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:
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.
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!”
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.
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