Let me cut to the chase: Men should train differently than women in Pilates.
Yes, both sexes learn the exact same exercises, but the emphasis on the what and how they’re done are different. This isn’t sexist, it’s common sense. Not only are their goals different, but gender and lifestyle differences present a unique set of challenges that may warrant a different focus.
Biomechanically speaking, women come into a Pilates studio with a few commonalities:
- Excessive anterior pelvic tilt
- Loose ligaments that cause hypermobility around the joints, particularly the hips and shoulder girdle
- Naturally wider pelvis (and higher Q-angle)
- More prone to knee injuries due to the Q-angle mentioned above
- Inactive glutes and hamstrings
- Weaker upper body
- Weak or dysfunctional pelvic floor post-pregnancy
- Weaker abdominal muscles due to pregnancy
- Changing hormones at different stages of life
Men on the other hand, have a little less to worry about, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have their challenges, too. For instance:
- Poor posture (also true for women but just different)
- Excessively stiff or tight hips
- Lack of general flexibility
- Overactive chest and upper back muscles
- Strong upper body and weaker posterior chain
- Thicker torso and thicker/stronger core musculature
- Less control of smaller muscles and/or lack of stability around the joints
- Tighter through the chest and shoulder girdle
- Usually taller or have a wider build then most women (broad shoulders, long femurs, big ribcage, etc.) so adjustments are needed depending on the equipment you use
Key Areas of Pilates Performance for Men
The majority of my male clients are strong and athletic with a long history of weightlifting, sports, and sports-related injuries under their belt. Their goals are usually performance or rehab-based, and rarely do young men venture into a Pilates studio all on their own (Thanks to wives and girlfriends for dragging them in!).
With this in mind, I focus on a few key performance areas for the strong, athletic male body: Balance, Core Connection, and Flexibility. These apply for men who are doing Pilates for performance, pain management, or injury prevention like client Danny here. He used Pilates to help him manage his pain and keep him feeling good doing his other activities, which include surfing, CrossFit, and being “Fun Uncle of the Year”.
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Pilates client and CrossFit athlete Danny stumbled upon Pilates years ago after a serious motorcycle accident. We're working together to help him move more efficiently and to keep his body in good alignment so he can keep crushing those WODs without exacerbating past injuries. Today's session we worked on retraining the pelvic floor muscles, which he can explain as a feeling of "holy sh*t". 😜
Generally speaking, men tend to demonstrate less balance than women. I suspect it has to do with a bit of the following:
- Men are less likely to have trained in dance or sports that require barefoot training (i.e. gymnastics) from an early age
- Men are typically training in the saggitial plane through their strength training careers, which can start as early as high school
- Muscular imbalances due to excessive emphasis training a single body part over another, like upper body versus lower body #DontSkipLegDay
To reinforce balance, I introduce my male clients to single leg exercise almost right away. In the Wunda Chair, exercises like the Single Leg Press, Mountain Climbers, Side Step Forward, require an unusual amount of concentration, which is great because I get to focus the client on driving through the big toe, pushing the heel down into the Chair, knitting their ribs in to establish a little more core connection and finding balance from there.
Teaching balance in Pilates is rarely about how to execute the exercise but rather, how to hone in on the details that create balance.
Here is Coach Jesse practicing his side step-ups on the Chair. You can tell by how serious he looks that this exercise is not easy. For one, he’s working on a single leg in a turn out position. This is an unnatural position for most people, especially men, and the emphasis on the quad and groin is real, my friends.
Teaching Core Connection
Strong dudes have already established a baseline of reliable, predictable strength in the arms, chest, quads and abs. However, what makes a man strong in the weight room is likely what makes him weak in Pilates simply because the the muscles are used differently.
This is why we spend every single session teaching and establishing core connection with exercises that hone in on using the pelvic floor muscles, ribcage placement, and diaphragmatic breathing.
During Footwork on the Reformer, for instance, men will dominate the exercise from their legs. If they have a history of heavy squatting, this pattern is deeply engrained in them so it could take time to unlearn. They might also hold their breath in a lot because that’s what you do to create intra abdominal pressure during a lift.
Side note for instructors: Get to know how your client trains outside of the Pilates studio. Watch them lift, get to know the fundamentals of their sport so you understand how they use their bodies.
The man’s ability to create force or power with his legs ends up being the very thing we have to “unlearn” during Footwork. So here is how I teach them to drive with the stomach rather than legs:
- Put them in a Footwork position with all heavy springs on (I prefer, bird on a perch, heels on, or toes in Pilates V)
- Allow them to try a few reps their way
- Next, remove all the springs and place them in the same position. Hold on to their feet (trust me on this….)
- Make them do the same movement again while cuing “Imagine your legs are connected to the top of your stomach. Push from there and press into all ten toes”
Right away, they’ll notice that pushing off their legs with no springs will send them flying. But if they slow down a little and imagine pushing from the top of the stomach rather than the legs they’ll have more control, more core engagement, and the legs will feel more weightless throughout the movement.
Flexibility, or lack thereof, are among the biggest differences I see among the sexes. Sports, injuries and of course, decades of Chest Day workouts and bicep curls isn’t exactly doing men any favors.
Any man looking to improve his flexibility is looking at a long-term process. Pilates can’t undo 20+ years of poor habits in a few hours! But what we can do to improve flexibility comes down to experimentation and applying modifications as we go.
Learning the Two-Way Stretch is the first step in improving flexibility. I like to bring it up as many times as possible by pointing out which body part is reaching where in certain exercises.
After establishing core connection during Footwork, for example, I’ll teach the two-way stretch by cuing “Lengthen the spine away from your heels as you close the carriage in”, creating the sensation of the body reaching in opposition during the exercise.
Now how about a mat exercise like Spine Stretch Forward? Here’s how to create flexibility there:
- Elevate the hips on a pad to help the client establish better posture in the start position
- If he still struggles to sit up tall in this position, set him up against a wall, pole, or foam roller – anything that will provide external feedback
- Peel the spine off the prop while keeping the low back connected to the prop at all times
- The instructor can place a hand at the crown of the head to help him reach through the head while stretching the low back in the opposite direction
- Avoid hinging at the hips as this is not a hamstring stretch
Side note to instructors: Teach the goal of the exercise! What do you want them to get out of it?
While flexibility takes time to develop, any exercise that emphasizes the two-way stretch or gets their spine moving will have men feeling longer and taller right away. Athletic men engaged in weight lifting and may sit long periods of time are coming in with compressed spines, so Pilates feels really good right away even if overall flexibility isn’t quite there yet.