What Pilates Can and Cannot Do
I think it will be helpful to outline a few aspects that a Pilates practice CAN cover, and some aspects it may not cover, and in which case other types of programming may be more useful. I have had many clients who have requested aspects of “fitness,” in which Pilates programming ALONE may not be able to address. You need other types of equipment, specific loading parameters, and specific programming to meet some commonly requested aspects that some clients have believed that Pilates alone may meet. This is simply not true, not matter how many and what types of advertisements are out there giving claim that that single pilates system is complete. Keep in mind that every Body is different. Let’s just say, it is helpful if a person had gone through varying types of programming throughout his/her life history and does understand how his/her body hypertrophies, builds endurance, and responds to varying movement parameters. But without this history or body awareness, one may just have to put themselves through different types of programs to learn this over time. For now, we are going to speak in general terms, and not so much worry about outlier responders to training programming.
What Pilates CAN DO
1) Movement Variability
If one is usually training in the standard globo gym floor, or perhaps have only done body building type programs in the past, it has been said that machines, even some free weight training aspects can keep the body training in a set type of way, and perhaps biasing more towards sagittal plane movements. It has jokingly been said "You can do Crossfit in a phone booth" after all. A typical personal training program may consist of hip dominant and knee dominant lower body exercise selections mixed with horizonal and vertical pushing and pulling upper body elements. There may be some times when the body is only hitting a limited number of motions and movement planes. Giving the body an opportunity to work in ranges that are between the movement ranges that one usually performs (in the gym), can introduce the body to new challenges, and build an overall larger movement vocabulary.
2) Mind Body Connection
Pilates is thoughtful movement. So breath and awareness is sometimes cultivated in the practice. It can seek to create integration getting the mind to plug into the body. The beauty of Pilates and, I think, where it really can shine is in the cueing of movement and getting the body to respond in the most biomechanically sound way. Many techniques can be used ranging from metaphors, and similies that really hone in on the exactness and nuances of movement, to kinesthetic cueing, tactile cueing, and imagery. Movement selection and cueing can be utilized and biased towards increased nervous system control and optimal muscle/bone rhythms.
Also, there may be an awareness created with the midline of the body, and cueing to enable lower abdominal usage and lower back stability. We sometimes talk about the pelvic floor, as it very vital to creating hydraulic pressure aka stability in the low back and torso. Some people dig it, some people don’t. But the education here, can be quite helpful in creating torso and low back stability.
This may be contingent upon one’s starting point. If one already has a great deal of mobility through the hips, shoulders, spine, etc., the common exercises you usually may see in the traditional Pilates repertoire, perhaps may not offer greater ranges of mobility then what you already have. I am thinking about such artists as dancers, aerialists, and perhaps some folks that are generally mobile genetically (meaning, they may have more collagen fibers throughout their system, such allows or causes their tissues and the tissues around their joints to exists or behave in such a way that grants full or more than full mobility).
There are some aspects of stability that can be strengthened with helpful cueing and education from the instructor. Common aspects that are observed and trained are scapular humeral rhythm and overall upper shoulder girdle stability, core control and general activation, and hip strength and mobility – ultimately giving stability to the torso and low back.
There are many torso stability exercises within the Pilates repertoire, where the execution of the exercise is most paramount. Mainly, Pilates may use lever principles to create greater challenges to the lower abdominals and torso – the farther away you take your feet and hands away from your body the more challenge you create in your torso, and in a way, training your torso to respond with the appropriate strategy and stability amount to allow your limbs to stay levitated and away from you without feeling strain in the back.
What Pilates CANNOT do (very well)
Here are just a few components that Pilates may not be able to address. In which case, you need a different type of programming to address these aspects.
1) Linear Progressive Strength
This type of programming involves increments of weight added every week (or for some programs every session). Commonly seen in barbell training, and commonly applied as 5lbs every week or every session. Over time, you are working to your 1RM (albeit this ‘target’ is constantly being created and is moving in the beginning). To gain significant parts of both hypertrophy and power, common programs are 5x5. This kind of programming may build mass and power significantly over a 3-6 month training period in untrained athletes. Pilates does not have the load amount and force vectors available to create the specific type of result that is commonly associated with linear progressive strength programs.
This type of programming seeks to add mass – increase the cross-sectional area of a muscle. General Pilates programming involves movement variability for reps of usually 6-10, but may be at an intensity that is less than one can get with dumbbells, non-progressive restistance type pulleys such as the free motion machines, barbells, etc. Pilates springs are a form of progressive resistance, and can limit the full ROM of a movement in certain areas of the movement. Traditional hypertrophy programming rep schemes are done at a higher intensity and programmed with specifically for a hypertrophic response. Mobility prerequisites and efficient biomechanical execution lays a good foundation for the implementation of a hypertrophy program. However, as one of my powerlifting coaches once so eloquently said "People don't get jacked with Pilates..."
A type of training that seeks to produce the most amount of force in the smallest amount of time. Commonly seen in the form of plyometric training, as a component in building overall power. This concept is contained in the execution of Olympic Lifting, for example. And with plyometrics, commonly seen expressed as box jumping and plyo specific medicine ball throws. True, you have the jumboard in Pilates and this is useful for creating a plyo type of response, and also may be useful in technique and/or rehab training, but this does not compare to a box jump, whereby you have full bodyweight and then some, coming down on a vertical vector whereby the entire body must dissipate forces correctly, and call upon loads of eccentric strength to land properly. One is usually working with more load and different various training "toys" in more traditional plyo/power training settings.
4) Butt Mass
This is such a common request, I thought I would just address it here. In order to add mass to the butt, you. need. load. Period. In the beginning, we may seek to have the hip to just be able to work like a hip. I have found that in general, clients have trouble “creating torque” through the hip – to allow their hips to externally rotate, and activate their glutes. Knees are wobbly and caving in, etc etc. Pilates may be helpful in creating some mobility in the hip, for instance, but once a sufficient amount of bent knee/hip flexion/closed chain foundation is found, in order to add mass to the backside, you need to load moderate to heavy…with tools such as dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, a big rock, whatever. Although in some instances, through cueing and exercise selection, Pilates may assist in hip musculature activation, in order to add mass to the tissues, a heavier load must be applied.
5) Body Composition
In untrained clients, one may be able to see body composition changes, simply because there is a new stimulus introduced and new metabolic challenges to the body. This may last for a little while, but usually levels off after a while if you were to ONLY do Pilates. Meaning, not a Pilates hybrid but only traditional Pilates exercises on or off Pilates equipment. It also matters, how often you do the work. As consistency helps usher in changes overtime. Mostly, composition changes may come utilizing more metabolic focused training coupled with strength training aspects. If one wants to talk about weight loss activity helps, however, a large part of weight loss programming happens in the kitchen.
6) Metabolic Conditioning
Metabolic Conditioning is sometimes associated with HIIT (high intensity interval training) type workouts. The idea is that the heart rate is elevated to 80-100% HR Max (various sources define this differently), and sustained during work sets with various complete bout totals (i.e. 4 minutes total for Tabata, 20 minutes for some Crossfit programs). Metabolic Conditioning can also include LSD (long slow distance), types of aerobic training which seek to tap into the aerobic endurance system increasing the body's capacity to use oxygen. While untrained athletes may receive some aspects of metabolic conditioning with new programs, sustaining a HR Max of approx 80-100% or a bit lower for LSD training, is not commonly seen and not usually programmed in traditional Pilates repertoire.
In terms of training aspects, I do hope that this sheds some light on what Pilates may be useful for. There are just too many false claims out there for marketing purposes, and clients end up putting their dollars into areas where they are made to believe that Program X, Y, or Z is going to give them result A, B, or C. I hear and see these false claims A LOT, partly because, I think, some individuals are upholding a job – manning the front desk, answering front of house calls, etc.…and they are told by their company that XYZ will produce whatever result they are told it will produce. Also, in teacher trainings and certification trainings misinformation can abound! Nevertheless, trying out various movement systems for oneself can still be a great tool for exploration and movement variability.
I believe movement variability is vitally important in overall movement programming. Such programs as MovNat©, Evolve Move Play©, GMB©, and Gymnastic Bodies© are paving the way in bodyweight movement, the exploration there of, improvisation, and creativity in movement practices. The purpose here is to lay out different concepts regarding training principles, how they work, and how they may or may not be exemplified in different movement systems.