Who knows best – instructor or client?

whippet with ear raised

Let’s talk about “difficult” clients. If a new client came to you hobbling on crutches due to severe, recurring, unexplained SI joint pain with a history of broken ribs, lower back pain, broken knee cap, severe ankle injuries on both sides as well as kidney disease, what would be your first reaction? Would you be tempted to run a mile while screaming “f*** no!” Or would you embrace the challenge and see it as a chance to expand your knowledge, learn from your client and come up with some new moves?

“Learn from the client”? I hear you ask. “I thought they are supposed to learn from us”. After all, aren’t we the professionals with years of training and experience behind us?

Yes, hopefully we are, but is that to say that we always know what’s best for our client? This is a question that I continually ponder and feel very strongly about. One of my pet peeves, no, more than that, something that really, really p*sses me off is “know-it-all” instructors.

So what is a “know-it-all” instructor and how does one get to be one? Well we are all taught to teach. No matter where we trained, we are all shown pilates exercises and how to do them. We are also taught how to teach them and hopefully what each exercise is meant to achieve and how it should be properly executed. But somewhere along the line we learn that there are different ways to do the exercises and different approaches. For me, a “know-it-all instructor” is one who believes that their way is the only way or the best way and is very strict about enforcing this way on their clients regardless of how the client feels about a particular exercise or, more importantly, how the exercise makes the client feel.


I am an injury hoarder. When a client presents with a certain injury or problem, inevitably I end up with it too. It’s like I somehow suck it out of them. It may be months later, or even years, but I get there. From the endometriosis that one client told me about and I later developed to the scoliosis that I have just discovered that I possess due to a previously undiagnosed birth defect in my pelvis. Not forgetting  the  breast cancer  and resulting surgeries,  two knee surgeries,  repetitive strain injury, upper back and chronic rib pain. I go above and beyond the call of duty to help my clients. Not content with just working with them, my body seems to need to know exactly how it feels to be them. I could joke that I do it on purpose so that I can better empathise with my clients and be a more effective teacher, but I don’t actually find it very funny. In fact it is a downright pain in the whatever.

When I recently mentioned all my ailments in a moment of madness to a matwork class full of my most loyal and dearest clients, they all joked that I’m a terrible advert for pilates. But, as I pointed out, despite all of this, I am still teaching some pretty advanced classes, am very active, looking after a 3-year old AND I still go to dance classes and ride around on a scooter. Would I be able to do all that without the Pilates? I think not.


I am not the epitome of health and don’t pretend to be (I know many health and fitness professionals try to project an image of perfection to their clients, but I am not one of them). Due to all my many injuries and ailments I have had to come up with a way of practicing Pilates that works for me. Just doing a simple abdominal curl or rotation can cause me significant pain in my ribs. I used to get severe pain (due to bursitis in my right hip) from doing side-lying leg abduction. And my neck/shoulder tension can get so bad that it has been known to cause migraines.

So what does any of this have to do with the subject matter of this blog? Well, over the years I have seen many instructors for group classes and private sessions and have had some great ones who really listened and worked with me to try to find ways to work around my various issues. But I have also had some instructors who took the “instructor knows best” attitude and did not take in any feedback that I gave them as we went along. One told me that that the pain I was feeling when doing side-lying leg abductions is a sign that I need to do more of them and left me suffering the consequences for days afterwards. I have also had instructors who, when I started telling them about my symptoms, zoned out and pretended to listen while obviously thinking about what they were going to have for dinner or how much they hate George Clooney’s wife (I know right?). One instructor thought that the solution to my tight neck/shoulders was to do lots of elephants, long stretches and other full weight-bearing exercises. Yep, that’s a great idea, let’s take your overly tight-shoulders and neck and do some exercises that’s going to put loads more strain on them! That’s sure to help.  (In an alternative universe maybe where dogs talk and unicorns prance about in fields of poppies. In this universe I spent the next couple of days desperately pounding on my shoulders and rolling them on tennis balls to prevent the migraine that I could feel coming on.)

So, this brings me back to my somewhat controversial point that is, wait for it… us instructors do not always know what is best for our clients. Yes, I will repeat that in another way in bold print in case you miss it. Sometimes the client knows best.

It is very,very important that we listen to our clients. We work with a body for one or two hours per week, whereas our client is in his/her body 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks per year, for his/her whole life. So can we even pretend to understand how they feel when doing particular movements? Yes, we can offer them a new perspective and definitely need to offer them guidance but if a client tells us that something does not feel right, even if we KNOW that what we are doing with them should be just what they need, then we need to LISTEN to the client, work with them and find another way. The worst thing that could happen is that we can’t find anything that works and move onto something else. But on the flip side of that is that we may actually learn something! We may learn that hey, this exercise does not work for this person despite what we have been taught, but I have now found another solution that does work which I can apply to other clients in the future.

I do all my best learning from my clients. Throughout my years of teaching, I have always taken on clients who others might call difficult. Ones with different conditions and various types of pain who have tried everything else and just want something to help them. Ones for whom traditional Pilates exercises are not achievable to begin with. Ones who cannot even consider doing a roll back and for whom even doing one very gentle side-lying leg lift will cause a week of severe back pain and spasms.

So in order to proceed with them and not spend a whole hour doing breathing, I have had to do two very important things: Listen and Modify.

There have been many occasions when I have been doing an exercise with a client that should work (say, to use the same example, side-lying leg lifts with a client who has very weak glutes). I have been taught that the exercise will work. I have read that the exercise will work. I just know that it will work! Right? Wrong! After two reps the client has a pained look on their face so I ask – “how does that feel?”. And they say that they feel like their hip/back/leg/whatever pain is about to come on. My head full of learning tells me that this can’t be. That this exercise works for everybody else so it MUST work for them too. They must just be whining or whingeing or are just too damn sensitive. So then, what do I do? I know it should work so, do I just keep making them do it because I know best and it is what’s best for them in the long run? Or, do I stop and listen. Really listen.

You know what I’m going to say now. Of course you do, and if you don’t then you haven’t been paying attention. I LISTEN!

whippet with ear raised

First I would try to see if I can make any adjustments to their positioning. Then I would see if there is a problem with the way they are executing the exercise. All the while asking them if they are ok and how it feels. If it still doesn’t feel right then I stop, make some notes so I will remember for next time, and try to find another way to achieve the same objectives.

By doing this for years (as well as attending some amazing workshops and courses and working on my own aches and pains), I have come up with some pretty unusual and effective exercises on both mat and equipment that work for the most challenging of clients. Am I going to go over them here? No, I am not. Mainly because I don’t have time having just spent most of my day at the hospital having vision tests after the sudden onset of ocular migraines (there I go again, taking on medical conditions so that I can better empathise with my clients).  And partly because some of them are quite complicated and are much better explained in person, which I plan on doing in a series of workshops in London. (The first of which takes place next weekend).

So with that last bit of shameless self-promotion, I take my leave. What do I know anyway? I definitely DON’T always know best (but sometimes I do).

Yours in fitness and cake,

Just Jen


ps. If you are interested in learning any of my modifications and more unusual exercise variations then I am presenting a workshop in Greenwich on May 20th entitled Just Jen’s Pilates Playbook – Unusual exercises for equipment and mat. Come along as I’d love to meet you! Click here for details.

Author: Jen

Jen Ainger is a 47 year old cancer babe, previous Pilates instructor and owner/manager of Eltham Pilates & Pilates 4 Scoliosis. Born and bred in Fredericton, New Brunswick in Eastern Canada she moved to the UK in 1993 (and now would like to tell you that she knows her “pants” from her “trousers”). She trained with Body Control Pilates in 2004 and opened the Little Pilates Studio in Greenwich soon after. The studio was sold in 2014 and she saw clients in her home studio until being diagnosed with terminal breast cancer in July 2018, a life-changing diagnosis that set her off on a whole new path in search of healing, a journey being recorded in her blog. Jen is currently living in Eltham, Southeast London with her husband, whippet and 4-year old son. (Jen is now trying to raise money to cover the escalating costs of supplementary treatment as mainstream medical treatment can only offer palliative care. You can help out by donating through her GoFundMe page by clicking on the link in the menu at the top right).

2 thoughts on “Who knows best – instructor or client?”

  1. Wonderful article Jen. You’re what Joe was all about. Thanks for sharing your pilates world with us. It’s ver much about the students isn’t it. I learn a so much from my clients and I’m thankful for them everyday.

    1. Thank you for your comments. I agree – it is, or should be, all about the students. But we need our “down-time” too of course!

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