Make walk-in Pilates classes work for everyone

Pilates classes in fitness facilities are a far cry from those in studios dedicated to the discipline. By following Kayla Duke’s three essential instruction tips you can successfully cater to first time as well as regular participants.

The popularity of Pilates has led to a profusion of walk-in Pilates classes in fitness facilities. These classes are a far cry from those in the traditional Pilates studio, where small groups receive precise, in-depth instruction over a course of weeks or months. As a Pilates instructor who nowadays teaches only in gyms, I work with mass walk-in Pilates groups on a daily basis. Participants range from beginners to regulars who have been following my classes for years and there are very often as many as 60 in a session, leaving almost no room to walk around for hands-on corrections.

Knowing that you will continually have walk-in first timers and regulars, what is the best way to cater to every participant and keep them returning week after week?

My three essentials when it comes to teaching such groups are:

  1. Give strong visual and verbal cues.
  2. Give options (I go for at least three per exercise) and continually monitor them.
  3. Remind participants frequently that it is their personal workout: Pilates is never a competition.

Strong visual and verbal cues

Strong visual and verbal cues are a very powerful element in the success of the walk-in Pilates class, or indeed any mind body or group class. Clear, effective cues become even more vital when classes are so busy that lack of unoccupied floor space makes it impractical or even unsafe for the instructor to walk among participants making hands-on corrections.

Becoming efficient and adept at cueing can take time. It is a complex process based on training and developed through experience, experimentation, understanding, intuition, and trial and error of what works best with each individual. Every participant will learn differently and it is important to get across as much instruction and assistance as possible though your cueing, so everything is clear and everyone can accomplish each exercise as correctly as possible.

When working with visual cues in the form of demonstration, I strive to be the best possible role model. If participants can see the movement done well, they will embody it. But other visual cues can also be strong and helpful tools; such as hand gestures as a signal for length through a movement or explaining lateral breathing by taking the hands in and out.

When it comes to verbal cues, be sure all the information you are giving is useful and not just talk for the sake of talking. Silence can be blissful during parts of a Pilates class, providing a space where students can digest what they have already heard. Keep your language simple so all can understand, and if you do want to go into more technical terms, be sure to explain anything you feel some of your walk-in students may not understand. Make sure everyone feels important and no one is left out.

A good way to go through verbal cues is to first define the muscle focus of the Pilates exercise. Next determine the objectives. Then the verbal cue can be articulated and implemented with clarity and direction. Movement analysis is one of the fundamental pillars that uphold succinct Pilates cueing – and successful Pilates teaching in general.

Give options

My own experience has convinced me that exercise options/levels are the key to a successful walk-in Pilates class. If we want our regulars to keep coming back we must continue to challenge them as their competence increases. At the same time, we do not want to scare off the first timers. Thus we need to give options for every exercise and hence cater for beginner, intermediate and advanced students all together. For the instructor, the biggest challenge is to get the participants to choose the option that is best for them.

Below is an example of a teaser combination that I find very successful. It has three options, first with single legs, and then if you feel your class is ready they can all be repeated with both legs, given six levels in total.

Teaser combination

Start with feet on the floor, hip-distance apart, hold underneath the thighs with a straight back, slightly leaning backwards.

Option 1: Raise one leg and then the other. Moving from the knee joint.
Option 2: Progress to raising one leg then reaching the same arm to the roof; return to holding under the leg and lower it down. Repeat on the other side.
Option 3: Repeat all again, adding a leg extension when raising the arm to the roof and then return.
Option 4-6: Repeat 1-3 with both legs at once.

It is always good to ask yourself questions: as the instructor do you choose the option the majority are doing or do you show the option you are best at? In my opinion, neither… Personally, I will go up through the options slowly and then most likely choose the beginner/easier option, because the first timers are the ones who are most likely to just attempt to follow exactly what you are doing. The regulars or more advance students, on the other hand, are more capable of remembering the options and keeping going with what is best for them.

It is each participant’s personal workout

I am a strong believer in everyone working at their own pace and ability at each session. They should not feel pressured to do something that is not right for them just because they are a regular student or because the person next to them is doing the more advanced option. So I remind my students that it is their workout and to focus on themselves, my instructions and how they are feeling today and work with the option that is best for them.

Everyone is different and if they are all challenging themselves, taking their workout to the level where they wish to work, and getting the benefits they are looking for, then I feel the class is a success. I continually remind my participants that they are welcome to take a rest whenever needed. I never assume that just because someone has been capable of the advanced options in the past that they should always do them. We all have our own reasons for coming to a Pilates class and some may be personal. If participants feel comfortable to share with you then that is for them to choose, especially when you are working with mass participation in a walk-in Pilates class.

We all want our students to feel happy coming to our classes: not pressured or intimidated if they are first timers, nor unchallenged or bored if they are advanced regulars. By following my three essentials for walk-in Pilates classes you should be able to cater for all. Beginners, intermediate, advanced, all ages and abilities, together in one group by using strong visual and verbal cues, options, and reminding everyone it is their personal workout. This is what gives me success in a setting that is so very far removed from the small groups and one-on-one sessions of the Pilates studio.


Kayla Duke
Based in Singapore, Kayla is group exercise country manager with California Fitness, and the creator of the California Fitness Group Pilates Teacher Trainer Course. She choreographs and instructs many programs, trains and assesses instructors and presents nationally and internationally. Australian Fitness Network’s Author of the Year 2010, Kayla regularly appears on television and in print and online fitness media.