When I first became certified as an instructor in 1995, Pilates was not the household word that it is today. My clients were puzzled, intimidated, even frightened by the strange machines sitting in our studio. Most of these people were used to working out on the standard gym equipment—weight machines and free weights—so the one question I heard on a daily basis was, Why is Pilates better than what I’m already doing? My answer: Pilates is not necessarily better—just different.
One of those differences involves the way in which Pilates strengthens muscles. Traditional weight training typically uses a high amount of resistance, with the goal being to train “until failure,” the point at which a repetition fails due to inadequate strength. This approach will create strong, often bulky muscles, but with the downside of limited flexibility.
For those clients who have physical limitations or are wary of “bulking up,” many trainers offer another technique: using low resistance while performing a higher number of repetitions, usually stopping before the muscle reaches that point of total fatigue. While this approach is somewhat similar to Pilates in its use of low resistance, Pilates differs in that it traditionally entails relatively few repetitions, emphasizing quality over quantity. There are also several other components that set Pilates apart—most notably its dual emphasis on core muscles and flexibility.
Several of the Pilates apparatus—the Reformer, Cadillac (a.k.a. Trapeze Table), and “Wunda” Chair—use springs to provide resistance. These springs come in different levels of strength, but the catch is that a higher resistance does not always make an exercise more difficult. Because you are often working against your own body weight, many exercises become exponentially more challenging on a lower spring setting. No matter the movement, all Pilates exercises target the body’s core muscles, including those smaller muscles used to stabilize joints and fine-tune movement. This has the effect of creating strength without the bulk.
In addition, Pilates emphasizes fluid, lengthening movements rather than short contractions, often working a muscle through its full range of motion. By combining both stretching and strengthening of a muscle within the same exercise, more muscle fibers are given a chance to contract—without sacrificing flexibility. The end result: a fit Pilates body with long, lean, toned muscles.
Photo: Zsuzsanna Bokor, Balance Pilates Studio, Budapest, Hungary