As usual, it depends. The most important factor when determining what type of activity to engage in when you have back pain is which type of movement feels best.

In this article, I’m going to answer which type of movement is best for low back pain (if there is one), and whether or not there is a definite difference between Pilates and Yoga for back issues. 

pilates studio

Tables of contents:

  • Is pilates or yoga best for lower back pain?
  • What are the benefits of pilates?
  • What are the downsides of pilates?
  • What are the benefits of yoga?
  • What are the downsides of yoga?
  • Is there a “best” type of movement or exercise for lower back pain?
  • How to modify an exercise or movement routine if you are having pain.

Is Pilates or Yoga best for lower back pain?

This is a loaded question. In short, neither is better than the other. It comes down to what feels best for you and what you feel confident about. 

If every time you do a pilates class and you have worse pain after, then it’s possible you should either rest for a couple of days, or modify your exercise routine as detailed in this article.

The same sentiment applies to Yoga. If after every yoga class or session you are feeling horrible, you should either rest from Yoga for a few days, modify your activity levels as described by the article shared in the link above, or change up your exercise routine completely if you’ve exhausted the above suggestions. 

What are the benefits of Pilates?

Generally, people are using a reformer when in a pilates class and these machines are incredibly versatile in terms of what exercises you can complete with them. 

Pilates can certainly help you increase your overall muscular endurance, build bone density, and improve blood markers as all other types of exercise do, as well. Since there is a resistance component to Pilates, it can become quite intense depending on the type of machine you are using, and how much spring resistance you apply to the machine. 

When I’ve done Pilates in the past, I noticed that it was very difficult in terms of muscular endurance, which, for most people, is a great thing to work on. 

What are the downsides of Pilates?

You can only increase the resistance so much. At some point, you will reach a level where the weight is no longer heavy enough to be challenging on a muscular strength level. This doesn’t mean it’s not good for endurance, however building absolute strength is not Pilate’s strong suit. 

For example, if you want to train yourself to be more functional in everyday life, to be able to lift things from the ground, place things overhead, walk up inclines and down declines, pick up kids and grandkids, Pilates will only have so much utility. There will be significantly diminishing returns. 

Additionally, in Pilates, there is generally no practice of these functional movements such as deadlifts, squats, etc. in a standing position. I see this as an inherent limitation of Pilates. 

Another downside is that there is an obsession with posture and making sure it’s “correct.” The reality is that there are many postures that work for people. I’ve had patients with perfect posture who have the worst neck pain imaginable, and then other patients who have what would be classified as “poor posture,” and have no pain. 

An obsession with posture, in my opinion, is focusing on the wrong things and creating fear where it doesn’t need to be. While I understand the sentiment of people trying to improve their posture in order to reduce their risk of injury, there just is no such evidence to suggest this is what’s happening. 

This is a cultural belief that has stuck around for centuries and many people still fall for it. Don’t fall for it any longer.

 

What are the benefits of yoga?

Yoga Pose

For one, consciously focusing on breathing, being present, and working on being and experiencing our bodies is of tremendous benefit. 

This can help with stress, anxiety, depression, and gives us an overall greater sense of fulfillment and purpose. Pilates can also do this, as most forms of exercise can, but the focus on presence and breath is much more common and a core component of yoga. 

In addition to the mental health benefits, yoga also gives tremendous benefits to flexibility, mobility, and bodyweight strength. 

If I were to decide which type of movement would be more beneficial to everyday life, I’d likely say Yoga over Pilates, due to its simplicity and functionality. 

When I say “functionality,” I mean that the movements that are involved likely transfer much more readily to everyday life versus pilates. Yoga is much flowier and works through all planes of motion, including rotation which pilates does not include as much of. 

What are the downsides of yoga?

Similar to Pilates, too much emphasis on posture, and often times people will try to progress too quickly and develop pain and discomfort due to this. 

Also, similar to Pilates, there is a limit to how strong you can become as even in “power yoga,” you are never training with anything heavier than your body weight. This is fine, however, in order to preserve muscle mass for as long as possible, we want to also be practicing lifting heavier weights.

Additionally, and this is my opinion, if you lift weights and learn to lift heavy, the tissues of your body will become much more resilient over time and when you have to lift heavier objects throughout your daily life, like a planter box, dog food, your kids, or something else, your body will already be used to lifting heavy and not freak out when you ask your muscles to contract close to maximal effort. 

I think the downsides of yoga are very minimal and truthfully it can be of the safest and most effective forms of movement that you do on a regular basis. 

Is there a “best” type of movement or exercise for lower back pain?

The simple answer to this question is no. The best type of movement for lower back pain is the one that feels the best to you. 

Walking has the same effect as yoga, pilates, lifting weights, and any combination of those. 

The best solution for lower back pain is choosing a form of movement that you can do that doesn’t feel horrible and allows you to stay active while the back pain resolves on its own.

How to modify an exercise or movement routine if you are having pain?

For this question, please refer to this article and it will give you seven or more options on how to modify your own movement and exercise. 

My goal with this is to help you stay active, even with back pain. 

Summary

  • Yoga or Pilates are both excellent ways to work on improving your overall health and fitness
  • They each can be appropriate for helping with recovery from lower back pain. It depends on the person
  • Modifying your exercise routine and allowing time to reduce symptoms is likely the most important thing you can do to improve.