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.
This image was modified and made from content published in a BodyParts3D/Anatomography web site. The content of their website is published under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.1 Japan license. The author and licenser of the contents is "BodyParts3D, © The Database Center for Life Science licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.1 Japan."
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.
I love watching students settle into savasana at the end of yoga practice. It's a strange and beautiful thing. Usually, people get together to socialize and DO something. In yoga, we often gather together to un-DO things. Agreeing as a group to lie down, to let our guard down, to take off our social masks, to relax, to let go, and to just BE in one other’s presence, without expecting anything from ourselves or each another. In a world that's always telling us to do more, to get more, and to achieve more, there's something delightfully counter-culture about that.
Students tend to either love or loathe yoga’s restorative practices.
If you’re the sort of person that craves intense stimulation, you probably have a hard time surrendering to yoga’s softer side. You might even find it feels pointless and frustrating. When you’re a busy person with things to do, it’s easy to think you don’t have time to lie on the floor and do ‘nothing’. And you would be right – except that when you’re doing restorative work, it only looks like you’re doing nothing. Beneath the still surface of your restorative practice, there are a mind-boggling array of physiological processes taking place in support of your health and well-being. Rest is absolutely essential for long-term health, happiness and success. Prepare to be inspired, surprised and delighted by the benefits of rest.
If you’re already sold on this idea, you can just skip down to the 5 Yoga Practices for Rest, Rejuvenation and Relaxation and set yourself to maximum chill. Otherwise let's dive into
The Benefits of Rest
1) Your Body Heals and Regenerates
When you relax you turn on your body’s healing response, also known as the ‘Relaxation Response’ or Rest/Digest/Repair response. During relaxation your body directs its energy resources towards digestive functions and tissue repair. When you're stressed, on the other hand, blood is shunted away from your organs and re-directed towards your muscles to prepare you to fight or flee from danger. When your body perceives a threat or stressor (like a grizzly bear or an angry boss or being stuck in traffic) it decides that you can digest the burrito you had for lunch later while it devotes energy to getting you safely out of that stressful situation. That’s how chronic stress can affect our health and well-being - from tension headaches to high blood pressure to digestive issues.
The table above shows a sampling of the ways in which stress creates wear and tear on your body and how relaxation can helps promote health and well-being.
2) You Become a More Relaxed Human Being
Relaxation is a trainable skill that you can practice on your mat or meditation cushion and take with you into everyday life. Learning to relax yourself can help you feel more in control of your emotions and become less reactive. It can also help you deal better with anxiety, depression and sleep problems.
3) You Integrate New Learning
Your nervous system processes new learning when you rest. All those new movement skills you just learned in yoga class? You integrate and assimilate them better when you make time for rest at the end of practice. This goes for ANY movement practice; not just yoga.
4) Rest Stimulates Creativity
Relaxation stimulates activity in the right hemisphere of your brain (your left brain is the side that analyzes, calculates and deliberates). Right-brain activation is the doorway to holistic, big-picture thinking. It allows you to connect far-flung dots and think outside the box. It creates space for introspection, self-reflection, and inner clarity.
Rest allows us to tap into our creativity, generate fresh ideas, and find new perspectives by providing an opportunity for the mind to wander and explore new possibilities. It's an invitation to inspiration. Some of my students bring a journal to class with them – because they've found their best ideas come to them right after savasana. If you feel stuck in a problem that’s crying out for a creative solution, try rest!
Honouring your need for rest can enhance your creativity and help you tap into your full potential.
5) Replenish your energy reserves.
Constant activity can deplete your energy levels and lead to fatigue and burnout. Incorporating a resting practice into your life gives you a chance to recharge and rejuvenate. Nurture yourself through rest so you can replenish your physical, mental, and emotional energy, restore a sense of balance and vitality. and approach your life with renewed focus and enthusiasm.
If you’re thinking ‘all of this sounds great, but I just CAN’T relax.’
Stop right there.
You definitely CAN’T relax - if that’s your mindset.
Now, repeat after me:
“I do enough. I have enough. I am enough.”
“I allow myself to rest deeply and relax completely.”
Your ability to relax gets better with practice. Just like you have to do lots of bicep curls in order to see muscle growth, you also have to do lots of relaxation reps to get good at it. Relaxation is a trainable skill. Keep practicing. It's worth it!
Now that we’re all pumped up about calming down, let’s get into the practices.
5 Yoga Practices for Rest, Rejuvenation and Relaxation
1. Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is an excellent gateway into other styles of relaxation practice. It can be especially helpful for people that have a hard time recognizing what tension and relaxation feel like. For the cues to 'relax' and 'let go' to mean anything at all, you have to know how to relax and let go. PMR teaches you that. You're instructed to tense a particular muscle group, like shoulders, then to release that tension and notice how the muscles feel when they are relaxed.
There’s a two-way communication relationship between your mind and your muscles. A worried mind exerts pull on your muscles (in preparation for fight or flight), but you can trick your mind out of stress by consciously relaxing physical tension - which sends a message to your mind that it can let go too. It's brilliant in its simplicity. Also, very effective and very easy to learn.
This is a great place to start training your relaxation muscles.
2. Savasana (Corpse Pose)
Savasana is yoga’s quintessential resting pose. It involves lying down in a comfortable position and surrendering your body and mind to complete relaxation. Savasana invites you to release tension, calm your nervous system, and integrate the benefits of your yoga practice. Focus on letting go of physical and mental tension, and let yourself drift into a peaceful state of deep rest.
The video above introduces you to savasana practice.
3. Yoga Nidra (Yogic Sleep)
Yoga Nidra is a guided meditation/visualization practice. It involves getting into a comfortable position and following the verbal instructions of a teacher as they take you on a tour of your body, breath, sensations, emotions and mind - while you hang suspended in a state between wakefulness and sleep. Yoga Nidra promotes deep relaxation, inner awareness, restful sleep, and leaves you feeling calm, refreshed and rejuvenated.
This is one of my favourite Yoga Nidra's with Dr. Richard Miller, creator of iRest Yoga Meditation.
4. Yin Yoga
Yin yoga is a gentle practice that relaxes your body and mind with gentle stretching. If you’re chronically stressed out, you've probably noticed stiffness in your neck back, shoulders or hips. Stretching just plain feels good. It relaxes you by relieving tension and improving circulation - which help to reduce stress. Stretching also gets you out of your head and into your body, by focusing your awareness on physical sensations, rather than thoughts. Stretching also has an analgesic effect, acting like a natural painkiller. The effects are temporary, also like a painkiller.
Taking time to stretch is like hitting a mental and physical ‘refresh’ button.
Try this Yin class from my online studio.
Pranayama is a yoga practice that involves breathing in specific patterns to help quiet your mind. It's often used for relaxation, stress reduction and to improve focus.
I created this little sequence of 4 pranayamas for soothing your nervous system. Get yourself in a comfortable seat and give it a try.
Slow down. Breathe. Relax. Tune into bodily sensations. Observe with a passive state of mind. By embracing rest as an integral part of your mindfulness journey, you can experience profound transformation: gain perspective and clarity on your life, replenish your energy reserves, open up your creative potential and assist your body's natural healing potential. In other words, when you make time for rest and relaxation, you DO LIFE BETTER. That's why we need to invest in rest.
After a recent yoga class, a student approached me to ask whether I thought yoga was the only form of exercise she needs, and a small group of people hung back to listen to the answer.
I was reminded of a workshop I took years ago as a fledgling yoga teacher. The workshop leader invited participants to write down our questions about yoga on little slips of paper and after lunch, while we were digesting, he would read and answer them for us.
My friend wrote down the question: “Is yoga the only form of exercise you need?”
He read her question aloud, and sounding completely appalled, said in a thick French accent ‘Why do you insult yoga zis way?!’. Then he crumpled up the piece of paper, threw it over his shoulder and moved on to the next question.
For real. That happened.
Initially, I assumed that he meant ‘OF COURSE yoga is the only exercise you need’ – and he found it insulting that anyone would think yoga was not enough! But as my understanding of yoga's depth grew, I started wondering if the real reason he found the question so insulting was because it reduced yoga practice to a mere from of physical exercise. When it’s just ... SO MUCH MORE. Asking if yoga is the only form of exercise you need ignores 90% of what yoga is about – breathwork, mindfulness, meditation, living an ethical life, and generally being a kind, compassionate human being. If you want to be stronger and more bendy, yoga may help – but that’s not really what it’s all about.
Anyway, ‘Is Yoga the only form of exercise you need?’ is a good question, and it deserves a thoughtful and nuanced answer. So, here it is.
IS YOGA THE ONLY FORM OF EXERCISE YOU NEED?
My short answer is: probably not. While yoga offers many wonderful benefits, your yoga practice probably doesn’t qualify as a well-rounded fitness routine. That’s not an insult to yoga either. It’s just that no movement modality can do everything! Yoga does what yoga does beautifully: reducing stress, enhancing body awareness, improving posture, increasing flexibility, and creating peace of mind. What other movement modality does that!? But that’s not everything you need for physical fitness. Ideally, an exercise routine should include elements of strength training, aerobic conditioning, flexibility and balance.
Let’s look at where your yoga practice can help you achieve physical fitness and where it falls short.
aka resistance training. This style of training helps build and maintain muscle strength and endurance. When you strength train, you work against resistance until your muscles feel tired. There are lots of things you can use for resistance, including:
Over the years, I’ve been asked by students again and again if yoga counts as strength training. My answer is always a qualified ‘Yes, but…’ as you gain experience on your yoga mat, poses that were once very challenging become less challenging: Sun Salutations, Warrior IIs, planks, chaturanga and arm balances. Once you’ve mastered them, they cease to be a challenge. That’s called adaptation in the fitness world – and it’s a good thing. It means you got a little stronger (yay, you!) However, in order to continue getting stronger, you have to continue to give yourself new challenges to adapt to.
Remember what it felt like the first time you held your arms out in Warrior II? Agony! But as the days, months and years go by, it starts to feel like you could hold your arms out forever. The greatest strength building benefits of yoga tend to happen in the early days of your practice. Then you adapt. Yoga is a form of bodyweight training, and in bodyweight training, you’re limited by … your body weight. At some point you need to lift more than your own bodyweight in order to keep strengthening.
The thing with strength training is that if you’re doing it correctly, it should never feel like it’s getting easier. When it starts to feel easy, that’s when you know your tissues have adapted and it’s time to increase the amount of resistance you’re using. Progressive overload, gradually increasing the load over time, is crucial for ongoing strength gains. If it’s stopped feeling challenging, you’ve stopped building strength.
Combining yoga with traditional strength training methods can be a well-rounded approach to developing strength and overall fitness.
It’s recommended that you strength train 2-3 days per week.
How strength training improves health and fitness
aka Cardio. This type of exercise increases your heart rate and breathing for an extended period. It involves rhythmic movements that engage large muscles and requires LOTS of oxygen to meet the body’s energy demands. Think: running, swimming, dancing, cycling and aerobics class. Depending on the type of yoga you’re doing, and your level of aerobic conditioning, you might be working in your aerobic sweet spot when you go to yoga class. What’s the aerobic sweet spot? According to Canada’s 24-hour movement guidelines, you should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic exercise each week. This graphic will help you to understand what moderate to vigorous activity feels like and whether your yoga practice is meeting your needs for aerobic exercise.
Keep in mind that you also adapt aerobically. Initially, your yoga practice may leave you breathless, but with continued practice, what once felt challenging and effortful feels easier. That’s when you know it’s time to switch things up. You could try a more vigorous class, or you could take up a new form of aerobic exercise (swimming, cycling, running, brisk walking) to complement your yoga practice.
How aerobic training improves health and fitness
Flexibility exercise improves joint mobility. Yoga does a stellar job here. As with aerobic and strength training, the biggest gains tend to come early in your practice.
How flexibility training improves health and fitness
It’s recommended that you stretch 2-3 days per week, focusing on major muscle groups.
Balance exercises aim to improve your ability to maintain stability, control your body’s position, and stay upright. Yoga does a great job of training you to become a better balancer - whether you’re standing statue-like in a static Tree Pose or you’re transitioning dynamically from a Downward Dog to a Crescent Lunge and Warrior III. Yoga offers a near endless variety of ways to challenge your balance. Which is good – because you get better at balancing by practicing challenging yourself in lots of different ways. And, of course, you need to continue to challenge yourself in order to continue to grow!
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR YOU AND YOUR YOGA PRACTICE?
The most important thing is to have a regular movement practice. Period. If aerobics or weightlifting aren’t something you’ll stick with, then just do yoga. Move in the ways you love to move – and keep moving. BUT know that your yoga practice probably isn’t going to give you what you need for well-rounded fitness.
When people ask me what I do to stay fit, they often seem surprised to learn that there’s more to me than yoga. I love lots of different kinds of movement - and consider myself a movement generalist.
For strength training: I lift weights, do bodyweight training and practice pilates
For aerobic training: I do lots of brisk walking. I also love hiking, trail running and I do aerobics at home in my living room
Balance and Flexibility training are incorporated into my strength and aerobic workouts, and they’re also a part of my yoga practice, and my regular workday teaching movement. I have enough of this woven into the other things I do that I don't need to carve out special time in my schedule to work on balance and flexibility.
For the sheer joy of it, I also dance, roller skate, do stand up paddle boarding and, of course, practice yoga.
There are lots of ways to move and lots of reasons to move whether for health or for pleasure.
TAKE A MOVEMENT MULTIVITAMIN
Just like a multivitamin provides a range of essential nutrients for overall health, a movement multivitamin involves you engaging in a variety of movement styles and activities to promote holistic fitness and well-being.
Every one of us has unique movement needs, just like we have unique nutritional needs. Like nutrients, there are basic movement abilities that we all need - like a certain amount of flexibility. But we don’t ALL need MORE flexibility. Some of us have enough. A person might also be deficient in one area (like strength) while another person isn’t. A Yin yoga class might hold the key missing movement nutrient for one person and at the same time create an overdose of flexibility for someone else.
Rather than relying on a single type of exercise to meet all your exercise needs for all time, embrace a diverse range of physical activities. That allows you to experience the benefits of multiple modalities and find a fitness routine that suits your specific needs and goals at different ages and stages of your life. This approach helps promote overall fitness, prevents boredom, reduces the risk of overuse injuries and supports well-rounded physical and mental well-being.
To get back to our original question: ‘Is yoga the only form of exercise you need?’
The answer is personal and very individual.
For me, the answer is no. Yoga isn’t the only form of exercise I need. Yoga isn’t really something I do for physical fitness. For me, yoga is something I do for the well-being of my heart and mind; something I do for the pleasure and joy it brings me; and a philosophy I’ve adopted as a lifestyle choice. Though, as a nice byproduct, it also gives me what I need in terms of balance and flexibility. It makes me a calmer person, and reminds me to be a kinder person. To get my other movement nutrients in, I do more traditional exercise, like weight lifting and running.
Is yoga the only form of exercise you need?
I guess it depends. On you. What kind of yoga are you currently practicing? Is it giving you all the movement nutrients you need? And what do you want yoga to do for you?
Amanda Tripp, Yoga/body nerd and woman of a 1000 opinions