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A HFE Pilates instructor guiding a class participant.
A HFE Pilates instructor guiding a class participant.

Pilates instructor qualifications

10 minute read

Whether you are a looking to enrol on a Pilates instructor course or just an enthusiast wanting some background information, this comprehensive guide to Pilates qualifications will be of great interest and relevance to you. 

Before we explore the numerous training providers and organisations that offer Pilates instructor courses, it is worth clarifying the fact that qualifications and continuing professional development (or CPD) are quite different, and it’s important for you to understand the distinction between the two.

What is a qualification?

A qualification will be certificated and quality assured by a regulated awarding organisation like YMCA Awards, Active IQ, City and Guilds or OCR, who themselves will be regulated by the qualifications watchdog Ofqual (Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation).

Other UK regulators include Qualifications Wales (Wales), CCEA (Northern Ireland) and SQA (Scotland). Broadly speaking, Ofqual (and other regulators) work tirelessly to ensure that the qualifications market is fit for purpose and that qualifications match the knowledge and skills required in industry (e.g. fitness industry) and the role (e.g. Pilates instructor or teacher).

HFE Pilates tutor using hands-on correct with students

The qualification will have a qualification number and you will be able to find this qualification listed on the Register of Regulated Qualifications. Broadly speaking, regulators work tirelessly to ensure that the awarding organisation ensures that the qualification is fit for purpose and that it aligns with the needs of the industry and the requirements of the role.

Employers, insurers and professional bodies across the world recognise the value of regulated qualifications and see them as a kitemark of quality and something they can trust. It confirms that the certificate holder has demonstrated that they have the necessary knowledge and skills to perform that role.

Starting out at Level 3 mat work

The starting point and foundation level qualification currently needed to teach Pilates is the Level 3 Diploma in Teaching Pilates. This can either be completed face-to-face at a venue such as a gym or studio, or as part of online Pilates teacher training.

This qualification is built around the National Occupational Standards developed by SkillsActive in the early to mid-2000s. These standards are currently under review by a working group associated with CIMSPA (since May 2019) who will be revising and developing professional standards for the Pilates teacher role.

Students taking part in HFE's Level 3 mat Pilates course

The working group consists of representatives from different Pilates schools (classical, modern etc) and qualification development representatives from awarding organisations who develop and certificate the existing qualifications.

The level 3 Pilates qualification has no official entry requirements in terms of prior qualifications, meaning it is open to anyone who has a keen interest and experience participating in Pilates classes. The course covers a range of subjects, including anatomy and physiology, posture, alignment and different posture types, history and principles of Pilates, how to conduct client assessments (including posture assessments) and how to maintain a safe working environment.

The bulk of the course focuses on how to plan and deliver Pilates sessions and teaches the full range of original 34 mat work exercises (suggested by Joseph Pilates), along with modifications and adaptations to accommodate those with different needs and levels of experience.

The level 3 qualification enables membership to professional bodies like CIMSPA and is currently the only qualification that is demanded by employers to teach mat work sessions.

Stepping up to Level 4

The Level 4 Certificate in Mat Pilates qualification is a relatively new addition to the regulated qualification framework. It is currently only offered and certificated by Active IQ and available from a small number of training providers who are able to meet the stringent approval criteria.

As you might expect, the Level 4 Pilates qualification offers a ‘step-up’ from Level 3 giving greater coverage of applied anatomy and physiology. It also requires greater understanding and experience of the original 34 exercises and their application.

Additional study units within the qualification cover how small equipment, such as Pilates circles, arc barrels, foam rollers and small balls, can be used to assist or challenge the performance of the exercises (original and modified versions). The programme also outlines how to tailor and deliver a range of ‘modern’ standing Pilates exercises, which offer another functional application of the method, and which are likely to meet a broader range of abilities and needs.

The level 4 qualification also provides the opportunity to specialise and adapt the Pilates repertoire to work with a specific special population – either older adults, pre and postnatal clients, or those with low bone density. There is also an optional module for working with children. Being qualified to work with and adapt for these specific populations can significantly increase the work and employment opportunities available to any Pilates instructor or teacher, and it represents a commitment to higher quality standards.

Continuing Professional Development

If a course does not lead to a regulated qualification then it is generally considered as Continuing Professional Development (CPD). CPD is how we describe learning activities or steps taken by professionals to enhance their skills and knowledge.

These programmes are largely unregulated, meaning the variability between providers is quite high. While some CPD programmes are rich in high-quality content and delivered by experts, others might not be, so it’s important to do your research. Furthermore, because they are unregulated, there is little incentive for some of the more unscrupulous providers to ensure quality standards are high.

A further point worth noting on Pilates CPD is that you should ensure that it is at least endorsed by a professional body, such as CIMSPA. This endorsement requires training providers to map their training against national occupational/professional standards to give you some assurance that what you are learning is relevant and credible.

Most Pilates equipment courses, like reformer Pilates, for example, are not typically certificated by awarding organisations or listed on the regulated qualifications framework (RQF). The main reason for this is that they are either too specialised for awarding organisations to replicate, and/or because the commercial demand for these programmes will be less and so it’s unlikely that they can monetise them as qualifications.

That said, many of these Pilates equipment courses are equivalent to a qualification in terms of rigor, learning hours, study time and assessment criteria. It’s also incredibly clear to see the value it would add to your teaching repertoire.

A final note and recommendation, particularly for those beginning to consider Pilates jobs and opportunities, is that employers and insurance providers will require evidence that you have studied with a reputable training provider to employ you and insure you to work using Pilates equipment. Sure, it still won’t make it a qualification, but taking a course with a creditable company that has positive track records will always leave you in good stead.

Pilates equipment courses

Training to work with specialised Pilates equipment or apparatus is a natural progression for teachers who have previously completed mat-based qualifications, either at level 3 or 4. Joseph Pilates developed and utilised a diverse range of Pilates equipment in his life’s work and so there are a variety of courses currently available. Joseph’s written work features prominently in our guide to the essential books for Pilates instructors, which is very much worth a read if you’re looking to expand your knowledge.

HFE students using a Pilates circle

As previously stated, Pilates equipment courses are currently only available as continuing professional development (CPD) activities as opposed to full qualifications, mainly because no professional standards have been agreed by the linked membership bodies (e.g. CIMSPA). That said, and as mentioned earlier, the study content and learning hours on training programmes offered by specialist training providers is equivalent to that required to achieve a regulated qualification.

The most popular and well-known piece of Pilates equipment is probably the reformer. As an apparatus, the reformer can be used for one-to-one training, group training and within clinical settings (e.g. physiotherapy and osteopathy clinics) for rehabilitation work.

It offers the potential to support a broad range of training purposes and meets various client needs, ranging from postural improvement and general fitness through to rehabilitation, sports specific training and working with specialist populations (e.g. older adults) and clients with health conditions (e.g. low back pain etc).

Reformer exercises can be used alongside traditional mat work exercises and with other Pilates apparatus (e.g. the Wunda chair, trapeze, ladder barrel, etc.). The potential uses for, and range of exercises that can be for the reformer are almost limitless. It is great to upskill and build upon level 3 qualifications and can open doors to other employment and self-employment opportunities.

In addition to reformer training, other equipment courses are available, which will be especially useful for those with an interest in setting up their own Pilates studio, include:

• Pilates chair – AKA Wunda Chair
• Spine corrector
• Ladder barrel
• Trapeze
• Cadillac

Some of these courses are usually shorter in terms of study hours but require the significant application of knowledge and are rigorously assessed.

Other CPD opportunities for Pilates instructors

Moving beyond the qualifications and equipment courses, there is also a range of other Pilates CPD courses and opportunities available.

Many of these opportunities are offered by providers that specialise in a specific style of Pilates. For example, classical schools will focus almost exclusively on the original 34 exercises developed by Joseph Pilates, whereas contemporary approaches will closely align with the original method but will seek to adapt it somewhat.

More modern approaches will significantly modify and adapt the original exercise to the point that a classically trained Pilates teacher might not even recognise the exercise as Pilates. These modern schools do still follow the main principles of the Pilates method.

Pilates teacher working with a pregnant client

These CPD courses can offer a variety of benefits, from enabling you to conduct Pilates with pre and post natal clients to using Pilates small equipment to advance your sessions. Here at HFE, we always recommend our students to continue learning far beyond the completion of their Level 3 course, and upskilling yourself through CPD is a fantastic way to do this. Furthermore, you can separate yourself from the crowd when looking for new class members, and really make a name for yourself from a business point of view.

Some of the more common examples of short single-day CPD Pilates activities include pelvic floor training, trigger points therapy, advanced breathing techniques and a whole host of other creative applications of the method. Those who are classically minded as far as Pilates goes will likely argue that such teachings deviate too much from the original approach, but the interpretive nature of Pilates is often apart of it’s beauty.

In addition to training and CPD, there are also specialist symposiums and annual training events offered by specific providers covering a variety of subjects from mental health, barre and zen work, bone health, hypermobility and various other related topics. Aside from learning more, these can also be great networking events and you are also likely to get to meet some of the famous faces on the Pilates scene.

For anyone wanting to visit the place where it all began, the New York Studio still exists today and frequently delivers training by a teacher whose lineage can be traced back to the great man himself.

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