On Being an Advanced Student

Mention the word “advanced” to most pilates practitioners, and you’ll get two responses:

One: “Oh no, not for me, that stuff is crazy!”

Or, two: “Bring it on!”

But what does it really mean to be an advanced student? Careful before you answer. Because if you said “someone who does the advanced work”, think again.

First, let’s look at what exactly comprises the advanced repertoire. For most classical pilates programs, it’s not exactly Joe’s full order, as he taught it. Along the way, some things got taken out. The headstands. The balance control step offs. The big backbends. Exercises deemed too dangerous.

Side Note: that stuff is either referred to as “super advanced” or “archival”. Either description definitely makes one pause. But I digress.

So… “Advanced”. On the mat, it would include all the overhead exercises – rollover, corkscrew, jackknife, boomerang, control balance. Ditto for the reformer, plus exercises that continue to challenge a person’s balance, strength, flexibility, and yes, stamina.

But does simply practicing these exercises make you “advanced”? Again, be careful before you answer.

Nope.

Case in Point #1. A new client comes to me: woman, mid-50’s, very active, healthy, been doing pilates “forever!”, and (as she told me) her former teacher considered her “advanced”. Okay, I said, “let’s do a little intermediate-level work and see where we are.” The mat I chose was basic, but she needed the strap for rollup. Okay, I do too sometimes. No biggie. But when we got on the reformer, it was a disaster. She didn’t know any of the exercise names. She banged the carriage and rushed through the setup. She had NEVER been on the long box (pulling straps, backstroke, teaser – never done them). She had Never. Done. Elephant. She did not listen to me. Of course midway through this debacle (for me) I realized her former teacher’s description of “advanced” and mine were completely different. And this woman (while very nice), had been given this label without really understanding what it meant.

Of course the exercises are not the be-all, end-all, so here is my…

Second Case in Point: I observed a one-on-one session, taught by a very well renowned and respected teacher, instructing another teacher as the student. The student: extensive movement background, very healthy and fit, capable of performing anything the teacher would have chosen to give her. Not too widely different from the woman above. So what did he choose? Beginner System. The very basic exercises one learns first on the reformer. And the student? She worked like crazy as the teacher demanded she perfect every last detail and nuance of every simple exercise in the system. But more importantly, she did other things. She listened to instructions and followed them, to the best of her ability. She knew the names of the exercises. She did not whine about wanting to do this-that-or-the-other-more-exciting-thing. She got an amazing workout and had an enlightening experience. She learned something new about the most basic exercises of the work.

So then, what makes an “advanced” student? Attitude. Humility. Respect. Understanding. An Open Mind. A Desire to Learn. Knowing the Fundamentals.

The exercises are important, to an extent. Yes, some of the advanced/super-advanced/archival work is fun, exciting, amazing to watch. As Pilates Teachers, we should all know them, to keep the work alive.

But labeling students by exercises is misleading, and quite frankly, does the student a disservice. It is more important for you – as a Teacher – to teach the student the way they approach the repertoire is almost more important than the work itself. Teach the exercises (as appropriate), but also teach a respect for the exercises.

Some students will get this, and love it, and you will love them for it. Some will have no interest in the finer points and be happy just staying where they are. That’s okay, we’re just glad they’re still doing pilates.

So consider dropping your labels and start adding more quality to the content you teach. Recognize who is ready to “advance” and who needs a little more time. Tell them the exercises are nothing more than that. Yes, some are harder than others, but it’s not a contest. Be a true teacher, look past the labels, and you will make your job so much more than just throwing out a bunch of exercises to entertain or get through a session.

And maybe one day, regardless of what exercises your students are doing, they will all be “advanced”. And your Teaching will be, as well.

From Point A to Point B… Progressions

I’m filming a progressions workshop next week, and the subject got me to thinking.

There are progressions, and then there are progressions (try to keep up). First of all, there are progressions of an exercise from one place to another, not just on one apparatus, but also across many.

Then there are progressions that help your client improve in certain areas. Both of these are important to know, and to understand.

Let’s take an exercise like Pull-Ups on the Wunda Chair. A real doozy, on a good day, and one of the first places your clients get to experience going upside down, against gravity. So we do it first facing front, both hands on the chair, both feet on the pedal. But then this becomes “manageable”. So then we say, “okay, let’s try with just one foot on the pedal!”. Umm, what? Changing the center of balance, decreasing the point of contact from four to three. That becomes manageable, so then we decide to try it with one arm only. Whoa! Changing the center of balance yet again, and continuing to decrease the point of contact (really where we need it the most!) by removing one hand. Yikes. Gulp. So a few weeks/months/years go by and then we turn it to the side, adding a twist. Our beloved Front Pull-Up has just morphed into a monster to be tamed! Sideways, you say? One leg? One arm? Bring it on.

So there you have a lovely little progression of ONE exercise on ONE piece of apparatus into MANY ways to torture challenge your client.

Oh yes, speaking of our client. How do we pick and choose the right exercises to help them make a progression? From Point A to Point B. From Beginner to Intermediate. From Intermediate to Advanced. And in-between. And beyond.

The most common mistake Pilates teachers make with progressions is just adding more exercises. And this is especially problematic when the client might not be ready for a new exercise. Maybe the client is still working on Exercise #1. Doesn’t really need to be confused by Exercise #2. Remember your job as a Pilates teacher is not to entertain your clients with bright, new shiny things every session (trust me on this one). Continuity and consistency are key. As a favorite teacher of mine says, “Do not go horizontal with your teaching. Go vertical.” Go deeper into the exercises and be sure that your client understands the basics of the movement. And not just the basics, but can perform and move in the exercise with control. The last thing this client needs is MORE EXERCISES.

They need time to fine-tune the ones they already know. The ones they’re currently working on. Some clients will need a LOT of time. Some will need less. That’s where your skillz (yes I just said that) as a Pilates teacher come into play. Talk with your client, and understand their fitness goals. Understand how they learn, how they move, how they process information. Remember, you are not there to entertain. You are there to teach. To have your client move safely, understand the work, and know why they’re doing what they’re doing, before you add new exercises.

In my training, we progress by looking at four components – stability, stretch, strength, and stamina. What does your client need to work on? What exercise can you give them that will help them work on that component? Keep your matwork and reformer work basic. Go to your other apparatus (Wunda Chair, High Chair, Cadillac, Barrels). From there, make a decision and stick with it. Stick with it. Stick with it. Be consistent in your sessions, from one day/week to the next. Continue to work on the ins and outs of that exercise. Trust me, your client will not get bored. With consistency, they will master that exercise, and then be ready to move on to another one.

And that my friends, is true progression. Try it, and let me know how it works for you.