Pilates for Weight Loss

Yes, you can shed pounds with Pilates. Here's how.
By Deirdre Shevlin Bell

Rainy Wright-Legg of Ashland, Oregon, had a straightforward goal when she first started Pilates five years ago: to take control of her debilitating shoulder pain. She never imagined that she was embarking on a journey that would help her shake years of emotional baggage—and 116 pounds.

“Pilates brought me to a space where I could listen to my body and hear it in a way I wasn’t paying attention to before,” says Wright-Legg, now 25. As an emotional overeater, Wright-Legg says her excess weight—she was 5 feet 7 inches tall and 278 pounds before starting Pilates—was interwoven with her sense of self-worth, which left her feeling disconnected from her body. Pilates, through its insistence on precise and intentional movement, helped Wright-Legg communicate with her body for the first time in years. Unlike some exercise modalities in which physical activity is the endgame, Pilates concentrates on how movement happens and how it feels deep within the musculature.

“If you can’t understand your body, you can’t change what’s going on,” Wright-Legg says. “In Pilates, you have to think about your movement before you make it, and you have to think about what in your body is making that movement. Pilates gave me an awareness of what my body was saying and really helped me listen to it.”

And what was her body saying? Enough is enough. It’s time to take care of yourself. Recalls Wright-Legg,“I understood that I needed to change if I wanted a new result. It was completely motivating, because I was sick of living the way I was.”

Inner strengthening
A system of exercises designed by Joseph Pilates in the 1950s and popularized in the past two decades, Pilates is best known as a core-strengthening practice—not a weight-loss regimen. But what makes Pilates a strengthening discipline for both body and mind can also be applied to accomplishing a goal like weight loss. “The reason Pilates helps you feel better, live better, and look better is because it’s about taking responsibility for yourself,” explains Brooke Siler, owner of re:AB Pilates Studio in New York City. “Focus, concentration, and responsibility for yourself are the empowering qualities of Pilates. But you have to be ready to embrace that.”

Mind-body practices like Pilates help you develop a focus essential to achieving weight-loss goals. “One of the biggest life lessons is to stay so present and focused that you can really create in your body whatever it is you wish to create,” says Siler, who is also the author of Your Ultimate Pilates Body Challenge (Broadway, 2005). “Through Pilates, I’ve become so conscious of how I move and what I move that I am exacting the results I want because I know what I want before I begin. Most people have a vague idea of what they want—to fit into a pair of jeans or to look better—but they don’t really break that down. I am very specific with my body. I know exactly what muscles I’m targeting.” This specific focus aids weight loss on two levels: First, it aligns what you desire (to lose weight) with what you’re doing (moving your body very precisely). Second, it helps you burn more calories because you’re using more muscles and requiring more work from them.

The science behind the method
Pilates can get you into the appropriate mental state for weight loss, but does it actually burn enough calories to help you drop pounds? Few studies have been done on Pilates for weight loss, but those that have been published indicate that it does, in fact, help people lose weight, reduce body mass index, and decrease waist circumference. “There’s growing evidence that Pilates can help with weight loss as long as somebody is doing it regularly enough and for a long enough period of time,” says Michele Olson, PhD, professor of exercise physiology at Auburn University Montgomery in Alabama and fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine. For optimal weight-loss results, Olson says, you should practice Pilates for at least an hour five times per week. You can do this at home or at a Pilates studio, where you’ll use a mat or other equipment. Reformers, Cadillacs, chairs, barrels, and other accessories add resistance and result in greater caloric burn.

Some modifications can also be made to a standard Pilates routine to boost its calorie-burning potential. An intermediate-to-advanced mat routine will burn between 300 and 450 calories per hour, which places it somewhere between walking and jogging. “Pilates is what we call a muscular fitness activity,” Olson explains. “You do burn calories, and it’s very good for your muscles and skeleton, but your heart rate doesn’t stay at a steady high rate the whole time like it would during specific cardio activity. To get a good cardio workout, you want to elevate your heart rate for a minimum of 20 to 30 minutes.” In addition to Pilates, do an aerobic activity you enjoy—running, cycling, or swimming, for example—three to four times per week, or try incorporating cardio boosts into your Pilates routine.

Getting the most burn
Increasing your caloric expenditure while practicing Pilates means maintaining a focused approach. Try these tips during your next Pilates routine or class to up your fat-burning potential.

Keep moving. Don’t rest between moves, even if you really want to. “You have to be uncomfortable if you want to change your body,” Siler insists. “You have to push.” If you’re working with an instructor, let her know your goal is weight loss so she can help you keep moving throughout the workout.”

Stay focused. Pilates teaches you to focus on integrity of movement, so concentrate on which muscles you want to use for each move, and keep your mind trained on using them. Executing each move with precision and perfect form will maximize energy expenditure, Olson says. If you have trouble isolating the muscles you want to use, ask for more detailed cueing from your instructor.

Increase your resistance. The greater the resistance, the greater your caloric burn, so opt for the most weight-bearing moves, such as side bends, Rollover, Teaser, and Bridge. You can add even more resistance by holding small weights during exercises like the Hundred or using resistance bands during the leg series.

Finally, rememeber that your goal should be to be healthy, rather than to reach a certain number on the scale. “When you’re going toward something like losing weight, especially extreme amounts of weight, focus on your health rather than your weight,” Wright-Legg advises. “Healthy equals happy, and if you’re healthy, you’re usually pretty fit.”

Weight Loss on the Mat
By Brooke Siler
Perform these exercises in the order listed. Keep your heart rate elevated by incorporating a cardio boost after each exercise.

Warm-up: Choose three of the cardio boosts from the following routine and perform as one set. Repeat the set five times.

1. Single-leg stretch
>Lie on your back with your knees pulled into your chest. > Place your right hand on your right ankle, left hand on your right knee. Extend your left leg toward the far wall, as close to straight as you can. Keep elbows bent and facing outward. > Curl your head, neck, and shoulders off the mat, and point your chin toward your chest. Exhale as you sink your navel toward your spine (see above). > Inhale as you switch legs and hands, exhaling when your left leg is bent and your right leg is straight. Keep shoulder blades and tailbone anchored to the mat. One inhale and exhale counts as one set. Complete three sets.

Cardio boost: Roll up to standing position, and do two minutes of jumping jacks. If you need to avoid impact, march in place for the same amount of time.

2. Double-leg stretch
> Lie on your back with your knees pulled into your chest. > Place one hand on each shin with elbows bent and facing outward. > Curl head, neck, and shoulders off the mat, and point chin toward chest. Exhale as you sink your navel toward your spine. > Inhale as you stretch your legs toward the ceiling, as straight as you can, and stretch arms straight above your head (see above). > Exhale and bend knees back into your chest as you circle your arms around and back to start position. Repeat five to eight times.

Cardio boost: Roll up to sitting position, turn over, and get into Plank position. Do 30 to 45 seconds of Plank jumping jacks, opening and closing your legs (as if doing jumping jacks) while maintaining a strong Plank position. To avoid impact, step each leg to the side instead of jumping out.

3. Single straight-leg stretch
> Set up as in the previous exercise. > Extend your right leg toward the ceiling, and hold your right ankle or calf with both hands as you stretch
your left leg straight out, a few inches above the mat. > Exhale as you press your spine deeper into the mat. > Inhale as you pull your straight, raised leg toward your face, with a gentle double bounce. Keep tailbone anchored to the mat (see above). > Exhale as you quickly scissor-switch legs (keeping them locked straight), holding the left leg at the ankle and pulling it toward your face with a double bounce. One pull with the right leg and one pull with the left leg counts as one set. Perform eight to 10 sets.

Cardio boost: Roll up to standing position, and do an elephant walk: With your feet planted flat on the floor, legs straight and knees unlocked, round your torso forward, and place your hands on the floor. Walk your hands out to plank position, then walk your legs in toward your hands. Walk your legs back out, then walk your hands back to meet them. Repeat five times.

4. Kneeling side kicks
> Stand on your knees on the long edge of the mat. Tip yourself over to your right side, and place your right palm flat on the mat and directly under your shoulder, parallel to your hips, with fingers pointing out perpendicular to your body. > Place your left hand behind your head, elbow pointing toward the ceiling. Your chest should be lifted and facing forward. > Extend your left leg straight out to the side, and lift it up to hip level (see above). > Inhale as you kick your left leg in front of you, foot flexed, keeping your leg straight and waist aligned. > Exhale as you press your leg back toward the wall behind you as far as you can without moving your hips or dipping your leg toward the floor. Repeat four times; then repeat four times on the other side.
Cardio boost: Stand up, and do five squat thrusts: Squat down, place your palms on the floor under your shoulders, thrust legs out behind you into plank position, hop them back in, and stand up.

5. Swimming
> Lie facedown on the mat with your legs squeezed together, heels together, toes apart. Stretch your arms in front of you with fingertips reaching out. > Inhale as you pull your navel into your spine and lift your right arm and left leg. Hold and lift your head and chest off the mat (see insert above). > Switch arms and legs by lowering your right arm and left leg to a few inches above the ground as you lift your left arm and right leg (see above). Continue switching as though you were swimming, inhaling for five counts and exhaling for five counts. Repeat three sets of five inhales/exhales each. Keep your belly pulling toward your spine throughout.

Cardio boost: Get into plank position, and do mountain climbers: Draw your right knee into your chest, then return to plank position. Next, draw your left knee into your chest, then return to plank. Alternate as fast as possible for one minute.

At-Home Pilates
Nothing takes the place of quality, hands-on instruction, but at-home practice is a great way to maintain that all-important motivation and consistency, especially if budget is a concern. Here are a few of our favorite DVDs for losing weight with Pilates from the comfort of your living room.

Element: Pilates Weight Loss for Beginners With Brooke Siler (Anchor Bay, 2008)
Weight Loss Pilates With Kristin McGee (Acacia, 2008)
Element: Slim & Tone Pilates With Kara Wily (Anchor Bay, 2009)
Barefoot Cardio With Ellen Barrett (Buff Girl Fitness, 2009)
10 Minute Solution: Quick Sculpt Pilates With Andrea Leigh Rogers (Anchor Bay, 2009)
Maintenance Pilates For Weight Loss With Ana Caban (Gaiam, 2006)