The fitness and wellbeing industry is rife with false promises and unscientific claims that can range from scamming click bait to dangerous misinformation.
Pilates is not immune to this.
There are buzzwords and trends that appear a lot in Pilates marketing. I don’t think the intention is malicious; I think it’s just a way to get people interested in what you are offering.
My concern is that by continuing to use these phrases and make these claims that people will be given false expectations about what they can achieve.
I’m sure I’ve been guilty of doing this in the past. It is easy to do without thinking about the impact on clients or prospective clients.
Below I’ve chosen 3 of the claims I see the most and I’m going to go through why these are misleading or outright wrong.
1) Pilates will tone your muscles
This is a super common myth in the industry as a whole but Pilates has especially been connected to this idea of ‘toning’ muscles.
You cannot ‘tone’ muscles. Muscles shrink, muscles grow but they don’t tone.
When we say ‘toned’ it usually means visibly, defined muscles. This is achieved by having a low body fat percentage so that the muscle underneath can be seen.
There is no exercise regime that will ‘tone’ your muscles.
The idea of ‘toning’ tends to be aimed more towards women. It was seen as a way to build muscle without making bigger, bulky muscles.
Muscle growth is a complex process resulting in the thickening of the muscle fibres which increases the muscle size. This occurs through mechanical damage and metabolic fatigue.
Fancy way of saying the muscles need to generate enough force to overcome resistance and work the muscle close to failure. There is more to it than that and you can read more in the articles linked in the reference section.
Unless you are training for significant muscle growth then you will not accidentally develop bodybuilders muscles.
If I was a cynical person I might theorise that toning was used to prey on women’s fears that if they build muscle they will look like the Hulk, except less green, so they had to do something different.
I won’t delve too much into why this has become such a widely held belief as I’m sure there is a lot to unpack regarding cultural beauty standards and discouraging women from building muscle.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to achieve visible and defined musculature, just be aware that what you will actually need to do is build muscle and lose body fat and Pilates can help with that.
2) Pilates will create long, lean muscles
There are two ways to interpret this claim;
1) Pilates can alter the length of your muscles
2) Pilates will relax held or tight muscles giving the illusion of lengthened muscles
The first one is suggesting that Pilates will create longer, leaner muscles. This is not possible.
Muscle length is determined by the muscles’ origin and insertion points. This is where the muscle attaches to bone or the tendon attaches the muscle to bone.
The length of your muscles is determined by your genetics, for example if you are a taller person you may have longer bones which will mean a muscle’s origin and insertion points might be further away from each other.
Pilates cannot create long, lean muscles.
However, Pilates can help to relax held or tight muscles which will give the appearance of lengthened muscles.
There are many reasons a muscle might be shortened or held, I’m going to focus on the one I most commonly see in my classes which is rounded shoulders.
This is caused when the pectoralis muscles are in a shortened position and can become tight.
There are many Pilates exercises that will help to open and lengthen the pectoralis muscles from its shortened state which gives the illusion that a muscle has been lengthened.
Pilates is really good way to improve muscular dysfunctions and imbalances and I think that is where this myth originates from.
If you are interested in learning more about lengthening muscles then check out the articles in my reference section. There is a lot of stuff I’ve glossed over.
3) Pilates will flatten and tone your abdominals
One of the most well known aspects of Pilates is this idea of the ‘core’ or ‘powerhouse’ and I think that has been misconstrued to mean that Pilates is an abdominal focused exercise system and will give you flat, defined abdominals.
The core usually refers to the ‘deep stabilising muscles’ of the body including transverse abdominis, diaphragm, pelvic floor, and multifidi. It is more than just the abdominals and Pilates is more than just an abdominal workout.
Exercising your abdominals will not burn fat off your stomach area. It is not possible to target fat loss, the way your body loses fat is largely determined by your biological sex and your genetics.
Fat loss is achieved through aerobic exercise, diet, resistance training, alongside things like drinking enough water and getting enough sleep. Where you lose weight is often determined by your gender and your genetics.
Weight loss is not easy and unfortunately there aren’t any hacks that will make it easier or let you target a specific area.
Pilates will strengthen the deep stabilizing muscles which will improve balance and stability, and make everyday movements easier.
No matter what your goals, do something you enjoy, manage your expectations, educate yourself, and be patient and kind to yourself.
Cynthia Holzman Weppler, S. Peter Magnusson, Increasing Muscle Extensibility: A Matter of Increasing Length or Modifying Sensation?, Physical Therapy, Volume 90, Issue 3, 1 March 2010, Pages 438–449, https://doi.org/10.2522/ptj.20090012
Damas F, Phillips SM, Libardi CA, et al. Resistance training-induced changes in integrated myofibrillar protein synthesis are related to hypertrophy only after attenuation of muscle damage. J Physiol (2016). 594(18): 5209-5222.
de Weijer VC, Gorniak GC, Shamus E. The effect of static stretch and warm-up exercise on hamstring length over the course of 24 hours. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2003 Dec;33(12):727-33. doi: 10.2519/jospt.2003.33.12.727. PMID: 14743986.
Fernández-Rodríguez, R., Álvarez-Bueno, C., Ferri-Morales, A., Torres-Costoso, A. I., Cavero-Redondo, I., & Martínez-Vizcaíno, V. (2019). Pilates Method Improves Cardiorespiratory Fitness: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Journal of clinical medicine, 8(11), 1761. https://doi.org/10.3390/jcm8111761
Fitch, S., & McComas, A. (1985). Influence of human muscle length on fatigue. The Journal of physiology, 362, 205–213. https://doi.org/10.1113/jphysiol.1985.sp015671
Gajdosik RL. Passive extensibility of skeletal muscle: review of the literature with clinical implications. Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 2001 Feb;16(2):87-101. doi: 10.1016/s0268-0033(00)00061-9. PMID: 11222927.
Lee DY, Nam CW, Sung YB, Kim K, Lee HY. Changes in rounded shoulder posture and forward head posture according to exercise methods. J Phys Ther Sci. 2017 Oct;29(10):1824-1827. doi: 10.1589/jpts.29.1824. Epub 2017 Oct 21. PMID: 29184298; PMCID: PMC5684019.
Schoenfeld, BJ. The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. J Strength Cond Res. 2010; 24: 2857-2872