Today we look at the way our words impact our clients' experience in a Pilates class. Our language can prime our clients to expect a positive or negative outcome, and can influence how our clients feel about themselves and movement. We explore how fear-based cuing about alignment or subjects like neck flexion can have an unintended nocebic effect on our clients. Tune in!
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[00:00:00] Welcome to Pilates Teachers' Manual, your guide to becoming a great Pilates teacher. I'm Olivia and I'll be your host during the conversation. Join the Pilates community on Instagram at @pilatesteachersmanual and visit buymeacoffee.com/OliviaPodcasts to support the show. Today's chapter starts now.
[00:00:56] Hello, hello, everybody. Welcome back to the [00:01:00] podcast. Today we're going to be talking about something that fits into kind of a larger conversation, and I might lay down some threads in this episode that I will pick up in a subsequent episode because it is a big topic. It's about fear-based language that we might use as Pilates teachers. It's about the language in general that we use when we teach Pilates. It's about the effects, what we say and how we say things really impact our clients and can shape our clients experience.
[00:01:40] And even just talking about what I'm going to be talking about, you can see that this is probably bigger than what I can cover in a 20 minute episode, but I'm going to try to lay out the framework here that words matter. The words that we choose to say matter, and it is [00:02:00] important for us as Pilates teachers to be really thoughtful about what and how we say things, especially when we're talking to clients.
[00:02:10] Our clients look up to us, they trust us, they see us as experts in the field of fitness and the field of Pilates. They really trust what we're telling them and what we tell them is going to shape the experience that they have in our class and in classes for years to come, potentially in their life for years to come. This is something that I feel really passionately about. I think that it's really, really important. And I'd love to dive into that this week.
[00:02:41] We play a really big role in our clients lives when it comes to movement, when it comes to Pilates, when it comes to the stories our clients tell themselves about movement, about Pilates, and about themselves. The way we talk about exercises and sensations that we might feel in our [00:03:00] body, whether we are normalizing them or demonizing them, it can prime our clients to expect an outcome, which just by expecting it is more likely to happen.
[00:03:15] So this episode is not entirely a downer. Like I am covering something that is really important and can have a really big impact, but that impact can be positive or negative. On the positive side of things, we can set our clients up for success by building them up, by letting them explore sensations that they might be feeling without judgment, without fear. We can prioritize the effort over the outcome, the fact that they're trying to do something more than them doing it perfectly, which normalizes what is the process of learning, which is clunky and has a nonlinear path of progress. It's not every day is a little [00:04:00] bit easier, but if you try every day, it does get easier.
[00:04:05] We can create our classes so that movement is seen as an adventure and a journey and empower our clients to make choices for themselves about what's right for them, about what's feeling right in their bodies and build up their confidence so that they can do things that maybe they thought they couldn't do at one point, but we get them in a place where they can try. And with time, with practice, potentially succeed.
[00:04:29] On the other side of that spectrum, our words can also have a nocebic effect where our clients can feel pain or feel that they've injured themselves, even when there's no injury there, simply because we've told them that something is dangerous or that moving in a certain way will lead to injury, even if it's untrue.
[00:04:56] There are several studies documenting this, including one that I read from 2018 where they had participants [00:05:00] with these kind of electrodes on them and the electrodes would heat up and they would ask people how hot they thought they were going to get, like, how painful do you think this is going to be. And what they found is regardless of how intense the heat was on the electrode, however people thought it was going to come across, whether they thought it was going to be really hot and really painful or whether they thought it was going to be okay, regardless of what is actually was, the way they recorded it, their, uh, sensation, the way they felt it matched their expectation. If they thought it was going to be really hot, they said it felt really hot, even if it wasn't really hot.
[00:05:42] So if we're in a Pilates class and telling people that they can't do a lunge where their knees go past their toes, that that's dangerous and unsafe. They might feel that they're going to hurt themselves if their knees go past their toes at any [00:06:00] type of movement. We've accidentally primed them to expect a negative outcome based on, you know, that alignment of knees past toes, even though our knees go past our toes every time we go down stairs. The reality is almost not as important as the expectation, and as a teacher, we're setting an expectation for our clients, whether it's an expectation for success or for failure or for pain or for sensation without judgment, but we really set the tone for it.
[00:06:32] As teachers, we want what's best for our clients. We want to look out for them. We want them to be safe. We want them to do well. And even with those intentions, our words can still have unintended consequences. For example, I have a client who had a Pilates teacher tell him over 10 years ago that he had weak glutes. 10 years ago, I've worked with him for several years myself and I can tell you that he's [00:07:00] working on pistol squats and he is so strong. Pistol squats are a single leg squat. Like he's got glute strength for days. He is so strong, but this is a story that is ingrained in his mind that whenever he comes up to an exercise or something new, or maybe we're progressing in that pistol squat and it's getting a little more difficult, he always defaults to, well, you know, that teacher told me I had weak glutes.
[00:07:25] And so there can really be a lasting impact here on what we say and what we tell our clients, especially when, if we're telling them that something's wrong with them. I think the neck is a really great case study for this because any unexamined beliefs or fears that we have about the neck can subconsciously come out when we're talking about exercises and then influence our clients.
[00:07:53] If you've ever had anyone try a Pilates class and you teach the hundred or you teach the series of five, I can almost [00:08:00] guarantee that they're going to tell you if you ask them that it's bothering their neck. How we respond to them sharing that discomfort can really shape their experience though.
[00:08:12] So I understand, especially like the neck is a whole can of worms for itself. And there is a knee jerk response that the neck is important, the brainstem is there. The vertebrae are the smallest there. I understand that kind of knee jerk response to protect, but is, you know, moving our neck dangerous? Like, is flexing our neck dangerous? Is loaded neck flexion dangerous? Is it dangerous in Pilates? Is it something we need to be worried about as teachers who are leading a class?
[00:08:48] What I would say to that knee jerk response, if you had it and I've had it as well, that oh my gosh, no, we have to be careful of our neck, is that neck muscles are the same as every [00:09:00] other muscle in our body. They get stronger the same way. They protest the same way when they get fatigued. And the way to get them stronger is to gradually increase the load. If we're talking about neck flexion and something like a bridge, a point of tension can be whether you can bridge with the headrest up or the headrest down. Is bridging with the headrest up dangerous.
[00:09:26] And neck flexibility, like the flexibility of our neck muscles, our ability to go into increased flexion is the same as bending over and touching your toes and getting more flexible and your hamstrings and your back muscles. And, you know, the same way it is developing flexibility for the splits or developing flexibility and range of movement at your shoulder.
[00:09:50] So if we know that in other parts of our body we can get stronger and more flexible, it makes sense that our neck can also get stronger and [00:10:00] more flexible if we use it, but we have to use it. So when people tell me in class, in the ab series, in the hundred and supine arms, anytime we're doing a chest lift, that their neck is bugging them. Instead of telling them, Oh my gosh, you should put your head down. Oh my gosh, you have to protect your neck or kind of getting them worried about the sensation that they're feeling. I like to ask a question and that question is, do you think you can keep your head lifted for two more breaths? And that weeds out pretty quickly, whether the discomfort they're experiencing is fairly low grade discomfort or whether it is intolerable, get me out of here, sharp shooting pain, right? If you say there's no way I can keep my head up for another two breaths, that's totally fine. You can put your head down. The discomfort goes away in our neck muscles when we're not using them, right? It goes away really quickly. You look side to side, your next like, right, I'm fine. [00:11:00]
[00:11:00] If they say, yeah, I can definitely do it for two breaths, then this is just run of the mill discomfort. It's the same soreness you feel if you're holding a plank for a long time, or you're doing a really difficult exercise and your arm gets tired. It's the same by working through that discomfort by asking our clients to look a little bit deeper into that discomfort and not immediately default to if it hurts, don't do it, then we create an opportunity where.
[00:11:32] Clients can see that not all discomfort or pain is related to injury, and sometimes there is discomfort when we are exercising. Just like your wrists in your plank, we give the same suggestion. If you'd like to come down to your forearms, you can, but if you want to get stronger in your wrists and your forearm, increase that wrist flexion so that you can hold a plank more comfortably, you have to practice doing that [00:12:00] position.
[00:12:00] The bottom line is we don't want our clients associating discomfort with danger because they are not the same thing. That makes clients less likely to do exercises or movements that they aren't as good at, they might be a bit weaker at, and then they won't get stronger and it won't feel better.
[00:12:21] I think one of our primary objectives is to help our clients get stronger, provide the opportunity for them to get stronger. And sometimes that's doing things that don't feel super comfortable, but there is a hump we can get over it. It does get better, but not if we just avoid that at all costs.
[00:12:41] Coming up after the break, it's complicated. Everything's complicated. Let's see if we can tease out some more things about the impact of our language on our clients.
[00:12:57] Hi there. I hope you're enjoying today's chapter so [00:13:00] far. There's great stuff coming up after the break too. Be sure to subscribe wherever you're listening and visit BuyMeACoffee.com/OliviaPodcasts to support the show. There you can make a one time donation or become a member for as little as $5 a month.
[00:13:16] Membership comes with some awesome perks, including a shout out in the next episode, a monthly newsletter, a monthly zoom call with me and more. You can also visit links.OliviaBioni.com/affiliates to check out some sweet deals on products I use and love. Now back to the show.
[00:13:54] It's complicated. Sometimes we say things that we don't mean, [00:14:00] or we don't totally understand as teachers, especially when we're just getting started. A lot of our cues are inherited from the teachers that we've learned from, the teachers whose classes we've taken, the trainers who trained us in our training program.
[00:14:13] And when we're first learning to teach, especially we accept a lot of the information that's given to us. We trust the people who are telling us things and we can regurgitate what was told to us. But I think part of being a teacher, part of doing continuing education, continuing to learn and grow, is realizing that some of what we're taught by people who've done their teacher trainings years ago, potentially decades ago, that if we aren't updating our understanding of the world as the world itself and our understanding of it changes, we can be telling people out of date information, feeding out of date fears and [00:15:00] not providing the most current information to our clients.
[00:15:05] When we know better, we can do better. And if some of the cues that we've learned are more fear-focused, a lot of: don't do this, you can't do this, it's very bad if you do so and so, you know, that's language that we can start to move away from now because we know that we can, we know that there's other options, there's other ways to do things.
[00:15:32] So, I mentioned bridging in the first part, specifically bridging with the head rest up. And let's look at bridging. Let's look at bridging and some worries, concerns we might have around bridging and how those might come across to our clients.
[00:15:46] So bridging is a super common exercise. It happens in nearly every Pilates class at least once, and I just want to throw out here that when we do a bridge, our neck is already flexed. [00:16:00] It's in flexion. Our head and shoulders are on the ground. And our hips are lifted up. So while it's a hip extension exercise, it can even be a lumbar or thoracic spine extension exercise if you get your hips high enough, if you're not in a diagonal line, but you're really in an arch, but it is a neck flexion exercise.
[00:16:23] There's not a ton of load in our neck when we're doing a bridge. It's predominantly in our shoulders, our arms and our feet, but our neck is already flexed. So if we're worried about neck flexion, we're already practicing neck flexion in a bridge, which is awesome. Even if you lift your arms to the ceiling, which is a very common progression in a bridge, you're increasing the load in your shoulders, but your neck is largely load free.
[00:16:48] So on the reformer, which is the only time you can lift a headrest, unless you have fancy headrest mats, but on the reformer, some people like to have their headrest up, which is putting their [00:17:00] neck into more flexion while they're doing all of their supine exercises, whether it's footwork, whether it's supine arms or feet and straps, if their headrest is up, they're already in a bit of neck flexion, which some people find comfortable and is totally fine.
[00:17:14] When you do a bridge and your headrest is up, your neck is more flexed than it would be if your head was flat, your headrest was flat, but it's degrees of flexion. It's more flexed. But, is it more flexed than other Pilates exercises that we find ourselves in? Like, Our jackknife or our corkscrew or control balance or open leg rocker or seal and crab or boomerang, like there is a lot of spinal flexion in Pilates and our neck is part of our spine.
[00:17:55] Great news is that our spine is super duper strong and our neck is [00:18:00] super duper strong. Um, and exercises like short spine massage or long spine massage, where we've got our feet and straps, we're going overhead, um, in overhead, and coincidentally, you're also going into that kind of jackknife shape in which your spine is more flexed at your neck, right?
[00:18:19] Because you're doing like a shoulder stand shape. And that's to say that in other forms of movement and yoga and break dancing and wrestling, like we put load in our neck and our body responds to the load that we put on it. So when we practice something by degrees gradually, we can get better at it. I have clients who even when I have offered the suggestion of lowering their headrest, they prefer to have their headrest up.
[00:18:49] They like the stretch or they like the way it feels. And I don't think it's my place as a teacher to make them feel afraid of something that feels fine in [00:19:00] their body. Our neck is strong. It can support our body weight and in a bridge, it doesn't even have that much body weight on it.
[00:19:08] So when we are at a studio, some studios have their own rules, their own policies, and they say you have to cue to lower the headrest when you bridge. If you're working at that studio, you are required to follow their protocols and their rules, but you can do that and also recognize that you don't need to create more fear around it, even if that policy may not be in line with what we know about the body, how it works, how things go, even if I'm at a studio and I'm cuing to put the headrest down, I'll ask people to put the headrest down, but I won't panic or rush over to people and say, Oh my gosh, you have to put your headrest down. Like asking [00:20:00] them to please lower their headrest is very different than saying, Oh my goodness, you have to lower your headrest or you're going to hurt your neck, right? Then we are definitely priming people to feel a sad feeling, which we don't need to do.
[00:20:14] This nocebic effect of having pain without a reason other than you think that you have pain has been studied a lot in terms of low back pain. And when people go into a doctor and they get a scan of their back and the doctor says, Oh, you've got this disc degeneration, this disc desiccation, this disc herniation, disc bulge, collapsed disc, any of these really scary words that a doctor is telling you is what's happening in your back, even though it is totally normal to have wear and tear in your back, to have a disc bulge. And that people who don't have back pain, depending on their age, it is very [00:21:00] likely that they'll have a disc bulge, at least one disc bulge in their spine. And it's kind of like wrinkles on the inside. And it's not something we need to be panicking about or super duper concerned about. It's just one factor in pain and the way we may experience pain.
[00:21:15] But when a doctor and their white lab coat and their authority tells you that all of this stuff is wrong with you, people begin to feel pain even when they didn't have pain before because they have fear around the movement. When we're afraid of moving, we move less, which does not help with pain, does not help decrease inflammation, does not help with any of the other factors that moving helps us with things like reducing stress, it's great for your mental health, helps you sleep better, helps you feel better. You feel more confident. You feel like an agent in your life, like all of these self efficacy pros that we get from exercising, when we're afraid that exercising is [00:22:00] going to hurt us or we're afraid of pain, we stop moving and that is not good.
[00:22:05] Pain is multifactorial and I don't want to be a contributing factor to my clients pain by setting them up to feel uncomfortable or unsafe. There's obviously a lot going on here in this episode. And as I said, I think in the next episode, I'm going to talk about how to frame our cues in a more positive way so that we can create the best experience for our clients. I'm already thinking now I've got more to say on this, but I'll wrap it up here.
[00:22:38] Big takeaways are that bodies are strong and resilient. Load is the biggest predictor of injury, not alignment. Pilates is safe, particularly because the load that we're working with is not enough to cause injury. Gradually increasing load is the [00:23:00] way we get stronger, whether it's our neck, our knees, our wrists. I think we can do our clients a great service by setting them up to have a positive experience, both in our class and in their body years to come.
[00:23:16] Big thank you to all of my supporters on Buy Me a Coffee. I appreciate you supporting the project and contributing to this project, especially to Sharon, our newest supporter. I hope to meet you in a coffee chat soon and talk Pilates goodness. If you want to get in on that, visit the Buy Me a Coffee page, become a contributor and let's chat. I hope you have a great couple of weeks. I'll be back with more information about this, so I'll talk to you again soon.
[00:23:53] Thanks for listening to this week's chapter of Pilates Teacher's Manual, your guide to becoming a great Pilates [00:24:00] teacher. Check out the podcast Instagram at @pilatesteachersmanual, and be sure to subscribe wherever you listen. For more Pilates goodness, check out my other podcast, Pilates Students' Manual, available everywhere you listen to podcasts.
[00:24:16] The adventure continues. Until next time.