A major part of a Pilates Instructors’ job (and of many other practitioners in different physical movement fields) is to identify weaker or imbalanced movement patterns, across the whole body, in all different directions (or ranges of motion) and prescribe certain exercises or movements to help teach a client’s body to learn better ones.

This might mean teaching, training or retraining a client, (including their brain, central nervous system and their muscles and joints) to bend over, lift a loaded object and stand up again (e.g. the washing, a tyre, or a child) in a way that doesn’t strain their lower back. It might mean helping someone learn to better twist and control their spine to help improve a golf swing. Both these examples may require new and/or improved movement.

In Pilates we utilise the bodies inbuilt physiological cognitive/sensory postal system which sends messages to and from the brain and muscles of the body so that it moves. How fast or slow, and how well a person learns to perform a specific movement skill may depend on their individual innate abilities.

My job (as a Pilates Instructor) is to help clients create, send and receive clear movement messages specific to their bodies, and send them to the right locations (brain/muscles/joints), at minimum cost (energy). All going well this messaging system results in good movement skills being learned.

To achieve this, I may ask my client to move an arm right or left, imagine all sorts of weird and wonderful things, and poke them in places that in another context would be highly questionable, possibly not legal.

‘One of my favourite things to say to a new client is ‘I bet you don’t get to say this in your job’!

Motor (Movement) Learning: the very…very short physiological story.

‘In order to perform any movement accurately — whether that means reaching for a glass of juice without knocking it over, or swimming across a pool without sinking – the brain has to learn exactly which muscles to activate, and in what manner ’ [1].

If you can understand this idea, it will help you understand some apparent idiosyncrasies of Pilates and why there is so much brain work involved (i.e. concentration, multi-tasking).

Let’s put the learned movement mechanism into a big nutshell. To move, the brain receives signals (messages) in the form of sensory stimuli received (via the body’s different senses e.g. vision, auditory, touch etc). These signals are detected by specific receptors [in the body] instructing it to move in some way, to achieve something specific [2-4].

This may be to put one foot in front of the other in walking, put a jumper on because it’s cold, or to kick the oncoming rugby ball in a specific angle or direction in order to win the game. It may be to perform your arm work on the Pilates reformer without getting sore upper shoulders.

The brain sends this information via the nervous system (the body’s super express messaging service) to the muscles that produce the desired movements at joints and thus we move. Of course, it’s far more complex than that, and there is a wealth of knowledge and information out there if you wish to know more (check out the references), but you get the basic idea.

One person may execute a learned movement skill (or exercise) better or worse or just differently to the next depending on their physical abilities.

Physical Abilities vs Physical Skills

What is the difference between a physical ‘skill’ and a physical ‘ability’? When you learn a new movement, you are learning a new skill. How well and how quickly you learn that skill may be influenced by your innate abilities.

Abilities you are born with (e.g. co-ordination, muscular power and endurance, and flexibility). Skills you have to learn (e.g. kicking a ball, performing hundreds in a Pilates class) and vary across different continuums of movement precision, continuity, pace and environmental effects [2, 5, 6].

Skills imply some kind of desired outcome or goal from a movement and normally with conservation of energy [2] (i.e. doing the movement in such a way it minimises the use of the bodies energy so it doesn’t spend more than it needs to …. well because that is just a waste).

A gymnast must learn to do the flips and tricks, however if they are naturally flexible and coordinated it helps. Any marathon runner must train extensively to even be able to run 42 kms at all, but one born with good endurance may get over the line sooner than others.

However, a gymnast may not be able to run a marathon well, and a marathon runner may not be able to do the splits on a beam without falling off.

In the studio some Pilates clients find certain exercises and movements easier while other will find them more challenging but excel at others. It’s what keeps my job interesting!

An effective movement educator will recognise different abilities in clients and utilise those to teach new movement skills.

Teaching Tools of the Movement Educator

An instructor’s toolkit is full of different ways to deliver instructions and feedback, to continually stimulate and guide the bodies receptors, so the most effective movement messages are created and sent through the body to the appropriate locations. Instructors will use a variety of tactics and methods to help clients learn and improve movement skills depending on their physical abilities and capabilities, learning preferences, level and goals.

In a Pilates session an instructor may give descriptive verbal cues and/or imagery for cognitive movement stimulation:

For example, in a basic mat supine leg lift exercise you may hear:

  • Float your leg to the tabletop position
  • Lift your femur to a vertical (or 90 degree) position to the hip/floor
  • Allow your right thigh to sink deeply into the hip socket

These are all things you may hear in a very simple exercise. Where one statement makes perfect sense to one client, it may be incredibly confusing to another. Some may only need to hear it once and others will need to hear it several times.

Tactile cues and feedback are also incredibly powerful tools. Many instructors are very hands on with their clients to help them achieve the movement goal. This may be by using their hands to physically guide a movement, helping a client stabilise during movement, or sticking a finger in a certain muscle area to induce correct muscle recruitment patterns.

Even the amount of pressure used in tactile cues and feedback will influence the messages received and sent through the body. Such as whether a muscle should contract or relax, or how much effort should be used to perform a movement.

There are many ways to skin a ‘cat-stretch’

An instructor will likely use a different combination of verbal and tactile tools depending what they are trying to achieve. This is based on the needs of the client/s, as well as logistical context and demands of the class (e.g. mat or studio; 1-person vs 10 in the class; healthy clients vs those with injuries or conditions).

One of the aims of a Pilates Cat-stretch (of which there are many versions) is to teach the spine to articulate in order to achieve muscular control of spinal movement and mobility of the vertebral joints in flexion and extension. This exercise involves all the bones of spine, the pelvis, the head, the shoulder and the arms. So, there is a whole lot going on in one exercise, even though it may not seem like it.

Those with good co-ordination may pick it up quickly, but they will also need to have some flexibility in their spine. Some may be flexible in their spine but lack the enough strength or correct muscular recruitment patterns to perform the movement well. Thus, an instructor must choose the appropriate version, if at all.

It may be other exercises are better suited to the individual to achieve the same goals. The instructor also needs to select which ‘teaching tools’ will be most useful to get the messages traveling correctly through their client’s neural systems, again depending on their needs and the context of the class.

Points to consider in a Pilates class: there are no Pilates Olympics – it’s not a competition!

  • Your brain is involved in learning new movement skills – if you think about your grocery shopping list while you do them, your body may not learn them or perform them as efficiently or possibly as safely.
  • Innate abilities and physical movement learning preferences differ among humans – the way you learn movement skills compared to the person next to you may be completely different or it may be the same. If you compare yourself to others in a Pilates class you may be setting yourself up for a fail, even if you haven’t earned it.
  • Your body may be better suited to learning some movement skills over others – this certainly doesn’t mean that you cannot learn them. It may mean it takes a little longer, needs more practice or that other exercises will be more useful to you. This has absolutely no reflection on ‘how smart’ or ‘how good’ you are. If everyone was ‘good at Pilates,’ I’d be out of a job!
  • A Movement Educators’ job (such as a Pilates Instructors) is to teach you to move properly in your body, with consideration of the above 3 points (and the context of the class) – If your instructor gives you a lot of different cues, or if they don’t give you any, neither may be a negative sign!It may mean they are doing their job. If you are not quite sure, ask them. Communication can be the most powerful tool of all to achieving your goals.

At the end of the day, when you go into a Pilates or any other exercise or movement class, remember that you are going in with your individual body, brain and nervous system. The way you learn a specific movement skill will depend on the fingerprint relationship between these is a part of what makes you as a person. Be sure to pay respect to that, so you can make the most your time, effort and money out of the experience!

Written by Lizzi Webb


1.  How the body learns to make accurate movements: In motor learning, it’s actions – not intentions – that count. ScienceDaily 2011[cited 2019 01.07.2019]; Available from: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/06/110623174128.htm.

2. Schmidt, R.A., Motor learning and performance : from principles to application. Fifth edition / Richard A. Schmidt, Timothy D. Lee.. ed, ed. T.D. Lee. 2014: Champaign, IL Human Kinetics.

3. Hoehn, K. and E.N. Marieb, Human anatomy & physiology. 9th ed. 2014, Essex: Pearson Educated Limited.

4. Fairbrother, J.T., Fundamentals of motor behavior. 2010: Human Kinetics Champaign, IL.

5. Ackland, T.R., B. Elliott, and J. Bloomfield, Applied anatomy and biomechanics in sport. 2009: Human Kinetics.

6. Simms, S. Teach PE: Ability & Skill – the difference between abilities and skills, skill continuums, and their uses in a practical context. 2019[cited 2019 05.07.2019]; Available from: https://www.teachpe.com/sports-psychology