Does Pilates really build longer, leaner muscles than other forms of strength training? Yes it does,
Pilates for the most part uses three types of muscle contractions: eccentric (strengthening a muscle as it lengthens), concentric (strengthening a muscle as it shortens), and isometric (the muscle remains the same length while contracting). If you think about the exercises involved in an hour-long pilates session, these three types of contractions will be inevitably covered. However, there is a definite emphasis on eccentric conditioning in pilates, and it is thanks to it that we develop longer, toned muscles instead of short and bulky ones.
To get a better picture of what eccentric conditioning is, think of holding a barbell in your hand and doing a bicep curl. After the curl itself (a concentric contraction), when straightening the arm to begin another curl, the bicep has to lengthen in a controlled manner to prevent the arm and elbow joint from snapping straight into hyperextension. It is during this controlled movement that the eccentric contraction occurs. Sure, this effect can be obtained with simple weights if consciously controlling the “return” of the movement, but the mechanics of pilates exercises and the springs of pilates equipment automatically cause this lengthening effect while strengthening. For example, in the common mat exercise called the roll down, the abdominals are being fired eccentrically as we imprint our spines down on the mat, consciously trying to control the forces of gravity. On the reformer when doing footwork, when “returning” the movement to start another press out of the carriage, we are eccentrically conditioning the muscles of the lower body by resisting the natural recoil of the springs.
In recent years, research has been conducted in the field of sports medicine suggesting that eccentric conditioning may be the most effective way to strengthen a muscle, as the lengthening of muscle fibers when strengthened leads to the muscle rebuilding as stronger. The downside is that this same kind of stress to the muscles is the main perpetrator of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which usually begins up to 24 – 48 hours after a new or particularly challenging workout. While not a call for alarm, DOMS can be uncomfortable and is known to temporarily weaken the muscle. According to research, the pain may be due to protein breakdown that occurs with the tiny tears in muscle fibers, causing an inflammatory reaction that activates pain receptors.
The best way to deal with DOMS is to keep moving in a way that does not activate the affected areas of the body. For example, if after a particularly grueling pilates session your triceps are extremely sore, go for a brisk walk to increase blood flow to all the muscles. Another effective remedy is soaking in a hot bath with Epsom salts. The magnesium in the salts helps quell the inflammation and associated pain. And of course eating a balanced nutritious diet and drinking plenty of water is advised, as our muscles rely on the proper nutrients and electrolytes to function at an optimal level. If you suspect your muscle pain/soreness is more than just DOMS and that you may have an injury, contact your doctor immediately. DOMS itself may be pesky, but it is a sign that you have had a challenging and effective pilates workout. So pat yourself on the back for your effort – lightly, of course, if that’s where you are sore