took each week, I loved going into a class with a typed up plan, confident that my class had a purpose. At the same time, I hated that piece of paper for reminding me that I didn’t have the competence to deliver a flowing, perfect succession of exercises with thoughtful cueing and an inspiring theme without it. I tried various tricks: bringing it into the studio but not looking at it. Like a crutch, I knew it was there. But how often could I sneak a peak before my clients were onto me? I tried courageously leaving it in the staff room, only reviewing it before the class. Too scary. I wanted it. I needed it. But I didn’t want to need it. Damn that piece of paper!

Three things I did to simplify

So, what did I do? A few things. Firstly, on the competence-confidence issue, I decided to make a shift in my schedule. I streamlined my teaching, doing more classes at my comfort level and less classes that intimidated me. I know, I know, ‘Do something that scares you every day’. Hogwash! I’d like to re-write that mantra on Lululemon merchandise: ‘Do something that makes you feel confident everyday, and do something that scares you once in a while.’ Works better for me! Secondly, I simplified. I stopped trying to razzle-dazzle my clients with new moves in every class. Instead, I more or less kept with the same exercises for several classes. The repetition not only helped me hone the class plan but also gave me the opportunity to see it in action with different groups of clients. More bodies. More experience. More competence in knowing what to do if the exercise wasn’t executed correctly. The result – more confidence as an instructor. Thirdly, I stopped criticizing myself and comparing my skills to other instructors. I listened to my clients’ positive feedback. I realized that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and I don’t need to become a Master Pilates Instructor overnight.

Flash forward to today. I bump into a colleague who is fresh out of Mat training. She just finished practice-teaching a mat class to a group of friends. Her crumpled plan in hand, she lamented that she totally ‘blew it’ after spending hours planning what she felt was a kick-butt class. A few clients with contraindications derailed her from the plan. She went off script and got lost. Sound familiar? After chatting with her, I realized maybe I am ready to share my thoughts on class planning with others. Not specifically how to plan a class. Body Harmonics already has lots of great information on the topic.  This is my simplified version. How to teach a class without a written class plan. How to ‘wing’ it successfully.

5 Rules of Thumb for the Not-So-Planned Class Plan

  1. Overall Structure/Theme

Teaching for 55 minutes? Break it down into sections. The hour will fly by and you’ll feel confidently in control of the clock, versus panicking with how to fill the time.

Warm Up (5-10min.) Usually a standing warm up with the focus on mobilizing hips, spine, scapula. No resistance in this section. Just get them moving. You might want to focus on a particular concern or theme. Balance. Sides of Body. Ball and Socket Joints. Not necessary but if you do have a focus, introduce it now.

Build Up (20 min.) Good time to get them on the mat. Similar focus on mobilization but building on and adding detail, in new positions ie Supine, Quadruped. Go-to exercises include hip folds, pelvic tilting, breathing exercises to activate inner unit – depending on the class level. Again, mention your focus for the class. Like telling a story, you want to weave the theme throughout the plot.

Ramp Up (20 min) This is when I think of increasing the challenge, and it’s usually when I notice the clock is at the half hour mark. After 30 minutes, these bodies and minds are prepped for more, even if it’s going back to the same exercises, but progressing further. If you do have a theme or focus, this is the perfect time to bring it home ie Sides of Body? Do side bridge and talk about the support coming from those obliques, etc.

Cool Down (5-10 min) Often the section that gets short-changed the most, there is great value, both physically and psychologically, in taking time to wind down. The best way is to simply repeat the opening warm up. Not mandatory, but book-ending the class with the same exercises gives a sense of completion – and accomplishment!

  1. Work Them in Every Position

Moving through the above structure, you’ll want to be sure to incorporate different positions, but not abruptly. Standing, Supine, Seated, Side-Lying, Quadruped, Kneeling, Prone. Not to say you have to follow this exact order, but it’s a good place to start. My goal is to have 2-3 exercises in each position. Example: Supine: Bridge, Arm Arcs, Hip Fold. And don’t forget to revisit the position and progress the exercise to create more challenge. 3 progressions per exercise is nice before moving on to another exercise.

  1. Build Support from the Ground Up

One of my favourite BH mantras; ‘You don’t put a roof on a house before you build the foundation’. Same goes with the human body. Sequence your exercises so that you create support in the lower body first (Standing warm up: squats, hip hinges) the core next (Supine: hip folds, ab curls, bridge) and then upper body (side bridge, plank, prone robot arms). Back to my comment in Work Them in Every Position regarding the order of positions, the above order does prescribe to building from the ground up, so generally a good order to follow.

  1. Use Cueing Formula

One of most useful Body Harmonics tools, this is a fundamental component to the structure of your class. It helps set up the clients and guide them through the exercise. Always worth reviewing, if you’ve let this one slip in your practice.

  1. Progressive Sequencing

Another Body Harmonics lesson I’ve learned and a great way to identify your clients’ end range in an exercise. Progressive sequencing is a step by step way to build up an exercise.

Example: Start with a foundation exercise ie Bridge and progress it step by step to increase challenge ie Bridge + weight shift side to side. It’s also, a great way to add structure to your class! Repeat a previous exercise but progress it as a way to challenge your clients. Bridge + Single Foot Lift, then Bridge + Leg Arc. It also creates that aha value to your class, as if your intention all along was to bring them to this moment.

Seems simple right? As we’ve all discovered, it’s harder than it looks, and of course the Master Instructors make it look so easy. But as your competence and confidence grows, you’ll find you’ll fine tune and bring more colour and complexity to your class. Until then, keep it simple.

Do’s and Don’t’s to keep in mind, while you’re not planning your class plan

DO go to other classes. Not just for inspiration of new moves and cues, but to be a client instead of a teacher. I find it gives me great perspective. Where I feel I repeat too much as an instructor, as a client, I value the repetition. And those awkward silent pauses don’t seem awkward at all when you’re the one receiving the information.

DO practice a new sequence before you teach it. Not writing out a class plan doesn’t mean not preparing. You need to do your due diligence as an instructor. They are clients. Not Guinea pigs.

DO have a few go-to ‘filler’ exercises that help you transition from one position to another, or fill a blank spot in your plan when you’re trying to think of where to go next. Anything in the Tall Kneeling series, or Quadruped exercises work well. Or Thoracic Rotation. Another great Body Harmonics mantra: ‘When in doubt, do thoracic rotation.’

DO keep a healthy roster of Neutral Spine exercises in your repertoire. It will serve you well.

DO teach, teach and teach. It’s the only way to improve on the Competence Confidence scale.

DO get more education. Workshops, blogs, Facebook posts. You can bring a lot of value to the exercises you already know even just by learning one new aspect of it.

DON’T overdue the education! One thing I’ve learned: the more you learn, the more there is to learn. It can be overwhelming so take it slow and milk what you know.

DON’T put your class plan above the needs of your group. If you have a killer ab series in mind but a few older clients with osteoporosis show up, abort mission. Go to the Neutral Spine bag of tricks.

DON’T be afraid to repeat. Not just an entire class plan, but exercises within a class. As an instructor it may feel redundant, but as a client, it’s appreciated, especially when there is purpose, or progressions to the exercise.

DON’T worry if you forget an exercise you had planned. They won’t know what they’re missing.

DON’T short change the Cool Down. Even if it’s a repeat of the Warm Up, or a few moves that you’ve adopted as your signature sign off, it gives closure to your class and acts as an ending to the story.

Love it or hate it, print it or memorize it, your class has a plan. A story. A purpose. Just remember to keep it simple to build competence and confidence and your ability to deliver it successfully will only improve. As for me, you may occasionally see me with a piece of paper in hand, but I am far less dependent on that written plan than I was when I first started. I haven’t given up on Class Plan. Let’s just say we’re working things out.