Pilates vs Strength Training : Which is Better?

By Giuliana Zegarra
Sep 11 2022
woman doing pilates

Pilates vs Strength Training : Which is Better?

Both Pilates and Strength Training can improve overall strength and well being, each addressing specific training goals. Understanding how each of these methods work and the benefits you can get will help you to either choose one or find a mix between both to achieve your fitness goals. Pilates vs Strength Training : Which is Better?

What is Resistance Training?

Also known as weight training or strength training, it is a general term for exercises that require you to exert force against a resistance. The American College of Sports Medicine ACSM defines1 weight training for health and fitness as “a form of physical activity that is designed to improve muscular fitness by exercising a muscle or muscle group against external force”. It can be performed with equipment like lifting plates, dumbbells, kettlebells, resistance bands but also with your body weight. 

Strength training is widely known and several studies have demonstrated it to be an efficient tool for increasing muscle strength, local muscular endurance, power, hypertrophy (building muscle mass), and motor performance.

There are several factors to take into consideration when developing a weight training program; the intensity (load), the volume (repetitions), and rest intervals, lifting velocity and frequency. The mix of these factors depend on the athlete’s needs and fitness goals. As a general prescription, the ACSM has recommended2 that weight training be performed at least twice per week, with 8–12 repetitions of 8–10 exercises targeting all major muscle groups.

What are the Benefits of Resistance Training for Women ? 

Even if there are fewer women using weight training modalities when compared to men, research highlights the several physical, psychological, and social benefits for women who regularly do weight training.

The most apparent health-related benefits of resistance training include improved muscle definition, strength, body composition, metabolic efficiency, and bone density but also to help burn calories. These are the same benefits observed in men and women.

Benefits3 of weight training observed in women include improved physical performance, movement control, walking speed, functional independence, cognitive abilities, and self-esteem. Weight training may also help in the prevention and management of type 2 diabetes by decreasing body fat in premenopausal women. Weight training may be effective for reducing low back pain and the discomfort from arthritis and fibromyalgia, and has been shown to reverse aging factors in skeletal muscle (loss of muscle mass and strength). 

This study4 indicated that weight training prevented or reversed approximately 1% bone loss per year (femoral neck and lumbar spine) in adult women. But also, weight training can help increase BMD between 1% and 3%  (femoral neck and lumbar spine) in premenopausal and postmenopausal women.

Improved psychological and social health are also linked to regular weight training. In this study5 college and middle-age women reported “increased feelings of vigor, physical self-concept, self-esteem, and self-efficacy, as well as decreased total mood disturbance” following regular weight training workouts

What is Pilates?

In the 1920s, Joseph Pilates, affected by asthma and rickets when he was a kid, created this method based on yoga, martial arts, Zen meditation and Greek and Roman exercises; to strengthen his sick body. As a physician, he brought the practice of Pilates into hospitals to heal soldiers during World War I. He attached strings to hospital beds to support the patient’s limbs while he worked them and he and the doctors noticed that the patients seemed to recover more rapidly. 

Pilates method is a physical and mental conditioning approach that uses a combination of around 50 simple, repetitive exercises to create muscular exertion. Pilates can be adapted to provide either gentle strength training for rehabilitation or a vigorous workout that can challenge trained athletes. The exercises are designed to increase muscle strength and endurance, as well as flexibility and to improve posture and balance. 

What are the Benefits of Pilates for Women? 

Researchers6 support the effectiveness of Pilates in improving flexibility, abdominal and lumbo-pelvic stability and core strength in both men and women. 

Pilates classes encourage an optimal posture by engaging the spine, scapula and the connection with the rib cage to the hips. This decreases the inward curve of the lumbar spine (just above the buttocks) and activates the weak core muscles of the trunk more effectively.

Pilates is broadly recognized for alleviating and treating low back pain. In Pilates classes there are a lot of abdominal exercises included in the routine. The abdominal muscles are engaged to develop strength and endurance with little load on the lumbar spine.

Research on female Pilates practitioners has shown an increase in pelvic floor strength7, a better functional capacity and quality of life for breast cancer patients8 and also in fibromyalgia patients9. In elderly women, regular practice of Pilates has helped increase their personal autonomy, static balance and quality of life10. Female rhythmic gymnasts have shown increased flexibility and improvements in dynamic posture11

Are Pilates Exercises a Good Workout? 

Pilates exercises have a reputation for being low-impact yet powerful workouts that can be adapted to all fitness levels. The exercises are designed to increase muscle strength and endurance, as well as flexibility and to improve posture and balance; the exercises are relatively easy and fit well with the guidelines set by the U.S. Surgeon General and the American College of Sports Medicine12.

Pilates can be performed both on a mat or a specific equipment called a Pilates Reformer that is mostly used for rehabilitation therapy. In a typical Pilates workout, you will be on a yoga mat and the sequence of the class will follow the “five essentials”; breathing, postural alignment, upper body stabilization (ribs and scapulars), pelvic mobility and engagement of the abdominals.  

Each exercise in Pilates is repeated a few times, usually three to five, rarely more than that, so the body is constantly being exposed to new muscular challenges and developing body awareness13. There is also a psychological element in the focus on breathing and concentration during the execution of the exercises.

Body weight or free weights are the main resistance that is used throughout the series of Pilates mat exercises. However, some clases use hand held weights to help improve resistance. Many Pilates workouts can be modified with or without lifting weights, typically they prescribe light weights between 2 to 10 pounds. But nothing prevents you from lifting heavier loads! 

Pilates vs Strength Training or Can They Complement Each Other?

Pilates and lifting weights are both forms of weight training, which can be used to improve muscular strength, an aspect of muscular fitness.

Alternating Pilates workout days with weight-training days can help you gain power. Pilates builds a solid foundation by working in the alignment of the body and core strengthening by stabilizing the abdominal muscles. Pilates focus on both the big group muscles and also in the small supporting muscles. It may take several sessions before you really figure out how to engage your deeper stabilizing muscles without thinking about it but these supporting muscles are the ones you need when you lift heavy weights.

Pilates vs Strength Training

In traditional weight training, the biggest interest is in what makes muscle tissue contract and how to contract muscle tissue more strongly. But we don’t really work in the systems of the body that detect and control movement, and those that provide awareness of the force that the muscles produce. In weight training we don’t use movements to develop proprioception. That’s why including non-weight lifting explosive movements, balance and stability exercises and spacial awareness to your training routine is so important. Pilates targets the “five essentials” (abdomen, lower back, hips and buttocks muscles plus breathing) teaching you how to coordinate all movements. You need to really focus on the muscles that you are engaging in each movement to “feel” the correct body positions. This adaptation of the brain and the central nervous system will allow you to more easily learn lifting techniques and get immediate feedback from your own perception.

As you see, combining endurance and weight training modalities in the same training program can have an impact in strength development and muscle mass. For obtaining the best results within the same workout it’s important to work on a program that defines the frequency of training and the intensity of the training for both weight lifting and Pilates. A good approach would be to alternate your Pilates workout days with your weight-training days.

Don’t forget that rest periods are essential to the muscle building process and recovery. Without it, your muscle fibers can’t repair or have the time to grow stronger and thicker. Leave enough time to rest, at least one day per week, and sleep between 7 to 9 hrs. If you want to know more about how to gain muscle mass and strength while sleeping you have to read this article.

Finally, Pilates teaches you how to match movement and breathing. Proper breathing techniques during exercise also ensure generating sufficient intra-abdominal pressure that helps stabilize the muscles especially the lower back. This will keep you away from getting injured and allow for a more strong foundation for more powerful lifts. Plus, learning how to breathe properly, particularly emphasizing the expiratory muscles, can also help you reduce the sensation of fatigue and the sensation of effort during exercise by more controlled movements.

Incorporate Pilates to your fitness journey. You will improve your sports performance, muscle hypertrophy and you will get strong muscles. Don’t forget that practising Pilates also boosts your recovery, increases your flexibility and helps relieve stress.


1 https://www.acsm.org/docs/brochures/resistance-training.pdf
2 http://www.acsm.org/docs/brochures/selecting-and-effectively-using-free-weights.pdf
3 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22777332/
4 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1559827609334979
5 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9545677/
6 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3666467/
7 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20094704
8 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21224783
9 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19969158
10 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20226367
11 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9789856
12 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21694556
13 https://scholar.google.com/scholar_lookup?title=Comprehensive+Matwork&publication_year=2001&

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