Can Pilates really help to lengthen your muscles?
There is a great deal of myth related to lengthening muscles. In fact there are bountiful myths when it comes to Pilates in general: giving you a dancers body, giving you a long lean body, increasing body height (having done Pilates for 35 years surely I should have exceeded my very modest 5’ 6” by now!). Possibly the fables of people becoming taller, longer, leaner after just a few Pilates classes serve some purpose, but personally I have not yet discovered what that purpose is. By and large, I believe it sets us teachers up for failure, because in all likelihood, we will fall short of expectations.
A muscle can elongate like a rubber band, but it will return to its pre elongated state once the stretch is over. A muscle can gain flexibility, but only to a point. That point is the nature-given length of your muscle. The general term flexibility relates to many factors like joint structure, soft tissue laxity and most importantly, genes. Your genetic makeup is by far the most dominant factor influencing muscle length and flexibility. It is true to say that certain types of physical activities, like Pilates, lend themselves to large ranges of motion and stretching the muscles. This is due in part to the choreography of the exercises and the focus on the eccentric phase of all movements (contracting the muscle while it is elongating and the angle of the joint is increasing).
Genes determine the absolute length of your muscles. However, over time muscles can become tight and I believe stretching, integrated within a movement regimen like Pilates, serves an important purpose in maintaining functional movement and a healthy range of motion. In addition the tightness that develops in our body often relates to posture deviations and negative habitual movement patterns. Stretching is important in overcoming these issues, which can lead to discomfort, pain, tension and even injury.
Getting back to the original question. Pilates, in fact no exercise system, will lengthen a muscle beyond its given length, however it will stretch it if it is tight. Possibly it all comes down to semantics. The muscle will lengthen as you go through exercises, but will not grow in length in absolute terms – meaning you will not end up with a longer muscle than nature gave you. The same with height, certainly Pilates can teach you to stand differently and have better posture, but the body will not grow taller in absolute measurement. I will not reach my very humble goal of 5’9”. In fact at this point in my life I am holding onto my 5’6” for all I am worth!
I’ve long heard that the exercises we dislike the most are the ones our bodies are most in need of. Myth or truth?
In my opinion – true! We all get stuck in a rut with our practice. We love doing what feels good and often, what looks good. Yet it is often those exact exercises that focus on our weaknesses and imbalances, and offer a path to improvement, that are the ones we prefer to conveniently set aside. First I will address the issue of getting into a rut. I think it is important that part of a session is repetitive, typically the warm up. This section should be quite familiar and allow you or your client opportunity to warm up the body and comfortably adjust to the workout. However following that initial warm up, a part of every session should be changed up. This may mean integrating material that has not been practiced for a while, introducing new repertoire, or simply focusing on new concepts. The important point is that the body and the mind need to be challenged.
As an example, dancers are typically very flexible, and yet dancers LOVE stretching. Do they need more flexibility? No, but that is what they enjoy. They stretch before class to warm up (and to us more tight individuals, they look fantastic!). Athletes, for instance runners who are typically tight (forgive this gross generalization), loathe stretching. Strengthening? Certainly, but not stretching, it does not feel good and it does not look good.
Joseph Pilates himself choreographed exercises that suited him and his body type. Look no further than the very high-level work in Pilates, which is upper body dominant. In fact it is almost exclusively focused on the upper body. Joseph Pilates was a typical male in that sense. Men love developing their upper bodies. However they should be striving for balance, balance in every sense of the word.
The Stomach Massage is one of my least favorite exercises to practice (the long-kept secret is out!). Give me challenging, high-level repertoire, but not the Stomach Massage. That series of exercises seems to amplify all my weaknesses (by the way, it gets harder with age). So I am disciplined about not allowing myself to conveniently forget the Stomach Massage. It works my back extensors, it stretches my hamstrings, it stretches my chest muscles and it develops trunk stabilization.
Sorry to be the conveyer of this news, but don’t shoot me, remember I am only the messenger. Start dusting off those long forgotten exercises that you conveniently stored away for a rainy day. The day has arrived!
This article first appeared in the July/2013 issue of Pilates Style Magazine. For more great stories about Pilates, check out the latest issue of Pilates Style, on newsstands nationwide, in the app store or at www.pilatesstyle.com.