The other day I booked a private session with a new Pilates instructor at a new studio.
It was a massive fail, and frankly it left me pretty upset.
Before we started, I told the instructor that I had herniated my c-spine disks a long time ago, but that I’m mostly fine now. I also mentioned that I had recently fallen down some stairs and smashed my low back, which currently hurts a lot. (Sigh.)
I also mentioned that I’m a personal trainer who used to regularly lift heavy weights, but that I’m currently on a break from it. She didn’t ask anything further, and I didn’t elaborate.
During our session, the instructor used a lot of vague and inaccurate cues that didn’t make sense to me, like “squeeze your hips,” and “make sure you feel your lower back stretching.” At one point I asked what muscles were supposed to be working, since I didn’t think I was doing a particular move right. She paused, and then said flatly “all of them.”
Clearly this lady was not well educated in exercise science, but I tried to let that go because honestly, I’d hate to miss out on an amazing experience due to linguistic barrier, ya know? I approach the body from an evidence-based science perspective, but that doesn’t mean everyone has to.
After all, when a dance instructor says “zip up your core,” I don’t stop class to point out that what they really mean is to “engage your transverse abdominus.” I just translate their message in my head, and I zip my damn core up.
So I figured this lady was no different: she was speaking Pilates, and I just needed to privately translate that into science.
But then she started trying to “fix” me.
At one point she told me my hamstrings were too tight. I smiled and started to tell her that they’re not especially flexible, but that flexibility for its own sake simply isn’t a priority for me, when she interrupted to talk and tell me I need to stretch them a lot, every day.
She even told me that my lower back probably hurts because my hamstrings are too tight– nevermind the fact that I already told her my lower back hurts because I fell down a flight of stairs.
At this point I was pretty irritated.
This lady felt entitled to assess my body’s “problems” and offer suggestions, which is annoying in it’s own right, since I specifically told her that my only goal was to “have more movement in my life.”
The bigger problem though was that her assessment and suggestions were completely unfounded. I do not need to stretch my hamstrings more, for example. In part because they’re fine just the way they are, and in part because a whole bunch of passive stretching has actually been shown to cause a greater sensation of tightness with very little increase in flexibility.
The worst moment in the session was when she said “you need to lift weights with your upper body, or you’re going to get injured,” without explaining at all why that might be.
I took this as a good time to practice clear, compassionate truth-telling.
I reminded my instructor that I’d been lifting weight for many years, but that I’m currently taking a break. She repeated that I need to, really stressing the word “need,” and using the kind of tone and body language you might expect from a doctor telling a patient that they need to lose weight or they’re going to die.
This is a huge problem.
First of all, convincing any client to feel MORE afraid of her body, MORE disempowered, and MORE broken, is the absolute wrong way to go, in my opinion. We’re constantly blasted with messages about our own limitations, as well as being told what we “need” to do.
What we really need is for someone to empower us to feel safe in and trusting of our own bodies.
Despite my clear intention to simply have access to the Pilates machine for a movement session, this instructor managed to find, comment on, and offer suggestions for like 5 things that were wrong with– and apparently dangerous– about my body.
My guess is that this tactic helps her sell pilates packages. Which, just… ugh.
The second problem with the way she led that session was that her assessments were inaccurate.
Despite clearly not having a decent grasp on anatomy or exercise science, she felt like she either could, or should, step way outside her scope as a pilates instructor, and talk to me like a physical therapist or personal trainer.
Which drives me absolutely batshit crazy.
The fitness industry seems to have some terrible unspoken rule that all professionals must know everything about everything– fitness, fat loss, nutrition, habit change, sleep, hydration, physical therapy, you name it. Pretending to know more than you do is the status quo for most fitness professionals, and this lady was no exception.
Trust me, I get it. As mortifying as this is to admit, I did the same thing when I was just starting out as a trainer.
Before I knew anything about exercise science, I probably told clients to “squeeze their hips” and “activate their core” too. I guessed about which body parts should be working during any given move, and I told them my answer with confidence. I definitely told people that they needed to stretch more, because it sounded important and people would always nod their heads in guilty agreement.
I told people this stuff because it sold training packages, and because it’s what all the other trainers did.
But the more I learned, the more I realized I didn’t know anything. My cues changed to become more descriptive and accurate, and less vague or impossible. I started telling clients when I didn’t know the answer to their question. I stopped giving unsolicited advice, and instead on empowering my clients to focus on their internal experience, so they could gather better information and make more informed choices for themselves.
I wish I could just chalk up my bad pilates experience to a bad teacher, but I’ve tried a hearty handful of teachers and studios now, and honestly it’s always the same.
I don’t blame any of these teachers for being stupid, or malicious. Honestly. The need to sound like you know more than you do comes from insecurity. That insecurity is dangerous and disappointing though.
My instructor was probably just trying to prove her worth to me– but the more she tried, the less valuable the session became to me. After all, she already had my $65; I just wanted to move my body. She didn’t need to find imaginary problems to solve, too.
It breaks my heart that so many instructors and trainers feel like they aren’t enough; that they feel such a need to do more, be more, know more, offer more value.
I’m sure this phenomenon can be seen in other industries as well, since it boils down to human insecurity.
Would you rather go through life inauthentically trying to convince everyone that you have value, or would you rather just show up as yourself and let that be enough?
Seriously, I’m curious. Hit reply and let me know.