Pilates & Yoga: Functional or Fitness?

I’m continuing on in my efforts to help you and others understand just why increasing or maintaining function (moving well) is so important for those of us who over fifty years old, where the primary role of fitness increasingly becomes an act of defying gravity or slowing the ticking of one’s age-clock.

Last month I took a stab at showing you the differences between functional movement and fitness exercises by placing them in the context of a spectrum that runs from movement health, through movement quality (or competency), to several degrees of movement quantity (or capacity). Based on a course from Gray Cook, one of the founders of Functional Movement Systems (FMS), I placed functional movement squarely within the “quality” portion of the spectrum, and I placed fitness, specifically general fitness conditioning, within the “quantity” portion of the spectrum. I then wrapped up the column with a question I promised I would address this month:

If quality is a defining characteristic of functional movement, and Pilates and yoga exercises, by design, are taught with particular attention to movement quality, then where on the health -> function -> fitness spectrum do they actually live?

One again, it depends.

Both Pilates and yoga place a premium on movement quality. Each pattern or posture has a set of guidelines or rules tell a person whether they are doing the movement correctly, and a large part of the instructors job is ensuring that the client is “following the rules” of each pattern, partly for safety, but also to guarantee that the client is getting the full benefit form the movement, which might come in the form of increasing strength, endurance, balance, etc. In this sense, Pilates and yoga share a common distinction with the seven patterns of the FMS, and can generally be considered “functional movements.”

It’s fair to say that any system of movement using this criterion, including things like CrossFit and even spinning classes, could be said to be functional as well. To really get a better sense of where a system situates itself in the quality-quantity spectrum, one needs to look at the values espoused by its practitioners and the nature of the thresholds beyond which participants are rewarded. In CrossFit, you need to have “good form” to ensure that you don’t get hurt, but you aren’t rewarded for excellent form. You end up on the leaderboard for lifting more weight, for more reps and sets, in a shorter period of time. In spinning classes like Soul Cycle, you end up on the board for spinning faster with more resistance. In both cases, that’s quantity. 

In Pilates and in yoga, we do multiple reps of exercises and often multiple sets of grouped patterns. In the mat-based versions of both systems, bodyweight and gravity are the two main sources of resistance, but both are open to incorporating props to challenge a client for purpose of building strength and endurance. Pilates uses spring tension on various apparatus to enhance these aims. In this sense, movement quantity or capacity, which is a hallmark of general fitness, applies to both Pilates and yoga. However, when you look at the props that yogis and Pilates veterans give to their peers who have shared a video of themselves demonstrating a sequence, it’s not the completing of a number of repetitions for its own sake that matters, it’s the ability to stabilize, mobilize, and balance beautifully for every single repetition, all variables of movement quality. 

Does this mean that every pattern or posture in Pilates and yoga can be deemed functional? 

Definitely not. Both systems have advanced patterns, like Rockingin Pilates and Scorpion in yoga, that put the spine and hips in extreme extension, well beyond the needs most of us have for a majority of the activities we take part in on a day to day basis (exceptions include Cirque du Soleil performers!). This highlights two other essential aspects of functional movement patterns: 

  • They should aid us in our activities of daily living (ADL)
  • They should act as foundations for more complex or demanding patterns that are part of an activity that we participate in.

There are many exercises within Pilates and yoga that meet both of these added criteria. So, are they functional? Yes. Are they fitness? Yes, but it’s quantity with an emphasis on quality. 

That being said, it’s vital to also understand the distinct differences, in terms of purpose and scope, between Functional Movement Systems and the movement systems of Pilates and yoga. We’ll dive into these in next month’s newsletter.

In the meantime, enjoy the final weeks of summer!

Best wishes for a happy Labor Day,


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