The meat head end of a gym is not necessarily the best environment for everyone, it can be quite uncomfortable and confronting for even a well-trained athlete. It is no wonder a large part of the population prefer to partake in Pilates, Yoga, Barre or other exercise generally perceived as a calmer option for staying healthy. Whilst that “gym” environment might not be right for some, the benefits of including individually specific, well-structured strength training in to your week is unequivocal. By utilising high quality private services and facilities (such as Absolute Health & Performance) or an expert guided home based program for strength training, everyone can achieve their health, fitness and injury prevention/management goals. Ultimately, any “strength” focussed person should be utilising the benefits of Yoga & Pilates type training, and any Yoga & Pilates regular should be utilising the benefits of traditional strength training, a mix is key.
On top of being able to achieve any and all of the benefits you gain out of the above-mentioned exercise modalities, with strength training you will rapidly improve what you can achieve and get out of your Pilates & Yoga, and really maximise all your training and injury prevention efforts.
So, what are some common reasons people might choose to do Pilates or Yoga?
Obviously, a key element to having a long term sustainable approach to health and exercise is doing something you enjoy. Without doubt enjoyment is a critical component to any training, however for this article I want to focus on more of the physical reasons rather than the psychological. (Please note that in some extreme clinical cases traditional strength training may not be suitable, so before participating in a training regime of any mode, ensure that you are thoroughly screened by professionals.)
I want to be more flexible
The most effective way to improve your flexibility is consistency of effort, but some methods are more effective than others. Yoga and Pilates both have an excellent focus on lengthening, giving great benefits for flexibility and mobility, but so does strength training, with the added benefit of strength gains to stabilise that extra range of motion (ROM). By performing a movement that utilises a strong muscle contraction, followed by muscle lengthening, has shown to be one of the most effective mechanisms to improve both flexibility and performance (1). These are exactly the mechanisms that occur during strength training, utilising what is essentially a form of Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF), which taps into 4 mechanisms, autogenic inhibition, reciprocal inhibition, stress relaxation, and the gate control theory to improve flexibility & performance. Along with the PNF response, a systematic review concluded that eccentric training is effective in increasing flexibility (2), which is essentially utilising slower lowering phases of each rep.
So, if improving flexibility is your training or rehabilitation goal, then of course Yoga and Pilates are great, but so too is traditional strength training, with many other benefits to long term health, which you can read more about in a previous article of mine here.
I want to improve my ‘core’ strength
A common reason to participate in Yoga and Pilates is to improve ‘core’ strength. Yes, of course they are effective for this, but so too is strength training, which also has fantastic carryover to real world tasks. I talk about back pain and its relationship to core strength later, this section is about strength and stability.
The often cued ‘hollowing’ technique is not the most effective way to strengthen the muscles of your core as this only activates a single muscle in isolation. Research shows that hollowing will in fact produce increased activity in the transverse abdominus (TrA), but at what cost? With the greater TrA activation, you are also causing a weakening of the external and internal oblique muscles, as they must essentially be inactive for hollowing to occur. This leads to a less stable spine, meaning a greater chance of injury – the exact opposite effect from what we want with our training.
No movement we do in life uses muscles in isolation, so why should we train them in isolation. Makes sense right. This is where the target of trunk stiffness using abdominal bracing is key for improving core strength, whether it be for a performance goal or just a daily health and function goal (3,4,5,6). Be careful not to confuse this stiffness with being inflexible, as this is not the case. It is about the tactics used to strengthen your core and stabilise your spine.
When utilising abdominal bracing (a skill vital for safety in big compound lifts) you activate all layers of your core at the same time, as well as all the other muscles supporting your spine like your lats, quadratus lumborum and back extensors. By doing this the entire abdominal wall is activated from all directions, creating greater overall stability in a term referred to as ‘superstiffness’ by Dr Stuart McGill, a world leader in back pain and core training research. This provides you with 360 degrees of spinal stability, making you more injury resilient and improving performance. It does this as the stiffness eliminates micro-movements within the spinal joints that lead to spine and tissue degeneration, and it improves force transfer through your body to improve power output in any movement you do (3,4).
So if you really want to create full body stability, amazing core strength, and an injury proof body, then you need to be combining your Pilates and Yoga training with effective full body strength training and core bracing work. To do this there is nothing more effective than lifting overhead, using explosive movements & utilising the full body as a single unit, this of course is Olympic lifting to the letter.
I have lower back pain and my doctor told me I should
Lower back pain unfortunately affects a huge percentage of the adult population with , 70-90% experiencing it in a life time. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), lower back pain is the leading cause of activity limitations in the world. Having experienced lower back pain, disc bulges and sciatica myself, I know all too well of the debilitating affect it can have physically and mentally. I often hear from clients, colleagues and friends alike, that when they had back pain, they were advised to limit activity to Pilates/Yoga due to the ‘core’ strengthening benefits.
The confusion here though is that it is not “core strength” work that makes the difference to back pain, but performing regular varying movement and exercise of any kind being key (7). A 2014 research review of all clinical trials looking at the effectiveness of core stabilisation for low back pain, found consistent and compelling evidence that core stabilisation exercises provide no greater relief of lower back pain than any other types of exercises (8). It is also important to note that for chronic pain situations, traditional core stability should not be used and a more general, functional exercise regime like traditional strength training used instead, as proposed by Klaber Moffet and Frost (9).
So, while Pilates & Yoga will help with lower back pain through movement benefits, it is only one of many ways. The key is to use a variety of training methods, get stronger overall, and perform movement regularly.
I want to improve ‘Tone’
Now I don’t think that a target goal that focuses on body image leads to long term health but I will address this one anyway. A common goal I hear from women in particular is to improve ‘tone’. There is a general public perception that to create tone requires low resistance and high reps or long sustained holds to experience the “burn”. But when it comes to creating ‘tone’, it is all about lean tissue development, and the most effective method to achieve this is strength training with big compound lifts such as squats, deadlifts and push & pull dumbbell and barbell patterns. The challenge to convince someone to pick up a barbell when the goal is ‘tone’ is the fear they will end up looking like some sort of Mr Olympia bodybuilding monster if the metal even grazes their hands. This myth and misconception is a big hurdle for the general population, holding back some women from gaining the incredible health benefits from traditional strength training. A female trying her absolute hardest, week in week out, will realise how impossible it is to put on such bodybuilding bulk, as they have anywhere between 1/7th and 1/20th the testosterone levels of men. The males and females you see on the internet looking all freaky on the bodybuilding stage are using large amounts of added ‘supplement’ extras, force feeding themselves huge amounts of food, and do nothing but sleep, eat, train (sounds good that bit!). Don’t worry you won’t end up looking like them from a few sets of heavy squats. For more information on the benefits of strength training for women see my article on it here.
I am focussed on long term health and activity
If your goal for health and exercise is simply to live a long and happy life, then developing lean tissue is critical. Even after adjusting for age, physical activity, smoking, alcohol intake, body mass index, baseline medical conditions, and family history of cardiovascular disease, your lean tissue and strength is the number one indicator for life expectancy! (10) And as mentioned above the best way to achieve this is through traditional strength training.
Pilates and Yoga are fantastic methods to keep active and keep mobile, but the lack of mechanical tension through loading limits the potential for high levels of strength gains and lean tissue development. So be sure to incorporate traditional strength work alongside any other exercise modality. By doing this you are minimising your risk of osteoporosis and sarcopenia (11), improving whole body metabolism & hormonal balance (critical to survival of tissue and organs such as the skin, brain, heart and liver) (12), and improving responses to critical illness (13,14,15). For more details see my article as per above section, on muscle and its role in health & disease here.
Wrapping it all up
Don’t stop doing any activity you love, do want you enjoy first and foremost as this is key to long term participation in all that is good for you. But I can guarantee you that if done in the right environment, with experts guiding you, you will soon love strength training as much as Yoga or Pilates, and experience huge benefits doing so. A variety of training modalities is the ultimate for general population, so if Pilates instructor A tells you that you can get all the benefits from Pilates and don’t need strength training, leave them, & if strength coach B says Pilates or Yoga is a waste of time, walk away. They work so well together, so make sure you are not limiting your health, fitness & injury recovery potential by limiting yourself to one modality.
Written By Head Performance Coach David Smith
- Hindle, Kayla et al. “Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF): Its Mechanisms And Effects On Range Of Motion And Muscular Function”.Journal of Human Kinetics -1 (2012): n. pag. Web.
- O’SullivanK, McAuliffe S, DeBurca The effects of eccentric training on lower limb flexibility: a systematic review. Br J Sports Med. Published Online First: 20 April 2012. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2011-090835
- Stuart McGill, “Laying the Foundation – Why we need a different approach,”Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, Stuart McGill, 9-27. Canada: Wabuno Publishers, Backfitpro Inc, 2004.
- Stuart McGill, “Enhancing Lumbar Spine Stability,”Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, Stuart McGill, 109-122 Canada: Wabuno Publishers, Backfitpro Inc, 2004.
- Stuart McGill. Painful Backs: Cause, Corrective Exercises and Progressions to Performance. Perform Better Functional Training Summit. Perform Better. Providence, Rhode Island, US. June 13, 2014.
- Stuart McGill. Mechanisms and Training Techniques Used for Elite Performance. Perform Better Functional Training Summit. Perform Better. Providence, Rhode Island, US. June 14, 2014.
- Smith, Benjamin E, Chris Littlewood, and Stephen May. “An Update Of Stabilisation Exercises For Low Back Pain: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis”. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders1 (2014): n. pag. Web.
- Lomond, Karen V. et al. Altered postural responses persist following physical therapy of general versus specific trunk exercises in people with low back pain. Manual Therapy, Volume 19, Issue 5 , 425 – 432.
- Klaber Moffett, J., & Frost, H. Back to Fitness Programme: The manual for physiotherapists to set up the classes. Physiotherapy 2000;86(6): 295–305.
- Ruiz, J. R et al. “Association Between Muscular Strength And Mortality In Men: Prospective Cohort Study”. BMJjul01 2 (2008): a439-a439. Web.
- Frost HM. On our age-related bone loss: Insights from a new paradigm. J Bone Miner Res 1997;12:1–9.
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