How to Get Strong — Not Bulky — With Pilates

how to get strong not bulky with pilates exercises for strength

Toned. Trim. Tight.

Adjectives used to review a 1970s Ohio Players album?

Sure. But also a more up-to-date description for the kind of physique we all want — and which we can all get through Pilates exercises.

Although it’s been around for nearly a century, Pilates became a widespread phenomenon around the year 2000, pushed into mainstream consciousness by enthusiastic endorsements from celebrities like Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet. Today, it remains one of the most popular exercises for creating muscled but lean bodies — especially when combined with cardio-heavy routines including reformer (a Pilates apparatus) classes with jump boards, or variations like Beachbody’s PiYo, a combination of Pilates and yoga.

One of the benefits of Pilates — embraced for its impact as a core exercise — is the positive effect it can have on posture. Pilates addresses the group of muscles around your core (the rectus and transverse abdominis as well as the external/internal obliques) for a workout that beats the benefits of crunches. According to a study by Clinical Biomechanics, those who practice the exercise discipline have demonstrated reduced static thoracic kyphosis (forward curvature of the spine) and greater abdominal strength — the antidote to hours and hours spent at a desk.

how to get strong not bulky with pilates exercises for strength“It’s an amazing way to strengthen muscles in a generally horizontal position because it was invented for invalids in hospital beds,” says Jordan Metzl, M.D., who specializes in sports medicine at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. “It’s helpful for core strengthening and supporting the muscles around the middle part of the spine. Unlike sit-ups, which strengthen the front muscles, it balances out the strength in the front and the back.”

Pilates exercises can even have the effect of making the body seem “longer.”

“It’s not the bones that change,” says Metzl. “It’s that the muscular forces around the spine are working better so the spine is actually straighter. The actual anatomy doesn’t change, but the functional anatomy does change.”

What’s Different About a “Pilates Body?”

Developed by Joseph Pilates in the 1920s as a way to aid bed-bound hospital patients, Pilates exercises have evolved into an effective way to burn fat. According to a study by Scientia Medica, these exercises have proven effective in reducing fat percentage, fat mass, and waist-to-hip ratio. As Joseph Pilates himself promised: You’ll feel better in 10 classes, you’ll look better in 20 classes, and you’ll have a new body in 30 classes.

“Because pilates exercises typically incorporate many muscle groups simultaneously, they effectively keep you in a fat-burning zone (65-75 percent of maximum heart rate) throughout the workout,” say Katherine and Kimberly Corp, owners of New York’s popular Pilates on Fifth. “By sequencing the pilates exercises strategically, you can keep the heart rate closer to 60 percent of maximum heart rate.

“Pilates is not designed to improve your cardiovascular threshold, but it will burn fat. Moreover, it will increase lean muscle mass, which helps a body burn more fat, even when not exercising.”

This is true of traditional Pilates, which, according to a study by the American Council on Exercise, burns 175–254 calories per 50-minute session. But the benefits of Pilates are amplified when workouts include a dose of cardio.

“Making your muscles stronger by strength training with a cardio component built in burns the most fat,” says Dr. Metzl. “I love that stuff — strength training and cardio together. It’s super effective.”

4 Pilates Exercises for Building Strength

These two combo moves from New York’s Pilates on Fifth will work wonders on the appearance of your shoulders and triceps, and inner and outer thighs—all while working your abdominals.

Pilates Push-up

This exercise features a series of planks for an advanced move that stabilizes your core and tones your shoulders and triceps.

How to Get Strong Not Bulky With Pilates

–Start in a plank, hands under your shoulders, establishing a long, straight line from your heels to the top of your head.

–Perform three pushups (inhale to bend your elbows and exhale to straighten your elbows). Return to the plank and pause. Then, repeat this movement two more times.

Note: Elbows should be tucked against your ribs while bending to work the triceps.

Side-Leg Lift Series

This exercise features three moves that combine to cinch the inner and outer thighs by strengthening the muscles around the hips.

Start on your right side, with your right arm under your head and your left hand on the floor.

How to Get Strong Not Bulky With Pilates
1. Lift and Lower: Point the toes of your left foot away from your body and lift your left leg (without lifting your hip or rotating your leg). Then, flex the toes of your left foot toward your body and lower your leg. Repeat 4–6 times then switch sides, repeating the sequence on your left side.

How to Get Strong Not Bulky With Pilates
2. Staggered Lift: Point the toes of your left foot and lift the top leg (without lifting your hip or rotating your leg). Then, raise your bottom leg to meet your top leg, and squeeze your legs together, then lower both of your legs. Repeat 4–6 times then switch sides, repeating the sequence on your left side.

How to Get Strong Not Bulky With Pilates
3. Double Lift: Squeeze your legs together and lift them both while squeezing (without flexing your spine or lifting your hips) and lower. Repeat 4–6 times then switch sides, repeating the sequence on your left side.