Fact vs. Fiction | Does Pilates Actually Give You ‘Long, Lean’ Muscles?
A certified instructor reveals what Pilates can and can’t do—and why it’s still a workout that’s worth your time.
To say the idea that Pilates ‘creates long, lean’ muscles is a popular one is something of an understatement.
Does it actually do that? Not so much.
Despite gaining interest as a go-to workout for many hoping to achieve said ‘long and lean lines’, the reality is that nothing can make your muscles ‘longer’. End of story.
So, where does the false notion come from—and why does it persist? To separate fitness fact from fiction, we spoke to Sydney-based certified Pilates instructor Matilda Dods for a full breakdown of the ‘long and lean’ myth.
Keep reading to discover everything Pilates does—and doesn’t—do when it comes to your muscles, and why it’s still a workout that’s worth your time.
First things first: is it physically possible for muscles to become ‘longer’? Can it be achieved with Pilates?
No. Muscles are connected to bones, and apart from a growth spurt, nothing is going to increase the length of a bone.
I believe part of the myth of the long and lean discourse within the Pilates industry comes from what psychologists call the “swimmer's body illusion”. It is a cognitive bias that swimmers—with broad shoulders, and long arms and legs—have achieved success in their sport not because of the way that they train, but rather that people who genetically have long reach and broad shoulders will have more success in the pool than those with a different genetic composition.
In short, the illusion takes place when you look at the traits of people who do a certain activity and think the activity causes those traits. While in reality, people participate in the activity because they already have those traits. The traits are the cause, not the effect.
Admittedly, I fall into this category, before I started doing Pilates I was already long and lean due to my genetics. My brother, who has never stepped foot in a Pilates studio, has the same composition, but because he isn’t posting on Instagram promoting his Pilates practice, there is never a cognitively biased assumption that it is Pilates that gave him those results.
All of this is not to say that Pilates is not for absolutely everybody—and I mean literally every single body—but it is irresponsible for plates practitioners, who most likely are genetically long and lean, to promote it as a result of their classes.
The idea of creating ‘long, lean lines’ has been a pervasive myth in the fitness world for quite some time. Where does this concept originate, and what does it actually mean when instructors say it?
Marketing. The wellness industry is worth USD $1.5 trillion dollar and is in no way devoid of harmful beauty standards and devious marketing tactics.
In another similar and slightly different context, however, there is a benefit of cueing ‘length’ when teaching. It’s proven by motor learning techniques that if you cue ‘length your leg to the back of the room,’ or ‘find a sensation of the leg growing longer out of the hip socket,’ our brains can follow and understand these instructions better than simply saying ‘straighten your leg.’
I think the only way that Pilates may help with the appearance of seeming taller is through the focus on posterior chain strengthening and posture-focused exercises.
Nonetheless, Pilates instructors and studio owners have a responsibility to be transparent and honest about the realistic and achievable results of Pilates, or any exercise really. Cueing a long leg will never actually make your legs longer.
How does Pilates sculpt and work the muscles differently than, for example, weightlifting?
Pilates was founded on six original key principles—concentration, control, centre, flow, precision and breath—lots of Pilates ‘moves’ can be performed without attention to these principles, however, it wouldn’t really be Pilates without including this holistic view of the movement. To break it down:
Pilates makes you move from your centre
There is no Pilates move that can be performed without first connecting to and moving from our centre, which means that the core and deep stabilising muscles are always engaged. This simultaneous focus on both stabilising and prime mover muscles means that the core is always switched on, even when the exercise may seem to be focusing on the arms or legs.
With the regard to this, I think that these principles can also be applied to other movement practices, such as weightlifting. The two aren’t diametrically opposed. I actually believe that the application of Pilates principles to a weightlifting practice can be incredibly beneficial.
Pilates activates your slow-twitch muscle fibres
These are the fibres within a muscle that are not as reactive as their explosive counterparts; fast-twitch fibres. Slow-twitch fibres can work non-stop for long periods, and when they are trained, they stay ‘thin’ and light. Weightlifting tends to use more fast twitch fibres, which react instantly and explosively, but their ‘battery’ doesn’t last as long.
Slow twitch fibres are about endurance, which is why in Pilates we will complete 10, 20, and sometimes 50 reps of a particular movement with little rest, whilst in weightlifting, the reps are lower, and there is more rest time between sets.
Pilates builds deep, intrinsic core strength
Pilates contributes to enhancing stability through the powerhouse centre, which is essential for good posture. While stability is also a core pillar of weightlifting, the two complement and inform each other nicely.
Ultimately, everyone can benefit from Pilates, weightlifting and gentle cardio throughout the week.
Practising Pilates will improve your body awareness to bring to your strength training, and increasing the anaerobic and fast-twitch muscle fibre strength will deepen your Pilates practice.
The combination will improve posture, longevity, and efficient movement patterns that will serve you throughout your lifetime.
What advice do you have for anyone wanting to pursue Pilates with the notion of ‘long, lean’ muscles in mind?
Investigate the reasons behind holding an aesthetic ideal at the centre of or the goal of your movement practice. We only have one body, and whether it is ‘long and lean’ isn’t the deciding factor of whether we will one day need a hip replacement or spinal fusion surgery.
Our bodies are incredibly beautiful and resilient machines that deserve respect and love for all the things that they can DO, not simply for how they look. Movement is medicine, and it is a gift and a privilege—I try to hold this at the centre and focus of my Pilates practice.
Joseph Pilates' first book was titled “Pilates’ Return To Life Through Contrology,” which I hold as an illuminating principle. Pilates and movement should not be a punishment in the pursuit of an aesthetic ideal, it should be a key that unlocks our lives, our energy and our longevity.
You’ve had a successful career as a model and as a musician. How did you come to practise Pilates?
I started doing Pilates casually about seven years ago while living in New York. After taking a long break from formal exercise or movement practice while recovering from an eating disorder, I rediscovered Pilates here in Sydney.
The process of doing my teacher training has been a deeply healing experience for me; I’ve been able to move past regarding the body as an aesthetic object and developed a deep respect and connection to the beautiful and complicated machine and the mechanism that is the body.
As an instructor, what’s your approach to guiding a Pilates practice?
I focus a lot on strength and mobility. My approach to health and fitness is about increasing longevity and efficient movement patterns. There’s no point in having shredded abs if your knees and ankles don’t have the strength and mobility to catch you when you slip on a wet floor.
I think that Pilates offers a unique connection between mind and body and building physical mindfulness and movement. We spend so much time unaware of where our bodies are in space, or even how our bodies are really feeling.
In my classes, I try to offer 45 minutes to an hour of being fully present in your body. Working hard enough that you can’t worry about your to-do list, and mindful enough to leave feeling more connected and attuned to the constant communication between mind and body.
What are your favourite Pilates-ready pieces from AJE ATHLETICA and why?
Shop The Look
Explore the latest activewear from AJE ATHLETICA