Yoga and pilates participation has grown within the past few years. Many have incorporated the two types of exercises for something new, but many add it for strength and flexibility. Does yoga and pilates improve those two areas? To answer that, let's dive into the mechanisms of strength and flexibility.
Strength in a Range of Motion
In our past posts about how muscles can be manipulated through different programs, we explained how strength can be improved. We have not yet discussed strength in different Ranges Of Motion (ROM). ROM describes the relative angle of a limb compared to another part of the body. For example, if I was standing upright and stuck my arm out forward, then flexed my bicep with my fist pointed directly up, my elbow's current ROM would be 90 degree (forearm and upper arm are the relative structures in this case). If you want to be strong at all ranges of motion, you have to apply resistance to that muscle at all ROM's. If I were to do a push up, go down so that my arm my elbow was 90 degrees for 60 seconds, I would improve strength at 90 degrees, but not as much at other angles. For example, the reason people "half rep" during a bench press is because they do not have sufficient strength at all ROM below wherever they stop (Half repping is not encouraged unless one is training their sticking point, which there is also better ways to do that).
Mechanism of flexibility
Next is flexibility. Flexibility can be defined as how far a muscle can be lengthened, or how far two relative structures connected by an axis can be stretched. To improve the flexibility of a muscle, it's simple: just stretch it (things may be more complex for people with injuries or neuromuscular and muscle spindle disorders). There are many ways to stretch muscles (passive, active, assisted, PNF, dynamic, etc.), and there's appropriate times and cases for each. Some may be high-risk, some may be power-inhibiting, and some may be unable to do alone. Whatever the method, all are elongating the muscles, therefore increasing flexibility to a certain degree.
What Does Yoga Do and How?
For yoga, strength is achieved, but only at limited ranges of motion. Most of the time, yoga has a person hold a position (isometric contraction). So although one may be getting stronger, perhaps it may only be in a small ROM for the limbs, but primarily stabilizing the core. As for flexibility, it increases it because people are often times in a position where muscles are being stretched for a few seconds. Of course nowadays there are fitness programs called power yoga and other catchy names that are some form of calisthenics.
Pilates (mainly referring to Pilates on reformers), which I prefer more, helps with flexibility because the pull from the reformers and cadillacs give the muscle somewhat of a short stretch at the end of a repetition. Additionally, it may replicate a response in the muscle similar to PNF due to the nature of the equipment to allow a stretch-then-contract pattern. For strength, it can increase strength at different ranges of motion, however not as much because the degree of resistance may not be enough depending on the individual's strength. For Pilates we much prefer traditional programs led by PMA certified trainers opposed to other types of classes.
So are yoga and Pilates good or bad? You make the call. You have been provided with the mechanisms of both, but it's important to ask yourself, what are your's or your client's goals, what is their fitness history, will you be able to quantatively measure their improvements, and is it the best way to reach their goals? With that said, if the goal is weight loss and strength, there is no substitute for hard iron and good eating habits.
Remember that all types of exercises are merely tools for a problem, and there are multiple tools out there.
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