By Ben Greenfield
What do Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna and many seven-foot-tall professional basketball players have in common? They all do Pilates. If you have no clue what Pilates is, or need a reminder, check out my article “What Is Pilates?”
Although I’m a fan of anything that helps you live an active, healthy lifestyle, there are plenty of myths and misconceptions floating around about Pilates, kind of like with yoga. Here are the five most popular Pilates myths:
Myth 1: Pilates Is a Good Way to Lose Weight
In the article “Does Yoga Burn Calories,” you learn about several studies that have shown yoga to be relatively ineffective in directly burning calories or causing significant weight loss. While Pilates has definite benefits, its strongest suit is certainly not weight loss. A 2006 study found that body weight and body fat was not significantly affected in adult females using a regular Pilates routine, and a 2004 study found that Pilates does help improve flexibility, but does not significantly affect body composition, even after six months of training. So when it comes to pure calorie burning and fat loss, running on a treadmill, riding a bike or lifting weights will be more effective than Pilates.
But because Pilates does such a good job strengthening your core, reducing risk of injury and improving your flexibility, it will help keep you from getting sidelined with an injury — which means you can work out more consistently. You may also be more likely to exercise in other ways, since you often find yourself visiting a gym or a health club to take Pilates class.
Myth 2: Pilates Is Only for Women
Because it does a good job strengthening lower abdominal and pelvic muscles that are important for a woman’s childbearing, reproductive and urinary function, or because it doesn’t involve heavy steel, grunting or large amounts of weight, Pilates is often perceived as a “women’s only” activity.
But nothing could be further from the truth. Firstly, Pilates was invented by a man (Joseph Pilates). Secondly, plenty of male athletes (including yours truly) use Pilates moves as a perfect complement to weight training and cardio. Want more proof? How about Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, Hugh Grant and many other male athletes and celebrities? They use Pilates to maintain core strength, flexibility and function.
Myth 3: You Need Special Machines for Pilates
It’s true that one type of Pilates workout requires the use of special machines — those strange-looking contraptions with unusual names like the Reformer, the Trap Table and the Wunda chair. These collections of springs, bars, pulleys and straps can give you a productive workout, but they’re not completely necessary, because there is another type of Pilates that is done on a simple mat.
All of the basic movement principles of Pilates can be incorporated into a mat workout. So you don’t need to find a special Pilates studio or buy complex and expensive equipment to get the benefits of Pilates.
Myth 4: Pilates Will Make You a Lot Stronger
Pilates will significantly improve your abdominal muscular endurance, since you will spend much of a Pilates class performing abdominal, lower back and core specific exercises. If you are starting at a lower fitness level or with a weak core, you can definitely make these areas stronger with Pilates.
But you should not rely upon Pilates as a way to improve your full body strength, especially if you’re only doing mat workouts. This is because to get a muscle, joint or bone stronger, you must expose that area of your body to a stressful demand, like lifting overhead for stronger shoulders, pushing with your legs forstronger thighs or extending and flexing for stronger arms.
It’s true that in many machine-based Pilates workouts, like a “Reformer” class, you may find yourself performing these activities. But the average Pilates class at a gym focuses only on your abdominal or low back muscular endurance and your flexibility — and not on full body strength.
So I’d highly recommend that you do a full-body weight training routine two to three times per week if Pilates is your only other primary exercise method. And don’t forget to include cardiovascular intervals as well, since Pilates does not involve much cardiovascular work… unless you attend one of the terrific classes at Pilates Pro Works where each Reformer class includes cardiovascular interludes in order to get a full body workout.
Myth 5: Pilates Is Only for Your Abs
As you’ve learned in this article, Pilates is a good way to strengthen all the different sections of your abdominals, which is an important part of getting a flat stomach.
But in addition to strengthening your core, Pilates has additional benefits — primarily, the six principles that a good Pilates class should be based upon are:
- Centering — Bringing the focus to the center of your body, which can teach you how to use your core muscles to generate athletic or forceful movements.
- Concentration — Bringing full attention to each exercise and learning how to engage in high-quality focus.
- Control — Performing a movement with control and fluidity, which can teach you how to move more gracefully.
- Precision — Having self-awareness of your body’s tiny movements and knowing the alignment of one body part relative to other body parts and how your body is moving through space — which can help with athleticism.
- Breath — Using a very full breath in your exercises and thinking of your lungs as a bellows which strongly pump air fully in and out of your body, which you can use in other activities such as stress relief or sports.
- Flow — Performing your movements in a flowing, graceful manner, which can help you become a better dancer or athlete, or even simply improve your everyday posture.
As you can see, Pilates can help make your abs stronger or give you better muscular endurance in your core. It can also help you focus, breathe and move with more grace and flexibility. In a Reformer class, you can get stronger too. But Pilates won’t help you shed significant weight and a Pilates mat class will not make your entire body significantly stronger.
The bottom line: Pilates is great, but don’t rely on it as your primary workout, and especially don’t rely on it to burn significant amounts of fat.
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Ben Greenfield is a fitness and triathlon expert and host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast on the Quick and Dirty Tips network. His book, “Get-Fit Guy’s Guide to Achieving Your Ideal Body — A Workout Plan for Your Unique Shape,” will be published by St. Martin’s Press on May 8, 2012.
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