Branching out beyond the adorable-yet-small-thinking tiny tots with their eyes all aglow crowd, Santa Claus made a pit stop at the YMCA this year. In an effort to reach an older and more lucrative crowd, while coal was not on the agenda – although I’m sure the resourceful and charitable Y folk would have found some use for it that would not have ended in pollution (new class! Functional fitness by pitching coal!) – lots of good fitness girls and boys were rewarded with exercise toys galore. A full line of TRXs were hung by the chimney with care and visions of kettlebells danced in the air. (And that, friends, is the closest to poetry I will ever get. I hope you enjoyed it.)
New fitness gadgets! Be still my heart. As you will recall, the versatile TRX is my number one recommendation for people looking for a home or traveling strength training system and kettlebells are one of the best workouts combining strength training and cardio that I’ve ever tried. So I was very excited to see that the fitness director was offering free classes throughout the month of February in not only the TRX and kettlebells but also something else I’ve long fantasized about: the Pilates Reformer. I promptly signed up all the Gym Buddies and myself for the Reformer and the kettlebells classes. (Seeing as my TRX Great Fitness Experiment was so recent, I didn’t do that class.) I was specifically interested in pitting these two classes back to back – on the same day, even – as I get so many questions on this website about the opposing training methodologies that underlie each type of training.
First up was kettlebells. My number one complaint about my Great Fitness Kettlebell Experiment last September was that I never got any live instruction with the little iron wonders and while they have similar properties to a dumbbell, they are not used in the same way a dumbbell is. Hours of reading and Go Fit! videos and online tutorials by the KB Queen notwithstanding, I still felt like I would have used them better with a little in-person help. Enter my free lesson.
It started off well with Gym Buddy Allison and I forgetting that I had signed us up for the class. Thankfully Krista was on the ball and reminded us by shooting emphatic looks at us through the studio windows until we clued in. We made it in at the last second. Warm-ups were light floor aerobics, entertaining mostly because Allison forgot she wasn’t in Hip Hop Hustle and did a very cool dip in the middle of her grapevine left. Which would’ve looked cool if she weren’t the only one dipping. And if we’d had Turbo Jennie’s disco ball going. As it was, we just giggled a lot.
The class itself was a 30-minute butt-kicker. I knew the power of kettlebells to get the heart rate pumping but it was even better having someone else kick my butt rather than me yelling random instructions at the Gym Buddies. I completely pitted out my shirt in the first 10 minutes. The rest was just sweaty gravy. In addition to the KB swings, lunges and presses that we were used to, we got to try out a few new moves, my favorite being the one where you hold the handle and rotate the ‘bell around your head. I believe the move was called an “around the world” and not only was it a great shoulder burn but it was also good for my ego. (My head being the world. Get it??) My only complaint with the class was that the instructors didn’t do much to teach proper kettlebell form resulting in one Gym Buddy with bad back pain, a common first-time kettlebell complaint. Although the teacher later told me that in the paid classes, emphasizing and correcting proper form would be a priority.
The underlying principle of kettlebells, as I understand it, is twofold: a) whatever you do, keep moving and b) lift heavy. Other proponents of the lift-heavy and don’t-rest-between-sets crowd include my fave The Monkey Bar Gym, my love-to-hate CrossFit and traditional body builders everywhere. They promise a lean, cut, muscular look sculpted in a short but intense workout. You remember CrossFit chick right?
On the complete other end of the fitness spectrum is the Pilates Reformer. The underlying principles of Pilates include breathing, centering, concentration, control, precision and flowing movement. Less explicitly stated is the reliance on higher reps and lower weight with resistance provided primarily by the person’s body weight and the Reformer machine. Proponents of this school of thought include the ubiquitous Tracey Anderson (trainer of Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow and author of last year’s Ballerina Fitness Experiment). Anderson recommends never lifting any weight more than 3 pounds, doing lots of dance cardio and the Pilates Reformer at least twice a week.
Being leery of celebrity trainer types, I was excited to see what our Y Pilates Reformer instructor would have to say on the subject. Long, lean & toned – the quintessential Pilates bod – she made a good argument in favor of Pilates without even saying a word. When I asked her what her personal workout routine looked like she answered that, like Anderson, she advocates at least two days a week on the Reformer all though she did accede that for some of us that might be cost prohibitive. In addition she does a couple of mat Pilates classes and occasionally mixes it up with Free Motion machines (strength machines that focus on weight training without limiting your range of motion like traditional weight machines do) and some cardio on the elliptical.
The workout was quiet and relaxed compared to the Kettlebell class we had just completed and yet my muscles, especially my core, still quaked with each exertion. Rather than motion, there was a lot of emphasis on control and synchronizing the movements with our breathing. My favorite move was a sliding plank that hit everything from my core to my butt to my shoulders. We only had to do six reps and I grateful for that as I was quite sure I could not have eked out even one more. It doesn’t help that the Reformer even looks like a medieval torture device.
After the workout, I hit the teacher with the question I’d been waiting all day to ask – one that I get from you guys with some frequency – “Do you think that Pilates and yoga on their own are enough strength training?” Her answer? “Yes.” While she didn’t specifically speak against traditional weight lifting, like Anderson does, she did say that she has gotten great results for herself and her clients with just Pilates. It made me think Experiment Time! (Anyone have a free Reformer they want to lend me for a month?? I’ll take really good care of it and promise to never ever hang my clothing on it or make jokes about the Bowflex in its presence!)
The False Dichotomy
Despite the title of my post, I do believe there is room in a person’s training regimen for both kettlebells and Pilates if they so wish. I thoroughly enjoyed both classes and would do either one again in a heartbeat (especially when my money from Nigeria comes through!) However, it seems to me that people tend to gravitate towards one methodology over the other. Some people just seem to enjoy lifting hard and heavy while others really like slower and lighter. For myself, if left to my own devices, I would do yoga all day every day and nothing else. Sadly, my genetics do not seem to agree with my idea of a yoga body. And let’s be honest, I’m way too ADD to stick with one thing.
So what is it for you? Do you prefer the kettlebell way of working out or the Pilates method? Or do you consider yourself a jack of all fitness trades? Do you think Pilates/yoga is enough when it comes to strength training? Anyone else want Gwyneth Paltrow to just shut up already about how “normal” and “average” she is and just admit she’s got rockstar genes and piles of cash and she likes it?