Although Pilates originated nearly a century ago by physical trainer, Joseph Pilates, its popularity — particularly among women — has grown exponentially over the last 30-40 years. Many individuals who regularly practice Pilates tout myriad benefits including: increased stamina, increased range of motion, increased flexibility, improved posture, and increased muscle tone. One common concern, however, particularly among women, can be whether Pilates is more effective at toning muscle versus building or increasing muscle mass. Some women wish to strictly tone muscle via their Pilates program, rather than experience the effect of “bulking up” and increasing their overall mass. Others prefer to transform their bodies through an increase in muscle mass, while another subset aims to see a combination of results in both increased mass and tone.
Let’s take a look at what the research confirms regarding the benefits of Pilates, and specifically analyze whether the exercise itself is better for one (toning muscle) over the other (building muscle), or if you can simply formulate your routine to ensure you are obtaining the desired results to your body as well as your overall health.
What muscle groups are targeted through Pilates?
One of the most universally enjoyed benefits of Pilates is the ability to target a range of muscles (many of which aren’t affected by standard cardio workouts such as running or cycling) and provide a true full-body workout.
Some of the specific muscles Pilates is proven to most greatly affect include:
Stabilizer muscles: Pilates forces you work deep intrinsic muscles like the multifidi, which runs the length of and surrounds your spine, and the transverse abdominis, which is essentially your body’s natural girdle. Stabilizer muscles do just that: stabilize. They stabilize your spine, your pelvis, and your core. Focusing on what’s happening inside, and holding strong in your middle is what allows you to control the movements throughout your exercises.
Iliopsoas: These two muscles work in tandem, but are often difficult to find, let alone target with general exercises. Pilates is an excellent means of building the iliopsoas, which connect the lower spine and hip with the front of your thigh. The tiny iliopsoas is not something you’ll ever see in the mirror, but you’ll certainly feel its effects. It plays an important role in many everyday movements such as bending side-to-side and flexing your spine.
Buttocks/gluteus muscles — specifically the hard to target “under butt” area: Squats, dips, bridges, lunges, curls, and presses are all solid exercises for working one’s hamstrings, glute max, and glute med. Your “under butt,” however, is the hardest area to target and improve. It’s the area responsible for giving you a round, lifted tush (or, if not targeted properly, can cause the dreaded “pancake booty” effect). Pilates is great for toning the backside of one’s legs, as well as tightening and lifting glutes, and results can be seen after only a few consistent sessions.
Internal obliques: The body has two sets of oblique muscles — internal and external. Bicycle crunches work your external obliques, helping carve chiseled abdominal muscles. Static side planks, however, work your internal obliques. Similar to the transverse abdominis, side planks help keep your mid-section tight and flat. To achieve the best results, with your legs crossed, pike your legs as you rotate slightly to one side and then the other. By doing so, you’ve just met your internal obliques (and you will feel the effects accordingly).
Teres major and teres minor: Beneath your rear deltoids (the back of your shoulders) are two important muscles called the teres major and teres minor. They are important because, together with the much larger latissimus dorsi, they help to tighten the armpit, reducing unsightly arm flab. Triceps presses and pushups can work towards this goal as well, but engaging the muscles in your back is what most effectively sculpts one’s upper arms.
Inner thighs: Pilates is widely considered to be one of the few head-to-toe workouts available — a major aspect of its cachet with regulars. Finding a workout or exercise that targets one’s inner thighs can be difficult, but Pilates has you covered. Zipping in and extending out, focusing on your balance as you challenge against the natural momentum, effectively targets your adductor muscles.
How much muscle mass can I expect to gain?
Firstly, it’s important to realize that any type of exercise — from free weights to yoga — can increase muscle mass if that’s the intended effect you wish to see and you approach each workout by specifically focusing on that goal. Likewise, it’s just as easy to focus on toning muscles without gaining bulk with most exercises.
By default, Pilates is geared towards toning muscles as opposed to increasing muscle mass. Again, that’s not to say that you can’t build mass if you wish to do so. It simply means that if you follow the standard routine in your Pilates regimen, you can be confident that you will tone your muscles (several of which are not toned through other common types of workouts and are therefore unique to Pilates) without increasing bulk.
Pilates uses your body weight for resistance and focuses on working both small and large groups of muscles. Over time, core strength, flexibility, and muscle tone will begin to increase. Studies have indicated that maximum results can be achieved by working out at least three days a week. Additionally, for even greater results, it’s advised to combine Pilates with a few days of cardiovascular exercise.
What are the benefits (both physical and mental) of Pilates?
Physical benefits: The physical benefits of Pilates include an increase in muscle strength and tone without creating bulk. You can expect to see an increase in deep core muscle strength, which helps keep your abdominal muscles tight and toned. Pilates also improves your flexibility and posture, which can decrease your chances of sustaining an injury. Pilates is also an excellent method for easing chronic lower back pain, and preventing future back pain as well as injuries.
Mental benefits: The mental benefits of Pilates include an increased ability to focus. Pilates requires a great deal of concentration to coordinate your breath and body position during workouts. Joseph Pilates, the founder of the exercise program, often referred to his method as “the thinking man’s exercise” due to the improvement in memory and other cognitive functions that can result. Benefits of a clear mind (somewhat similar to those benefits found through meditation) include reduced stress levels, which is key to improving your overall health.
Can I do Pilates if I’m pregnant?
The short answer is: yes. Having said that, you should absolutely consult with your doctor while pregnant (and in the months following pregnancy) just to discuss any possible concerns from engaging in Pilates. Evidence has shown that aerobic exercise during pregnancy at a level great enough to produce a training effect does not adversely affect birth weight or other maternal and infant outcomes, and that it may be associated with fewer pregnancy-associated discomforts.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, in their position statement on pregnancy and exercise, recommend limiting repetitive isometric or heavy resistance weight lifting and any exercises that result in a large rise in one’s blood pressure. Pilates can be both isometric and high intensity. Hence, you will want to inform your instructor that you are pregnant, and may simply need to reduce the intensity of your workout slightly while pregnant (i.e. listen to your body).
Is Pilates effective for weight loss?
Although no highly regarded scientific studies exist to prove that Pilates contributes to weight loss, exercise in general is of course considered a critical facet of a well rounded approach to reducing weight (which also includes diet and lifestyle changes, increased water intake, portion control for meals, etc.). The simple fact concerning weight loss is that one must consume fewer calories than they burn through the process of exercise, regardless of what type of exercise and the frequency they maintain.
Ultimately, practicing Pilates burns calories, which can have a positive effect on weight loss. There is also the potential for a positive correlation between exercise and your calorie intake. Many who commit to regularly practicing Pilates will find that their commitment to eating smaller, healthier meals is also improved given that no one wants to negate the positive effects of Pilates by overindulging in poor diet choices.
Another source of motivation for committing to both a regular Pilates routine and a healthy diet involves research that indicates the expenditure during six different Pilates mat exercises can, on average, burn more calories than a number of other types of exercises.
A 165-pound person can have an average burn rate of 480 calories per hour during an advanced Pilates workout (which is similar to walking 4.5 miles per hour), 390 calories per hour during an intermediate workout (comparable to basic stepping), and 276 calories per hour during a basic workout (comparable to moderate stretching).
What is Reformer Pilates and are there additional benefits?
The Pilates reformer is a bed-like frame with a flat platform referred to as the carriage. Those who practice reformer Pilates are able to roll back-and-forth on the carriage via the wheels on the frame. The carriage is connected to the reformer by springs which allow one to set varying levels of resistance while pushing and pulling along the frame.
Hence, this can add an extra aspect into your workout that can be viewed as an added potential for improvement in toning your body. But what are the specific benefits?
Although reformer Pilates can be viewed (and participated in such a way) as a more intense workout, the benefits are essentially the same as a general Pilates workout. In short, it’s simply a matter of preference — which type of exercise program you enjoy and feel gives you the best results.
Benefits of reformer Pilates, just like standard Pilates, include: increased endurance, strengthened core, better posture, increased flexibility, etc.
In conclusion, Pilates is an excellent full-body workout that is likely to provide you with noticeable results after merely a few sessions. Moreover, committing to a Pilates program long-term can have significant improvements on not only your physical appearance, but also your overall health and well being.