BE AWARE: Choose Your Pilates Class Wisely.........

On this date one year ago I  happily and energetically dashed along to my local gym to attend what was to be a very fateful Pilates class. I had attended only one class the previous week and truly had no idea of the months of pain and anguish that were to follow that day's simple act.

As a fit and relatively flexible (in comparison to others of similar age) ex-dancer, who also had at least two years Pilates experience from previously attended classes a few years back, this really should have been such a simple act. It was the summer, my Curves gym had closed down and I wanted to do some gentle exercise to keep me fit for the remainder of the season. Something I'd enjoy doing, and as an ex-ballet dancer Pilates really ticked that box. Not only that, it is very good for you and helps with any back issues. If correctly taught that is......

The first indicator that something was wrong, had I been paying any attention, was the cost of the class; at €4.50 per class it was very cheap. The next indicator was that although the instructor briefly mentioned the 'zip and hollow' method of 'engaging your core muscles' - this is an absolutely essential tenet in the teaching of Pilates which protects your lower back while you exercise - he didn't actually teach it. The instructor of the previous week's class never even once mentioned it. 

The final indicator that should have sent me running out the door - ironically I thought I'd complete this class first then never come back - were the amount of class members in attendance. In excess of twenty people attended each of those classes, which meant they were mixed ability classes although were not advertised as such. The instructors didn't know the abilities of each attendee, nor did they ask; they simply demonstrated the exercises and let each class member decide what level of each exercise they were able for and had very little time for individual correction.


Besides, you put out a 'challenge' like varying levels of one exercise ( for that is what it will be seen as - trust me) to a relatively flexible ex-dancer and she's going to give it her best shot, isn't she? Of course she is, especially if the 60 year old beside her can do it!

Turns out that sit-ups from a prone position are not advisable for someone, however fit they are, who hasn't done Pilates in a while. Attempting this, even though it was a really good attempt that didn't leave me feeling too strained immediately afterwards, can lead to a serious back injury. It can lead to an inability to simply place your leg into your pyjama bottoms going to bed the following night. That leads to not being able to walk the next day. A simple act that can lead to being practically bed-ridden on a downstairs sofa for two whole weeks, until you're eventually admitted to hospital with your doctor's words of  'immediate MRI ..... and..... concerns of paralysis' ringing in your ears.

Never doubt the agony of a bulging disc lying on a sciatic nerve.

And all because of , in my opinion, a very improperly taught Pilates class.

See, the problem with Pilates classes here in Ireland is that anyone can teach them and there seems to be no watchdog and no Board of Registered Pilates Instructors to oversee that everyone is safe - I did ask. As I understand it Gym Instructors can receive Pilates training as part of their over-all training - or receive additional Pilates training - they then adapt and adjust their knowledge to fit the gym-based class ethos.

Last summer was ruined for me and my family, and last Autumn and Winter too, but I now know how to keep safe when practicing Pilates - yes, I'm back at classes!

The gym I attended on that fateful day will not accept that the way their classes are taught makes them culpable in any way and they consistently maintain that their classes are beginners level!

Therefore I feel that it is up to me, as someone with a long background of dance, exercise and Pilates (see note below) experience to share what I have learned in order to help others choose their Pilates Class wisely and exercise safely.

If you are thinking of attending Pilates classes, or are returning after a long absence, then I urge you to consider the following when choosing your class:

  • ONLY ever attend Pilates classes taught by trained Physiotherapists or Pilates-specific instructors* (i.e. an instructor who teaches Pilates only.)
  • Ensure that the class you attend has only 8/12 attendees.
  • The classes you attend should be streamed in differing levels e.g. Beginners, Improvers, Advanced etc... 
  • Always start at Beginners level.
  • You should never be asked to do sit-ups from a prone position in a beginners class. N.E.V.E.R.
  • The class you attend will most likely cost more than €4.50! Expect to pay €15 which, in my hard-earned opinion, is well worth it.
  • A really good Pilates Instructor will spend time, every week if necessary, teaching you how to 'zip and hollow' in order to 'engage your core muscles' - and will repeatedly remind you to do so.
  • A really good Pilates Instructor will go from student to student on each exercise ensuring that your posture is correct and that you are therefore safe. This is simply not possible in a class in excess of  twenty people.
  • Don't just listen to your Physiotherapist/Pilates instructor...... listen to your body and don't continue with any exercise that causes any discomfort.
  • A really good Pilates instructor will constantly assess how each exercise affects each student and will not allow any discomfort.
  • A Pilates exercise should never cause you pain. 
  • Avoid Pilates classes taught in Gyms. If they don't tick all the above boxes then, in my opinion, they are not safe.

[*Update: Pilates teachers trained by the 'only licensed Pilates training centre in Ireland' - Stott Pilates - can be included in 'Pilates-specific instructors' above. Thank you Little Messers House for that very informative comment below! However I would still consider to this check-list no matter who the instructor is. For personal safety reasons.]

And what of me, one year later?

Well, I can happily say  that after months of pain and inactivity I am now, thankfully back on my feet. I am getting stronger and fitter and more flexible as each week passes. Ironically the one thing that has helped me the most is going back to Pilates classes! But this time I chose wisely - very wisely indeed. I now  attend a Petite Pilates class taught by Physiotherapist Hope Staunton and this 'group physiotherapy class' - as I like to call it - has been instrumental in my recovery.

In fact it has made a new woman of me and has almost restored me to my previous flexibility!

If you have any similar experience or any thoughts or advice I'd love to hear from you.......

Take care......

Note: I have previously attended Pilates classes taught by a Pilates-specific Instructor, a class taught by a Gym Instructor and am currently attending a class taught by a Physiotherapist, so this blog post  is therefore based on these and my recent painful experiences.


  1. This is a timely read for me, I'm meant to be starting a new Pilates class tomorrow at lunchtime. Think I might postpone and work on my Physio exercises a bit more first!

    1. Just make sure the class ticks all the above boxes! Most importantly, no matter how fit and bendy you may be, make sure it's a beginners class and that you listen to your body ;) Good luck!

  2. Oh Val I had no idea that's what caused your back problems. I'm so glad to hear you are on the mend now.
    I went to a mixed levels class, over 20 in it. It was cheap, nothing was mentioned about zip and hollow.
    The teacher didn't have time to check what we were all doing.
    I sprained my neck. Never again.

    1. @Magnumlady: I am so sorry to hear that Val. Sounds like your experience was very similar to mine. This issue needs discussion, doesn't it? And Pilates needs regulation.
      Ironically you'll probably find that like me a correctly taught Pilates class by a physiotherapist would help with your sprain. I found that it took a lot of courage for me to go back to Pilates classes.... I agonised for a couple of weeks about it but am ultimately glad that I did. But, again I say..... choose your class wisely. x

  3. Oh my goodness! What an ordeal! You poor thing.
    Thanks for sharing your advice.

  4. @Sadbh @ Where Wishes Come From: No problem! Please do bear in mind if ever you intend taking up Pilates!

    Some @twitterfollwers: Thanks for the interesting conversation that this sparked yesterday. It would seem that I am definitely not alone in my Pilates experience.

  5. Great advice, but so sorry that you had to go through this ordeal in order to be able to inform others xx

    1. @Looking for Blue Sky: I have been meaning to write this post for the past year! I'm glad I waited though as I now have a happy ending and have proved that the best Pilates classes are taught by Physiotherapists! In my opinion. xx

  6. Very useful information should I want to start Pilates in the future. At present I go to a small private gym three times a week. The trainer is great and also quite nice to look at!!! :-) xx
    I am SO pleased to hear that you are in better shape... crazy to think that it has taken a year.

    1. @Bright Side of Life: Well now, eye-candy is a real exercise motivator!! Yes, it's pretty much taken the year and is still a work in progress to a certain agree! Please do take this into consideration if you're taking up Pilates.... or if you know anyone who is! xx

  7. Just wrote a monster of a comment and it disappeared - ah the joys of technology! I am so sorry to hear that you had such an awful experience :( You've gathered a very good checklist for anyone thinking about starting pilates. I would recommend to go to a Stott Pilates Certified instructor. There is only one Stott accredited training centre in Ireland and they are very strict with you doing your hours, you need to do a certain amount of self practise, practise teaching, and observation hours before you're even allowed to take the exam. You also need to do a certain amount of credits (=training!) during the year to stay certified.

    What comes to coming up into a fully seated position from lying on your back, we may attempt to do that even in a beginners class but the client needs to be prepped for the exercise properly. Most beginners (or even improvers for that matter!) aren't strong enough to do it from a neutral position but should attempt the exercise in imprint with pelvic floor and transversus abdominals properly engaged before cueing them into a lift. Funnily (well, sadly!) enough, I had a very similar experience myself recently at a gym where the instructor didn't explain at all how to properly engage your core muscles (which ones, how to do it) or even explain how to safely get into a starting position or come out of it! I thought that maybe I'm just being overly critical, but reading your post and the previous comments, I don't think so! I am glad to hear you are on the mend, but very annoyed at the same time that some people don't seem to appreciate the safety of their clients!!!

    1. @littlemessershouse: Thank you so much for your perseverance in getting your detailed and helpful comment up here! I didn't know about Stott Pilates, it didn't come up in my google searches, but thank you for bringing it to my attention. This would come under my 'Pilates-specific instructors' and at least you' d know that they are extensively trained!

      I would still be on the look-out for my check-list markers for both physio and pilates-specific taught classes though. They can still differ and engage in unsafe practices.... as you say ignore the safety of their clients!

      As regards straight sit-ups from a lying-flat-on-your-back position I would have to disagree with you there! In fairness, in that fateful class, the gym Pilates instructor DID offer different levels of that particular exercise and as an ex-dancer (with naturally strong core muscles - which I engaged!) I gave it a go. I shouldn't have. And if he'd asked the question 'who's new today' I would have told him ...and then he shouldn't have let me do it. (I thought I was being over-critical too....until the pain hit!!) The original physiotherapist I went to for rehab was absolutely horrified that this was done in a beginners class!! We are nowhere near attempting it in my current beginners physio-taught Pilates class. My experience is what makes me encourage everyone, no matter their fitness levels, to start in a proper (NOT streamed) beginners class. Just to be safe.

      Thanks again for your comment, I'm going to update my post to include this if that's ok with you? x

    2. Thanks for replying to my comment and of course you can include that into your post :) The main thing with any class, be it pilates, dancing, boot camp or anything where we are moving bodies, is safety and you need to be able to monitor your clients throughout.

    3. @littlemessershouse: Thanks for your quick response, blog updated now :-) And I entirely agree with on that!

  8. Thank you for this post! I've been thinking about doing pilates, and I'm glad to have your words of wisdom (unfortunately at your expense)! That's great news that your back is feeling better now. I am coming out the other side of months of back pain myself. It has been awful. I'm looking forward to leaving it behind :)

    1. @Tanya Savko: Sorry to hear you've had painful back issues too. So debilitating isn't it? Ironically, for me, the thing that caused my injury is also the thing that is now helping my recovery....i.e. Pilates. The difference is I'm now attending a properly taught Pilates class by a physiotherapist! I really do recommend it. I feel distinctly better, stretched even, after every class. Glad you're feeling better too :) x

  9. oh you poor thing! I had a similar experience of dodgy teaching in a yoga class. Luckily I followed my own body and stopped whenever it didn't feel right (dancer here too, but latin dance) There were complete beginners in the class and I was horrified there was no one-on-one attention given.

    1. @Muuka G: Ooh....latin dancing.... never studied it but LOVE the style! I'm so glad you were sensible and followed your body. The thing was, my body didn't object TOO much at the time....the disc bulged over the rest of that day I believe :( It's scary how these instructors have no watchdog, isn't it? The basic thing I firmly believe is that these classes should NOT be streamed/mixed levels AND they should be small in number to allow one-on-one attention.

      Thanks so much for your comment.


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