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10 Surprising Benefits of Pilates

author image Linda Melone
Linda Melone is a seasoned writer and certified strength and conditioning specialist specializing in fitness and health. She also holds a B.S. in nutrition. Her work appears on WebMD, MSN Health, Shape.com, AARP, Oxygen and in many other online and print publications.

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10 Surprising Benefits of Pilates
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The benefits of Pilates go far beyond simple core strength and flexibility. Regularly practicing the total-body workout can ease back pain, improve bone density and boost heart rate. These surprising benefits make Pilates an effective addition and motivating change to your regular weightlifting and cardiovascular fitness routine.

1. Improves Bone Density
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While strength training is a known bone-density builder, Pilates also offers surprising bone-building benefits, says Elizabeth Ordway, star of the DVD “Element: Targeted Toning Pilates for Beginners.” She elaborates, “Bone, like muscle, is dynamic tissue and responds to resistance and weight-bearing exercises. Resistance exercise involves muscles pulling on bone to create tension, which fortifies the bone. Resistance in a Pilates workout comes from apparatus springs and resistance bands.” Ordway recommends weight-bearing exercise, or using your own body weight combined with resistance. Exercises using the Pilates chair often incorporate weight-bearing moves. Ordway suggests resistance bands for side-leg and rowing series during Pilates mat workouts.

Related: Top 10 Pilates Exercises

2. Promotes Weight Loss
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Losing a pound of body weight a week requires a deficit of 500 calories per day. Whether you cut back on calories or combine calorie deficit with exercise, Pilates can help. The calorie burn from Pilates varies with workout intensity, according to a study by Michelle Olson, Ph.D., of Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama. Olson’s results show that beginners working out at low to moderate intensity burn four calories a minute, equivalent to calisthenics; intermediate workouts burn six calories a minute, equal to low-impact aerobics or hatha yoga; advanced Pilates practitioners working out at a moderately high intensity can burn up to seven and a half calories per minute, as in power yoga. As part of a weight-loss program, Olson suggests working up to intermediate or advanced workouts at least four days a week for 45 to 60 minutes, excluding warm-up and cool-down sessions.

Related: 10 Weight-Loss Rules You’re Allowed to Break

3. Increases Strength of Back Muscles
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Pilates is a successful therapeutic tool for easing lower-back pain, according to a study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy. Subjects with lower-back pain found significant pain relief after a four-week Pilates program maintained over a 12-month period. As with core and abdominal strengthening, Pilates accomplishes this in several ways, says Pilates instructor Elizabeth Ordway. “Pilates strengthens the core to support the back, teaches proper alignment and provides gentle stretching for tight back muscles due to misalignment and overuse.” Plus, Pilates addresses underlying imbalances that often lead to poor posture and back pain. Specific Pilates exercises for spine strengthening include the “roll up” and “swan prep,” says Ordway.

Related: 10 Ways to Tell Good Pain From Bad Pain

4. Strengthens Abdominal Muscles
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Pilates strengthens abdominal muscles, including obliques, as effectively as (and sometimes more effectively than) a crunch, which was used as a control exercise. Pilates does this in a number of ways, says Christa Gurka, M.S.P.T., founder of Pilates in the Grove of Miami, Florida. “First, Pilates is based on efficiently contracting your abdominal muscles with every exercise. For example, during the seated arm series on the reformer, the abdominals must stay contracted to hold the spine stable to correctly perform the exercise.” In addition, Pilates targets deep abdominal muscles like the transverse abdominis as well as superficial ones like the rectus abdominis muscles that form a “six-pack.” And, Gurka adds, Pilates emphasizes correct alignment and proper form, which requires abdominals to fire effectively.

Related: Why Crunches Won’t Give You Flat Abs -- and the 12 Moves That Will!

5. Prevents Injuries
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Pilates helps improve flexibility, increases strength and improves balance. These factors reduce your risk of injury, says Christa Gurka, M.S.P.T. Improving flexibility, for example, reduces risk by providing a greater range of motion. “If you are able to increase your hamstring flexibility by 10 degrees, you will be less likely to hurt your back when you bend over to pick up something from the floor,” says Gurka. “Improved strength links to improved dynamic control of movement, which minimizes injury.” In addition, unilateral one-legged or one-sided Pilates improves balance and reduces the risk of falls. Lastly, Pilates provides body awareness to create efficient movement patterns, thereby reducing stress on joints, tendons, muscles and ligaments, says Gurka.

Related: 10 Types of Low-Impact Exercise That Keep You Fit and Injury-Free

6. Increases Flexibility
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Most exercises involve movement in only the sagittal plane of motion. Sagittal movements include the forward-and-back motions of crunches. Pilates requires motion in several planes, says Christa Gurka, M.S.P.T. “Pilates sessions move the spine from flexion to extension, internal rotation to external rotation and side bending, allowing an increased range of motion throughout the body.” Working within these additional planes of motion increases and improves flexibility and decreases injury risk, says Gurka.

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7. Makes a Great Cross-Training Option
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Common overuse injuries occur when the fine line between the breakdown and buildup of tissue is crossed. Typical reasons for overuse injuries include increasing the intensity or frequency of your workouts too quickly or by excessive training or not varying workout routines. Pilates offers an adjunct to regular strength-and-conditioning programs, says Christa Gurka, M.S.P.T. “Pilates works to enhance one’s body awareness through challenging positions that require optimal postural alignment.” Some of these exercises work by challenging alignment in a static position, while others require stability and alignment during movement. This helps athletes improve alignment while performing their individual sport. “This makes more efficient use of muscles, recruiting only those muscles necessary to perform the specific task,” says Gurka.

Related: Fat-Burning Stride and Strength Workout

8. Improves Posture
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Sitting at a desk all day and rounding your upper back to text on a tiny phone keyboard leads to hunched shoulders and poor posture. This creates muscular imbalances over time. Pilates helps reverse the effects of these bad habits by creating better muscle symmetry and balance, says Allison Slapnicka, owner of Pure Pilates Austin in Austin, Texas. “Due to the way we live our day-to-day lives, most people have natural strength imbalances in their bodies and a serious lack of core strength. Pilates forces you to work only one specific muscle at a time, isolating those that may be weaker, to redevelop lost strength and create balance throughout the body.” The development of a strong core allows you to freely move through daily tasks without pain and with improved posture.

Related: Moves for a Stronger Core and Better Posture

9. Improves Cardiovascular Conditioning
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The aerobic benefits vary throughout Pilates workouts. Advanced moves like the jackknife and side lift boost heart rates well within the target zone, while prone or seated exercises such as the seated twist and leg circles cause heart rates to drop. Advanced classes raised heart rates to an average of 120 to 130 beats per minute. Moving between exercises quickly and decreasing resting time works best. “In higher-intensity forms of Pilates, you go from exercise to exercise quickly, which moves the heart rate up into the aerobic zone,” says trainer Allison Slapnicka. “Keeping it up throughout the session builds endurance.”

10. Pilates Can Give You Six-Pack Abs
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Whether you want a flat midsection or serious six-pack abs, Pilates can take your abdominal workout to the next level, assuming that you’re also cleaning up your diet to drop body fat around your midsection. One reason is that many Pilates movements rank higher in muscle activation than traditional crunches. For example, the roll-up movement was 245 percent more effective at targeting external obliques as compared with crunches. The crisscross was 310 percent more effective than crunches. “Pilates works by focusing on developing strength of the deeper intrinsic muscles of the center core,” says trainer Allison Slapnicka.

Related: Why Crunches Won’t Give You Flat Abs -- and the 12 Moves That Will!

What Do YOU Think?
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Are you familiar with Pilates? Have you ever taken a class? Did you know that it had all these amazing benefits? If you’ve taken a class before or practice it on a regular basis, which of these benefits have you experienced? Are there any other we missed? Leave us a comment below and let us know.

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