Does Pilates Really Lengthen Your Muscles?

Posted by on July 25, 2010 in Pilates | 11 comments

Have you ever heard someone talking about how Pilates can “lengthen” muscles? I’ve seen many a body transform with Pilates. And while I know that it’s impossible for muscles to actually lengthen, I get it why some people say that.

Personally, when I began doing Pilates I noticed I felt less aches and pains. That’s mainly what kept me going back. I also felt stronger and stood taller. Over time, the shape of my body really did change. Unlike many Pilates instructors, I did not come from a dance background. I had been running marathons, putting in over 30 miles per week. I quit running for about 10 years. I’ve recently just started again, really slow and short, and I am having a whole different experience. It has lot to do with my mindset (a whole different topic, stay tuned!) but also that I have a much stronger, flexible core than I used to, even after having 2 kids, thanks to Pilates.

Here’s why Pilates makes you look taller, leaner and more toned, (but can’t actually change the length of your muscles):

Eccentric Contractions: Pilates is a strengthening workout. You definitely use your muscles! Although the Pilates method uses all types of muscle contractions (concentric, eccentric and isometric) there is a strong emphasis is on the eccentric contraction. An eccentric contraction is the “release” part of a movement, like when you lower a weight to its starting position. So in other words, the muscle is being strengthened while its being stretched. With Pilates, the use of springs, resistance against gravity and slow, controlled movements are what enable eccentric contractions. For those of you who know Pilates, think of when you control the “letting go” portion of a movement, like with the leg springs or Wunda chair.

Quality of Movement: You get the best results in Pilates when you have good quality movements. What this means is really using your muscle energy to create resistance, and by actually using your muscles instead of momentum. I know when you see a ballerina or a gymnast in their element it looks so easy and as if they are just flipping and throwing themselves around. They are not!! They are working from the core muscles. As I mentioned earlier, I was not a dancer and had a hard time with this concept at first. But when I slowed myself down to really feel the movements, I found muscles I didn’t even know I had. And that’s when I was able to let go of unnecessary tension and see results.

Back in the day, Joe Pilates used to teach a lot of dancers, and he didn’t call his method “Pilates”. I’m actually not totally sure when they started calling it the “Pilates Method”. Instead he called it “Contrology”, which I imagine to mean “moving with intention”. (That’s my definition.) These dancers needed the most efficient way to strengthen without creating bulk and that is probably why they were drawn to this method. But it wasn’t only dancers that caught on, Joe Pilates himself was a boxer and he taught other athletes who needed to build strength as well as flexibility.

Pilates is about efficiency. Using your core muscles is the most efficient way to move. When you move from your core, you don’t need to overwork the muscles of your periphery.

Precision: There is HUGE emphasis on alignment, placement and stabilization. It takes time and practice to get it right, but eventually you will find that you are using the correct muscles and compensating a lot less with your “overachieving” muscles. This is why it really helps to sometimes have an instructor at least once in a while. It’s hard to feel your own misalignments sometimes.

Less weight: Pilates strengthens differently than, say, lifting weights. You work with the resistance of gravity and springs, which allow you to use some of your own body weight for resistance as well. (I’m thinking about the wunda chair here.) Less weight (combined with low repetitions and high quality movements) allows for strength to develop without unnecessary bulk.

Fewer repetitions: Remember quality, not quantity? Yes, the exercises are really that efficient. You don’t need to do more than 5-10 repetitions (some even less!) because if you are doing them correctly, that’s all you need. Don’t get me wrong, you move right on to the next exercise without stopping. It’s not like you do 3 repetitions and rest for 5 minutes. You move! Pilates works your body hard but doesn’t overwork it.

Imagery of length: For a full hour, you consciously imagine length and space in your spine in every exercise. It takes muscle strength to do that. After a while, those muscles in your back, waist and abdomen begin to remember how good it feels to be tall, and next thing you know, you’re standing up taller without thinking so much about it and with out pooping out after only a few seconds.

Better posture makes you look taller: I always say Pilates changes how you carry yourself. Having a strong core and a flexible spine makes you feel good, stand straighter and actually appear taller.

So, I hope that makes the muscle mystery a little clearer for any Pilates enthusiasts out there (or future Pilates enthusiasts!) I would love to hear what your experience is with Pilates is/was. Did you notice a difference with your Pilates practice?

Hope to hear from you…

Be well,
Danielle

11 Comments

  1. Are you serious? Weight training doesn’t create bulk. Eating too much creates bulk. How can you get stronger with low weight and low repetitions?

  2. Hi no name,

    Eating too much creates fat, which yes, is in fact bulk. Weight training tends to create muscle mass, if you do it correctly. Overworked muscles get bulky. Pilates uses body weight and positions that engage the core muscles. A strong core makes your whole body stronger. That being said…some people build muscle more quickly than others, and some people can weight train and never look bulky. Different strokes for different folks. In Pilates less repetitions are done because the precision and intensity of each exercise are emphasized, rather than the number of repetitions.

  3. I get this question a lot, and I love your answer. I plan to share with my students. I started out in a fitness background and my body is very different if I lift weights vs. Pilates. When I was just lifting weights, I looked like a “tank”…being just 5′ tall, I looked very strong and stocky. I don’t lift weights any more…just Pilates. My body looks very different, I look much slimmer (although I weigh the same) and I am much stronger and more flexible! Amazing!

  4. Pilates and yoga strengthen muscles in a lengthened position, and with few, very precise movements muscles are strengthened and not over-worked. I loved the article. It confirmed what I already knew intuitively. Lots of people (like no name above)don’t get this. This is unfortunate.

  5. Great article! I find myself competing against bootcamps who preach unsafe, heavy lifting practices and extreme workouts. PIlates is working out smarter and with better results! Like you – I don’t life weights anymore and my body is stronger, more toned and my running is improved :)

  6. Might I add in response to “no name’s” post, low weight and few repetitions, but for a full hour with no rest time in between. We do few reps of a single exercise, but we may do as many as 35 exercises in an hour vs. doing a set of 10, resting, doing another set of ten of the same exercise, etc. With weight training you work to fatigue of the muscle before you move on to the next exercise, in Pilates we do not. We probably end up doing more reps in the end, just not the same way. (i.e. back rowing, chest expansion are two very different exercises and the focus is different, but they both work mid back muscles, abdominals, lats, etc.)By the end of the hour all muscles are fatigued. When we speak of strength, we are talking about a different kind of strength. Low spring weight works deep stabilizers, heavier weight works the “big” muscles. If you do solely Pilates chances are you could not outlift an individual who weight trains. Alternately, I have had big strong guys come in who can not do the “up stretch” because they cannot stabilize through the plank phase of the exercise without the assistance of additional springs. They have overdeveloped superficial muscle and no stabilizers. Both weight training and Pilates are good. They serve two entirely different purposes.

  7. Great post – I’ll be sharing it on my page, thanks!

  8. Yes Tori, exactly…the concept of how low springs is actually more challenging is something many people need to experience in order to understand. The “lengthening” of muscles and the slimming effect is due to the deep muscles strengthening and the “big” surface muscles relaxing and not overworking. I know some people want to increase their muscle size, I get that. But even they would be able to lift more and prevent injury by making deep core strength (Pilates) a priority. Even though weight training and Pilates serve two different purposes, they can work together well depending on what your goal is.

  9. Great article Danielle.
    Thanks! I will share with my students and customers.

  10. Great read! Here’s another one with helpful pointers: /about/what-does-a-pilates-body-look-like/

    Abby

  11. Very informative! Can you suggest a good at home DVD for Pilates?

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