The latest bit of fitness misinformation is making the rounds on TikTok, but I’ve seen it cropping up other places, too. Young women are singing the praises of Pilates (sometimes alongside barre, yoga, and walking), saying it helped them lose weight and tone their muscles where lifting weights did not. Something about cortisol. And I’m here to tell you, as a certified personal trainer, weightlifter, and person who has attended a pilates class once or twice: This is total bullshit.
Pilates will not give you “longer,” “leaner” or more “toned” muscles
When you make your muscles stronger, you are not giving them more “muscle tone.” Tone would just mean that you’re flexing all the time. You are also not making your muscles “longer.” They are the length that they are, ya silly goose, because they’re attached to your bones at each end.
And you’re not making them “leaner” because muscles are made of muscle, and “lean” refers to a lack of body fat. You can lose fat while strength training, but the type of strength training doesn’t really influence this.
What are the real differences between Pilates and weight lifting?
Pilates is a form of strength training that grew out of physical-therapy-like rehab programs for people with injuries. It emphasises core strength, controlled movements, and learning movement patterns — not just moving the most weight or doing the most reps, but moving your body the “right” way. In these respects it’s a lot like certain types of “functional” training done with kettlebells and foam rollers, but with a different repertoire of moves.
Mat Pilates is done on the floor, like yoga, with little to no equipment. There are a ton of free Pilates videos online, ranging widely in quality. Some are just core exercises you do while lying on your back, often mixed with yoga moves, and serious Pilates folks scoff at them. Others are more varied and in-depth.
Then there are classes, often pricey ones, done with equipment. Sometimes you use things like springs anchored to the wall, but the fanciest and trendiest classes are done with something called a Reformer, a machine with a sliding track. We have a brief guide to what to expect at a Pilates class here.
A good Pilates workout will work your muscles, and can contribute to making you stronger over time. Pilates is usually not a good choice if your main goal is to move heavy weights or to build a ton of muscle. People who switch from heavy lifting to Pilates often say they lose muscle mass.
Depending on the kind of classes you take and whether you really try to challenge yourself, you could get anything from an under-dosed, not-very-useful routine to something that builds enough strength to keep you healthy and to feel more functional in everyday life. To be fair, the same is true of a lot of classes and lightweight strength training routines (barre, yoga, classes where you wave dumbbells around). Your results are a combination of whether the class is any good and whether you challenge yourself appropriately.
Is cortisol preventing me from losing weight?
OK, so let’s dig in to the misinformation. The story you’ll hear from a lot of TikTok talking heads is that they used to do heavy lifting and/or high intensity interval training (HIIT), but couldn’t lose weight or weren’t happy with their appearance. They may also note that they were tired or sore or didn’t enjoy their workouts. Then they switched to Pilates and walking, and the weight came right off.
The explanation that’s given — and please remember, this is entirely fiction — is that heavy lifting and HIIT increase levels of a stress hormone in your body called cortisol. Cortisol tells your body to hold on to body fat. (There will probably be some lengthy biochemical mumbo-jumbo details here.) And so doing easier workouts will allow your body to lose weight.
Related, you’ll see influencers talk about how cortisol makes you gain or hold onto weight during certain weeks of the menstrual cycle, thus requiring that you plan your training around your cycle; or that certain foods or lifestyle habits cause “unbalanced hormones” or make you gain weight that they call “cortisol belly.”
It’s true that cortisol levels are associated with stress, that stress is sometimes correlated with weight gain, and that medical conditions that affect cortisol can affect the way your body uses fat and energy. But none of this applies to what you can expect from doing weight training in the gym.
Cortisol levels in the blood are elevated after high intensity exercise, but these levels return to normal within an hour. We also adapt pretty quickly to high intensity exercise, as exercise physiologist John Hough points out here: Work from his research group showed that after 11 days of high-intensity cycling, those transient cortisol spikes got a lot lower. (Other research backs this up.) In other words, we get better at handling physiological stress the more practice we get — which any athlete or trainer could have told you.
The cortisol release that’s triggered by exercise is just not considered to be a significant factor in weight gain, when you talk to actual endocrinologists (hormone specialists) or scientists who study exercise or metabolism. Not to mention that neither Pilates nor strength training are new; if lifting weights caused people to accumulate body fat, this would be a long-understood phenomenon that athletes and coaches would already know how to plan for and work around, and not a shocking new TikTok trend that the world is just now coming to grips with.
If Pilates isn’t special, why do all these women say it worked better for them?
There are a lot of reasons why right now is the perfect moment for this trend to become popular.
One major reason is that it’s a response to a trend that’s been going on for years now, where a thicc body type is in, and heavy lifting has been popularly touted as the way to build your butt. (This trend also includes a ton of misinformation, including the idea that “hip dips” are an aesthetic flaw and that they can be filled in by doing certain exercises; both of these claims are utter bullshit.)
When an idea is popular, being part of the backlash against that idea can boost engagement. I scrolled through a lot of Pilates TikTok to write this article, and this is clearly an opportunity that a lot of influencers are jumping on. One young woman in particular said she saw results from “two weeks of Pilates” that she didn’t see from years of strength training. (I don’t care what you’re doing, two weeks of anything won’t transform your body.) After this video came a flurry of reaction videos with dismissive responses to people who didn’t believe her claim. The algorithm is clearly rewarding her for this — one of her videos was among the top results for my searches about Pilates — but she’s not an expert in exercise, health, or anything else. She posted a video with her highly requested Pilates routine, and by her own admission it’s just a few core exercises she’s picked up from free YouTube videos.
Having also written about TikTok strength training trends, I can pretty much guarantee that many of these people who claim lifting “didn’t work” for them were not lifting heavy or appropriately. Air squats aren’t going to give you a booty, crunches aren’t going to give you abs, exercise doesn’t make you lose weight, and most people who take up strength training use weights far too light to make a difference. Scroll back on any of these Pilates enthusiasts’ profiles and you’ll see their previous workout routines. It’s educational.
Another thing to be aware of is that when somebody tells you what they’re doing now (even assuming they’re telling the truth), their body was largely built by whatever they were doing before. If somebody was lifting heavy, and recently switched to lower intensity exercise, they’re still benefiting from the strength and muscle that they built before.
And, finally: The idea that these folks enjoy their current routine more than a previous one may very well be true. If they were forcing themselves to do HIIT (or other styles of gruelling workouts labelled as HIIT), of course they hated it. HIIT sucks, fake HIIT sucks, and if you’re only doing it because you believe it’s the best way to lose weight, you’re going to resent it for making you suffer and not even working.
Something similar happens with lifting, to be honest: If you’re always in the gym lifting the most you possibly can, you’ll get pretty fatigued. At first it will be easy to go heavier every workout, but pretty soon you’ll reach a point where this doesn’t work anymore. If you follow a well-designed strength training program, you’ll avoid the grinding and frustration, but most people don’t. So — again — switching to a different form of exercise can make you legitimately happier. That’s not because heavy lifting is doomed to make you miserable, but because you got out of a frustrating situation and switched to something you happened to like.
There’s one last aspect to the trendiness of this pro-Pilates moment: Pilates classes are expensive as fuck. Small class sizes and private lessons are part of why it’s so much “better” than other types of training. You get a lot of personal attention and learn to engage your muscles in precisely the way you’re trying to, which can be legitimately helpful. But this comes with a monetary cost. So does the specialised equipment (you won’t find Reformers at Planet Fitness) plus just the cachet of doing an exercise currently popular among rich white women. You pay for all of that.
So to sum up: Pilates is being held up as better than sweating in the gym because it’s trendy and somewhat exclusive; it’s easier and arguably more fun than badly doing the exercise trends that came before it; and it’s also just the hot new thing to talk about on social media. If you prefer Pilates and can afford it, enjoy! But if not, trust me, you aren’t missing out.
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