Why Pilates Doesn’t Guarantee a Flat Stomach

When Joseph Pilates first created Pilates in the 1920’s, he was way ahead of the times in the world of physical fitness. The patients, athletes, and dancers he worked with appreciated his methods, but mainstream culture has taken more time to jump on board. Fifty years after his death, the Pilates method is finally gaining the momentum and respect Joseph hoped to see during his own lifetime.

Unfortunately, as Pilates has grown more popular, some of Joseph’s ideas have been skewed by today’s fitness fad market. We’ve come to desire unrealistic, photoshopped bodies with 6-pack abs and not a hint of cellulite. Because Pilates focuses on core strength, it’s easy for it to be reduced to the selling points of losing belly fat and gaining flat abs. The industry seizes on the nearly universal desire, posting ads and articles like “Get a Flat Stomach with Beach Body Pilates” or “Get Your Body Bikini-Ready with These 3 Pilates Moves.” While we understand the logic behind this kind of marketing, it’s misleading and overly reductive of the beauty and complexity of the Pilates method.

We can certainly appreciate people wanting to improve their bodies, but a flat stomach is not the pinnacle sign of health our culture makes it out to be. Being “skinny” doesn’t necessarily mean someone is healthy—and not being “skinny” doesn’t necessarily mean someone is unhealthy.

Health and wellness don’t have one singular definition; they look different on every individual person depending on genetics, environment, lifestyle, and a slew of other factors. Rather than striving for a flat stomach, it’s actually much healthier (not to mention far more attainable) to strive towards overall balance as a true sign of physical fitness.  

In Joseph’s book, Return to Life Through Contrology, he wrote:

“Physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness. Our interpretation of physical fitness is the attainment and maintenance of a uniformly developed body with a sound mind fully capable of naturally, easily, and satisfactorily performing our many and varied daily tasks with spontaneous zest and pleasure.”

Isn’t that such a lovely measure of physical fitness? Joseph doesn’t once mention having a tight core as the reason why Pilates is so good for our bodies. Because to him, the true key to physical health and success was about gaining efficiency for all muscles. He also wrote:

“Contrology develops the body uniformly, corrects wrong postures, restores physical vitality, invigorates the mind, and elevates the spirit…. As we mature, we find ourselves living in bodies not always complementary to our ego. Our bodies are slumped, our shoulders are stooped, our eyes are hollow, our muscles are flabby, and our vitality extremely lowered, if not vanished. The is but the natural result of not having uniformly developed all the muscles of our spine, trunk, arms and legs.”

Note how Joseph uses the word ‘trunk’ rather than ‘abs’ or ‘core.’ Pilates definitely strengthens abdominal muscles, but it also strengthens breathing muscles, postural muscles, and muscles that support joints. More importantly, it strengthens everything with moderation and balance. If you follow Joseph’s original series for Mat exercises, you’ll definitely come away from the workout feeling your abdominal wall, but the point is it’s not the only thing you’ll feel.

In Pilates teacher training, we’re taught to lead a class that touches on every part of the body. Teachers may focus a class on legs or arms or, yes, abs, but the intention of the class is to help you feel longer, stronger, and balanced.

For example, let’s look at Pilates’ most famous (or infamous) exercise: the Hundreds.

One of The Pilates Collective’s instructors,  Melissa May , executing the 100’s: a full-body exercise!

One of The Pilates Collective’s instructors, Melissa May, executing the 100’s: a full-body exercise!

When doing the Hundreds on the Reformer, you traditionally have your hands in the straps, your legs extended long in front of you, and your torso in an upper body curl.

This exercise may be known as the “most intense Pilates ab workout” or a “killer move for your core,” but when we examine it closely, there’s much more going on. First of all, breathing during the Hundreds is incredibly difficult and requires tapping into rib cage breathing, which means breathing into your upper ribs rather than doing a belly breath. By practicing this style of breathing, you’re engaging your diaphragm and all the muscles around your ribcage.

If your hands are in the straps, you’re engaging your arms (particularly your triceps), utilizing the resistance of the springs. In order to keep your collarbones wide and prevent your chest from collapsing, you also engage your chest muscles. By maintaining an upper body curl as well as a neutral pelvis, you activate the muscles in your back and those surrounding your spine. Your abdominals work to hold your upper body curl, but they also engage to maintain your neutral spine and pelvis. With your legs extended long in front of you, your lower abs are hard at work stabilizing your core. Your legs are working too: the quads are pulling upward, the inner thighs drawing together, and every muscle reaching long all the way through your toes.

With all of that activation going on, doesn’t it seem reductive to think of the Hundreds as just an ab exercise!?

A  class  at The Pilates Collective Denver doing the Hundreds with the Magic Circle

A class at The Pilates Collective Denver doing the Hundreds with the Magic Circle

If you add in any number of modifications, the Hundreds becomes even more specialized. You could hold a Magic Circle between your ankles to activate your inner thighs, or could put your feet inside of it to active the outer thighs (as shown in this photo of a recent group class). You could hold small weights in your hands to engage the arms more. You could keep your head down, drawing more of the focus to your lower abdominals and back. You could scissor kick or beat your legs to fold in coordination and more leg engagement. The options are limitless!   

Pilates—and health in general—is not about being as thin and flat-stomached as possible, it’s about striving towards strength, flexibility, and balance throughout the entire body.

After your next class, take a moment to check in with your body and see if you’ve moved every muscle group. Do you feel longer, stronger, and balanced? Besides, when balance and wellness is your goal, you might be surprised to find that a longer and leaner body—and possibly a flatter stomach—come naturally.