Is Pilates Strength Training? Yes, Definitely! Here’s Why

I was training my clients this morning in my Pilates studio, watching sweat soak through their clothes, watching their bodies tremble with the effort of moving through challenging positions.  I was listening to them breathe heavily as they moved seamlessly from one exercise to the next. My clients have been with me for years and they are, for the most part, intermediate and advanced level.  We've developed a shorthand; they know my cues and can move quickly from one exercise to the next with very little down time.  They sweat—not the hard sweat of running a 5K—but they definitely have their heart rates elevated. For readers who don't already know, I achieved a 500-hour certification through Stott Pilates and have also developed my own Pilates training school which features a 500-hour training course.  I have been teaching Pilates since 1998. So I was quite surprised today to see the folks over at SparkPeople say that Pilates isn't resistance training.  What??  That just doesn't make sense.  I was talking about this with my clients this morning and here are some of their responses:
"Pilates is the only thing that has changed my body. Weight training didn't do it for me." "How can it not be resistance training? I've got muscles!" (My client then flexed her biceps for me and we laughed.)
I came home, frankly fuming, and started researching articles for this post.  I was looking for studies that showed the benefits of Pilates and to back up my "crazy claim" that, yes, Pilates is, in fact, resistance training.  There are a lot of small studies out there that show different benefits of Pilates, but unfortunately there isn't one big be-all, end-all study that either debunks or supports my point of view. (I have links to over 80 smaller studies at the end of this post though.) Then I went over to my equipment manufacturers website.  I use Stott Pilates machines and love them.  Here's what they have to say about the springs we use in my Pilates studio.
Initial tension is five pounds for the first inch of tension (for full-strength springs), and then increases by approximately one pound per inch of movement per spring. Multiply the number of springs and distance traveled to get approximate tension in pounds. On a Stott Pilates Reformer, four springs are full tension and one is half tension. (Most people will simply note the number of springs used per exercise).

Pilates is Math!

Yay!  I grabbed my tape measure and gauged my heel-to-head distance when I was "at return" on the reformer and when I was pushed away with my feet.  I also measured how far my hand moved for some of the arm exercises.  You do have to work harder on the machines if you're taller or have longer limbs; I am 5'7" and have decently long arms, so the math for me will be different than for you.
  • Leg work on the Reformer: I use 3 1/2 springs (three at full tension and one at half tension) so that's 80 pounds of resistance when I fully extend.  Our machines can "rack out" at 104 pounds for my height.
  • Arm work on the Reformer: My longer arms get me 32 pounds of resistance at full extension when I use one full-tension spring.
How is this not resistance training, folks?  Obviously Pilates instructors are trained to adjust the springs to best suit the needs of a client's body.  I have only had one guy in 13 years "rack out" the Reformer doing leg work who said it was too easy for him.  No problem; I just switched him to leg work on the chair and he started huffing and puffing right away.  He was also a former college linebacker and his legs were ginormous! SparkPeople also claimed that Pilates isn't cardio training and my response is "it depends."  At the beginner level, definitely not; you have to move slowly and develop strength while you're learning the nuances of Pilates.  However, once you get into intermediate and advanced levels, there are low-level and moderate-levels of cardio that can be sustained during the workout, although it tends to dip up and down. This particular Pilates study talks about cardio levels, and I've seen it in my own studio when my clients wear heart rate monitors.  I also wear heart rate monitors regularly and can sustain moderate cardiovascular levels for 20 to 30 minutes during an advanced Pilates workout.  I actually have higher heart rates when I do advanced mat workouts than when I do advanced Reformer work.

SparkPeople, a Little Perspective

I'm upset that SparkPeople so quickly dismissed Pilates as only a great core workout because I've personally seen it help hundreds of people. Add people who I have connected with online and that number shoots to thousands of people who have benefited.  SparkPeople has several million members and to make claims like they have seems irresponsible to me. Resistance training is great and straight up cardio training is great.  We encourage our clients who enjoy either to do it in addition to their Pilates sessions.  It should always be part of a healthy lifestyle.  I also generally say you should do resistance training at least twice a week, three times is even better.  Yes, I count Pilates as a resistance workout, so you could do two Pilates sessions and one yoga.  Or you could do two weight training sessions at the gym and one Pilates class; mix it up any way that makes you happy. My Pilates clients find that it helps stabilize joints, improve posture, tone muscles, decrease the risk of osteoporosis, and help women recover from pregnancies.  My studio has helped people avoid shoulder and back surgeries. We've helped people return to sports like tennis, golf, and running following injuries or chronic pain.  We've helped people feel better about themselves and their bodies. Pilates isn't for everyone, but I hope the people for whom it might be a good fit find this article before they come across what SparkPeople has to say.  I'd hate for someone to dismiss Pilates without having tried it. Getting off my soapbox now ... Lisa Sources for research to check out Pilates for Exercise:  Lessons From a Lab Roundup Research: This is a PDF featuring an extensive bibliography which quotes 85 studies on Pilates.  The research is mixed in its results in terms of if resistance training is as effective as weight training, but it will give you a general idea of the ups and downs of the studies.  All of the articles I checked, by the way, called Pilates a form of resistance training.

About Lisa Johnson

Lisa Johnson here. I've been a personal trainer since 1997, a Pilates instructor since 1998 and the owner of Modern Pilates since 1999. I'm hoping to give you some good ideas to get or stay in shape with a healthy dose of humor and reality. Thanks for joining me.


18 Responses to Is Pilates Strength Training? Yes, Definitely! Here’s Why

  1. Jeremy Logsdon March 15, 2012 at 3:12 pm #

    I had never done Pilates because I had never really considered it appropriate. I’ve only seen very, very tiny women doing it and I had always envisioned it as core work. Your article has made me change my mind and I can see it being a very useful activity for me, a six foot tall man who wants to one weight, maintain and build muscle, and definitely increase core strength. Any videos you would recommend for a rank Pilates beginner?

  2. Jeremy Logsdon March 15, 2012 at 3:13 pm #

    Previous comment should say lose weight. Autocorrect.

  3. Lisa Johnson March 15, 2012 at 3:18 pm #

    No worries, Jeremy, I totally understand the frustrations of auto-correct! I do refer people to the Stott videos They have a very wide array and good cueing for the home user. You will find that you’ll outgrow their beginner DVD quickly so I’d look for a beginner & intermediate one you can use. Mat work is different from the equipment … Mat is your body weight so you’ll hit a certain point of strength, but trust me, it’ll be quite a while before you do. The machines offer a lot more variety for the client and the ability to address problems more specifically for the instructor.

    BTW, our studio is primarily women, but we’ve got three guys right now that are over 6′ tall and they are getting great workouts. L–

  4. Lisa Johnson March 15, 2012 at 7:40 pm #

    oh, I should add, that Stott Pilates is available for free on my local cable on demand system (Comcast) it’s worth checking yours to see if maybe you’ve got it too. Free is always good right? L–

  5. Curlsz March 15, 2012 at 9:40 pm #

    Do they mean Pilates mat or reformer? I used to lump them together before I started taking reformer classes. Anyway, these people are moronic if they mean reformer. I finished class yesterday tired and worked out!! I’ve gained more definition than all the years I did strictly free weights. Maybe they have a really bad teacher!

  6. Lisa Johnson March 16, 2012 at 5:25 pm #

    LOL, they might but they definitely have no idea what resistance training is. L–

  7. m March 21, 2012 at 4:03 am #

    I was on a reformer right next to a gentleman in class this evening. The guys usually use higher spring weight for footwork and arm work.
    But there’s always at least one guy in my classes.

    And let’s not forget – the guy who invented it was a soldier and boxer; the ‘ultimate guy’! :-)

  8. Lisa Johnson March 21, 2012 at 2:09 pm #

    Very well put, thank you :-) L–

  9. Francesca March 30, 2012 at 5:21 pm #

    I definitely see Pilates as strength training. It can be a great tool for anyone, both men and women. I wear my Intelliskin sports bra for extra support for my back and posture during my Pilates sessions, if anyone is curious

  10. Nora's Mom April 3, 2012 at 4:56 pm #

    Thanks for posting this article! Anyone who says it isn’t strength training should get on the floor and try 30 minutes of Pilates! I did it in high school and have started again to tone and trim after baby and c-section. I have Windsor Pilates set and mix it up with Netflix’s videos and walking! I tell everyone they should at least try it. I actually look forward to doing pilates almost every day because 1)it calms and relaxes me 2)it makes me stronger, have a better posture, and more flexible 3)it helps me lose weight without a bunch of impact!

    Other than hobbies I enjoy(horseback riding) I cannot say that there is any other workout that I look FORWARD to like I do Pilates! (Side note: pilates is wonderful for riders because it makes you so much more balanced than you knew you could be – really great for those jumpers!)

  11. Lisa Johnson April 5, 2012 at 7:40 pm #

    Nora’s Mom, thanks for chiming in about horses … a lot of the Olympic Dressage teams cross-train with Pilates … it really helps them. Their secret weapon! L–

  12. Nicola May 30, 2013 at 9:45 am #

    I’ve been taking mat pilates classes for about six weeks, and I’m really enjoying it (and feeling stronger!). One of the reasons I’ve read that pilates doesn’t count as strength training is because it’s comprised of bodyweight exercises (often these discussions only refer to mat pilates), and therefore not progressive. That may be the case after a certain level of fitness, but for a beginner like me there are definite progressions within exercises and between them. Six weeks ago I simply could not do a Roll Up. Now I can at least get up, though I struggle to keep my heels on the ground. If I reach a point where I no longer find it challenging, I can replace it with a more difficult exercise like the Teaser. Then there are the various leg positions in exercises like the Hundred, or the depth to which you can lower your legs in Double Leg Stretch.

    It seems simplistic to me to say that because I might one day reach a point at which mat pilates no longer challenges me adequately (and that’s a huge “might”, considering some of the advanced exercises I’ve seen) I can’t call my current pilates class strength training, even when I get DOMS for two days afterwards.

  13. Lisa Johnson June 5, 2013 at 8:26 am #

    Nicola your last sentence summed it up perfectly. If you get DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) then yep, you’re doing strength training and I doubt you’d ever tap out of your mat work either … it’s can always be challenging and you can add small props like the fitness circle or exerbands to keep it challenging. Thanks so much for stopping by. :-)

  14. shannon March 11, 2014 at 2:44 pm #

    i must be honest i been doing pilates for 30 days now- i do mari windsor, its excEllent i got mine with resistance bands and weights and the weighted bar- i find that its a great resistance training session, i already have defined arms- as iam Sure my legs are defining as well, iam not tiny and i manage quiet fine on the mat- i also had a knee injury last yr- but wen i first started pilates i used knee bands for extra strenght now i dont need it at all- iam strong in my knees and fit and definately more calm, pilates gives a sense of calmness and i definately look forward to doing it daily- i enjoy it and i have noticed a change- anyone can do it! I neva thought my knee would heal up- but with pilates it did, and now iam even fitter than before, I would recommend everyone to start pilates

  15. Lisa Johnson March 23, 2014 at 11:52 am #

    Great story Shannon, thanks for sharing! :-)

  16. Monica August 19, 2014 at 2:36 pm #

    Interestingly, I saw and read the SparkPeople article and then, next, came to this one. I am a Health Coach and I had a client ask me about whether Pilates counted as strength training. I do love SparkPeople, and it was simply one person’s viewpoint or position, but I have to agree with you Lisa. Having done Pilates myself, I can vouch for the fact that it definitely gives a strength-training workout! It depends upon the manner in which you perform the exercises and whether you use equipment or not.

    Thanks for taking the time and effort to discover more about this important topic – it was very helpful!

  17. Donald May 28, 2015 at 11:42 pm #

    I’m guessing that there probably is some upper limit to strength you can achieve with Pilates, but many or most of us aren’t at that limit. What I can say for myself is that when I was disciplined enough to do it regularly it seemed to eliminate the running injuries I usually had otherwise. No back or hip pains or anything else. I like weight training and I think it is better for strength if you mean the ability to lift heavy weights, but for injury prevention my own experience was that Pilates worked better.

  18. Donna June 26, 2015 at 1:44 pm #

    Hi Lisa, I have been doing Pilates off and on for over 9 years…I always come back to it remembering not only do I get what I would consider great strength training as well as a good cardio workout, in that I do my transitions without pause or breaks. That said, I track my exercises and can’t find a calculator that determines calories burned, since most websites only consider Pilates cardio. Do you have any suggestions? Also, thank you for validating what I always believed to be true about Pilates being considered as strength training :)

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