Functional Formation and the Future of Pilates

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Functional fitness, functional Pilates, function X Y or Z seems to be one of those buzzwords in fitness marketing for the last two or so decades. Some of the functional fitness brands, and there are many, have associated themselves with the upcoming zombie apocalypse (Hejtmanek (2020). Their brand has focussed on the type of fitness that will allow you to survive the decline of civilisation. A type of functional fitness where you can run for a day pushing a tire and carrying a backpack of food, because that is what you need after some event leads to the decay of civilization. It will be interesting to see how the zombie apocalypse scenario will play out post 2021. Let’s face it, the last couple of years have been difficult emotionally, physically and mentally, and at times we have felt that we are entering the apocalypse. People in many countries such as Australia found that the times of greatest challenge occurred when trying to procure toilet paper and not a dystopian battle of survival requiring them to run for 12 hours straight pushing a tyre. In the East Coast floods, another dystopian disaster, the sort of strength I needed to cope was to be able to move large pieces of equipment and furniture quickly, move and carry sand bags efficiently, help elderly neighbours move to safety and then to wield a big mop. None of this required me to pull a large tyre attached to my waist down the street. It was also interesting to see that so many of the people cleaning and scrubbing in waist deep mud were not the buff gym types. With too much time on my hands it has left me pondering whether this dystopian period will prompt us to re-examine what is the functional fitness that allows us as humans to be fit for purpose. Furthermore, what has this meant for how we consider work and train in the Pilates method.


The threads of thought have lead me to think about:

// What is the functionality of these fitness models, and the relevance to Pilates?

// What is our purpose in participating in exercise and movement?

// What does that mean for how we train and teach Pilates?

In this blog we will explore:

// What is function and why is it important? Functional independence to experience quality of life

// What is performance?

// How does function and performance fit into the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) standards?

// How does function and performance fit into our clients’ goals?

// The functionality within the Pilates method and how we consider training future teachers to be relevant teachers of movement in the 21st century?

What is Function?

 For our purposes we are going to look at these definitions of function from the Oxford dictionary:

// an activity that is natural to or the purpose of a person or thing

// practical use or purpose in design


// a thing dependent on another factor or factors

“class shame is a function of social power”

When I look at these definitions I am immediately drawn to the concept of “purpose”. If I am to be clear about the functionality of a program or exercise method I need to be clear about what is the purpose driving my choices.


I am going to openly admit that my definition of purpose relates to a Quality of Life, not lifestyle. I have found that many people confuse these concepts and believe that a certain lifestyle is equivalent to quality of life. My personal view is that quality of life from a movement perspective is the ability to be able to live independently and perform daily activities with ease and minimal pain, in other words activities of daily living. For those of you interested in scientific based research about functional fitness, you will note that the measures used are about just that, the ability to perform activities of daily living. Of course those activities of daily living will vary between individuals hence these activities are a function of lifestyle.


Our lifestyles are now very different from that of the founder of the Pilates method but also of many other movement modalities from yoga, gyrotonic, and so many other exercise methods. This change in lifestyle has probably been crystalised further during the pandemic. The underlying structures of our body have not changed in their purpose, but how we use those structures have. How we accommodate these uses to facilitate functional quality of life is our challenge in the 21st century.

What is performance?

In looking at how we achieve this functional quality of life we come to the next challenge for movement teachers and that is performance of those activities in order to participate in our lives. Once again I find that amongst many practitioners there is a confusion about performance requiring perfection as if one was presenting on stage. I find myself asking questions about how I can improve my performance without feeling like some trained monkey. I appreciate that the ballet and acting focus of Joseph Pilates and many of the elders has meant that performance has been about perfection and refinement of details. As usual that is a function of that type of client. But many of us do not work exclusively with actors, dancers and athletes; instead our client group are doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers, carpenters, retired individuals and so forth. In such a case the performance of the activity is not necessarily so that they can appear on stage but to participate in their daily activities. 

How does the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) help us understand function and performance?

The ICF is a useful tool produced by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and endorsed by all its 191 member states. It is the WHO framework for measuring health and disability at both individual and population levels. It was designed to be universal and its principles apply to all humans regardless of ability. 


The ICF interactive model identifies three levels of human functioning: functioning at the level of the body or body part, the whole person, and the whole person in their complete environment. These levels in turn define three aspects of functioning: body functions and structures, activities, and participation.


If we start to consider our programming and training in such a way we can start to break down our Pilates practice, programming and even training courses into a different way. This approach allows us to consider Pilates programming as part of a lifelong practice that allows active participation with maximum quality of life. Such an approach allows us to consider the client as a person first and changes our focus as to how to adapt to the needs and goals of that client. I admit such an approach is more similar to how an Occupational Therapist would work but it is an approach that I think would benefit many of us in the Pilates industry, and help take it from a limiting performance and repertoire focus.

What does this mean in our training and consideration of goals in Pilates?

Many of us have started our Pilates training where we have cursory anatomy and we focus on repertoire and more repertoire and the refinement of that repertoire to achieve performance. The belief being that the method was complete within itself and one had to accept that with faith whilst performing the repertoire. There is no doubt that such an approach can be considered appropriate for elite athletes and instagram performers, but does little to help prepare students to become teachers and thinkers for the average population, many of whom are seeking help for their dys-functional movement patterns.


My suggestion is that for the Pilates industry to provide functional and relevant programming with realistic expectations of performance and activity there is a need to revisit how we have been providing our training. 


I would propose that movement training be refined to provide a scaffolded understanding to function, activity and the person. In this way we can produce the sort of movement teachers who are able to respond to the changing needs of our community, and in a manner recognizing international standards such as the ICF as to how to define the type of function and performance relevant to quality of life. Good quality movement training should be more than about achieving a government accredited training in competency. Rather such training should be developed where students build through a series of development milestones in observational and communication skills, as well as base level repertoire, which we would consider foundational level work. Once foundational level skills are attained the students are then able to place another layer of skill and knowledge in working with clients, and appropriate modification of repertoire.


This type of training needs to be done in a broader framework than provided by narrow government accreditation. This more subtle and scaffolded approach increases the opportunity for students to build their knowledge with experienced practitioners who are able to provide the essential level skills for a movement teacher. In this manner students are able to attain industry relevant experience and skills and realistic understanding of expectations about client needs. Once these essential level skills are established then students should move towards the context of the specificity of Government regulation dealing with competencies in workplace health and safety, scope of practice and other generic standards. Furthermore, it is at this Government level accreditation standard that students are taught what is “evidenced based practice” and how to identify that they are complying with this practice. In other words we teach students how to deliver evidence based work and not just attend a course that claims to be evidenced based. It is important to remember that for students to be evidenced based practitioners they need to have the clinical experience and contextual knowledge to understand how to work with clients goals and outcomes. Once they have acquired this contextual understanding they are able to start to ask the subtle questions necessary to undertake research. Sadly, I see so many practitioners think that evidence based practice is attending a course that advertises itself as being evidenced or scientific based. It is equivalent to rubbing the belly of buddha arguing that the action makes you buddhist, by virtue of performance. The reality is that evidenced based practice is a subtle and complex process requiring critical thinking skills, contextual understanding and reflection necessary to make the claims as to your own practice. If the course and study does not build these skills into a scaffolded learning all we are seeing is marketing blah blah.


Students should be required to learn their anatomy, in a scaffolded way. This would start with a language of planes of movement, definitions and concepts. However, this preliminary language is just a starting point upon which skills and knowledge are acquired. To make the anatomy understandable in a functional format it is necessary to incorporate layers of understanding of anatomy as it applies to repertoire and pathology. For instance, start with a perspective of the bones and muscles of the upper limb, and then relate that to the repertoire of the upper limb. Once this is understood, the function of that anatomy informs cueing and programming needs to be explored and overlaid. The next layer is to explore how that repertoire and anatomy informs activities of choice for that person and how it can undermine pain free performance of an activity. For instance, when a person is learning about the repertoire of the arms, they layer this understanding with anatomy and pathology and activity analysis. In this way students are scaffolded in their knowledge whilst acquiring skills. Each layer allows the student to start to consider the relevant questions for their client, whilst building their client and teaching skills.


For the Pilates and other movement modalities to be able to move forward to provide appropriate and relevant training, our training needs to be more reflective of the standards set out in the ICF and of the changing demographics and activities of our population. We need to be working towards teachers who understand client performance of functional activity and not the teachers performance of a repertoire. In other words changing our current focus on teacher performance of repertoire as a key assessment and criteria of teacher training. It is important to remember that Pilates can be a functional exercise method and that as teachers of movement we are facing a reformer apocalypse, because we are failing to see the purpose and function and relevance to a wide variety of ages and abilities.


Fitness Fanatics: Exercise as Answer to Pending Zombie Apocalypse in Contemporary America AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST, Vol. 122, No. 4, pp. 864–875, ISSN 0002-7294, online ISSN 1548-1433. © 2020 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. DOI: 10.1111/aman.13462

Wiacek, Magdalena ; Hagner, Wojciech The history and economic impact on the functional fitness of elderly in the South-Eastern region of Poland: A comparison with US citizens Archives of gerontology and geriatrics, 2007, Vol.46 (2), p.221-226)


WHO International Classification of functioning and Disability

5 thoughts on “Functional Formation and the Future of Pilates”

    1. Hello Sharon, given your history as a neurological nurse I can see why this would resonate with you.

  1. This is one of the reasons why I chose to study the Classical method in an unpaid apprenticeship, which requires 450 hours for full comprehensive certification but I believe I will be close to double that by the time I take my final exam owing to the need for observation within the studio.

    1. Yes the detailed apprenticeship in person model is essential in so many areas for skill development to create that foundational level knowledge to be teacher. It was how I learned 30 years ago and it is also how I teach my students. I think we all have such a big struggle on how to ensure this foundational knowledge and apprenticeship model is restored in our collective mindset.

  2. I enjoyed this Carla. Thanks for writing. I value critical thinking and design based thinking so much in our field. It is not enough to know a list of exercises-it’s about asking the right questions and dynamically approaching work in the moment. I like your idea of scaffolded learning.

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