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Got a question about some aspect of mind-body-spirit fitness? Ask! It can be as earthly as "Can a heart monitor really enhance my workout?" (the short answer to that is yes) or as heady as, "Don't I need to sell all my worldly goods and go live on a mountain top to find enlightenment?" (the short answer here is no). Needless to say, we can't answer every question we receive, but we will take one every month and answer it here. If you've got a burning need to know about something, email us, and you may find your query featured next time around.


I want to tone my arms, shoulders, and back. Will doing Pilates five times a week accomplish this or should I add additional free weight exercises? And since Pilates focuses on "elongating" muscles, will traditional free weights negate the process?

(Article continued below.)

Pilates primarily focuses on strengthening your core muscles, meaning the muscles in your trunk. This includes all the muscles in your abdominal region - both the visible rectus abdominis (that famous "six-pack"), and the unseen, but highly important stabilizer, the transverse abdominis. Pilates also works the obliques, your lower back and your hip flexors. It will also give your glutes tone, lengthen the muscles in your thighs, and strengthen the muscles in your upper back and intercostals (those little muscles in your rib cage). While you'll get great posture and a strong midsection, unfortunately, most Pilates exercises do not do a whole lot for your arms and shoulders. If you want to tone up these areas you will have to supplement your Pilates workouts with other exercises.

Free weights are an effective way to quickly tone up your arms and shoulders. You can do traditional bicep curls and tricep kickbacks for your arms, and dumbbell raises, rows and lateral raises for your shoulders. You can also do upper body exercises with just your body weight - the classic push-ups and tricep dips still work! In addition, you might want to consider Power Yoga, which develops and requires upper body strength (but the poses that work your upper body will actually be easier more quickly if you toss in some free weight exercises on your off days). The important thing to remember is to stretch when you're done working out. It's true that weight training can shorten your muscles while strengthening them. People who spend serious time in the weight room sometimes do have impaired flexibility, but that's because they want big muscles, not necessarily long, supple muscles. You can keep this from happening by using lighter weights - light enough so that you can do 10 - 12 reps per set before pooping out - and, most importantly, by stretching when you're done with the weight training. Spend serious time stretching your arms, shoulders and upper body - at least ten minutes, 15 if you can fit it in - and your muscles will stay long, lean and flexible.

Keep in mind that Pilates was originally created for people with injuries and for dancers - back in the day, it wasn't meant as a stand-alone exercise. Up until recently, people most often did it to either improve their form in another activity, or to repair damage done by other exercises. Pilates is great for shaping your body, balancing your muscles and making you more flexible. It gives attention to your stabilizing muscles, which are often ignored by other exercise styles. It does some strengthening, especially when it comes to your trunk section, but its primary purpose is not to make your legs strong. (Think of a dancer - maybe Pilates gave her thighs that nice shape, but it was all that jumping around on stage that made them so powerful!) So you may want to do a few squats or hit the leg machines while you're at the gym. Just remember to take a day off between weight training and working those same muscles in your Pilates session. And stretch! Traditional resistance exercise will make your body strong, while Pilates will refine those muscles and make them long and lean. You get the best of both worlds. The two styles don't negate each other at all - they complement each other!

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