Q: I read that Pilates is good for bodybuilding because it develops longer muscles and flexibility. I know it’s popular with dancers for those very reasons. What do you think about this form of training, perhaps taking a class a week to help with my flexibility?
A: To use a line from a great Geico commercial in which R. Lee Ermey plays a former drill sergeant turned psychiatrist, “That’s interesting…. Maybe we should chug on over to Namby Pamby Land, where maybe we can find some self-confidence for you—you jack wagon!”
While you have to give credit to a person participating in any form of exercise on a regular basis, the claims that some Pilates instructors make about their form of training are overrated. Pilates is not an effective way to lose weight. Pilates is not an effective way to “tone”—whatever that means—your muscles. And no, Pilates will not make your muscles longer, because if it did, the resulting slack that would occur in your joints would make it difficult to perform any task—you’d be like one of those boneless chickens that can’t walk because, obviously, their muscles don’t have any bones to pull against.
To be fair, one of the problems with Pilates is the lack of standardization among the organizations that certify its instructors. The issue is that after four years of litigation ending in 2000, the courts decided that the term Pilates could not be trademarked because it describes an exercise system. As a result you have Pilates instructors who have gone through a credible, 450-hour hands-on educational program and others who got certified in a weekend by taking an open-book, online multiple-choice test.
One of the attractions of Pilates is that it’s been around a long time. Whereas fascial stretching, as taught by Ann and Chris Frederick, is an amazing form of soft-tissue work, it has to compete with yoga, which has a 5,000-year history along with celebrity endorsements that include Oprah—guess the liquid protein diet didn’t work—Paris Hilton, Shirley MacLaine, Ricky Martin and…ah, I think I should stop there.
Although Pilates doesn’t go back to the era when Stonehenge was erected and ice skates were invented, it’s more than 100 years old. Its founder, Joseph Pilates, was born in Germany in 1880. Through gymnastics and bodybuilding—yes, bodybuilding—he went on to excel in skiing, diving and boxing. Legend has it that while working in England as a nurse during World War I, Pilates used springs and frames from hospital beds to develop specialized resistance-training equipment. How original Pilates ideas are is a matter of debate among physical-culture historians. The late Dr. Mel Siff suggested that some of the machines Pilates designed—such as the “Spine Corrector Barrel” and the “Cadillac”—were inspired by gymnastics equipment and that some of the basic training principles he espoused were influenced by the teachings of legendary German strongman Eugen Sandow.
Despite Pilates’ bodybuilding roots, later proponents started emphasizing the spirituality of their form of exercise and then started making outrageous statements that often involved badmouthing weight training. Weight training, they would say, shortens muscles, whereas Pilates lengthens them; weight training causes muscle imbalances, whereas Pilates creates muscular symmetry; and weight training places adverse stress on the lower back, whereas Pilates leads to spinal health. All nonsense—and in fact many Pilates lifting techniques don’t stabilize the pelvis to lift heavy weights or produce maximum power. As for functional training for athletics, Pilates violates the principle of specificity by using relatively light resistance and low-impact activity.
The bottom line is that if you want to supplement your bodybuilding training with Pilates, fine. You might even want to try enhancing your experience by wearing a tie-dyed shirt and spandex tights and working out in a room with a bamboo floor and incense candles. Just be certain to find a qualified instructor, and don’t buy into some of the absurd claims made by some Pilates adherents.
Editor’s note: Charles Poliquin is recognized as one of the world’s most suc-cessful strength coaches, having coached Olympic med-alists in 12 different sports, including the U.S. women’s track-and-field team for the 2000 Olympics. He’s spent years researching European journals (he’s fluent in English, French and German) and speaking with other coaches and scientists in his quest to optimize training methods. For more on his books, seminars and methods, visit www.CharlesPoliquin.net. IM