Pilates is a term seldom heard in weightrooms, as it is primarily associated with dancers, movie starlets and more recently, late-night infomercials for exercise DVDs. But every once in a while you’ll hear about some famous athlete or sports team that has discovered the “unique healing and sports performance qualities of this mysterious and revolutionary training method.” Championing the cause is the news media, which finds it newsworthy whenever Pilates testimonials come from professional athletes in baseball, basketball, football and golf – along with a wide variety of Olympic athletes in sports ranging from volleyball to boxing. With so much positive publicity, you can’t help but ask the question “Is there really something special about Pilates?”
To answer this question, let’s explore the origins of the method. The founder of Pilates was Joseph Pilates, who was born in Germany in 1883. Frail as a child, Pilates was inspired to overcome his weakness and devoted himself to activities such as boxing, gymnastics and bodybuilding – yes, bodybuilding. And his commitment to achieving not just good health but also physical superiority was so successful that in 1912 he moved to England and was able to make a living as a boxer, a circus performer, and a self-defense instructor for the police.
Pilates reportedly developed his revolutionary training machines when he was recruited as a nurse during World War I. Looking for ways to enhance the recovery of wounded soldiers, Pilates developed many unique training devices, some using the springs of hospital beds for resistance. The machines Pilates invented include the following: High Chair, Reformer, Mat, Pedipull, Magic Circle, Cadillac, Low Chair, and the Spine Corrector Barrel – in all he had 26 patents. Along the way he developed a comprehensive training system that he called “Contrology.”
In 1925 Pilates emigrated to the United States, and on the trip over he met a woman named Clara. The two married and soon opened a studio in New York City where he taught his method. They became especially popular with dancers, and two of their most famous clients were Martha Graham and George Balanchine. Graham and Balanchine became legendary choreographers and referred their students to Pilates. Along the way Pilates wrote two books about his methods, Return to Life through Contrology
(1945) and Your Health
A nice story, but consider that many of Pilates’ devices resembled those used in gymnastics. The Cadillac obviously drew its inspiration from the parallel and horizontal bars used in gymnastics; and the Low Chair, High Chair, and Spine Corrector Barrel could be considered modified pommel horses. But the biggest controversy about Pilates concerns the claims he made about his methods.
Pilates Fact and Fiction
Those who promote this exercise program believe that the methodology is unique – that Pilates came up with the training methods himself – and there were claims that Pilates was “50 years ahead of his time.” But consider that when Pilates was developing his body, one of the most influential physical culturists of the time was Eugene Sandow, the legendary strongman and bodybuilder who inspired the Mr. Olympia trophy and the man who is often called “The Father of Modern Bodybuilding.”
Born 12 years before Pilates, Sandow opened his first bodybuilding gym in 1897 and in the same year wrote his book, Strength and How to Obtain It
. It could be considered coincidence, but many of Pilates’ teachings are similar to Sandow’s, such as using complex compound movements and the emphasis on relatively low reps and sets.
Pilates claimed his techniques were a superior method of increasing flexibility and improving posture by developing the abdominals and lower back muscles. He also considered it a “holistic” system that strengthens the body and stimulates the mind. Having dancers endorsing Pilates fueled these ideas, as dancers had the look that many women admire. Movie starlets also often became devoted followers (because, as we all know, the camera adds 10 pounds).
If Pilates and his future representatives had just stuck with their base clientele, then I probably wouldn’t be writing this article. But to expand their market, those who teach this method often attack the weight training community. One advertisement I saw claims that “Pilates lengthens muscles, whereas weight training shortens them, making them tight and stiff.” Seriously – does that mean all the exercise physiology textbooks I’ve read got it wrong?
Muscles shorten and lengthen to produce movement, but exercise doesn’t permanently make them shorter or longer. If the muscles could become longer, they would develop slack and instability. Such a claim reminds me of a cartoon that shows a “boneless chicken range,” in which the chickens are lying around motionless because they have no bones to support them!
As for the claim that weightlifting makes one tight or perhaps “muscle bound,” nothing could be further from the truth. Full-range weight training exercises increase flexibility, and weightlifters have exceptional flexibility. In fact, there are reported studies performed at the 1968 and 1976 Olympic Games showing that in measurements of flexibility, only the gymnasts had greater flexibility than the weightlifters.
Another ad I saw claims that Pilates “realigns the body, corrects muscle imbalances and helps to heal injured backs, in contrast to weight training that usually causes imbalances and overstresses the back....” Again, not true. Performing a structural balance program that includes full-range resistance training exercises will help correct muscle imbalances. Most of these exercises can be performed with simple barbells and dumbbells – you don’t need a fancy pommel horse to do it. And except for certain causes of extreme weakness, conventional exercises with free weights will adequately strengthen the so-called “core” muscles.
As for the special Pilates machines, one problem with springs is that resistance increases as the springs lengthen, and as such this resistance curve may not match the strength curve. This is why although cams are good for some machines, circular pulleys are better for others. In effect, you may get maximum resistance when your leverages are at their worst. Further, the resistance provided by these machines is minimal, and as such they are not effective for developing high levels of strength or muscular hypertrophy.
In explaining his exercise system, Pilates stated, “Everything should be smooth, like a cat. The exercises are done lying, sitting, kneeling, etc., to avoid excess strain on the heart and lungs.” Strain on the heart and lungs? What a bizarre statement – is Pilates just as easy on the liver and kidneys? Seriously, being smooth (and non-explosive, as cats are of course not explosive animals) is not necessarily going to transfer well to most athletic activities, with the possible exception of distance running. If you are going to perform a sport that requires ballistic movements and you will be subject to high forces, you need to use methods that provide this type of stimulus. This is why exercises such as power cleans have become so popular in the strength and conditioning community.
Another marketing idea is that Pilates offers much more variety than weight training – one advertisement has 800 exercises. I can easily come up with 800 exercises using just a set of dumbbells.
As for the claim that Pilates is an effective method for weight loss, it’s not – and one reason that most elite ballet dancers and movie starlets are so lean is because they are genetically suited for these careers – and the fact that many of them smoke and forget to eat food. The resistance level is too low to stimulate the development of muscle mass, and an increase in muscle mass is the fastest way to increase metabolism. The same holds true with the release of growth hormone, a key to decreasing bodyfat, as a certain threshold of intensity must be achieved to produce this response. And yes, the slow, smooth exercises performed in Pilates are not likely to cause injury (as they say in weightlifting, “Light Weights, No Aches), but the consequence is that their benefits in regards to being able to produce significant changes in body composition are minimal.
Regarding the testimonials, the ones given by professional or Olympic athletes often come after the fact. Certainly the professional football players who endorse Pilates did not develop their strength and power by getting pumped up on a Reformer! Oh, and consider that some of those athletes who are endorsing Pilates might be getting paid for their testimonials – I’m just saying.
Finally, I have to add that one of the problems with Pilates is the lack of standards for their instructors. The original Pilates course, I believe, took about 600 hours and included hands-on work. Now I hear there are Pilates courses that can be done online in a day. As such, the lack of standardization and control over those teaching the Pilates system is a cause for concern because the consumer does not know if their instructor is competent to teach the method.
If getting stronger, losing bodyfat or developing other qualities necessary for higher levels of sports performance are not among your priorities, and you like doing Pilates, then go ahead. But the fact is when you strip it down to its basics and follow the science, Pilates is an inferior form of exercise.