Pilates vs. a Gym Workout
by Jillian Hessel
Folks who are not familiar with Pilates ask me all the time how it differs from a conventional gym workout with weights. There are so many differences, that it's hard to know where to begin! For one thing, the Pilates approach is different, in that Pilates teachers tend to look at the whole body — not just body parts.
For example, I always begin the first session with a new client with a postural analysis, as well as a fitness history. In this way, the client and I can assess together what is going on in terms of muscle imbalance and/or postural instability. This helps us to set priorities, as well as short- and long-term fitness goals.
Once the fitness interview and postural assessment are complete, I take each client through a series of introductory moves that I call the B.E.A.M. Fundamentals. B.E.A.M. is an acronym that stands for Breathe, Energize, Align, and Move — many of the basic precepts of Pilates exercise. The Fundamentals are performed on the mat with no equipment, and they serve as a sort of roadmap of self-discovery for the client.
People who are not very attuned to their bodies might need to spend longer on the Fundamentals, and athletes who are more body-aware may need less time. Certainly, if one is injured or deconditioned, the Fundamentals are even more important, as it is pointless to begin a strengthening regime if the body is not in optimal alignment, as this can only lead to an even more serious injury.
Once the Fundamentals are mastered, it is time to move into the more classic Pilates exercises, which may be performed on the mat (with or without props), or on specialized apparatus. The Pilates apparatus presents another big difference from the conventional gym workout, as most equipment in the gym uses either pulleys, cables, or weights as resistance, and the primary goal of all this pushing and pulling of weights is strength training.
However, the Pilates apparatus uses variable-length (and gauge) springs to simultaneously lengthen and strengthen the muscles, as well as to improve joint flexibility and range of motion. Even the Pilates mat work, which traditionally uses only the resistance of the body itself, emphasizes lengthening as well as strengthening! How is this accomplished? Pilates exercises feature low numbers of repetitions (frequently 3 to 5, but never more than 10), but the movements themselves are far more complex than a conventional weight training exercise. Hence, a Pilates exercise is more likely to mimic a real life movement, and also will recruit a higher number of muscle groups within each exercise.
Contrast this with a traditional weight training regimen, where one repeats each exercise for 2 to 3 sets, often increasing the weight and diminishing the number of reps. Quite often, a weight training routine stresses "maxing out" each muscle group, and therefore you may not be able to train the entire body on a given day. In contrast, Pilates works at a submaximal effort, but works the entire body at all times, so that muscle balance, symmetry, and core stability are challenged with every workout.
Finally, a maximal workout with weights may leave you feeling exhausted and shaky. Certainly, you will need to spend some time stretching out those muscles that have done the heavy weight training or you will be very sore the following day! In contrast, Pilates exercise is energizing and invigorating. Since you have worked at both strengthening and stretching, you don't need more time to stretch again. Many of the exercises even feel like a massage for the body!
In conclusion, there is certainly nothing like weight training to strengthen the body — but Pilates can provide an interesting fitness alternative for those who can't abide the gym. It is also a viable cross-training regimen for those who need to "balance things out." Remember, Pilates is a true mind/body discipline: its emphasis on purity of form in the execution of each movement demands total mental and physical concentration! However, the focus on uniting each and every movement with breath control and grace is very rewarding.