Pilates: The Misused Tool?

Pilates is pretty popular, and has it’s die-hard fans who will tell you it is the answer to all your prayers. I don’t think it is, in fact I reckon it’s probably the most misused exercise class in any gym.

Why? Well, here’s a quote from an advert of a local pilates class:  “come join in our pilates group; get fit, lose weight and relax

Now my only problem here is the wording. Let’s start off with getting fit. Does Pilates deliver fitness?

No, not really. How shall we measure fitness? Strength? Ok, a novice should gain some strength doing Pilates, but nowhere near as much as by doing some resistance training. Or just crawling around on your hands and knees.

Shall we measure fitness as cardio vascular output? Again, maybe a complete novice will gain some mitachondrae development, but nobody else will. 20 minutes of brisk walking trumps an hour of Pilates every time when measuring how efficiently the body transports and utilizes oxygen and gets rid of carbon dioxide.

Shall we measure by flexibility and/or mobility (they’re different! I’ll keep saying it till folk get it, they are different things!)? Sorry guys, studies show Pilates is beaten by Yoga by a long way, and even Yoga is topped by progressive resistance training (I was once forwarded an email where a “qualified” yoga instructor says “…it is well known that lifting weights breeds shorter, less flexible musculature and damages joints. It is impossible to do weight training and maintain flexibilty - by its very nature, it depletes flexibility and I would have to question the knowledge of anyone who says otherwise.”)

My response: *rolls up sleeves* well every single scientific study into the subject has shown that resistance training can stimulate sarcomeral growth far greater than, say, static stretching, and that furthermore the tension within that it precisely what is required for the muscle to adapt that way. Tellingly, this is employed by all the sports teams who get paid on performance i.e. they use what actually works; secondly, we have Greek scrolls, wall paintings and mosaics dating back about three thousand years that show Olypians training flexibility in their hamstrings and low back by doing what looks remarkably like squats and Romanian deadlifts. These techniques are still used today. So perhaps some people are behind the times. By nearly three thousand years.

Boo yah.

Back to Pilates getting you fit . . .

Shall we measure fitness with proprioception (balance and co-ordination)? Sorry, again it’ll be trumped with Yoga which will be trumped with resistance training which in turn will get trumped with Speed and Quickness training (running around cones in various directions etc). It seems you’ll be better at standing on one leg by dancing round a plastic cone on the ground than you will by actually standing on one leg (there is science to prove this. I myself was surprised, but the human body is anything but logical).

I have to conclude that Pilates is a very poor choice of vehicle on a journey towards fitness.

come join in our pilates group; get fit, lose weight and relax

How about weight loss? To stimulate adipose tissue into releasing it’s hard-won stores, a number of things need to happen and I shan’t go too in depth here but none of them are really going to happen in a Pilates class. Again, more lipidal oxydisation will occur in 20 minutes of fast walking than it will in an hour of laying on your back waving your legs in the air.

The killer fat burning combination is nutrition+exercise, and for the record I will say that Pilates will be better than nothing on the exercise side, and for the elderly in particular there are quite a few Pilates exercise that are pretty good here. My deciding question is this: can you walk for ten minutes without holding on to anything? Yes? Then do something else mate.

In a nutshell, using Pilates as your fat-burning vehicle is like digging a trench with a teaspoon.

come join in our pilates group; get fit, lose weight and relax

Ok, you might find it relaxing. That’s a personal thing and very much up to you.

So how did the Pilates train get started? And why does everyone rave about it?

Well once upon a time some clever chaps called Hodges and Richardson noticed this funny muscle called the Transversus Abdominus would contract a split second BEFORE other muscles when subjects went from rest to moving.

The Transversus Abdominus (TVA) is corset of muscle, striated horizontally (few muscles are, interestingly . . .) between the rib cage and the pelvis. Suck in your gut to make yourself look thin - yup, that’s the TVA at work right there.

From that one piece of research (which is basically getting slated left right and centre these days, which isn’t fair because it’s not the researchers’ fault that everybody took the ball and ran with it) came Corrective Exercise, Functional Training and . . . the big drive towards Pilates. It didn’t hurt that Madonna got pretty into it and brought it into general awareness.

Pilates was originally a rehabilitation system for injured German soldiers during the first world war. It’s changed a bit since then, or perhaps developed is the better word, but is primarily a rehabilitation model.

Now when we run studies on test subjects we find that sporting performance, after some TVA strengthening work, changes . . . not one bit.

Sorry but it’s true - TVA strengthening will not make you run faster, throw further, lift heavier, kick harder and so on. I would add that some of the research was conducted by the American College of Sports Medicine back in the early naughties and they had a VERY big financial interest in proving that TVA work is good for athletic teams (remember the yanks pay ridiculous sums of money on sport, the ACSM would have made a killing off the NFL alone).

So what IS Pilates good for? Well as mentioned it’s a physiotherapy model, and as a physiotherapy model it’s pretty good - it makes the subject slow down and consider the activation of muscles both individually and as part of a chain; it strengthens joints and soft tissue with minimal/no impact; it encourages spinal weight bearing in anterior, posterior, flexed, extended, laterally flexed and laterally load bearing planes; it encourages those pesky scapulae to stay in one damn place while the arm/body does something, and oh, some people apparently find it relaxing.

So as you can imagine, while I have an issue with those who say “I want to get fit . . . I know, I’ll do some Pilates!” I have no problem at all with stealing some of the exercises and putting them into my clients’ programmes.

Also, I spoke to a guy once who said “I suffer with a bad back; it gets better when I do Pilates classes though, but when I stop the Pilates, the pain comes back again”. If this is you, or you know someone who also says this, look at it this way: there is something wrong with you (evidencing as back pain) you do Pilates and the pain lessons (you offset whatever’s wrong) then the pain comes back when you stop (no more offset, original problem is still there, pain returns).

This is because you’re missing the final piece of the puzzle. Pilates is rehab, rehab is a set of stepping stones. When you’ve moved forward a few stones, that doesn’t mean you’re on the other side yet. When a hockey player twangs his ankle ligaments and can’t walk, his hockey coach sends him to a physiotherapist. The physio makes him able to walk comfortably again, and passes him on to a trainer/sports conditioner, who makes him able to run and change direction again without re-injury. Then, once he’s able to do that, the hockey player is passed back to the hockey coach, who makes him able to run around and play hockey again. By which point, any and all Pilates exercises are no longer relevant or beneficial for him and would no longer be in his programme.

So any gains and progress made from Pilates is great, but you then NEED TO TAKE THE NEXT STEPPING STONE. Pilates is a vehicle, not a destination.

If that sign simply said “come to our pilates class - it’s good!” then I really wouldn’t have a problem with it.