Updated: Mar 14
First, let’s start with: What is Pilates?
Pilates is an exercise system developed by Joseph H. Pilates. (For the record, he did not name it after himself - he called it Contrology, and only after his death did the work become known as
Pilates). The system continued to evolve over the course of his life as he created new exercises and new pieces of equipment throughout his life.
Does Pilates Build Muscles?
Now that we have that out of the way. Yes. Pilates absolutely builds muscle. It is, after all, an exercise system. However, everything about Pilates feels and looks a little different from other strength training or exercise systems. If you have ever done weight training or other workouts, Pilates may seem elusive at the beginning.
First, there is the equipment….. Kind of medieval-looking devices with leather straps or ropes, springs, and barrels with rounded tops. Then, there is the weight of the equipment and springs - much lighter than most people are used to when they are doing weight lifting or modern machine workouts. The equipment in Pilates is designed to be supportive. The springs definitely provide some resistance, but they also provide support.
Then there is the fact that most Pilates is done laying down.
How Does Pilates Build Muscle?
So what gives? How do you build muscles while laying down on supportive, light resistance equipment?!
Pilates works very differently from most other systems in that we use the support of the equipment to coax muscles that tend to be over-developed into relaxing while we target less developed muscles for recruitment. We further lengthen the muscles and increase our range of motion while using our muscles, which is very different from passive stretching or strength training which focuses on contracting muscles and pushing against increasingly heavy weights.
Over time, we train all the muscles to work together supportively, versus targeting single muscles or muscle groups individually.
The look of a “Pilates body”, someone who does Pilates consistently and with skill, is long and lean. The Pilates Method builds endurance, strength, and flexibility at the same time, resulting in muscles that are supple and long versus ‘bulked up.
Most people new to Pilates report working muscles they didn’t even know they had. This is because a well-trained Pilates instructor will guide you to work the least developed muscles and the exercises themselves tend to target deeper, less developed muscles than other systems.
In the Classical Pilates system, exercises are done in a specific order, which causes you to constantly move through spinal flexion, extension, rotation, and other positions that move you from one muscle group to the next after just a few reps.
We stop just shy of fatigue and move to another type of movement, then circle back to similar movements, and so on. All of this works and strengthens our muscles without creating a lot of toxic build-ups or going for the burn.
I have worked with professional football players - guys who are undeniably strong, well-trained, and literally work their bodies hard for a living. Some of these guys weigh twice as much as I do and have quads that could stop a freight train. After all, they have other big strong guys slamming into them at full speed on the field all the time. I’m not sure of the exact mathematics, but if Force = Mass x Acceleration, and the other guys on the field also weigh around 300 pounds and are running full speed…. Ok, maybe not the same as a freight train, but you get the idea - a lot. They handle a lot.. I have had these young, super strong, top athletes in the studio, and had them absolutely shaking while doing the same leg spring exercises my stay-at-home moms do. True story.
How does this work?
First, the more well-trained and balanced your muscles are, the more you get from doing Pilates. If you have a few muscle groups that tend to over-work (because, for example, you sit at a desk 60 hours per week and get on a Stairmaster when you have time, or maybe your passion in life is running and every day you rely on the same muscle groups over & over in your runs), you will naturally have a lot of muscles that are underdeveloped. Underdevelopment happens simply because muscles don’t get used, they don’t get called on to activate.
If you’ve ever watched your cat laying around the house, you know: if there is no need to USE the muscles, if they aren’t being specifically called out, they tend to ‘go dormant’. They chill out, waiting. In the case of a cat, they can go from fully relaxed to active and pouncing in the blink of an eye. Unfortunately, many of us humans are under-active due to our lifestyles (sitting at a desk, driving instead of walking, etc) and over time the muscles that were chilling out, waiting to be called upon lose strength & flexibility and become less responsive to our requests when we DO want them.
For this reason, it takes most people around 10 sessions to start really feeling the work of Pilates. If there is pain, injury, or a chronic condition, it can take even longer. Sometimes it feels like we aren’t doing anything when we first start doing Pilates!
If this happens to you, it would be good to have a conversation about it with your instructor.
You'll want to find out:
If you are in the correct class for your needs and current fitness level
If you would benefit from a handful of private (one-on-one) sessions to figure out what is in the way of getting more from the work (ex. Are you very tight? Maybe there are some partnered stretches you can do with an instructor and some homework you can do outside the studio that will help. Would some modifications help you? Are there specific cues you respond best to?)
Ask which muscles ‘should’ be working and how you’ll know if you are doing it right? For many people, this is surprisingly elusive in the first few Pilates sessions.
Ask if you are ‘too strong' to do Pilates. (The answer is NO…. but you’ll want to find out why it may feel like that is the case).
If your Pilates instructor is well trained, they will be equipped to answer your questions and be able to offer suggestions to help you get more of the benefit of the work.
For some people, Pilates can be a little cerebral at first. This is because we aren’t just interested in you making a lot of fancy shapes with your body, but rather in HOW you are performing your movements: How are you initiating? (ex. Are you pushing with your knees or are you using your muscles to move your legs). Most of us have a handful (or more) “bad habits” - muscles that fire first or inappropriately and actually block us from using the muscles that are being targeted.
While it is not appropriate to dominate a class with questions about your own body (use one-on-one lessons for that!), it is very appropriate to ask questions when they come up! Your instructor will determine if the question is a journey the whole group will benefit from (sometimes instructors will change our focus, break things down, and answer the question for a full class), or they may recommend that you talk with them outside of class or schedule a private session so they can go over things with you in a way that helps your body to understand them better.
Benefits of Pilates!
Then there are the rest of us: We feel we are working so hard and might even die in our Pilates class….What about that? If you feel your muscles working, that is GREAT news! If after five or ten consistent sessions you still feel truly that Pilates may be the actual death of you, it might be good to check in with your instructor to make sure you are in the correct class for your abilities and to be sure your equipment is adjusted properly for you.
Pilates should be an AWESOME workout that leaves you feeling stronger, taller, and invigorated. It should be challenging in the moment, and may leave you sore after working some muscles that were previously sleepy. But it isn’t meant to be a constant struggle!
As you become more familiar with the work and how to use the correct muscles in the work, it typically becomes easier to find the right muscles, which means your Pilates classes become simultaneously ‘easier’ and more difficult.