Most of us can relate to the discomfort of pain at some point as we travel through life. Students often come to us with some form of chronic pain, such as lower back pain, arthritis, or a fussy hip. As Pilates teachers, it’s our job, and our passion to help you get moving in all the ways you want to keep living and enjoying life to its fullest.

You should never be in pain during your session – and in Pilates, we don’t encourage you to “work through” or “push through” pain. You might think that “toughing it out” is the way to go. But honestly, there are different paths toward greater strength, agility, and balance.

Pilates is in the category of mind-body exercise and produces all those gains in a low-impact format while still providing full-body conditioning.

So, what can you expect from a Pilates session and giving your teacher the inside scoop on where you’re at and what you’re working on? I’ll give you a peek inside a session, as well as tips on how to make the most of the appointment time with your teacher. Especially when it comes to communicating about pain or pain management, and discomfort vs. the effort of new muscles working!  I’ll also go over some quick and easy-to-do Pilates exercises for getting your body moving after typical energy-depleting scenarios.

By the way, energy-depleting scenarios accumulate in your body as stiffness and pain. It seems counter-intuitive because it’s those times you’re tempted to stop moving. Mindbody movement needs your mind to help tell your body – “hey, we can just do something simple.” Then, it’s not so intimidating. So be sure to go through to the end to see those exercises you can easily add to your day since they can be done in just a few minutes.

Your Health Background + Dynamic Assessment

In addition to your goals, your Health History is a vital component to stepping into your sessions with any Pilates teacher, and we take it very seriously!  After you’ve finished physical therapy, regardless of whether you’re new to Pilates or are experienced, when you fill out the New Client Intake Form, be sure to include the most recent situation, any other current conditions, traumatic injuries, significant pain, or discomfort you have experienced in the past.

This should include any prior surgeries, even if you’re fully recovered. And any circumstances around giving birth. As much as we’re working on the whole body, knowing this level of detail beforehand paints a picture for the teacher, who can then better tailor a Pilates program specific to your needs.

During the session, as you’re in the midst of movement and getting to know Pilates, your teacher is simultaneously doing a dynamic assessment, taking your health history into consideration.

Awareness and Specificity is Key

It’s important for us teachers to know if you experience chronic aches & pains or if you have pain during a particular movement. My first tip is for you to observe yourself and share specifics about discomfort or pain. We can then ask you some questions to investigate, and then, together, we fine-tune. 

Remember, we’re not here to “tough it out” and push our muscles to failure. It’s important to own your part of the 2-way communication and speak up about pain or not feeling confident of a particular exercise.

It’s ok to ask “where am I supposed to be feeling this?” Believe it or not, because Pilates has such a different approach than other kinds of workouts, this is a common question, so you don’t have to assume anything. It’s better you ask, especially if this is totally new for you. 

Keep It Simple

On the other hand, if you’re getting back to being active, the discomfort you may be feeling could simply be from reactivating muscle groups that have been dormant for a while. We’re “waking them up!”  If you’re coming from finishing physical therapy, it could be a new sensation that muscles are working correctly. I encourage you to discuss what you’re sensing with your teacher; it helps them know whether they’re on the right track!

While it can be helpful, you don’t need to use technical terms in order to be specific either. Here are some examples:

  • My knee hurts when I go up the stairs, but not when I’m going down.
  • Instead of being a joint or nerve issue, it feels more like a pull or strain. 
  • It’s a dull ache that feels like it’s in the muscle here (point to where it is), and it seems to be the worst when I first get up in the morning.

Examples that don’t give enough detail:

  • This bothers my shoulder
  • I feel it in my neck
  • Something is going on with my wrist

It’s absolutely OK if you don’t know another way to describe what you’re feeling. It’s better to mention it, regardless. Your teacher can then ask you follow-up questions to clarify.

Don’t Miss the Moment, Speak UP! 

During sessions, I’ve had clients admit that they felt discomfort during such-and-such exercise 20 minutes ago. Now that I’ve found out well afterward, that’s helpful information. However, we missed a valuable opportunity to direct change at the moment when it would have had the most impact. That’s super important for brain training and the learning process. The dialogue is part of the foundation of your session, so don’t overlook it!

Another important tip is about after having received clearance to return to or start a Pilates program after physical therapy. One of the first things you should share with the teacher is whether or not your doctor or physical therapist advised you about contraindicated movements. These are movements that are meant to be avoided with your current condition or phase of healing.

While identifying what’s to be avoided may sound like a negative, believe it or not, we Pilates teachers can get really excited about this. I know I do! Here’s why: we have a passion for problem-solving. We want you to succeed and get to your goals. Even if it means taking, or making a different route to get there.

Find Your Pilates Partner 

In the event that you are dealing with a situation like a special surgery like a mastectomy, fusion, or joint replacement,  look for a teacher who understands your situation. Most Pilates teachers will have dealt with similar situations before – it’s fairly common in our industry as we work alongside health and wellness professionals. 

EMPS Pilates Teacher and Studio Owner Sarah de Guia with client on ChairAsk for examples of them having worked with someone with your condition or situation, and listen for them to provide how they’re able to modify and still make progress with goals.

Communicating about pain is important, and if you’re experiencing something truly uncomfortable, or that you question, you want to feel free to ask your teacher if there is anything you could do differently before opting out of a particular move.

For instance, one thing that is really important to me about working with clients who have a situation like this, is always giving the option to interrupt an exercise or change direction for the program that we’re doing at the moment. As I mentioned before, it’s better to change in the moment, so that the adjusted move can have a more positive impact. It’s especially important in these cases NOT to “push through.” If you feel hesitant or fearful, it creates negative stress, that you’re then adding into the mix.

I find that when a student has this option to communicate right away, that’s a signal of being fully present, and we can work together to shift gears. In turn, I look to the student to know their body well, so that we can keep a good flow for the program while we adjust.

Easing Discomfort with Ease-full Movement

Be it a full weekend of gardening, a round of volleyball, or trying to clean your entire house in under 4 hours, you may find you’ve occasionally pushed a bit too hard. Does that mean you should skip Pilates altogether?

Ok yes, allowing yourself days to rest and recharge is just as important as the days you push yourself to go a little harder, whether it’s at the Pilates studio or not. But rest doesn’t necessarily mean falling into the urge to curl your body on the couch and binge-watch last season’s Bridgerton or (insert guilty pleasure TV show here.)

Doing that will likely not recharge you, but in fact, make you feel even more tired and stiff. But, here’s the thing. I’ll bet you know that already. So, movement would in fact, be more restorative.

Your Restorative Movement Tools

Pilates can offset pain symptoms because it creates flexibility and improves the overall movement and conditioning for the body, and the mind-body. 

For example, students sometimes arrive feeling stiff or sore; perhaps a little scattered or stressed. When they leave, people often say they feel as though they’ve gotten a massage, and are more centered. Pilates truly can refresh. I’ve had more than a few students say “I feel like I have a whole new body!” when they finished their session.

Here are some examples of energy-depleting scenarios and the re-energizing movement alternatives that are easy to do and will get the doldrums out of your body with just a few reps!

  1. Sitting at your nine to five desk job all day takes a toll on your spine. Despite your best intentions, slouching and poor posture has a cumulative effect. Before you know it you feel kinks in your neck or lower back. Humans were simply not meant to spend that much time in a stationary seated position. Building your back strength helps to make better posture easier, and prevents back problems as you age. Sitting all day also negatively impacts your breathing, which in turn impacts your brain function and your memory.

Your Re-energizing Move – Swan Prep: Lie on your stomach with your legs extended and your arms by your sides. Your arms are not the main mover of this exercise, as this is NOT a push-up. They, along with your upper back and abs make an equal effort in the lift. Lift your head off the floor and slowly allow your chest to follow. As you gently extend out and up, focus on the lengthening aspect. Avoid compressing your low back by squeezing your glutes and tucking your pelvis. It shouldn’t feel pinchy or stressful to your back. Only go as high as you feel the stretch for your low waistline, front and upper back. 

Your aim: Rather than the focus of pushing up (again, this is not a push-up), realize that you’re countering that pill-bug-shaped slouch by lengthening the front of your body. Think about becoming more elastic and returning the stretchy space to your middle.

Slowly lower back down. Repeat 3-5x. For a more in-depth look, also check out this blog on the Pilates Flight Fundamental. 

2. You’re finally out of the office for a getaway weekend. For instance, visitors like yourself come to the Windy City, and undoubtedly look forward to spending the day seeing the most popular sites. Shopping on Michigan Ave, snapping fun photos by “the bean” at Millenium Park, and taking in an exhibit at one of the many museums. Despite your continuous argument for natively walking the urban landscape, you have to admit that your hips are feeling a little sore the next day from standing in lines or tromping on the pavement.

Your Re-energizing Move – Knee Sway: Lie on your back with your arms out to the side in a “T” position, palms faced up, and your knees bent at a 90-degree angle.
Inhale and slowly rotate your hips, allowing your knees to drop to the right. All the while, keeping your shoulder blades and arms heavy to the ground. Feel the diagonal stretch in your outer left hip and thigh, and perhaps through your back and shoulders.
Exhale and engage your abs to slowly pull your legs back to the center. Repeat each side.

Your aim: Despite the name, instead of leading the movement from your legs or knees, lead from your center. Avoid making the knees so heavy in dropping that your back arches, or you can’t keep your shoulders on the ground. Move more like you would if you’re doing the dance 60s dance move called The Twist, except much more sloooowly. If you’re not familiar with that, just imagine you’re gently wringing yourself out like a wet towel.

3. Ok, sometimes life is just stressful. We all have those days when anything can make us snap, be it deadlines, bills, or family drama. There are times when taking a moment by yourself is wise, recognizing that everything will work out, and just breathing deeply is essential.

Your Re-energizing Move – the Cat Stretch: Come to a 4-point position face down, on your hands and knees. Inhale deeply as you leave your spine lengthened. 

Exhale fully as you round your back and shoulders. Keep your mind clear of the busyness, and focus only on your breath as you let go of sticky tension, and use each inhale of oxygen to mindfully invite a sense of cleaning out the mental clutter.  For even more, check out the 7 Keys to your Best Cat Stretch


The aspect of asking for what you need sometimes doesn’t come to the foreground in training situations for students because there’s an assumption that the teacher knows best. 

But the thing is that the teacher only knows what you tell them. And even though they’re really good at reading your body, no one can really know how your body is feeling, or what you’re thinking about a particular exercise unless you express it. 

The program should provide you with the tools that set you up for success, which is what every teacher wants for you. With that, here’s a summary of what to discuss with your teacher when returning to the studio after physical therapy or a time healing:

  • Whether you are working with your current teacher or a new one, don’t forget to share your health history and your goals.
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, what your pain levels typically are.
  • Ask your teacher if they have experience dealing with the condition/knowledge of working with someone with the same injury. 
  • Ask for examples of them modifying an exercise for your situation.
  • Discuss your desired pace and describe the level you like to work at.

Remember, most pain can be mitigated. It can be significantly offset by simply moving. Pilates is a gentle non-impact exercise that is often recommended by doctors and physical therapists once their course of PT has been completed. The important thing is to communicate and feel confident in the movements that you’re doing.

Working with you here at Embody Movement Pilates Studio will be a pleasure and we can’t wait to curate a program specifically to your needs!

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