Yoga and pilates enthusiasts often claim that practicing these two fitness disciplines will give you "longer, leaner muscles." But the truth is that there is no way you can change the shape of your muscles outside of making them grow larger (hypertrophy) or smaller (atrophy).
So, what do these noble athletic pursuits really do for your physique? Let’s break down the benefits of yoga and pilates by taking a scientific look at how your muscles act during these activities and debunk the longer, leaner muscles thing once and for all.
Pilates and yoga are ancient practices that are currently used for fitness. They have many proven benefits and focus not only on the physical body but also in the breathing and the mind.
Pilates is a method of exercise that includes low-impact flexibility, endurance movements and muscular strength. The practice emphasizes the use of abdominals, lower back, hips, and thighs. A pilates routine typically includes 25-50 repetitive strength training and breathing exercises. Some of its benefits include improved core strength and stability, improved posture and balance, improved flexibility, and prevention and treatment of back pain.
One randomized, single-blind study showed that the pilates training group improved flexibility significantly during time interval and 100% of the subjects from the pilates group passed a lumbo-pelvic stability test while none of the subjects in the control group did.
Another study showed that young girls 10-12 years old who practiced pilates regularly had significant reduction of their BMI and reduced body fat. This confirms the well-known fact that performing a physical activity helps manage body weight and strengthens the muscles. (Kloubec, 2011)
A study performed by Bhutkar et al. found that by practicing the sun salutation regularly, both men and women showed significant improvement in muscle strength and general body endurance both in lower and upper body. “During sun salutation, muscles of the entire body experience stretch and pressure alternately and therefore it is said to give more benefits in short duration of time. Many of its poses build strength because they require sustained contractions of many muscle groups of the entire body, which is comparable to resistance training.”
Also, sun salutation practice was shown to decrease body weight and % body fat and increase in % lean body mass.
Yes, according to studies, yoga practice increases the energy expenditure resulting in changes in body composition (fat loss, muscle gain,) but the shape of the muscles themselves are not dictated by the activity alone. It is important to mention that body composition (percentage of fat, water, BMI, weight, and muscle in the body) also depends on the diet. In Bhutkar’s study, the male subjects consumed more junk food and as a result they had less improvement in body composition. This is just an example of why it is imperative to alter your diet appropriately when trying to achieve a leaner physique. Exercise will not do it alone, regardless of whether Gwyneth Paltrow or Mari Winsor told you it would.
The takeaway is that physical activities like yoga and pilates contract and stretch the muscles resulting in more flexible, stronger limbs and core. To achieve leaner muscles and overall body, one must exercise and consume a healthy diet to prevent fat being stored on top of muscles.
Your muscles are able to adapt to all sorts of physical activity. To benefit from training in any particular modality, your body recruits a variety of skeletal muscle subsystems. This implicates at least three fundamental muscle cell responses to ensure short and long-term functional integrity of skeletal muscle in response to altered demands of workload as it exists during exercise.
First, the acute modulation of excitation–contraction coupling and the adapted sensitivity of contractility by reverse modification of contractile elements encourage the immediate adaptation. Second, an acute increase in oxygen uptake has to be initiated, in addition to the glycolytic (glucose breakdown) and metabolic routes being turned on. Third, regulation of gene expression (muscle ability to adapt) and protein levels are required to achieve sustainable signaling and structural adaptations of skeletal muscle to maintain and to increase exercise performance capacities. (Suhr, 2013)
Changes in nutrient and oxygen availability influence the adult skeletal muscle features (Ferraro, 2014) So, a person who exercises might obtain lean muscles based on the type of exercise they are performing but the way their muscles obtain nutrients also play a role. If their body is accustomed to using fats for fuel, then they will burn these resulting in leaner muscle mass.