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 …