Why You Should Do Pilates in Addition to Cardio Workouts

Three women using Magic Circles and doing Pilates on mats

Kristian Sekulic / Getty Images

If you are a cardio junkie or a single-activity gym-goer you will want the information in this article. Your body needs and deserves a workout that trains all of its possible movement patterns in what is called multi-planar exercise. Pilates is very likely your cardio antidote.

The human body is multi-planar by design. Your spine was created to forward and backward bend, as well as bend from side to side. It is able to twist and rotate with impunity. Our ancestors put their bodies to good use working each day as hunter-gatherers and more recently as laborers who work their land and their herds to ensure survival for themselves and their families.

Imagine how differently early men and women used their bodies than we do when we adopt our fitness-focused positions on equipment like treadmills, bicycles, and elliptical machines. Of course, there is a distinct benefit to our muscles and our cardiovascular systems, but in terms of maintaining a healthy functional musculoskeletal system that is capable of all possible planes of movement, your standard cardio workout leaves much to be desired.

The Treadmill

Treadmill running happens in forward motion. The front and back of the lower body are utilized and there is a modicum of rotation that must happen to propel the legs, but this is a single plane motion. By contrast, the Pilates mat work as done in a group class requires you to bend forward and backward and to train your upper body and your core as well as your lower body for a full balanced strengthening routine.

The Bicycle

Cycling similarly occurs in a simple one direction pattern. The upper body does little more than flex and round while the legs move continuously. Quite the opposite, a Pilates reformer routine like you might do in a private training session includes every developmental sequence available. You'll lie down, kneel, sit, and stand, working in each plane of motion with variable resistance from weighted springs.

The Elliptical

Elliptical machines afford a bit more rotation and can even engage the upper body, but only if you actively use the arms and the moving handles to accomplish the workout. The Pilates chairs and barrels demand a high degree of upper body strength, abdominal control, and symmetrical muscle recruitment as you twist, bend, and lean in numerous directions improving your strength, stretch, timing, and balance.

What none of these workouts do is allow for freedom of all the possible ways your body can actually move. None of the cardio options above let your spine side bend or backbend. The hip joints never get to externally or internally rotate nor do they open or narrow in abduction or adduction. They do one thing only: flex and extend.

Look now at the Pilates system with all of its equipment delivered in an organized circuit and you'll see how multi-planar training promotes truly healthy body movements designed for optimal function.

It's About Real Life

In real life, we need to be able to move efficiently in all directions. When you play a sport or join in social dance you engage in multiple movements in all directions. All of your muscles and joints get equal time or at least some time on the playing field. Pilates accomplishes the same thing but within a training paradigm.

The systemic and symmetrical nature of Pilates means that you will learn immediately which parts of you are tighter or weaker than others. You will recognize quickly what movements pose a challenge and are therefore the most needed.

There’s no need to give up your cardio routine—it benefits your heart and body too. But notice the gains and improvements you make when you supplement cardio workouts with Pilates. Enhancing performance is what Pilates is all about.

Try simply adding one specific Pilates workout to your weekly routine. Think of it as your cardio recovery program. If you know some Pilates, making your own multi-dimensional workout is simple. Start the routine with an exercise lying on your back. Choose a standing exercise for your final move. In between, select moves on your stomach, on your side, in sitting and in upright kneeling.

Working out this way is a sampler for your body. Test drive it three times a week and see how you feel and, more importantly, how your body responds.

By Alycea Ungaro, PT, MS
Alycea Ungaro, PT, MS, holds a Pilates certification through the Pilates Method Alliance and a master's degree in clinical nutrition.