Pilates Level 1, 2, 3 Easy as A, B, C
I am writing this blog article with hopes of helping Pilates instructors come to a consensus on how to determine which level a client is at. Usually classes are rated as level 1, 2 or 3, 1 being a beginner level and 3 being advanced. Clients as well are often labeled 1 through 3. Pilates instructors go through 800 plus hours of training, focused mainly on the classical repertoire or the original exercises developed by Joseph Pilates himself. Some studios offer modifications or preparatory exercises along with the classical ones to assist people to develop the adequate strength to achieve the classical routine.
Now a days Pilates has established itself as one the best core strengthening programs. Many people are jumping on the Pilates band wagon; personal trainers, physiotherapists, kinesiologists or movement therapists, yoga instructors, chiropractors and I’m sure the list goes on.
The problem with various professions borrowing from the work is that it often gets watered down and mixed together with other exercises and for good reason. The basic Pilates exercises especially the basic mat exercises are excellent for developing the necessary core strength to stabilize the pelvis, spine, and shoulder blades. Thus, why Pilates is now readily integrated into physical therapy, personal training and fitness class programs.
Not only does Pilates develop core strength it’s many of exercises helps take people through a range of different exercises helping them explore movement patterns which they may have never experienced before. This opens peoples minds to new possibilities giving them a sense of feeling more comfortable and confident in their bodies. In a way it’s like playing music. You must learn the notes and how to play them then you can combine them into a multitude of different songs. You must learn and master the various exercises to be able to move with freedom or limitless motion. It is movement specialists job to help each client safely explore all of the Pilates exercises to understand movement possibilities.
Pilates exercises focus on spinal mobility with the limbs following the shape of the spine. The exercises can be grouped into shapes and what action the spine is doing. For example flexion, extension, rotation and lateral flexion are the main spinal actions. The body shapes include rolling or ball, pike, plank, standing and roll over or shoulder stand. The positions include quadruped or cat, lying supine with knees bent, lying prone, and side lying.
Pilates instructors have a knowledge base of over 260 different exercises from the classical repertoire. The exercises range from simple one limb movements such as the single leg lift, to complex actions involving a combination of spinal flexion, rotation and extension, such as snake. There is a basic exercise series that is demonstrated in the mat routine which works the entire body going through the various spinal actions, body shapes and positions. The same exercise routine is repeated on the various pieces of equipment; the reformer, the trapeze table or cadillac, the wunda chair, spine corrector and ladder barrel.
The equipment can make the routine more challenging by adding more resistance by working not only with your own body weight but also resistance from springs. The equipment can also make the routine easier by providing spring resistance to assist the client achieve the exercise. For example the push through bar can help the client lift their head and shoulders while performing the abdominal series, taking strain off of the neck flexors. Thus by applying the equipment in the right way the routine can become more challenging for advanced clients or modified for beginners.
The client should be able to experience all of the Pilates repertoire however, when it is safe and appropriate for each client. Thus the need to know how to identify when a client is a level 1 or level 2 or level 3 etc. I believe there is a dearth of knowledge in the Pilates industry to help instructors know how to identify level 1 through 3 clients. As to my knowledge this is not outlined in any Pilates manual but is eventually figured out by experienced instructors.
If the levels are not respected or if the client does not ‘get’ the lesson of each level then they are just going through the motions and potentially wasting their time. They must connect with their bodies and begin to understand how it is suppose to feel. The mind must become integrated with the body’s movement. One must become more consciously aware of how they can personally enhance each exercise by relaxing and realigning, breathing through it, exhaling or inhaling at the right time, consciously relax the hip flexors, engage the abdominals, etc. It takes time to get genuine change in the body however there are basic principles of the method which each session should strive to work towards.
Newbies or people new to Pilates and are easy to identified. They usually display the following;
- unable to identify neutral spine with poor body awareness
- decreased pelvic and lumbar spine stability
- unable to connect breath with movement
- poor positioning of shoulder, elbow and wrists
- poor alignment of the leg with external rotation and misalignment of the ankle/foot
These clients need to develop body awareness and integrate their breath with movement. They need to be aware of how to glide the shoulder blades around the rib cage, open the front of the shoulder and know the correct placement of the feet, knees and hips. They need to understand what neutral spine is, be able to identify it and become aware of how to maintain it during essential and some level 1 Pilates exercises i.e. ab preps and footwork series. Often exhalation with exertion is recommended to relax the ribcage connecting he abdominals with the pelvis to assist the maintenance of neutral spine and pelvic stability. Once clients achieve this then they can safely begin Level 1 programming. Thus why often Pilates studios insist on private sessions prior to joining group classes.
Level 1 clients are working on developing greater core strength to be able to achieve stability of the pelvis, lumbar spine, and shoulder girdle during level one exercises. The level 1 repertoire develops strength of the transverse abdominals, back extensors, and shoulder blade stabilizers. It develops flexibility of the hamstrings and hip flexors. It connects the rib cage to the pelvis. It begins to help clients understand how to move from the core and hamstrings (footwork on reformer and single leg reach) instead of from the hip flexors and biceps. The level 1 client is also working on being able to hold neutral spine not only during a Pilates session but in daily activities such as driving, sitting, standing and walking.
Once the client has mastered level one exercises such as the roll up and keeping pelvic and lumbar spine stability during leg circles and rolling like a ball, and they have demonstrated that they are moving from the core and breath or the deeper intrinsic muscles instead of from external muscles; the hip flexors and biceps. If a client enters a level 2 or 3 class and cannot demonstrate a roll up or stable roll like a ball further work on the level 1 deep core strengthening exercises is recommended before advancing them. Any underlying medical conditions my limit how fast the client advances through the repertoire and my limit how far they progress with the work.Time restrictions may limit how far clients get through the repertoire. It takes time any where from 3-8 months depending on the level of fitness and coordination of your client .
Level 2: Once clients have achieved shoulder blade, pelvis and lumbar spine stabilization during level 1 excises it is time to challenge then with level 2. Often once level 1 is solidly mastered clients can zip through levels 2 and 3 quite efficiently. Level 2 programming now challenges the other abdominal layers the obliques and rectus abdominus (i.e. roll over, double leg stretch, scissors and criss-cross), along with more challenging back extension work (i.e .backstroke) and rotational spinal movements such as mermaid. The hamstring flexibility continues and improving hip mobility begins to be focused on (i.e. side kick series develop and envelope). More hip mobility exercises including yoga is recommended by this author to improve hip flexibility.
At this stage the client should have broken old movement patterns of over recruiting the hip flexors and can now move from the core abdominal muscles maintaining a neutral spine. If not, level 2 and 3 work could compound the hip flexor gripping pattern.
Level 3 : Now body weight begins to be lifted and mobilized increasing the resistance and balance demands and complexity of the work (i.e. double leg lowers, corkscrew, jackknife and bicycle). By this stage shoulder girdle and pelvic and lower back stability should be well established. Now the body weight is being lifted or added to the programming and the complexity of the actions are increased developing balance between front and back and upper and lower bodies. Such as with the teaser or V-sit the even climb a tree, the client must find balance between the upper and lower bodies integrating the two halves. The psoas becomes a focal muscle. The client learns how to safely hold the shoulder girdle in a centrated position with more of the body weight acting through it such as with side lifts, kneeling side kick, leg pull facing down and up, up stretch, semi-circle, and snake. If shoulder blade placement has not been mastered shoulder strain and injury could result. Level 3 also works on more balancing exercises such as with all of the advanced roll over exercises already mentioned along with standing front splits.
If the client cannot demonstrate adequate balance during the Level 3 exercises nor lift their own body weight or have difficulties holding the centration of the shoulder then they should not continue into Level 4 programming until they can.
Another factor which should be considered on behalf of the instructor is that if a client is participating in a level 3 class it would be expected that the client would be fairly familiar with level 1 and level 2 exercises. This may not always be the case, however, if the client has been attending Pilates for over 8 months it could be assumed that they have had the opportunity to do level 1 and 2 exercises several times. Every exercise requires adequate cuing from the instructor in order for the client to perform it properly. Yet often instructors teaching a level 3 class think that the client is familiar with the equipment and the lower level exercises exercises and may change the cuing for a level 1 exercise to focus on increasing the challenge demands of the exercise which may compromise the normal safety cuing. Again all the more reason why if a client is put in a level 3 class they have the background necessary for it.
Level 4 work brings more balance and coordination challenges along with more full body weight lifting demands, such as push ups, control balance. The stages have been building layers of strength from inside out and integrating breath with movement. This stage now requires pulling it all together with more full body exercises (such as star, semi-circle) and introduces more complex triplanar exercises like star with rotation and twist. Eve’s twist, horseback, up/down combo, hawk, tendon stretch, parakeet, magician and chair exercises such as step downs, one arm push from plank all challenge the client to now lift most of their own body weight with some assistance from the equipment. This stage also introduces greater balance demands such as with arabesque, single arm kneeling series, standing side splits, back splits and kneeling kick forward.
Granite it is important to move clients through the repertoire to experience it and to try the different exercises even if they may not demonstrate the adequate strength or control. Often well trained Pilates instructors who have all of the repertoire under their belt want to share and demonstrate the advanced exercises and hurry their clients through the process. Yet, base core strength should not be compromised and it should be established prior to or while advancing people through the repertoire. With a strong core clients then can safely move through the exercises with a solid foundation. Recently I have been seeing clients who have been doing Pilates for quite some time, over 8 months, yet they still are unable to do basic exercises such as roll like a ball, ab prep, the roll up and hold neutral spine during footwork. Which tells me they have not developed adequate transverse abdominal (TA) strength and the client will continue to use the hip flexor recruitment pattern – meaning that the Pilates instructor, has not done their job yet.
To test this, see if they can stay stabilized during roll like a ball, have them do a simple ab prep and see if they can hold neutral, do half roll backs and see if they can stay out of the hip flexors and work just the lower abdominals and see if they can do a roll up without spring assistance.
It is our job to train the client to understand how to avoid over-using to the quadriceps and hip flexors and recruit the abdominal and psoas muscles instead. The person who taught me how to frame homes (god rest his soul he has passed away) always said to me over the simplest of things: “If you can’t do this (referring to a basic skill) then take up knitting!”
To me these are basic principals of the Pilates work. They are like building blocks to a house, without them the house looses it’s stability and eventually breaks down. It is all fine to point the toes, and straighten the wrists, however if the basic core concepts are not developed the pointiest of toes and straightest of wrists will not help engage the core and maintain neutral spine.
At a certain stage of programming perhaps level 2 or 3 the client should start to stand taller with better posture. Instead of hanging out on the skeleton in a slouched posture gripping through the hip flexors the client now stands or sits upright, engaging the deepest, intrinsic muscles to lengthen and hold the spine erect. With the activation of more intrinsic muscles, even while sitting, it takes more energy. The more muscles firing and working and the larger the cross section of the muscle the more energy is used. Thus metabolism increases and more calories are burned. A proper diet in conjunction with Pilates training weight loss can be expected in your client.
While feeling better and stronger, along with feelings of looking better (i.e. postural changes) it is expected that this ‘feeling good state’ motivates the client to respect and care for their body more with improved diet and even more activity – wanting to get out there and enjoy life. May that be a simple walk or bicycle ride to the park or store. The result of feeling stronger and better hopefully results in more overall activity, boosting metabolism even more. Thus weight loss can be an expected with the secondary effects of a well designed Pilates program.
Note: If you see any typos or corrections please email your findings or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
“There’s too much confusion,
I can’t get no relief.
. . .
None will level on the line, nobody offered his word, hey”
. . .
“There are many here among us
Who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we’ve been through that
And this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late”
From the Musical Legend Jimmy Hendrix, All Along The Watchtower Jan 21, 1968
Original music of Bob Dylan Dec 1967