What’s wrong with Pilates? Part 1

July 4, 2012 — 5 Comments

All that lying down.

The claims made for Pilates’ benefits are myriad – it is astonishing that it can, apparently, offer the wide array of outcomes that one can read about on the web. Before I give the wrong impression, let  me be very clear (again) that I’m an enthusiastic advocate of Pilates, and have both personal and professional experience of the remarkable changes it can help to make in many people’s lives.

One website I visited contends both that Pilates can help prevent osteoporosis, and that it will not stress joints. (Perhaps I’m wilfully misinterpreting, but surely stress is what promotes bone growth…?) This seems to relate directly to what, I would contend, is a flaw in Pilates (as it is often offered to the public). How much time do people spend lying down, both in mat and equipment classes ?

Revisiting some of those frequently listed benefits: How do we improve posture? We make muscles work more effectively (dare I say stronger?). How do we improve ‘core strength’? The same answer. How do we relieve back pain? Isn’t it the same answer? And helping prevent incontinence? Surely the same again. Of course there is a component of lengthening and releasing overworked muscles, and we can’t overlook working on breathing patterns, and developing physical awareness. All of these things are adaptations, and one of the most potent ways of triggering adaptation is stress, as expressed in the concept of hormesis. Explained as follows on www.innovitaresearch.org, a website offering information related to ageing:

In response to stress, an organism is expected to go through three distinct phases: alarm reaction, resistance phase, and exhaustion phase. According this schema, the adaptability can be developed during the resistance period. This notion is in line with the evolutionary view on the survival for the fittest theory, for which the only possible way to attain the survivability is through the organism’s metabolic and defensive adaptation to deleterious stress.”

 There are excellent reasons to spend some time in a Pilates class with the participants lying on their backs – using the floor as feedback for developing postural awareness, safely introducing loading of the trunk stabilisers, and introducing loaded hip extension, for example. Occasionally I set out to teach a mat class without any lying down, but generally speaking any mat class I teach will involve a bit, for those reasons above, and a few others. At the same time, many mat classes seem to incorporate a lot of lying down, and I’ve come across many people who are regulars at a Pilates studio and in the habit of spending 45 minutes of a 75 minute class lying on their backs (maybe a foam roll too, for variety..), before then moving to the reformer to do more…lying on their backs.
The trouble with lying down is that it’s not a very useful position from the point of view of affecting adaptation, since we can’t do much in the way of stressing bones, muscles etc. If, for example, someone is quite kyphotic, or has protracted shoulders, they may be able to find a better position, with the help of gravity, whilst lying down. What happens when they stand up? If we are to help people understand and maintain good/ideal/optimal (or insert your own referred adjective) upright posture then we need to teach them in upright positions. Just as you’re unlikely to improve your running technique by practicing swimming, you’re unlikely to get better at sitting or standing upright by practicing lying down.
Similarly, whilst we can lay the foundation for trunk stability in a supine position, we can’t help people learn how to be robust to changing loads/forces on their trunk when they’re standing unless we teach exercises that involve them standing. We cannot help people to move efficiently (safely, with confidence etc.) against gravity in the outside world if we don’t incorporate standing or sitting work in Pilates classes.
If we accept that one of the primary goals of Pilates is to help our clients to become stronger (In the man’s own words: “To achieve the highest accomplishments within the scope of our capabilities in all walks of life we must constantly strive to acquire strong, healthy bodies and develop our minds to the limits of our ability.”) then we have to be helping those same clients to affect adaptation. And if we accept that adaptation is triggered by practice, or rather, that we become good at doing the things we practice a lot (see ‘The Talent Code‘ by Daniel Coyle) then we should be asking ‘How much do our clients need to practice lying down?‘ I hope that we can agree that the answer is ‘Not much.’

5 responses to What’s wrong with Pilates? Part 1


    Very intersting, but waht doe you think of pelvic rock exercise for example. We can perform the pelvic rock on standing, lie down, on force …Don’t you agree that pelvic rock onlie down on the back help to promote proprioception?


    Great article! I do agree on most things you say. I am a strong supporter of standing Pilates exercises, but it doesn’t seems to be very popular…


    Hello: Thank you for your informative article. I obtained a certification (Mat class) from a master physical therapist and Pilates practitioner several years ago, and one of the first things that was stressed was progression of a class (or session). My understanding is a “good” mat class begins in supine, then progresses to prone, side, kneeling, and finally standing. A class that remains prone for 45minutes is simply not in line with current therapeutic methodology. Time to find a new class. Not to mention weather neutral spine position is utilized in supine verses posterior pelvic tilt stabilization. Very good article! cc

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  1. Pregnant? Might CrossFit be a better way of exercising than Pilates? « paleolates - June 15, 2014

    […] of the fundamental drawbacks of Pilates, especially in the classical practice – there’s a lot of lying down. I know of Pilates teachers who have had terrible problems of pelvic instability during pregnancy. […]

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