5 Steps to Success when teaching Pilates to first-timers

I have taught hundreds of first time Pilates students. No joke. My guestimate is around 300 and counting. The context? I teach at a high-volume, big box gym that gives complimentary sessions to all of its new members.  When I started, I wasn’t great at converting them to Pilates die-hards, and I had a lot of empty spots to fill in my schedule, and a lot of new members to teach Pilates to!

When I first started out, there was a huge learning curve. I knew how to teach beginner sessions to beginner clients- BUT beginner clients who already had a pretty good idea of what Pilates was, and who had already committed to intro packages and knew they wanted to do Pilates. After a lot of training and trial and error, I’ve come up with the five most important steps to success when teaching first-timers. You can implement these elements, no matter what setting you teach in. Making sure all of these steps are covered will help you on the road to converting Pilates first-timers, to Pilates-diehards, or at the very least, have them walking away knowing how Pilates will benefit them.

  • Make first-timers feel comfortable.

This may seem like a no brainer, but some of what goes on in a Pilates studio looks way different from other exercise modalities and this can be a turn off to a potential lead. If you know you have a first-timer on your schedule, be there early to greet them when they come in. Introduce yourself with a smile and tell them where to put their shoes, coats, etc. Make them your center of attention from the very beginning, and make them feel taken care of. No conversations with fellow teachers on the floor, or phones in hand while you wait.

  • Ask the right questions, give the right answers.

If your first timer is coming to you in a studio setting, they most likely filled out a questionnaire with things like previous injuries and fitness goals. You want to make sure that you and your first-timer are on the same page about what they want out of their Pilates sessions, and address any concerns they have before you get them moving. You can do this with a quick conversation before the session begins. If their goal is to increase flexibility, a sentence like “Pilates will help you increase your flexibility, you’re in the right place,” will do the job. Simpler is better here- you can come back to their goals during the session(More on that in step 4.). If they are dealing with an injury, make sure you both understand what movements to avoid, and what movements help them.

  • Give them easy to feel, easy to set up exercises that they will like.

Not everyone is going to feel their abs in elephant, so they may wonder, what’s the point? Or worse- ask you what this exercise is doing?? If you have a male client in loose shorts, do you really want to put his legs up in straps for leg circles and frogs? I don’t. And it probably will make him feel uncomfortable too (see step 1). Skip it. Stomach massage, although vast in benefits, isn’t great either for first timers. Imagine going to a new gym full of new instructors, equipment, and people, and your pants get pulled down while you struggle through a very hip flexor intensive exercise after you told your instructor you have tight hip flexors???

Exercises like pulling straps, short box series, and ab series are great first timer exercises. Nobody gets into a compromising position, loses their pants, or feels like they aren’t working hard there.  

Of course, if you really think a client will benefit from an exercise, know what you’re getting them into and think of all the angles you will approach it for them (or not approach, ahem loose shorts).  Think critically about all of the exercises you want to give to your first timers. Are they easy to get into? East to feel the benefit? And if not, how can you explain the benefit to them- which leads me to number 4.

  • Explain how the exercises you are giving them relates to what they want to accomplish.

Refer back to your initial conversation and/or intake form. Have you ever gone to a new workout and thought, “that was different, and I got a good workout, but I don’t think it’s what I need right now.” Your ability to tell the client in front of you why they are doing the exercises, will help them see the value and benefit in continuing Pilates. A sentence like “When you’re moving through this, you’ll feel a lot of engagement in your core. Exercises like this will help you increase your power in your tennis game, by making your core stronger,” is a good place to start.

  • Keep it simple, and don’t geek out on Pilates history

Try not to over-cue. As Pilates teachers, some of us get overzealous sometimes about details and alignment. Let the newbie move and feel some things before you over correct. The last thing you want is them feeling like they were nitpicked, or not good or strong enough to continue Pilates. If you’re choosing your exercises right, and relating them back to your first-timer’s goals, clear and simple instruction will do the trick.

Also, as much as we love our history and fun facts, your first-timer probably doesn’t care. Talk about an old guy with a glass eye who wore tiny white shorts, and was an inventor, whose mother was a naturopath, and how your lineage relates to blah blah blah.. You get the idea. Save those nuggets for later down the road.

I hope these five steps give you a bit to think about when approaching your sessions with first timers. Is there anything that you do, or don’t do when you teach Pilates first-timers? I’d love to hear about it in the comment section below.