Julia Rosenthal PT, DPT
As an avid high intensity exerciser, I am always looking to push myself in my workouts. When pain gets in the way of my progress, it can be extremely frustrating. For years, I have been struggling with chronic hip and sacroiliac joint (low back) pain. These symptoms intensified about two and a half years ago when I fractured a lumbar vertebra weight lifting. Recovery was hard, and during that time I was told by doctors, friends, and family that I could not or should not return to the things I loved: lifting heavy weights and running outside. I was devastated. I tried swimming, biking, the crazy looking stair treadmill at the gym, and while I was able to get some exercise in, I still felt like I had lost one of the things that brought me the most joy.
Months after my injury, I finally started listening to my body and my physical therapist friends rather than the limiting and negative advice I had gotten. I started returning to weight lifting and running and began trying not to judge myself for the strength I had lost. The more I did, the better I felt. I was scared, but I felt liberated at the same time. But despite making some initial progress, I started to hit a wall. I couldn’t deadlift as much as I could before, I couldn’t lift as much overhead, and I was too afraid to run on concrete or to get in a squat rack, which was where I had hurt myself all those months ago. I started to feel that hip and sacroiliac (SIJ) pain again after every workout, and I knew I had to change something about what I was doing.
Enter: Pilates. Pilates and weight lifting are both forms of resistance training, but there are key differences between them that make Pilates an effective form of cross training for a weightlifter. When you do any singular form of exercise, your body is learning how to complete a task one way. Introducing a different form of exercises gives you variability, and teaches your body to work under lots of different conditions using different muscle groups. The more options our bodies have for how to complete a task (like a deadlift), the stronger we become.
Here at Beyond Basics Physical Therapy, I had the opportunity to work with Kierstin Elliot,a certified Pilates instructor with a wealth of experience working with clients who struggle with orthopedic issues, including pelvic floor dysfunction. “In Pilates,” Kierstin explained, “subtle nuances matter and you have to be a stickler for form and alignment.” Weightlifting athletes, on the other hand, generally focus more on larger, more powerful movements. Because of these differences, Pilates can make a big difference when it comes to increasing strength and decreasing injury in people who typically exercise with high resistance. In the months that I spent working one on one with Kierstin, I achieved personal bests in my squat and my deadlift and could feel that I was much more steady in any single leg weight lifting activity.
If you like to lift weights and you want to see your performance improve, here are 5 specific ways that Pilates can up your weight lifting game:
- Eccentric Strengthening
- While weight lifting certainly helps to develop core strength, Pilates does so using lighter weights and more eccentric contractions. Eccentric contractions require muscles to work and lengthen at the same time. Typically, weightlifting and other forms of exercise will strengthen the core in a concentric way, meaning the muscles are asked to shorten and tighten in order to build strength. While both are effective, the best option is a combination – variability is key. Eccentric contractions are also a great way to increase mobility.
- Increasing Mobility in the Spine and Extremities
- The demands on the spine are very different in weight lifting versus Pilates. Lifting heavier weights requires you to maintain a certain amount of stiffness in the spine to protect it against a heavier load. While that is an important skill (think about how hard it can be to lift a heavy suitcase, stroller, car seat, etc.), it is also important to be able to manage resistance at times when our back can’t be in a “neutral” position, like when you’re putting a baby in a crib or digging things out of your storage unit. Pilates exercises are done at lower resistance and in various different spinal positions: flexion, extension, side-bending, and rotation. This allows you to learn to move well under tension in lots of different positions.
- Pilates is also a great way to increase your hip and shoulder mobility, both of which are important for weight lifting. Squatting, deadlifting, and overhead movements were the things I was having the hardest time progressing back to, and these all require good shoulder and hip mobility. Pilates exercises are often done with the trunk supported, and with resistance applied to the limbs by springs. This means that there are more eccentric contractions involved (working and lengthening at the same time), which can be a great way to improve strength and mobility at the same time.
- Increasing Stability
- Weightlifting focuses on powerful movements. These types of movements will require increased work from our larger “global” muscles which tend to be longer and move lots of joints at the same time. While strengthening these muscles is important, using Pilates to strengthen the smaller “stabilizing” muscles is a great way to enhance the strength of the global musculature. When we do a big, powerful movement, we need the smaller stabilizing muscles to automatically fire too – this enhances our overall strength, improves our balance, and makes us less prone to injury.
- Increasing Endurance
- Training for increased endurance means training at a lower weight and performing more repetitions. In weightlifting, the goal is to work at a higher percentage of your 1 rep maximum, meaning the greatest amount of weight that you would be able to lift once. In Pilates, on the other hand, lighter resistance is used for more repetitions.
- Increasing Body Awareness
- Proprioception is the sense that allows us to know where our bodies are in space. Exercises that are done in a closed chain – meaning one of your body parts is in contact with a fixed surface – enhance this sense. Because reformer Pilates includes spring tension with your feet or hands in contact with a surface, almost all exercises are done in a closed chain. This can be a really great way to ease into a movement after an injury. The support of a closed chain exercise allows you to tailor the movement to your current level as you progress back towards more traditional open chain (no contact with a surface) weightlifting movements.
Thanks for reading! I hope this blog post helped you understand how you can take your training to the next level. If you are interested in experiencing what Pilates can offer or how physical therapy can maximize your athletic potential, please call our midtown (212-354-2622) or downtown office (212-267-0240) today!
Check out what Kierstin has to say about Pilates here!
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- Why Pilates and Lifting Weights Aren’t Mutually Exclusive – Girls Gone Strong. Girls Gone Strong. https://www.girlsgonestrong.com/blog/strength-training/why-pilates-and-lifting-weights-arent-mutually-exclusive/. Published 2019. Accessed May 26, 2019.