It’s a good question. Is Pilates a type of strength training, or is it something else? You might even be asking, what’s Pilates again? Whether you are a newbie or a veteran of Pilates, chances are good that you’ve heard that Pilates is good for improving core strength. In this blog, I will break down the benefits of Pilates that I’ve found the most valuable over many years of teaching. I will also present a few simple ideas that relate to strength training in general, and specifically, the benefits of integrating pilates and functional strength training together in order to maximize your results.
The short answer is yes, pilates is a type of strength training. Pilates tends to focus on core strength and has become well known and loved by a wide range of fitness enthusiasts, rehabilitative professionals, and dancers.
Let’s talk about core strength and the lower back. The low back is one area of the body that has absolutely NO other structural support (by which I mean bones) You’ve got the pelvis and then the chest, while the space between that is only the lower spine, hanging out by itself. So, it’s really important for digestive health, posture, circulation, and the immune system, that there’s enough tone and strength in the core to support the low back and support the internal organs.
Good posture has many benefits, beyond just making you look good and standing tall. I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve worked with that think of good posture as something that is rigid, forced, and uncomfortably effortful. I can relate to this feeling and even have a nickname for it. I call it “fake good posture” and it’s what happens when we try to force our spines into a shape that’s not actually accessible to us. This creates overwork and compensation, not to mention frustration and added stress to the system.
With a high-quality pilates workout, the flexibility of the spine is restored, which actually changes the bio-mechanics of how your spine is able to move naturally and organically. This in turn changes the way your muscles are able to work, stretch, strengthen, and tone. All of this is to say that pilates offers many benefits to restoring a healthy posture that is authentic, less effortful, and not rigid.
Another benefit of good core strength is neuro-muscular. Another word for that is reflexive or intuitive strength. If you happen to find yourself bending over to pick up a heavy box, I don’t want you to have to remember to use your core strength in that moment. I want you to be able to be exhausted and hungry, at the end of a bad day, and still be able to pick up that heavy thing without needing to think about it.
Unfortunately, the neuro-muscular reflex for deep core muscles can be negatively affected by injury, scars, chronic pain, or subprime movement patterns. This is especially true for low back pain or spinal injuries, in my professional experience. Pilates in general is known for strengthening the deep inner core, and the assumption is that this will improve the intuitive and reflexive use of these muscles.
This is where I have found incredible results when pilates is integrated with functional strength training, and have found something missing with pilates on its own. In this integrated approach, we start with restorative core strength exercises and slowly progress into movements that require greater and greater levels of coordination, standing strength, and eventually, possibly even dynamic power. What's really cool is that this whole process actually helps the brain to recognize functional applications as the movement pattern becomes more intuitive, reflexive, and organic.
You see, a lot of Pilates exercises, in my opinion, are too rigid, and too focused on hyper-stabilization. This isn’t always a bad thing, but it is possible to have too much of a good thing. I’ve seen many people become too good at Pilates (myself included) in such a way that creates hyper rigidity in the spine which actually is stressful for the whole body. I call it “moving like a robot” and it’s similar to fake good posture. Essentially anything that is too forced or rigid is not going to translate well for functional movement because the brain is conditioned to adapt and respond differently with every single footfall. We need good shock absorption in order to maintain healthy bones and muscles, and we need to have the functional strength to navigate the pressure of gravity without being rigid or weak.
A somewhat disheartening, but also an important example to point out is the fact that many women with incontinence issues are actually hypertonic, meaning they need to learn to relax almost more than they need to tighten or tone. Functionally we need both the ability to tighten and to relax, and we need an intuitive and reflexive flow (pun intended) between the two opposites, without moving like a rigid robot:)
Whew! That was a lot to think about! Are you still with me? Yeah! Many Pilates exercises are performed while laying on your back, often with a focus on good posture alignment. This is all good, but what happens if you have a knee that is out of alignment, and you stand up from your pilates workout? What happens then, is that all the good core strength you just found on your back is no longer entirely relevant to the body when you navigate gravity in an upright position, with one knee more bent than the other. Do you see what I’m saying here? I hope it makes sense because we can only have as good of a posture or a strong core when it’s working functionally with how we walk around in our daily life.
Understanding core strength as it relates to gravity and the rest of the body is something that is missing from most pilates workouts. Many strength training programs are also missing this postural awareness and also progressive and restorative approach.
It is a continued labor of love to some degree, that I continue to explore and integrate the many different methods that I’ve studied. Basically since the age of 5 or 6 I’ve been doing something active, most of the time with a high degree of competitive passion and drive. The bad news is that I’ve suffered from a long list of injuries and surgeries. The good news is that I’m able to draw from this rich history to serve my people with greater results and better outcomes.
This is also why I am thrilled to be re-launching the Functional Strength & Pilates Class. Every Saturday come take class LIVE with yours truly. Drop in via zoom, or in-person in Olympia WA. You will receive 3 days of recorded access to the recording and members have a private community hub to share photos, ask questions, and cheer each other on!