According to the World Health Organization, worldwide obesity nearly tripled between 1975 and 2016. Today, we continue to see obesity rates go up with no signs of it slowing. We are living in the context of increasing sedentary lifestyles, poor coping mechanisms for stress, a food industry that prioritizes processed foods over fresh foods, as well as the increase of other medical conditions such as diabetes and heart disease which are becoming more prevalent among the general population.
Abdominal obesity or visceral fat developed around the core, otherwise known as belly fat, can be a stubborn area to address. If you have long suffered with excess fat around your waist, chances are you’ve tried a lot of different modalities, diets, and workouts to target this area. The truth of the matter is, you cannot target fat loss. Pilates, however, is a training system that claims to specialize in engaging the transverse abdominis (deep muscles of the core), which many assume leads to a more toned waist. While we don’t deny that it is possible for Pilates to help you achieve a more toned body, we know that context matters in regards to training the human body and that there are repercussions involved with training in ways that are detached from how our bodies are primarily designed to move. With this nuance in mind, this article will discuss the limitations and risks involved with using Pilates for fat loss and provide you with alternatives to sustainably lose fat and get the results you’re seeking.
What is Pilates?
Pilates, a method of exercise designed to stretch, strengthen, and balance the body, was designed by Joseph Pilates in the early 1900s. Over the years it has increased in popularity with various celebrity endorsements and media coverage claiming that it can help tone the body, enhance mind-body connection, improve posture, and in some cases reduce pain. With over 500 exercises which can be performed on a mat, in a chair, or using various equipment such as a Reformer or Cadillac, Pilates is intended to help the body move in a more controlled way, particularly by improving the stabilizing muscles of the spine, such as the transversus abdominis (corset abs). It is for this reason that Pilates is often thought to be especially good at toning your waist, reducing belly fat, and in some cases even helping to reduce diastasis recti (separation of the rectus abdominis muscles) in postpartum recovery.
Pilates for Fat Loss
Search the internet and you will find a vast selection of studies referencing Pilates for fat loss, Pilates for belly fat, Pilates for strengthening core muscles, etc. While we could discuss each of these studies, they are in many cases conflicting and beyond that, many are arguably irrelevant as to the value of the question being posed in the study. For example, let's look at one study which was published in 2016 in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness. In this study 37 overweight and obese middle aged women were split into two groups with one group doing 90 minutes of Pilates 3x/week (over the course of 8 weeks) while the other group did no physical activity. The conclusion: “The results of this study indicate that 8 weeks Pilates exercises have positive effects on body composition in sedentary overweight and obese women. Pilates exercises can be applied for improving body composition.”
The extent to which people go to sell the benefits of training methodologies, such as promoting Pilates for fat loss, by completing weak studies like this is absurd. First off, it is probably no surprise to any of us that doing 90 minutes of exercise 3x/week for 8 weeks will have a positive effect on one's body composition as compared to doing no exercise at all. For this reason we won’t deny that yes you “can” lose weight while doing Pilates. We also, however, know that many clients have come to us at Functional Patterns having “gained muscle” doing squats or deadlifts, or “improved their cardio endurance” doing 100 mile bicycle tours (all exercises we deem problematic that have been discussed in previous Functional Patterns articles). Secondly, if these are the types of studies being completed to sell the claims of the benefits of Pilates for fat loss without considering any of the competition or alternatives, then anyone can make anything a study in attempts to produce an outcome in their favor.
While we agree that strengthening the muscles around the spine is extremely important and therefore there could be some benefit to certain Pilates exercises (one possible outcome being fat loss), ultimately we know that training the body in accordance to its primary movement patterns matters most and Pilates does not go far enough in accounting for these factors.
Limitations and Risks of Pilates: Why Context Matters
When considering if Pilates is an optimal way to train we first need to consider the priorities of how the body was designed to move. As humans we walk upright on two feet using contralateral (opposite arm/leg) reciprocation of our limbs to help propel us through space. This prioritization of standing, walking, running and throwing (The FP First Four) is what anthropologists say has defined our movement as a human species and what has been necessary for our locomotion and survival. This is not to say that other movements aren’t part of human existence, but additional movements are considered a derivative of these top four.
So where does Pilates fit into this? Let's use the Pilates bridge exercise as an example.
The Pilates bridge is intended to strengthen muscles on the back side of the body (glutes, hamstrings and spine erectors) along with the core, while working to lengthen the hip flexors on the front side. While this may get you to feel your core or glutes more than before, that doesn’t mean that these muscles will know how to work together and stay engaged in everyday movement, such as with maintaining recruitment while performing squatting motions to clean your house, or helping you with walking when you go on errands.
So let's look more closely at the photo above while considering the following: How often in your day do you find yourself with knees bent while needing to drive your hips forward? Probably rarely, if at all.
How about with the image below? Are there times in which your hips are back in relationships to bent knees and then your knees straighten as you pull your hips forward?
Photo from the Functional Patterns 10 Week Online Program
If you’ve stood up from sitting in a chair, walked up the stairs in your home, or engaged in any other gait movement throughout your day this motion was present. You have needed to engage the muscles on the back side of your body (glutes, hamstrings, calves, spine erectors), along with those on the front (including those of the core and quads just to name a few) to create stability to either hold yourself upright or propel yourself through space.
From a biomechanics standpoint, if you do not maintain core engagement as, for example, your body moves through hip flexion, extension, and hyperextension while walking, then you are likely to run into various problems such as instability of the hips, knee problems, or lower back pain. For this reason the Pilates bridge becomes problematic because it neglects how your core needs to learn to engage when transitioning through various ranges of motion needed to improve standing or walking.
This lack of contextual relevance with training Pilates is further compounded in the following ways:
- While Pilates is said to help promote stabilization of the core, training is primarily designed in a lying down or seated position which (unless a person has a movement limitation prohibiting them from being able to stand upright) neglects the importance of developing neuromyofascial connections not only in a standing position but also in the context of horizontal force production (moving upright through space). With Functional Patterns, though we may sometimes train the body from a lying down or prone position, we are always relating that movement to the connections that need to be made in an upright position that prioritizes The FP First Four.
- Risking injury: While Pilates may in some cases help people improve their posture, most Pilates exercises do not take into consideration the amount of asymmetries or postural dysfunctions needing to be accounted for to avoid likelihood of injury.
It is an illuminating process when someone sees their posture photos and gait cycle footage during an initial assessment with a Functional Patterns practitioner as most people neither realize that they have (nor understanding the implications of) the scapular winging, forward hip shift, hyperextended knees, hip hike, etc. that we see in their footage. It requires extremely precise cuing to get someone to change their postural default and improve their movement; This level of detail is simply not accounted for in Pilates.
- Movement training that doesn't correct asymmetries in the body, which requires learning how to create neuromyofascial connections that improve The FP First Four, will cause degenerative vs regenerative stress on the body. In the long haul that stress can lead to further complications, one of which being excessive weight gain.
Move Better to Improve Body Composition
HBS Mini Wang’s client Before & After results: FP Taiwan
See her client in action in her Before & After sprinting results
How does stress affect body fat? As noted in this Functional Patterns post showcasing a client’s body fat, stress, and pain reduction results at FP Perth, “Perhaps a better question to ask is, how does your posture and the way you move influence the way you deal with stress?” This post goes on to share a clip from a National Geographic Documentary, Stress: The Portrait of a Killer, in which scientists discuss how they think stress could be a critical factor in the global obesity crisis. Not only could stress change the way you deposit fat on your body but also fat brought on by stress (and often distributed to the abdomen) is dangerous fat, considered much worse for you than fat carried on other parts of the body.
At Functional Patterns we believe that the reason people gain extra body fat is primarily because they’re not moving well which causes degenerative stress, putting the body in a constant state of deficiency or depletion. This results in the body not being able to heal properly nor shed excess fat because the body is constantly trying to make up for the previous stressors such as trauma, chronic pains, and overeating. As a result, you’re never able to reach an optimal baseline with health and body composition. This stress can lead to pain and further dysfunction in the body, making it harder to metabolize food and therefore more likely for people to overeat. This is why we place such an emphasis on teaching everyone, ranging from people struggling with severe physical and cognitive limitations to elite athletes, to prioritize the foundational movements that we are designed to do as humans. We find that improving movement not only helps people look and feel better but they also start to behave better through improving their mental health and reducing anxiety and compulsiveness, which can also be contributing factors to overeating and weight gain.
Some people turn to Pilates for fat loss hoping that's what is going to help them finally lose excess weight. However, losing belly fat and sustaining a healthy body composition is not just about eating less or building muscle. While Pilates can help you strengthen core muscles and with that lose belly fat, we don’t think it’s worth the downsides of risking injury through not precisely accounting for postural asymmetries, putting your body in unnecessarily awkward positions (including balancing on and over equipment which has added risks), holding stretches without integrated muscle support, as well as not taking into account the specific contexts of how our body is designed to work as a system. As a result of these factors, Pilates can ultimately increase the stress on your body and make sustainable fat loss more difficult.
At Functional Patterns we have shown that if you improve your Standing, Walking, Running, and Throwing as a priority, you will improve your well-being and be better equipped to deal with stress which is a more optimal way to sustain a healthy body composition.
Want to learn more?
- Check out our Results page to hear from Functional Patterns Doers who have improved their body composition by optimizing their biomechanics.
- Start moving better with the 10-Week Online Program.
- Find out additional ways to reduce stress on your body and in your environment by reading the article Top Foods to Avoid if You Want to Perform Better and watching FP HBS Mike Mucciolo’s video on the importance of sunlight.
- Şavkin R, Aslan UB. The effect of Pilates exercise on body composition in sedentary overweight and obese women. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2017 Nov;57(11):1464-1470. doi: 10.23736/S0022-4707.16.06465-3. Epub 2016 Sep 8. PMID: 27607588.
- World Health Organization. (2020). Obesity and Overweight. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight