Yoga This and Pilates That

By: Eric Cressey, MA, CSCS
Ever since Mike Robertson and I introduced our Magnificent Mobility DVD, we’ve been inundated with email inquiries about how what we’re recommending is different from yoga and Pilates. And, those that actually appreciate the difference keep asking what we think about it.

Let me preface this entire article by saying that I’m all for anything that makes people enthusiastic about exercise, or gives individuals an outlet to relieve stress. If you’re not moving, you need to move – regardless of what it takes to make you do so. With that said, I gave these two modalities three strikes before I called them “out.” Here are my main issues with Yoga and Pilates:

Strike #1

They don’t differentiate between good and bad range of motion. That is, these disciplines look at being limber as being healthy. This assumption couldn’t be further from the truth.

The truth of the matter is that certain joints in our body – the ankles, hips, and thoracic spine for instance – require more MOBILITY training because they’re too stable/tight. Conversely, some joints – most notably the lumbar spine and glenohumeral (shoulder) joint – require a lot more stability training because they’re too mobile. Every joint in our body is designed to function with a delicate balance of mobility and stability; some just need more of one than the other.

My main concern with yoga and Pilates is the tremendous amount of lumbar hyperextension that occurs; this is the LAST thing you want at the lumbar spine. Most back problems are extension-based; that is, people get excessive ROM at their lumbar spine because they lack ROM at their hips, or they’re just too weak to prevent it at the lumbar spine.

In my view, being “limber” is another way of saying that you’re “unstable.” This is not a good thing. Limber people easily break down on the athletic fields, and they even get injured with ordinary activities like carrying groceries.

Strike #2

Of secondary concern is the excessive recruitment of hip flexors. In consideration of the fact that the majority of those doing yoga and Pilates are female, this is an even bigger issue; women tend to carry their weight too far forward already, and they already have a tendency toward anterior pelvic tilt and lumbar hyperextension.

I’ve worked with loads of female athletes from the youth to professional levels – and I can’t say that I’ve ever looked at one of them and said, “She needs Yoga/Pilates to get stronger, faster, healthier, or leaner.” Now, if these are athletes who in some cases are devoting 3-4 hours per day to training – and they still don’t need Yoga/Pilates – why is it that the average female weekend warrior who has 3-4 hours per week to devote to exercise is CONVINCED that these modalities are the Holy Grail of exercise?

Just to confirm my “intuition,” I contacted a few of the industry’s top performance enhancement coaches and personal trainers. I asked them a simple yes/no question:

Your female client has five hours per week to train. She wants to look good, get stronger, and perform better in the sports of her choice. Are yoga or Pilates going to occupy any of the five hours in the program you write for her?”

Mike Robertson, Performance Enhancement Specialist, Indianapolis, IN: “No. Most women already have enough flexibility, so they’d be better served improving core stability, fixing postural imbalances, and putting some more weight on the bar.”

Mike Boyle, Boston University Hockey Strength and Conditioning Coach: “No” – with an entire article to back up his assertions (and nicely complement the one I’m writing)

Sean Skahan, Anaheim Ducks Strength and Conditioning Coach: “No, I wouldn’t.”

Scot Prohaska, Performance Enhancement Specialist, Newport Beach, CA: “Nope.”

Brijesh Patel, College of the Holy Cross Associated Head of Strength and Conditioning: No, I would not include it into the program that I write; if she did it, it would only be if she asked specifically about yoga or Pilates, and it would be on her own in conjunction with the program.”

Julia Ladewski, University at Buffalo Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach: “For someone with limited time who wants to improve athletic performance, I would not include yoga or Pilates in her workout schedule. I believe dynamic mobility work (as in your DVD) will give her all she needs in that area. So much more of her time needs to be devoted to strength training, getting stronger, conditioning work for her sport, etc. Her time to be devoted outside of sport skill is limited, so she needs to make the most of it in these areas.”

Erik Ledin, Bodybuilding and Figure Competition Contest Prep Expert: “Definitely not; time is better spent on other activities.”

Mike Irr, Chicago Bulls Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach: “I’m going to have to say no on using the five hours for yoga or Pilates – at least not on my time! I think there are so many things that strength coaches can do to better improve her physique and performance in the weight room or track. Plus, a lot of things that you can do during the workout between sets here and there can borrow the favorable elements from Pilates or yoga – if she really, really needs them!”

Strike #3

Third, many of the movements used in yoga and Pilates only train flexibility – not mobility. Mobility implies that you have STABILITY in the ROM that you achieve; you need to have strength to support your body weight in all those extremes. Having excessive ROM without strength in those ROMs is actually a big risk factor for injury, so excessive static stretching can be a huge problem.

Additionally, I almost never stretch female athletes’ hamstrings. They are quad-dominant enough already; why would I want to inhibit their weakest muscles? Stretch it, and it gets slower and weaker – and it’s ability to prevent anterior tibial translation diminishes. English translation? Your ACL has to do a lot more of the work, and we know all too well that ACLs pop much more easily in females in light of biomechanical differences in their body types when compared to men.

An Important Note

I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, though; there are good aspect to yoga and Pilates; I just wish people would take more time to qualify their recommendations. Movements that encourage ROM at the lumbar spine should be discouraged, and the same goes for those that involve long isometric actions of the hip flexors.

Additionally, if you’re too weak to punch your way out of a wet paper bag, you’d be better off spending your time lifting weights than taking yoga and Pilates classes. From functional carryover and aesthetic improvements perspectives, lifting weights is far superior.

So, in the grand scheme of things, women don’t need more yoga and Pilates classes. They need to get stronger, and focus on mobility and activation training that enhances stability in the ROM that they’ve already achieved. Additionally, they need to learn to stabilize the lumbar spine instead of tying it into knots.

I recognize that, in writing this article, I’ve probably once-and-for-all given up my change to ever date a yoga or Pilates instructor. If it’s going to save a lot of people a lot of back pain, though, that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

About the Author

Eric Cressey, MS, CSCS, is a highly sought-after coach for healthy and injured athletes alike.  He is the president and co-founder of Cressey Performance in Hudson, MA (www.CresseyPerformance.com). Eric publishes a free daily blog and weekly newsletter at www.EricCressey.com.

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14 Responses

  1. Mado says:

    Hi–
    I am a yoga instructor and would like to respond to your critiques. When properly taught, yoga teaches integration and strengthening equally to flexibility. The lumbar spine is indeed the place where people tend to get hurt in yoga–mostly from lack of knowledge. Some of this comes from less than qualified people taking a weekend course and then teaching yoga.

    If you research current yoga alignment standards (especially the universal principles of alignment of Anusara Yoga) you will find that they emphasize stability of the lumbar spine. Yoga seeks to achieve balance in the body.

    So someone who is flexible needs to work on strength and integration while people who are stiff need to balance that with flexibility.

    In your point two, I’m not sure where you are getting your information. Proper yoga alignment is not an anterior pelvic tilt–the tilt of the pelvis depends on the pose. For most poses proper alignment means a neutral pelvis with a slight action towards a posterior tilt. In seated forward folds you begin with an anterior tilt if you are stiff, but if you are flexible you work with a neutral spine maintaining stability in the lumbar region. As a rule, seated forward bends are relatively dangerous and advanced and should not comprise the bulk of a yoga practice.

    On top of that, you miss one major component of yoga–the mental/emotional/spiritual component. If you are working with an athlete who is type A and bound up with stress, why not add some yoga into her routine in order to create some balance and perspective? Limber does not equal healthy–balanced equals healthy. Take care!
    Mado Hesselink, RYT

  2. I have been recommended to start pilates classes to help with excrutiating pain from a hip – which is apparantly caused by my ‘hyperextension’ (I’m very bendy indeed). I’m concerned whether this is the correct course of action despite this being the advice of a physiotherapist. Could anyone advise….?

  3. Chris says:

    I agree with you whole heartedly when it comes to your table of mobility and flexibility. I try to follow it and put it into my training. I suggest it to anyone that asks me, I have a copy of it in my notes.

    Ankle/Mobility
    Knee/Stability
    Hip/Mobility
    Lumbar Spine/Stability
    Thoracic Spine/Mobility
    Scapula/Stability
    Glenohumeral (Shoulder)/Mobility/Stability

  4. Jenny Lake says:

    Dear Eric,
    I was very dissapointed when I read this article you wrote. I previously read your article on shoulders and the importance of the serratis anterior and stabilization of the shoulder girdle. I thought it was an excellent article and respected your opinion and knowledge. I now have to say I have changed my opinion after reading this article.
    I have been a Personal Trainer since 1985 with a college degree and numerous certifications.
    I have studied and taught Pilates for nine years and currently that is all I teach. I don’t know where your research comes from because what you say about Pilates couldn’t be farther from the truth! Have you tried Pilates yourself(with a qualified teacher)?
    Pilates is all about stabalization of the spine and the pelvis along with constant use of the core muscles.A benefit is flexability and strength throughout the entire body inside and out. I could go on and on about the great benefits of Pilates but I think you get the message. I work with more men than women ,with hip replacements and numerious shoulder, knee, and back injuries with successful results. I have learend more about the human body from Pilates than I could have ever imagined.
    For future notice I would appreciate if you would give Pilates a try and not just a class or a session on Pilates equiptment.My recomendation would be for you to practice Pilates for a minimum of a month before becoming an expert writer on the subject of Pilates.

    Feel free to respond to this message.

    Thank You,

    Jenny Lake

  5. Ben McLellan says:

    I first want to say that I respect your knowledge very much. I also have to say that I disagree with you quite strongly here. Have you ever taken a yoga class? Also, can you not lift weights improperly? Yoga is like anything, when it’s done properly, you will benefit. When I take yoga I often here the instructors say:”be sure to tuck your pelvis to ensure a neutral spine.” I do agree if you have five hours, as an athlete, that you should be lifting. I think you need to experience yoga before you speak about it in the way that you have.

    Respectfully,
    Ben McLellan

  6. Great article and inspiring responses!
    I am a certified Anusara Yoga Instructor, a Pilates instructor, and I am also very athletic. I have never done any strength training with weights, although the years of yoga (25 and then some) have inspired others to ask me if I do train with weights.
    From the age of 35 to my current age, which is 49, I have kept a relatively demanding schedule as a full time instructor as well as keeping up with my own yoga practice and doing about two to four sessions of cardio training a week.
    I have found that all of what I do is good. However, I have learned how to do all of it as a result of learning how to do yoga.
    I agree that some yoga classes seem to put no boundries on the amount of stretching that is good. I also agree about the areas of the body that are vulnerable (lumbar spine, hip flexors, etc.,) in yoga classes that are perhaps less concerned with proper alignment.
    I do not agree that there is no mobility in yoga.
    Have you ever done Asthanga?
    I did for many years. I attribute much of my strength today as well as my character building to the years of Asthanga, which led me to Anusara.
    Anything that challenges us physically opens doors as you have already stated.
    Anusara Yoga has taught me how to take myself as well as others out of their pain. The alignment system is very theraputic, and, I have transformed as an individual into someone I never thought I could be.
    The years of Asthanga were good, but I have had more growth and transformation through Anusara Yoga than any other system that I have studied. It has been a journey of the heart for me that has taken me all over the world teaching or studing.
    Im not sure that there is a way to measure the pros and cons of yoga vs. strength training. Each one of us is a unique human being with so many gifts to offer the world. I think that if there is any measure of what is right or good insofar as a physical system goes, it would be to ask the question: how has this affected my life and the lives of those around me?
    Has it been a life enhancing experience that has brough more joy to life? Am I becoming the person I want to be? Am I happier. Am I more avilable to serve others?
    I love to watch the Olympics, athleticism is beautiful.
    In my own body, however, strength training without the practice of yoga would seem rather numb and dry.
    I just dont know if I’d be able to answer those questions affirmatively if all I did was some cardio and weight training.

  7. Court says:

    I am a personal trainer as well as a 200-hr yoga instructor. I can say this much already: while it may not be true that all yoga instructors practice improperly, most certainly do. They focus on excessive flexibility regardless of the need for it, and usually people who are attracted to yoga tend to be the types of people who are already excessively flexible and have no control over that range of motion. Face it: most yoga teachers are trained in a weekend, if at all.

    I would also say that most women come into the gym extremely weak, and as they age, become unable to perform simple movements. Most women need strength training just to get to “Zero”. Many women never make progress because they stretch a ton, do yoga, lots of cardio – but never lift the weights that will form and shape their bodies. So they give up on everything.

    I’d also like to point out that most yoga teachers do not realize the importance of strength training – you may accuse the author of not having experience with yoga, but have you ever lifted weights? Do you know how fun it can be – and how you can push yourself in the same way that you do in Ashtanga? Do you know how important it is to gain basic strength? Do you realize how muscle leads to a toned, beautiful body?

    Yoga can be incredible for the body, and I obviously continue to teach it. However, I teach it with caution, using only the smart movements, and emphasize the need for a strength training program as well. Cardio, strength training, and mobility/stretching must go hand and hand.

  8. Nuala Coombs says:

    HI. My main concern is that – you have placed yoga an and pilates in the same bag and that you have assumed all pilates instruciton is the same. As a training school we have applied latest research into core stability into our foundation course with great results and to dismiss pilates with your three strike system – does you no justice. I am aware this article is old but i am assuming because it is still available you still hold this generic view of pilates. Europe has developed and applied research to the programme, perhaps your experience is limited to the US?

  9. Daniel says:

    Hi,

    As a long time yoga practitioner, teacher and teacher trainer, i share the concerns about the misuse of yoga. And that’s equivalent to saying body building is dangerous because some people lift weights with bad form. Every tool can be misused. I personally enjoy body building and yoga. I don’t know what I would focus on if my only goal was to look better, get stronger and improve athletic performance. My goals are broader – to feel fantastic, to be of better service to the world, to have fun. With that in mind, yoga is key in my life.

  10. It is nice on your side of knowledge Eric.But I would recommend you for strength and conditioning by Rhadi Ferguson.You will learn a lot from him.He is a world class strength and conditioning coach.You must visit his website http://www.rhadiferguson.com/.

  11. Andrew says:

    Run, Eric!

    The yoga people are after you!

    Oh, wait, they are all stuck in stationary poses, you’re fine….

  12. Abdiel Rodriguez says:

    You are my hero! Yoga and pilates are far overrated! Good work Eric. Yoga and pilates teach wrong things to the athletes. They would make your posterior chain weak.

  13. Dandan says:

    Interesting points. However it depends on what kind of yoga you are doing and more importantly how aware the person is of what they are doing. The yoga that I share with my classes will give people improvements in posture,flexibility,strength,breathing, muscle tonus, creating new pathways of movements too while stimulating the brain as the students become more aware of themselves. Resulting in the above mentioned improvements in a single class. Where as it would normally take weeks, years or even decades to achieve what is achieved in my single classes. These lessons are done with neuro-muscular-skeletal-realignments very gently. The improvements are so great, GP’s and osteopaths are sending me clients with Parkinson’s Disease, MS, Back aches, chronic fatigue and more, with all reporting great results.

    So it is about how you do things not what you do. e.g. you can lift a baby and strain yourself, gritting your teeth, tense your shoulders or you can lift and feel how you do it and enjoy the cuddly sensations of the baby, without unnecessary tension, the same with weights etc. This is difficult though, mainly because in school we are told continously to work harder. When nothing in school is hard if you know what you are doing.

  1. June 16, 2009

    [...] get me wrong; this newsletter isn’t going to be about yoga.  To be honest, I already wrote an article about my thoughts on yoga a while back.  Admittedly, I probably should have taken a more impartial [...]

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