Pilates, Calories and Strength

plankI  had a couple interesting questions in Pilates class the other day:

  • How many calories will I burn in a Pilates session?  
  • Is Pilates enough for strength building?

These are excellent questions and worth exploring! We tend to look at calorie burn as the sole means to evaluate the effectiveness of an exercise. Often times we see fitness trends touting 700 calories burned in just 60 minutes or something like that. While it is true, in order to lose weight we must burn more calories than we take in, this is not the only measure of an exercises’ effectiveness. I have found in my research that the average number of calories burned in a one hour Pilates session can range from 200 – 400 calories. I also know from personal experience fitbits, heart rate monitors and other fitness tracking devices do not give you much credit for doing Pilates! Because much of the intensity is within the core and not caused by a vigorous movement – these devices do not register the work well.

Much of Pilates contains an element of isometric work – holding a position or contraction/elongation of a muscle. We tend to see calorie counts spike higher with bigger movements. For example – you may register more calories burned doing 10lb bicep curls … but I would argue holding a plank with bent arms for the same length of time will challenge your muscles more.  Holding that plank will register on the fitbit as if you were stationary, unfortunately!

I always encourage my students not to worry about the calorie burn in a Pilates class as much as they worry about precise movements, and challenging themselves. With Pilates, we are developing all kinds of muscles. The beauty is the more muscles you have – the more calories you burn doing all your other activities.  So if we consider the bicep curl again vs. the plank – both of which challenge our arms … the plank also develops muscles in the shoulders, core and back leading to a higher metabolism overall. Pilates is brilliant, in my opinion – in forcing the use of many muscle groups including smaller stabilizing muscles we may miss in other exercises.

Let’s also consider a standard crunch versus the roll up.  The crunch will work our upper abdominals.  The roll up, however, forces us to use our lower, middle and upper abs as well as engage the muscles in the legs to hold them together and possible our arms if we add a ring. We’ve turned core work into full body work with the roll up!

To answer the second question – I do believe we can attain all the strength training we need for our everyday life with the Pilate equipment. It may be more challenging to accomplish this with just a mat workout – as we are somewhat limited in upper body work there. I believe the work we do in Pilates is very functional. We are working against unstable surfaces and tension – much like you may experience lifting a heavy suitcase into the overhead bin or bending to pick up a squirmy child. Our bicep curl may give us nice biceps but there is not an unpredictable nature in this work – and we are not conditioned for weight shift or instability.  Very rarely in our real life is a movement so precious and stable!

I do also believe cardio is important. This works our heart muscle. We do get some cardio in Pilates, but I think it optimal to find another source as well such as biking, running, hiking, walking or swimming. If you are attempting to lose a large amount of weight – this combination of the larger calorie burn from cardio and the longer term metabolism lift from Pilates is going to serve you very well.

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