Pilates is defined as a training method that uses deep muscles to improve flexibility, balance, coordination and posture. Pilates moves are predominately advertised as exercises that will help you tone your body with low impact movements. That last aspect seems to be the main reason why health professionals tend to advise women age 45+ to practice those types of exercises in order to improve their muscle tone. As muscle mass decreases with age and hormonal changes (menopause) traditional type of exercises like weight training would be presumably more hazardous and could cause more injuries.
According to Breathe.edu.au, client demographics practicing Pilates were 96% women, with the most participation from age groups 45-54 (26%) and 55-64 (29%), with a more than half decline of participants after the age of 65+
Although we do not deny the fact that Pilates can help you build muscle to a certain extent, the approach itself lacks fundamental aspects linked to our biological movement patterns as humans. This is why Pilates doers aren’t able to retain muscle development as well as function as they age. The absence of consideration of these fundamentals could also cause you other problems such as chronic injuries on the shoulder or hip joint, seeing as Pilates cannot account for how to move your body differently. In this article we will dig into how Functional Patterns approach can help you build muscles in a sustainable way and why Pilates falls short of expectations.
Does Pilates Build Muscle?
There are more than 600 muscles in the human body separated in 3 types: skeletal, smooth and cardiac. The skeletal muscles are the ones moving the external parts of the body and the limbs, they contract and extend to generate force. They are the ones we can consciously control (outside of any specific medical condition preventing you from doing so).
Having muscle mass is essential to move your body in space, partake in sport activities, prevent injuries, maintain a healthy metabolism etc.
By putting your muscles under stress with resistance training for example it is possible to increase both the size of your muscles and the amount of force they are able to generate.
Pilates moves are often recommended when it comes to the importance of having a strong core to supports one's back, hips and spine. Pilates seems to be the go to activity for women especially to focus on those areas of the body especially as you get older. Doctors and other health professionals often recommend women aged 45+ to go to Pilates classes to reinforce that core region and also help them achieve an aesthetic goal of looking more lean. As a low impact activity Pilates is seen as much safer that any other strength training classes you typically come across in gyms.
Although seen from the outside it does not look like you could hurt yourself the reality is that the positions in which you practice Pilates moves (prone on a mat, sitting position, lying on your side or exercising on a machine) could easily reinforce some asymmetries already present in your body.
Yes, symmetry matters.
As humans we are bipedal creatures and it is mostly in that standing position that we interact with gravity. The vast majority of us have bodies that are twisted in one direction. You might notice when you look at yourself in the mirror that your left shoulder is lower than the right one, or that one side of your hip looks more forward that the other side. What it means is that your body has a preference of pattern to move in space, it might favor rotating your torso to the left more than to the right. The consequences in the long run? An unconscious overuse of the muscles and joints leading you to that left side. So although this might not feel like a problem for now later on down the line this could lead to pain and injuries and you will wonder where they are coming from.
With that in mind Pilates moves can help you build muscles to a certain extent but some of the fundamental questions to ask ourselves are how this muscle gain will lead to more symmetrical movement or how this muscle mass can be painlessly sustained. Although the intention behind the movements seems helpful, the position in which you practice them can give you an idea of the lack of transferability in everyday movements.
Can Pilates Replace Weight Training?
Pilates vs weight training is a subject often discussed on the Internet to try and determine which method would be the best to build muscles. The typical answer is that pilates is presumably better than weight training for strengthening the deep muscles of your back and core, to get a better posture, get some flexibility and get a lean silhouette. On the other hand weight training is described as a way of training your body to get bulkier muscles and get you overly stronger at lifting heavy weights or objects.
The general consensus between both techniques is that they are seen as being complementary: pilates will help you stabilize your deep structure and weight training will help you build muscle mass based on that strong deep structure.
That vision of how your anatomy works is unfortunately simplistic and far from how the human body actually operates. Isolating functions like flexibility, toning, stabilization is like isolating muscles of your body and train them without considering their relationship with one another.
Your myofascial structure works as a system where everything is interconnected.
That aspect relates to the fact that, as humans, our bodies are meant to primarily be able to run and throw in the most efficient possible way. For these movements to happen you need a subtle coordination of all the systems of your body to work together.
Carefully observe that picture of a kid throwing a ball:
You can notice many things happening at the same time: his upper body is rotated to one side, his back leg is extended, his front leg is bent, one side of his stomach muscles is extended and the opposite side is in flexion etc. All at the same time and operating at different ratios.
Unfortunately neither pilates nor traditional strength training will help you get to work your body as a system to make you better at these functions and help you build sustainable muscle mass.
Because let’s be honest, that’s where we all want to get.
Pilates and Lack of Results
The main sources on the subject of Pilates state that the whole philosophy behind the Pilates method is inspired by the ancient Greek version of a perfect man in development and balance of body, mind and spirit. From this statement the founder designed a series of physical exercises to correct muscular imbalances which would improve posture, coordination, balance, strength and flexibility. Joseph Pilates believed the spine was the key to physical fitness. Neutral spine alignment was deemed essential, and the method aims at developing the deep muscles of the back and abdomen to support your spine in order to promote a better posture. The whole notion of core strength that the method emphasizes on is therefore a central tool to achieve that neutral spine from which movements should be performed.
This whole theory seems valid and at Functional Patterns there are some points we definitely agree on. However the main question is: how is better posture, coordination, balance, strength and flexibility" achieved with Pilates? Let’s have a look at 6 of the main Pilates moves performed during classes and their claimed purpose:
The main problem with those exercises? The lack of functional context. The intention behind them is valid: You do need strong abdominal muscles coordinated with your breathing, you do need strong abdominal muscles to have a better coordination with your hips and spine, you do need flexibility. However, the more you work those aspects in an isolated way and furthermore the more you work those aspects without considering human evolution the faster your practice will lead to stagnation and will make you plateau. Statistics are showing that more than half the people who have started Pilates do give up after the age of 65+
The evolution of our species and of our modern societies was also correlated with the degeneration of our bodies being pulled away more and more from our initial natural environment. We spend less time outdoors benefiting from natural light, we eat more processed food, we spend a lot of time indoors being exposed to artificial light, our lives have become much more sedentary. Our modern bodies have lost the resilience we had as hunters gatherers. For that reason it is nowadays paramount to reconnect with these fundamentals (running and throwing) before even considering any other form of exercises that would make us more dysfunctional and prone to injuries.
Functional Patterns and Muscle Mass
Your muscles do need some stimulation to not atrophy, and the less you use them, there is a higher chance of them shrinking. But here is a very important fact: the way you move your body in space will be the main element to consider to build and maintain your muscles with age.
As stated previously our human species has evolved with a biological blueprint that make us prioritize 4 functions: standing, walking, running and throwing. Just like cheetahs are built to run fast on all fours we humans are built to primarily accomplish these 4 functions. What it means is that the way our muscles have formed on our bodies are related to these 4 functions. At Functional Patterns we realize that the closer your training relates to these functions the easier it is for your body to sustain and add muscle mass. For the simple reason that your musculature is then being built with a function that corresponds to how you were meant to move. If we have glutes that have the shape and the size that they have at the back of our bodies it’s because they are designed to make us run and walk. They are also linked to the rest of the back chain for example the muscles of your back and your hamstrings. If you train them in a prone position in a Pilates move like the bridge for example (find a useful breakdown of that movement here: https://functionalpatterns.com/blogs/articles/move-better-to-lose-weight-where-pilates-misses-the-mark-and-what-to-do-instead?_pos=1&_sid=13939a787&_ss=r) you are missing the main element of using them to do a hip extension and actually propel yourself forward using a horizontal force. Trained in such a short sighted way your glutes will need a much higher maintenance rate to stay toned.
Pilates is a form of strength training that will help you build muscle only up to a point. The lack of consideration of the fundamental aspects of our human musculature and the type of exercises can only bring you so far before eventually becoming detrimental.
Working your body as a system while considering the reason why and how the muscles have formed on your body will be paramount to counteract the effect of muscle atrophy linked with aging.