Pilates for Weight Lifters

Pilates is known to make you feel long, lean, and centered. For those of you who also favor workouts with a bit more intensity, we totally get the appeal of lifting weights to get your bulk on. But before you hang up your Reformer straps for good, here’s why Pilates is great cross-training for weight lifters.

1) You gain power 

The alignment and core strengthening work we do in Pilates builds a solid foundation you can rely upon when doing powerful, rapid movements like those done in an intense workout or boot camp class. 

We’ll occasionally see clients who are incredibly dedicated to their weight lifting regime and have the 6-pack to prove it. But if they’ve only been working on developing these superficial muscles, there’s a good chance their core is actually quite weak. By “core,” we don’t just mean the abs: we’re referring to a group of muscles that stabilize your skeleton that includes your 4 layers of abdominal muscle, pelvic floor, muscles of the back, and muscles around the spine. 

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Pilates exercises are designed to not only strengthen, but also coordinate the engagement of these muscles. The idea is to “train” them to support your movement all the time without you having to think about it. In this way, we strengthen not only the muscles that make you look good in a bikini, but also the ones underneath. When those deep internal muscles are strong, your limbs have a stable base to connect to and gain power and mobility. 

For example, imagine you’re riding a bike that’s falling apart. While pedaling, you have to hold the handlebars in place, keep the pedals attached, and make sure the wheels are staying connected to the frame. Your body is so focused on keeping the bike intact that you can’t think about proper form, let alone the freeing sensation of the wind blowing through your hair. 

With a bike connected solidly from frame to wheel to handlebars, you can rely on the machine to do its job so you can just focus on riding.

3) You balance out intense physical movements with subtle, intentional ones 

Weight lifting is great for building strength in a way that increases the “bulk” of your muscles. This happens as a result of an increase in the size of muscle fibers as well as an increase in the number of muscle fibers. 

When you do a bicep curl with a 5 lb weight, the strands of the muscle fibers in your bicep shorten in a concentric contraction. When you extend your arm, still holding the weight, the muscle performs an eccentric contraction. Both strengthen the muscle, and both are necessary to maintain full range of motion. 

In weight lifting, most of the focus is on exercises with concentric contractions, which shorten muscle fibers. Pilates exercises take you through concentric contractions but primarily focus on eccentric contractions, which accounts for the lengthening feeling you often experience after a good class. 

A perfect example is the chest opener series on the long box. While laying with your belly on the box and your hands on the footbar, you’ll press the carriage out. Keeping your arms straight, draw the carriage in while lifting your chest. Your abdominals and chest muscles are performing eccentric contractions by staying engaged as you lengthen your front body and lift your chest. Your muscles strengthen in this position, helping to reverse the rounding forward we practice so often.

2) We break it down 

The full-body movements you do in a weight lifting workout depend on effective coordination of various muscle groups to keep you safe from injuries and maintaining proper alignment. While you might do these movements with more force at the gym, you’ll find that some of the same movements are incorporated into your Pilates class. 

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For example, take a dead lift. This exercise requires you to hinge at the hips, grab a weighted bar, then straighten your legs as you lift the bar off the ground and straighten back upright.

When doing the exercise correctly, you’re engaging your hamstrings, maintaining the curves of your spine, and engaging your abdominals, all while preventing your lower back from overworking and making sure not to lock out the knees. That’s a lot to juggle all at once—especially when lifting up a weighted bar!  

In Pilates, we regularly do leg work lying on the Reformer with your feet in the straps. The exercises we do in this orientation are designed to work your legs while practicing neutral spine (which means maintaining your natural curves). We focus on keeping the abdominals engaged, breathing, and not hyperextending or locking out the knees. Essentially, we work the alignment needed to do a proper dead lift in a slow and intentional manner, and flipped 90 degrees so you’re on your back. Take the same principles you learn in class and apply them to your weight lifting regime and you’ll be golden. 

What weight lifting exercises do you want to work on in class? Let us know! 

Ali Weeks