Purposeful Pilates includes Progression

Published in Pilates Journal.com – Issue 13 – Teaching ProgressionsDownload Your Copy Here


There is an old proverb… “You can give a man a fish and feed him that day. Teach a man to fish and he can feed him for a lifetime”

The Pilates teacher training and programming equivalent is: “You can teach a person some repertoire and they can instruct a generic class during a fad; and be easily replaced by Artificial Intelligence…
Teach someone to program and modify and they can maintain the interests and health of a client base for years”

In recent times we’ve seen a focus on repertoire-based teaching and training that has sadly left many an instructor without the skills to layer a program to create meaningful progression of a program.The reason I know this is because I see comments on social media about instructors needing help with progressions and the rise of all sorts of services that provide choreography that can be plugged straight into classes. I see it when I have students in my continuing education courses who are genuinely bemused by progression and programming and how the elements of movements and goal progressions relate to each other.

 What is more concerning is that there has become a disconnect between purposeful focused Pilates with a client-centered practice and the generic pilates experienced by a wide group of the population. It is this disconnect which highlights to me what is and what is not Pilates because mindful connection (also known as concentration) is an essential principal of Pilates.

In order to progress our clients effectively, we need to consider the following connections when it comes to progression:

  •  Goal setting, identifying your client’s motivation for coming to Pilates; their strengths and barriers. In the case of a group setting, you can set goals for the group and as a teacher it helps you formulate your plan.
  •  How to transfer goals into a meaningful program? For example is to improve balance or spinal mobility and what does that look like in a Pilates setting.
  •  What are the elements of the goal, that is each component or concept that needs to be achieved in order to address the needs. For example, in Balance work, there are many systems involved – e.g. visual, vestibular and proprioceptive systems. If the goal is to intelligently improve balance, then you need to understand these elements in order to modify and tailor the program accordingly.
  • Working with the systems of the body (not just muscular/skeletal) and a little bit of physics (load, levers, gravity and congruency).
  • Well-structured programming is part of good cueing. When a program is appropriately layered you give clients the opportunity to build their understanding and relationship with the body. It means that you are not needing to give as many cues to the class in general. It means that as a teacher you can focus on identifying those clients who need more modifications or adaptations.

This sort of purposeful programming and progression is relevant to both individualised and group class settings. The safest way for a group instructor to create a consistent client group who build strength not injuries is to create term-based programs with an articulated goal and progression. In itself, it is not a solution to huge class sizes where there are too many people for the teacher to safely supervise. My philosophy is simple – it focuses on class planning not class cramming.

How do we build a program in a group setting?

Below is a list of points that I use when developing a program. The examples used are only examples to guide your thinking. There are many more permutations that you can play with when you understand the basic considerations.


Identify the purpose of the program and the important elements. For instance, knowing which joints, range of motions and myofascial systems are essential for that goal. It could be a combination of the below elements:

  • a.What muscular/ skeletal goal
    • i.Upper Body strength
      ii.Lower limb strength
  • b.Systemic goal
    • i.Balance
  • c.Specific population group
    • i.Athletes
      ii.Post-menopausal women
      iii.Teenager girls

Remember when you are looking at a muscular skeletal goal, a class needs to be balanced, which I will come back to later in the article.

Flow and Layer

  • Get organised with one set up for at least 20 minutes
    • If working on equipment I try to find a spring set up that works for at least 10 exercises in a row. It means that your clients can flow but you as a teacher are not spending half the class making sure the clients are on the appropriate spring for them.
  • be spending more time teaching and adjusting for clients. 
  • Identify stations on your apparatus so that you can consider that the person is working consistently at that station. For example, on the tower ensure you work with the Push Through Bar for at least 20 minutes of the program. The exercises change but the organisation around the equipment does not.
    • No more than three set up /changes in a class. 
    • Ordering and pacing your program 
      • Ensure that the organisation layers the muscle groups so that there is balance around the joint. Form is lost and injuries occur when you do 40 minutes on the glutes only.
      • Remember that a philosophy of pilates is to balance the muscular around the body to create a total body workout. 

Exercise Choice

There are a number of different ways Pilates Instructors and Teachers are trained to understand exercise groupings and choices. The risk is the students can be taught a recipe where you take from an item on a list, but in itself does not help with developing nuanced programming. 

Exercise Family

Some courses categorise repertoire into families, for example, abs, hip disassociation, arms so that there is an idea that you choose a little bit from each of the list to give a full body workout. In this case I am thinking of the block systems used by PITC, NPTC and BASI that help to facilitate the learning.

Area categories – Lower limb, Upper limb, Torso. This sort of organisation of exercises I have seen in courses developed by Allied Health practitioners, notably many of the short repertoire courses I am seeing these days are “developed” by this group of practitioners. This style of short courses does not help students to appreciate the complexity and interrelationship of movement patterns. The result being that we see programs based solely around one musculoskeletal grouping, and not the body as a whole.

Stability – supported by limb alignment.

Mobility of the joints – safe ranges built and supported before going to the end of range of motion. These programs ensure that there is balance in the muscles so that you have an equal and balanced pull on the joints.

Flexibility – is about muscles and the use of active stretching eccentric work as part of your pacing strategies.


When programming, I like to consider the following principles for exercise groupings and choices that I progress over a number of weeks and months.

  • First, I’ll focus on the use of a muscular sling (Deep Longitudinal, Lateral or Oblique) and work the muscles in that sling to create dynamic stability in the torso. This focus would then be maintained for a term if in a group class setting.
  • I also ensure that when I’m programming that I chunk the exercise choices so I start with exercises and cues that will create proximal stability, for example organising the stabilising muscles of the pelvis, shoulder girdle and neck.
  • Once I can see that the proximal alignment and stability is achieved, I then cue bilateral strengthening exercises for the limbs focusing in the order isometric first, then eccentric and concentric resistance and load.
  • Initially, I program and cue homologous that is the lower limb or upper limb. This strategy allows clients to layer coordination and control strategies (for e.g. leg floats or leg circles building to levers such as double leg stretch)
  • I then layer in the program (generally after a few weeks) to incorporate homolateral movement that is the arm and leg on one side (e.g. single leg stretch)
  • I then program later in the progressions to add in contralateral movement which challenges coordination as it involves crossing the midline (for e.g. criss cross or swimming). Foundations of stability and control and certain movement patterns need to have been laid down for clients before they can master these more complex movement patterns.
  • Endurance exercises or flows are progressively laid into the program but at all times clients are cued and supported to build towards endurance exercises such as the series of five, or swimming. If a client does not have the capacity to maintain form in the endurance sequence, then inappropriate strain occurs which can eventually lead to long term injuries. I think of shoulder injuries and hip injuries that occur from poor form or teachers giving clients weights to hold through a whole class to build strength at any cost.

In thinking about programming in this way we are thoughtfully progressing our clients, keeping them engaged and ensuring we have a robust long-term retention plan. As a result, we end up practising the true essence of Pilates practice.

Body Organics Education teaches programming and goals as part of their certification courses. They have teacher trainers in Brisbane, Cairns, Canberra, Melbourne, Miami (Florida USA) . Norfolk (Virgina USA) Noosa, Sydney. To discover more info@bodyorganicseducation.com

Students from other schools of training can also attend the course. Book before 31 March 2024 and get $150 off the training using the promo code – ThePilatesJournal. Book here.

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