Can I do Pilates for strength training? Instructors explain why you need to add this exercise into your routine

Doing Pilates for strength training has so many benefits, here instructors reveal why you should try it

Woman doing Pilates for strength training at home on yoga mat, in front of open window
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Despite what some people believe, doing Pilates for strength training is a great way to get stronger, build muscle, and improve your balance and posture. It's different from traditional strength training in many ways but the benefits of this specific exercise are much the same. 

Pilates is a low-impact exercise that predominantly uses body weight, small hand-held weights, and resistance bands to stretch and strengthen the entire body with a particular focus on the core. Strength training is also designed to do this, often using the same methods alongside larger weights like barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells to focus on endurance and building strength.

Some people believe that strength training has to be all about lifting heavy weights to be effective. While this certainly does have its advantages, everyone's different, and not everyone will enjoy this type of training. Whether you're starting with Pilates for beginners or looking to swap your gym time for studio time by doing Pilates every day, here, two instructors tell woman&home all there is to know about Pilates for strength training and all the benefits. 

Can I do Pilates for strength training? 

Yes, you can do Pilates as a type of strength training since it offers resistance with similar tools in a similar way. "Pilates can be done with different props such as resistance bands, small weights, or a circle," says Ana Stefan, a qualified Pilates instructor who specializes in posture coaching. "Using these small pieces of equipment really makes a difference as you begin to feel muscles you had no idea were there." 

When you use these, whether it's small handheld weights, ankle weights, or larger dumbbells or kettlebells, you create a resistance to work against. The higher the weight, the bigger the resistance, and it's this resistance that's essential for strength training as you break muscle fibers when working against it. As these muscle fibers regrow, you build muscle and increase your strength. Because of this, Pilates is just another type of strength training - just like weightlifting, powerlifting, Crossfit, and plyometrics.

There's even research to back up Pilates' place in the strength training group with studies by Universidade Federal de São Paulo concluding that it's a suitable alternative physical training method - especially for those who are overweight or obese -  as it promotes significant changes in cardiovascular fitness, body composition, and performance on functional tests, including strength tests.

"Many people believe Pilates is easy," says Stefan, dismissing the common misconception around Pilates and particularly Pilates for weight loss. "If done correctly, it can be quite challenging. It helps you build strength sustainably and more safely than any other training as every movement in Pilates is precise and it focuses on the alignment, or stacking, of your joints. It also makes for optimal use of the core muscles while keeping the spine in a neutral position." There are many advantages of Pilates, whether you want to do it instead of strength training or alongside it.

Woman stretching out back on a Pilates mat in class, doing Pilates for strength training

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Benefits of Pilates for strength training

1. Helps you develop better posture and form

Good posture and correct form are two essentials in strength training to avoid issues like lower back pain. While strength training does help to grow your muscles, it also places significant strain on small stabilizing muscles that often don't get worked in regular daily movements. 

So if you're struggling with maintaining good form in your program or you want to focus on this, try some Pilates, suggests Emily Rutherwood, a certified personal trainer and Pilates instructor. 

"To position your body correctly requires complex interactions of the bones' joints, connective tissues, skeletal muscles, and the nervous system," Rutherwood, who is also a trainer at FS8 Oxford Circus, an all-in-one fitness concept that combines reformer Pilates with mat-based work. "Pilates helps to correct postural alignment and makes you aware of your form in all other areas of training and day-to-day movements." 

2. Improve coordination

Unless you actively work to change this, much of traditional strength training involves standing up and down, and backward and forward movements, like squats and lunges. These are great for building muscle but not so great for improving your coordination, which is where Pilates and even yoga for beginners can really help. 

"Balance and agility are required to perform smooth and effective movements in strength training," says the trainer, especially if you scale up the weight with barbell activity. "Pilates trains the nervous system through initiating coordinated movement and controlling correct posture, balance, and muscular activity."

3. Increase flexibility

Muscles often become short and tight during periods of intense strength training if you don't move through a full range of motion, says Rutherwood, like moving from the top of a squat to the very bottom. As many of us are naturally not very flexible, this is likely to be a common problem. 

"Incorporating Pilates into your program alongside can improve your flexibility and mobility by working through a full range of motion and all planes of movement. Muscles then, in turn, become long and lean," she says. 

Woman holding out a dumbbell in her hand, flexing while watching Pilates workout on laptop screen

(Image credit: Getty Images)

4. Improves core strength

Lifting a barbell over your head will force you to stabilize your core muscles, as will doing exercises that require you to support a lot of weight, or any of the ab exercises for women out there. However, Pilates offers huge benefits in this area as it's a low-impact form of exercise that doesn't require the same amount of equipment and it doesn't require you to already have a stable level of core strength. All you need is one of the best yoga mats - or one of the best thick yoga mats - to get started.

"Initially created as a rehabilitation tool, Pilates trains the body as an integrated whole, but mostly focusing on core strength," the trainer says. "A stronger core will improve your stability and protect your back during traditional strength training."

5. Strengthens the immune system

There are even reported benefits in swapping Pilates for strength training when it comes to the internal workings of the body. "Winter is commonly known as the dreaded cold and flu season when people's immune systems aren't operating at their optimum level. Regular participation in Pilates improves immunity via mechanical and physiological processes," says Rutherwood, pointing to a study by Gachon University, research that also shows the exercise can slow the age-related decline of the immune system.

"The emphasis on breathing and mindful movement encourages fight or flight sympathetic nervous system to quiet, reducing stress, which the research shows can boost immunity."

Woman rolling up a yoga mat in a studio with wooden flooring

(Image credit: Getty Images)

6. Boosts your mood

Exercise is famous for being an endorphin booster and Pilates is no different, even though it's not as cardio-intensive as running, Rutherwood says. "Pilates triggers the release of feel-good endorphins as well as serotonin, the happy hormone," she explains. "As a result, Pilates can improve our self-esteem and boost our mood. Doing Pilates in a group class can also improve our wellbeing as it creates a sense of togetherness."

Ultimately, however, while Pilates does have numerous benefits for both our physical and mental health with some advantages over strength training, the choice between the two is yours to make. You'll only really stand to gain by choosing the best one for your body, your lifestyle, and your enjoyment.

Is yoga or Pilates better for strength training?

That very much depends on what your goal is with strength training. If you want to get stronger and more flexible, Pilates is likely going to be the better option. However, if you find some of the Pilates holds and movements cause some lower back pain thanks to the core involvement or discomfort in the joints, it's worth trying a gentle routine for yoga every day and seeing how that goes. Yoga when compared to Pilates, provided you choose a gentle form of yoga such as yoga nidra, can be much softer. 

Of course, it's all down to the style of yoga and Pilates you choose, the instructor, and how you approach the movement. Both yoga and Pilates are much lower-impact forms of strength training than high-intensity interval training (HIIT), for example. 

Grace Walsh
Health Editor

A digital health journalist with over six years of experience writing and editing for UK publications, Grace has covered the world of health and wellbeing extensively for Cosmopolitan, The i Paper and more.

She started her career writing about the complexities of sex and relationships, before combining personal hobbies with professional and writing about fitness. Everything from the best protein powder to sleep technology, the latest health trend to nutrition essentials, Grace has a huge spectrum of interests in the wellness sphere. Having reported on the coronavirus pandemic since the very first swab, she now also counts public health among them.