Does Pilates Really Lengthen Your Muscles?

Have you ever heard someone talking about how Pilates can “lengthen” muscles?

Ive seen many a body transform with Pilates.

And while I know that its impossible for muscles to actually lengthen, I get it why some people say that.

Unlike many Pilates instructors, I did not come from a dance background.

I had been running marathons, putting in over 30 miles per week. Biking all over the city, and lifting a bunch of weights and probably not giving myself enough rest.  Personally, when I began doing Pilates I noticed I felt less aches and pains. For a brief period right after I finished a session, I felt amazing, no discomfort.  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.  Did my muscles lengthen?  No, but working core and powerhouse muscles allows other overworked muscles to relax over time and the shape changes.  My movements became more effiecient yet easier (because finally the overworked muscles could relax) and harder (because I hadn’t used those muscles in, like, forever….) at the same time.

Heres why Pilates makes you look taller, leaner and more toned, (but cant 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 eccentric part of the exercise is where you can really get a sense of how to control a movement. With Pilates, the use of springs, resistance against gravity and 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 MOVEMENT

The best results come from it!

 

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”. (Thats my definition.) These dancers needed the most efficient way to strengthen – and move – 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

Using the correct muscles

 

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

Your own body weight plays a part in it

 

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! Pilates works your body hard –  but doesn’t overwork it.

 

 

IMAGERY OF LENGTH

Imagine length and space in your spine in every exercise

 

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. And that awareness helps you to catch yourself when you slouch.

 

 

BETTER POSTURE MAKES YOU LOOK TALLER

How you carry yourself

 

I always say Pilates changes how you carry yourself. Having a strong core and a flexible spine makes you feel good, stand straighter, appear taller and move with a more youthful quality.

 

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

 

 

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15 Comments

  1. No Name

    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. danielle

    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. amy h

    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. pat stevenson

    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. lucie

    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. tori

    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. Carli Herrs

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

  8. danielle

    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. Ginette

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

  10. Abigail

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

    Abby

  11. Casie

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

  12. Shikha Dubey

    The only question which is in my mind is that do pilates help in increasing height? Like atleast gaining 1-2 inches?

  13. Cailin at Sassy Dove

    Very helpful read, thank you. I was looking for information on whether or not different exercises can make you appear taller or your legs appear longer because I also feel that different types of work have shaped my muscles in different ways. You can’t deny this is fact if you compare the bodies of marathon runners to sprinters; though they may have started out looking the same, where they end up is very different (and neither one is necessarily “better” – it’s all in your point of view).

  14. Christa

    Wow! This was the most clear, informative, and encouraging article I’ve read on Pilates, yet, and I am so grateful to have stumbled upon your site. Thank you for explaining everything in such a simple way.

    I struggle with a lot of tension in my neck and shoulders and I definitely have an issue with hunching over and poor posture. I’ve wanted to try Pilates for some time, but don’t have anyone in my life who is familiar and that I could ask or get a sense of how it feels and what it does for your body.

    Again, thank you so much for all of the information! 🙂

  15. Anne Wenstein

    Pilates was a vehicle from being good to being really good. This article proves that. Good job!

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Hi, I’m Danielle O’Connell

Pilates Teacher, ELDOA Trainer and Health Coach.

I’m here to help integrate body, mind and soul through Pilates practice while helping instructors & students get better results in their daily practice. 

I truly believe that healthy movement is an important part of both physical and mental wellness, and that Pilates and ELDOA work amazingly well to help you achieve freedom in your body and a sense of wellbeing.

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