The Real Deal About Pilates and Flexibility

What Really Happens When You Stretch

All About Stretching
Stretching and Flexibility. Getty

When we talk about stretching and flexibility, we are usually talking about two distinct measurements: how far an individual muscle or muscle group can stretch, and how much range of motion (ROM) is available at any given joint. Within a Pilates workout, each exercise consists of both strengthening and stretching elements. 

Types of Stretching Exercises

Static Stretches
Stretching comes in several packages.

Static stretching calls for muscles to be extended and then held for a prolonged period of time. Static however, doesn't imply statuesque. As you hold the stretch, you can use your breath to help you release the muscles. As you feel a muscle relax the stretches become deeper and more effective. However,  some research shows that long, static stretches over 60 seconds can impede muscle strength and power when exercises are performed after this kind of stretching. Interestingly, although static stretches used to be performed with aggressive bouncing, that technique has been shown to be not only ineffective but dangerous to the tissues. Pilates, unlike yoga, does not typically include static stretching.

Dynamic Stretching
To prepare for physical activities that require power and speed, try dynamic stretching. Here, muscles and joints are loosened up with movements that are similar to those that will be repeated with more intensity later.

Dynamic stretching may start with some light aerobic activity, like easy jogging, to get the blood and breath going, then move on to movements that take the joints through a larger range of motion like arm circles and leg swings. Dynamic stretching movements should be controlled and directed toward stretching all muscle groups that will be used in the activity one is preparing for.

Pilates makes routine use of dynamic stretching particularly when using Pilates equipment which allows for expansion and contraction of heavy springs in coordination with muscle lengthening and shortening.
Learn 5 Dynamic Stretching Exercises

PNF Stretching
One other type of stretching that is popular in the fitness world is called proprioceptive muscular facilitation (PNF). In PNF stretching, there is an alternation between stretching a muscle and then, while it is in the stretched position, contracting it against some resistance that inhibits movement in response to the contraction. PNF stretching is not as easy and safe as static stretching and is best learned with the aid of a fitness professional. In a Pilates session, PNF style stretching is often approximated by a timed use of muscle contractions against expanding springs. PNF is best used to build strength by making use of what is known as the "stretch reflex".

How to Stretch Safely

Warm Up Before Stretching
It used to be that people thought they should stretch before any other part of their workout. However, research has shown that it is better to stretch muscles once they are already warmed up. This is true for all kinds of stretching - static, dynamic, and PNF.

Light stretching can happen after the initial warm-up phase of a workout and more intensive stretching has the most impact when it follows a workout. A good warm-up reflects the types of movements that are going to be performed later.

Increase Your Range of Motion
Your joints have certain directions in which they will allow more movement than others. Your leg will bend forward at the hip more readily than it will bend backward, for example. Respect your body's limitations. That said, you do want to take advantage of the full range of motion that is naturally available. So, be sure to stretch all muscle groups, and make sure that you are stretching in all directions - gently exploring and testing the full range of a joint.

How developed your muscles are will play a part in how flexible you are. When muscles are over-developed there is almost always a reduction in flexibility. At the same time, some muscles may be weak from under-use. A balance of strength and flexibility is ideal.

Choose Stretching Exercises Wisely
Static stretching is has been shown to be both safe and effective but can reduce power output if performed before an athletic event. Dynamic stretching works well in advance of demanding activity. PNF stretches are typically done with the assist of a partner, a teacher or with a prop that allows for energy exchange like a spring. Select your stretching mode according to what comes during or after for optimal results.

Pilates and Stretching Exercises

Pilates exercises are dynamic. They are performed with the six Pilates principles - centering, concentration, control, precision, breath, and flow - which keep them moving along in a safe way. Pilates is also an example of a method of exercise focused on uniform development of the muscles. Pilates avoids over development which might limit flexibility. There is, in Pilates, a considerable focus on joint stability and integrity, and you rarely see the floppy, rag doll kind of flexibility that some forms of exercise promote. The intensity and pace of Pilates exercises can be adjusted to the needs of the moment, generally increasing in intensity of stretch and range of motion as the workout proceeds and fitness levels increase.


Does pre-exercise static stretching inhibit maximal muscular performance? A meta-analytical review. Simic L, Sarabon N, Markovic G.

Effect of acute static stretch on maximal muscle performance: a systematic review. Kay AD, Blazevich AJ.

Reasons Not to Stretch New York Times (blogs), Gretchen Reynolds

Sit-and-reach flexibility and running economy of men and women collegiate distance runners.