Pilates is really having a moment right now -and when a fitness trend is HOT, the internet gets busy churning out buzzwords and bold promises. As a body nerd, kinesiologist, and card-carrying skeptic, I tend to approach any strong fitness claim with curiosity and questions. Lots of questions. The internet really doesn't make it easy to separate fitness facts from fiction. So, when folks started asking me to weigh in about how they can expect pilates to transform their bodies, I went into full geek mode, jumped down the research rabbit hole, and got you all some answers.
Grab a comfy seat and put on your logic cap – cuz we’re about to take a trip through the world of fitness fallacies, and get real about pilates' potential to transform your body.
Ready? Let’s go.
Myth #1: ‘In 30 sessions you will have a whole new body.’
This quote is attributed to Joseph Pilates, the creator of Pilates himself. He is famously known for saying: ‘In 10 sessions you will feel the difference, in 20 sessions you will see the difference, and in 30 sessions you will have a whole new body.” This statement is frequently cited in pilates marketing to get people excited about getting fit and to highlight the transformative potential of a Pilates practice. But is it true?
As far as experiencing a ‘whole new body’ in 30 sessions goes, think of this as more of an aspirational claim than a scientific one. No exercise system can give you a whole new body. While there are definitely some things you can change about your body, other things you cannot. We’ll dive deeper into this idea in a moment. Let’s assume this statement is meant to get pilates students excited about creating a dedicated practice, and reaping the rewards - of which there are many.
An exercise system can create significant improvements in your physical health, strength, flexibility and overall well-being – but it can’t give you a ‘whole new body’ in the sense of fundamentally transforming your anatomy. Here’s why:
It’s also worth noting that some people may have pre-existing conditions or limitations that affect what they can realistically expect to transform through exercise. And keep in mind that results of pilates practice will not only vary based on individual differences, but on other factors too. Like, how frequently you practice and what kind of pilates you’re doing (HIIT or Classical or Physio Pilates), etc.
Keeping Expectations Real
Here’s what the science suggests pilates CAN reliably deliver:
That’s a nice looking list of perks! So, even if Pilates can’t grant you a whole new body, it can still be a game-changer for you. You’ll be rocking improved fitness, your mental health will get a boost. You might feel stronger or like you’re standing taller or notice you’re feeling more fabulous in general. Those are all clear signs that something good is happening. Keep going!
Ultimately, the goal of Pilates, and any form of exercise, should be to improve your overall health, strength and well-being, though many people come to pilates in search of a specific aesthetic ideal. Which brings me to the next myth.
Myth #2: Pilates Gives You Longer, Leaner Muscles
Pilates people come in all different shapes and sizes. Though social media might have you thinking that pilates will make you look like a professional ballerina. It won’t. Many women come to pilates because fitness marketing has told them pilates will give them ‘long, lean muscles’ and that pilates is a great way to get strong without getting ‘bulky’ in the process. This idea is so pervasive, it’s accepted as fact and it’s frequently repeated by fitness professionals. Is it true? Nope. Here’s why:
The phrase ‘longer and leaner’ muscles is scientifically imprecise and very misleading. Pilates can’t give you longer, leaner muscles. No exercise system can.
Muscles have attachment sites on bones, a point of origin (where they start) and a point of insertion (where they end). These are fixed points. No matter how much you exercise or stretch a muscle, you can’t change where it inserts on a bone. Given that we can’t change where a muscle begins and ends, we can’t make it longer.
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You also can’t make a muscle ‘leaner’ by exercising it. Muscle is, by definition, ‘lean’ tissue. Exercising doesn't make it leaner. You can look leaner by changing your body composition - that’s your ratio of muscle to fatty tissue. When you reduce body fat, the muscles beneath your fatty layer become more visible. You can also grow larger muscles with resistance training. This combo of reducing body fat and increasing lean muscle mass makes you thinner and makes your muscles more visible, which makes you appear longer and leaner. However, your muscles are the same length they always were.
If one of your exercise goals is to look longer and leaner, and it’s not happening for you, it’s likely because pilates alone can’t deliver on this promise. There are a number of factors that play into your body composition, including gender, age, nutrition, physical activity and hormones.
Research has proved time and time again that physical training and making a consistent, habitual change to your diet have the strongest influence on transforming body composition – but you may need to take other factors into consideration as well. A lot of fitness marketing omits this very important detail.
Myth #3: It's Not A Good Workout Unless I Feel Sore Afterwards
‘No pain, no gain’ is a commonly used expression in the exercise world. This probably explains why so many people use how sore they feel after a workout to gauge whether or not a workout was good. So, let’s investigate this belief.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness is a technical term that describes the feeling of soreness you experience in the hours and days after a workout. It’s better known by its acronym, DOMS. Typically, you get a case of DOMS after you’ve done an exercise you’re not used to or you’ve done something particularly strenuous.
The theory is that DOMS is a result of exercise-induced muscle damage. Which sounds bad, but isn’t. A little muscle damage is actually necessary to help build larger, stronger muscles. When damaged muscles repair themselves after exercise, they re-build themselves bigger and stronger than before. Once you’ve built bigger, stronger, more resilient muscles, you also become less likely to experience DOMS the next time you exercise.
This explains why when you exercise regularly, you don’t generally experience DOMS as frequently or as intensely as you did in the beginning. It also explains why DOMS may not be the best way to gauge whether or not your workouts are effective. If you wake up the day after pilates class NOT feeling sore, it might simply be because … you’re stronger than you used to be! Your body has adapted to the stress of exercise. Instead of using DOMS to measure how good your workout was, you might try gradually increasing the number of reps you do or the amount of resistance you use (try heavier springs in your next reformer pilates class or add a resistance band to your side leg series in mat class). If you can increase your resistance, that’s proof that you’ve gotten stronger!
With so much fitness (mis)information floating through cyberspace, it can be really hard to know what to believe. I hope we cleared up some confusion here. Though pilates may not grant you a whole new body, it does hold the possibility of a multitude of other benefits – from improved flexibility to reduced low back pain - and it just might be a total game-changer for you, and your physical and mental well-being.
Even if every bold claim isn’t true, you can still gain a lot from practice. Keep rocking those workouts. Celebrate your health and fitness journey. Keep your expectations real, and set some realistic goals. Here’s to stronger cores, better
mental health and bodies that move with grace and ease.
Amanda Tripp, Yoga/body nerd and woman of a 1000 opinions