Should Cyclists Do Yoga or Pilates? I say Neither

Forward flexed spine

I get asked all the time about yoga and Pilates, and is it good for you. This is a tricky question, and one that I that usually answer with “no.”


They are two disciplines that have been around for a very long time that have provided a lot of benefit to quite a few people. I think if you like them, and want to do them, then go ahead. But as supplements to strength training. If you’re going to do it, then you also need to know what’s on the flip side of coin.


Yoga and Pilates very often put participants in positions that exaggerate cervical and lumbar spinal flexion, poor abdominal wall activation and improper lower body joint stabilization. It doesn’t matter how good the movement, if your muscles don’t fire correctly you’ll develop improper motor patterns. Spinal flexion done long term can lead to a serious injury.


Don’t they help with flexibility? It depends, your muscles tighten up for a reason, and you can’t add flexibility without building stability at the same time. Flexible unstable joints are always a recipe for disaster. Plus most people have over active hip flexors and abdominal walls leading them to think if their abs are burning and legs are crushed the next day, they are on the right track. We know that to very often not be the case.


Don’t they improve your joint range of motion? Not necessarily. If you try to take your body through a greater range of motion than your joint stability allows, you will end up injured. Not might, maybe, or may, but will. I know a ton of ex dancers and gymnasts whose bodies have the stability of a skyscraper built on a foundation of toothpicks. But I’ll tell you what, they are some of the most flexible people I know. Of course, they also have the least stable joints of anyone I know as well.


This is why I will fight tooth and nail to keep my daughter away from ballet and gymnastics. Keep your couches vacant people, I may need to sleep on them in a few years!


Doesn’t Pilates build core strength? Yes, and from what I’ve witness first hand, it can be at the expense of total body strength and power.


But what about power yoga and power pilates? Great marketing, and an oxymoron. To build power, you need to move a load at the greatest speed possible as your nervous system tries to turn as many muscle fibers as it can recruit.


Squat jumps, sprints, KB swings and MB slams take place for a very short amount of time done as fast as you can possibly move. Once you do that, if you’ve done the right prep work, you will get faster and more explosive.


You need to get off the floor to work the core because that’s how its designed to work: moving us safely away from gravity into an upright position with all of the joints working together to produce movement. You don’t get better at functional movement lying face up on the floor flexing your spine forward or on a spring loaded machine.


“There are only so many bends or a ‘fatigue life’, in your spinal disks,” says Stuart M. McGill, a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo. “Inside each disk is a mucus-like nucleus. and if you keep flexing your spine and bending the disk over and over again, that nucleus slowly breaches the layers and causes a disk bulge, or a disk herniation.”


“A herniated disk won’t show through your swimsuit, but it’s no fun, and can cause persistent back and leg pain, weakness, and tingling, says McGill (Stop Doing Sit-Ups: Why Crunches Don’t Work Kate Dailey).”


So if this in fact is the case, why would someone who sits in the two positions pictured for long periods of time (sometimes up to 8 hours in both!), want to do things that further strengthen and lengthen the body in those directions? Looking at the two images, there really isn’t a lot of difference other than the legs moving up and down.


From the Website:

“The Pilates method is often the target of criticism from the medical community because it’s such a flexion dominant form of exercise. Pilates is over 80% flexion and when flexion is taught poorly, all the problems that accompany compression in the spine are exacerbated. That ain’t good. (Flexion: The Good, Bad & Contra-indicated,)”


This means that hip flexors, abdominal wall, upper torso and neck muscles are in a constant shortened state get worked further in that direction. Not only does this affect those areas of the body, the chest cavity very often develops dysfunctional breathing patterns that causes a lot of other things to take place and go south.


The phrase when taught poorly is the key to the above statement. With that being said, if Pilates is 80% flexion, and the general public is already very prone to both kyphotic and lordotic spinal column positions, why risk it? There’s a reason that people in IPF group classes only get three to four exercises when they come in. We can monitor form more effectively, keep people safer and they get stronger faster.


The people who have come from the other two disciplines have had low back pack pain doing a plank (which, when done correctly isn’t a bad choice to program), a single leg bridge with zero glute function (very oftern with hamstrings cramping) and only activation of the upper abdominal wall (which hammers the lumbar spine) to stabilize their trunk when core strength is required. Their hip flexors are also extremely overactive which in turn makes the above mentioned happen.



But what about the cobra position?

Logic would dictate that this exercise opens up the front half of the body to undo cycling, right? Wrong. Most people can’t differentiate between spinal erectors doing the work they should be doing and relaxing the glutes, abs and hip flexors.


If you can’t do this without “turning off” your abdomen and hip flexors, this exercise won’t do you any good. I know this first hand because I’m working on this very thing right now.

My body has over activated my hip flexors and abs to do the work the muscles in my low back should be doing. This lead to some serious nastiness in my lumbar spine, improper breathing patterns that tightened up my thoracic spine trashing my hip mobility, excessively flexed psoas muscles and a loss of mobility in my thoracic spine.

My reward for all of that was an overactive upper abdomen, non existent spinal erectors and under active glutes. What’s fixing this? Increasing my thoracic mobility by extending my spine, and not doing anything that looks like a crunch.



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Never attempt any new exercises mentioned in the VelowReviews blog without a thorough evaluation from a physician, personal trainer, strength coach, athletic trainer, physical therapist or sports chiropractor.