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Why Pilates and Lifting Weights Aren’t Mutually Exclusive

As a Pilates teacher, my clients are often surprised when I tell them that in addition to having a dedicated Pilates practice, I regularly lift weights.

“Pilates can make you stronger, so why would you want to do both?” they ask me.

While it’s true that both Pilates and lifting weights can improve overall strength, each modality is better suited for addressing specific aspects of fitness. Understanding what each of these methods does well can allow you to pick the right one for you based on your individual needs and fitness goals.

For the purpose of this article, I’m defining Pilates as the comprehensive system of exercises including both mat and apparatus work and lifting weights as the general strength and conditioning work that can be done with dumbbells, kettlebells, or barbells.

With these definitions in mind, Pilates and lifting weights are both forms of resistance training, which can be used to improve muscular strength, an aspect of muscular fitness.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), “Resistance training is a form of physical activity that is designed to improve muscular fitness by exercising a muscle or a muscle group against external resistance.” [1]

External resistance is any form of load that you use to pull or push against, including bands, medicine balls, or free weights. In Pilates, we use springs on the different Pilates apparatus as a form of external resistance. When lifting weights, we often use kettlebells, free weights, or barbells.

Muscular strength is defined as the ability to exert external force, or push and pull against resistance. When training for muscular strength, it is recommended that novice to intermediate exercises train with a load of 60 to 70 percent of their one-repetition max (1RM) for one to three sets, and that advanced exercisers train with 80 to 100 percent of their 1RM for two to six sets [1].

If you are unfamiliar with the term, a 1RM is the maximum weight you can lift for a single repetition of a given exercise. There are different calculations that you can use to estimate a 1RM.

There are many styles of Pilates, but if you’re training the on the equipment you can expect to perform one to three sets of an exercise against moderate spring resistance. The same can apply when lifting weights. This means that if you are new to exercise, both modalities can easily fill the requirements for building muscular strength.

Additionally, there are numerous exercises in both modalities that target all parts of the body to give you a well-rounded strength workout, so which one you choose would really depend on your personal preferences.

However, there is a limit to how much spring resistance you have available to you in Pilates, so if you are a more advanced mover, at some point you may want to start lifting heavier loads to progress in overall strength.

To put this into context, the one Pilates exercise where you could use all of the springs to strengthen your legs involves lying on your back, which decreases the amount of strength required to push against the load. When lifting weights, however, you have numerous implement options and exercises available to externally load the legs, including barbell back squats or goblet squats using a dumbbell or a kettlebell.

Training for Muscular Endurance and Core Strength

Pilates and lifting weights can both help with muscular endurance, or “the ability of a muscle or a muscle group to repeatedly exert a submaximal resistance” [1]. In life, this translates to being able to perform a repetitive task, such as walking, over a longer period of time.

Training for muscular endurance involves performing an exercise using lighter resistance with higher repetitions. The general recommendation is performing 10 to 25 repetitions of an exercise with a load of less than 70 percent of your 1RM for two to four sets [1].

While Pilates exercises traditionally utilize lower repetitions, the method does include moments that would build muscular endurance. For example, footwork on the reformer involves using your legs to press the carriage out and in for multiple sets of 10. You could also choose to lift weights to improve muscular endurance, by making the conscious choice to pick a lighter weight and perform higher repetitions of certain exercises.

Finally, both can be utilized to build core strength. I understand that Pilates theoretically has cornered the market on this. However, the core is a muscle group like any other and both modalities have numerous exercises to target this area of the body.

Those are the primarily similarities between the two modalities. Now, let’s get into what each does especially well.

Lifting weights is excellent for the following applications:

Hypertrophy Training

Hypertrophy, which is probably what body building is best known for, is the act of training to make your muscles bigger.

There are multiple ways to induce hypertrophy, but the general recommendation is to perform a high volume of work with moderate loads and rest periods. According to the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, when participants performed six to 12 repetitions of an exercise at 65 to 85 percent of their 1RM with a rest period of 60 seconds, it created the greatest stimulation of testosterone and growth hormone, which correlates with hypertrophy [2].

Many lifting programs are created with hypertrophy in mind and include recommendations for multiple sets and rest periods. However, a typical Pilates workout is low volume with little to no rest periods and involves flowing, back to back movements. This means that it isn’t well designed for hypertrophy.

If you wanted to increase your overall muscle mass or appear more muscular, then lifting weights would be better option than Pilates to help you reach that goal.

Improved Grip Strength

Unless you’ve experienced a hand injury, you probably haven’t thought much about your grip strength. However, a strong grip can reduce the odds of having forearm and hand issues related to computer work and has even been associated with a decreased risk of mortality as you get older [3].

Lifting weights naturally lends itself to developing the muscles in the forearms and hands, thus improving grip strength, because you have to hold onto the weights to physically lift them.

This is different than in Pilates, where your hands are typically holding handles or soft straps and the resistance occurs by controlling spring tension rather than having to grip and lift a heavy object.

Loading the Skeleton Upright in Gravity

Lifting weights is also an excellent way to load your skeleton in gravity, because many of the traditional exercises, such as deadlifts or lunges, are performed standing. In some cases, you quite literally place a load against your skeleton, such as when you do a barbell back squat.

Not only does this type of work help you build the functional strength to navigate daily life, but it is also beneficial as a protective measure against osteoporosis, and in some cases, can be used a tool to minimize the effects of it.

This isn’t to say that practicing Pilates on the equipment won’t help you build functional strength. However, most of the resistance that we use in Pilates is spring-based, which means you are constantly receiving feedback from it.

This is different from lifting a weight, which doesn’t offer the same amount of feedback and more closely matches the type of resistance you might have to push or pull against in daily life.

Additionally, many Pilates exercises are performed lying down or seated, which doesn’t transfer as directly to functional movement patterns that are performed in standing.

For example, squatting while holding a weight in front of you more closely mimics picking up a kitchen aid mixer from the bottom cabinet, than lying on your back pushing your feet against springs.

Conversely, here are some of the specific benefits from practicing Pilates:

Hip and Shoulder Mobility and Stability

Pilates can be an excellent way to improve your mobility and stability, because many of the exercises involve exploring large ranges of motion with feedback from the springs, while your torso and limbs are supported by the Pilates equipment or the pulley system that is attached to the equipment.

This environment is particularly helpful for addressing mobility at the hips and shoulders, because it’s easier to explore and learn how to control large ranges of motion when our limbs feel supported, or when we are lying on our backs and don’t have to organize our torso against gravity. This feedback is also known as closed chain.

For the most part, free weight exercises take place in an open chain, because you have to navigate the weight without any support or feedback from a spring or a pulley system. As a result, you won’t be able to move in as large a range of motion, because you will have to work harder to control how your body moves against the resistance.

This type of movement is also beneficial for improving stability, because our stabilizers, or the small postural muscles that control where our joints are in space, respond best to lower loads and higher repetitions.

While you can incorporate stability exercises into your lifting program, Pilates lends itself to stability work, because the loads are lower and it demands that control how your joints move in different positions and ranges of motion for a sustained period of time.

Spinal Mobility

Traditional weight lifting exercises require that you maintain spinal stiffness to safely manage the heavier loads. While this is an important skill, it’s beneficial to have a spine that can both manage heavy loads and move well through all the spinal positions, including flexion, extension, side bending, and rotation.

Many of the Pilates exercises involve spinal articulation and moving the spine through the different planes of motion. Additionally, because the loads place upon the spine are lower, this is a safe and comfortable place to explore these movements and the spring tension can help facilitate better movement in the areas of the spine that might be stiff from having to sit for long periods of time at a desk.

Again, this isn’t to say that you couldn’t incorporate spinal mobility exercises into a lifting routine. However, this type of mobility work is built into the Pilates repertoire and the closed chain feedback from the springs can make it feel more accessible.

Increased Proprioception and Body Awareness

Any type of movement practice can increase proprioception, or the ability to feel where your joints are in space. However, it is easier to build proprioception in a closed chain environment, which as I mentioned above is the majority of the Pilates equipment work.

Increasing proprioception can reduce feelings of stiffness, discomfort, and pain, while improving overall movement patterns. It can also mitigate the risk of injury, because it encourages a greater understanding of how you are moving through space.

In a post-rehab setting, Pilates can feel like a supportive and gentle way to reintroduce movement or loading in an area that might be guarded as a result of fear of pain or reinjury.

This closed chain environment can also be helpful for improving a movement pattern where you have limited mobility or stability, because you are able to work more specifically around the restricted area with more options for movement regressions.

Once the movement is mastered in a closed chain environment, it sets the stage for successfully moving in an open chain environment, such as traditional lifting exercises.

Conclusion

Personally, I’ve found that Pilates has given me the body awareness and mobility to progress more quickly when lifting weights, while lifting weights has made advanced Pilates exercises that I previously struggled with feel effortless.

This is to say that there is no perfect or best system of exercise and that there are numerous benefits to cross training and exploring multiple movement modalities. What’s most important is that you consider what type of exercise you enjoy that best matches your goals.

References

  1. American College of Sports Medicine, Resistance Traininghttps://www.acsm.org/docs/brochures/resistance-training.pdf
  2. Schoenfeld BJ, The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance TrainingThe Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 24(10):2857-72 · October 2010
    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/46288878_The_Mechanisms_of_Muscle_Hypertrophy_and_Their_Application_to_Resistance_Training
  3. Granic A, Davies K, Jagger C, Dodds RM, Kirkwood TBL, Sayer AA, Initial level and rate of change in grip strength predict all-cause mortality in very old adults, Age and Ageing, Volume 46, Issue 6, 1 November 2017, Pages 970–976, https://academic.oup.com/ageing/article/46/6/970/3854660

A message from GGS…

Understanding how to get more results in less time so you actually enjoy exercise and can have a life outside of the gym isn’t hard, you just have to understand the Blueprint and be willing to trust the process.


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About The Author: Nikki Naab-Levy

Nikki Naab-Levy, B.S. exercise science, is a Pilates teacher, massage therapist and fitness educator who helps people who struggle with injury get fit with less pain. When she’s not teaching a sneaky hard Pilates class, you can find her hiking in the Pacific Northwest, playing with her corgi Charlie, and chain-drinking Americanos. To connect with Nikki, visit NaabLevy.com, and say hello on Facebook or Instagram.

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