The Art of the Slow Burn: 3 Exercises That’ll Strengthen Your Biggest Weaknesses

Pilates swimmer
Justin Steele for Men's Journal

Much of fitness revolves around the idea of maxing out every time you sweat. There’s this preconception that you’ve got to engage in all-out, high-intensity workouts that push you to the brink of your limits in order to be truly fit. But there’s been a pivot in the industry as of late that recognizes the importance of slowing down. Recovery has been a huge trend in the last few years, with integrated gyms popping up all over the world boasting specialized treatments—like red light therapy, physical therapy, and localized cryotherapy—to help people rehab and train like athletes. But we’ve also seen people seeking out low-impact workouts that target muscle weaknesses and work the entire body without causing a massive strain on all energy systems. One such workout that’s picking up steam is Pilates.

“Pilates, in general, addresses imbalances by focusing on the whole body, with attention to strengthening not only the main muscles, but also the smaller ones that often get ignored in a typical workout or in our daily routines,” says Sylvia Ostrowska founder of Pilates By Sylvia in NYC. “Pilates improves flexibility, strengthens muscles symmetrically, and improves posture, coordination, and balance.” 

Aside from improving your physique and muscle endurance over time, Pilates also makes your body feel great immediately. Exercises that strengthen and stretch your muscles help eliminate pain associated with desk jobs and better prep your body for a run or resistance-training workout. Here, Ostrowska has highlighted three Pilates-inspired moves you can incorporate into your weekly regimen.

1. Pilates Swimming (shown above)

What it works: Posterior chain—back, glutes, shoulders, and hamstrings. This exercise strengthens your low back, including the muscles running along the back of your spine, which contribute to overall spine health, facilitate proper mechanics and posture, and safeguard against injury. Pilates swimming is a great exercise to activate your glutes and loosen up the muscles in your back. Do it as soon as you wake up in the morning to melt away stiffness, after sitting at work all day to lengthen the muscles (this will also take some strain off your neck and shoulders), and perform before a workout to prime your body.

How to do it: Lie on your stomach with legs hip-width apart. Extend your arms forward. Before you initiate the movement, Ostrowska says to emphasize some body cues: Retract your shoulders, pulling the blades down your back (don’t shrug), and engage your abdominals as you gently tuck your tailbone under. Raise your arms and legs at once. Keep your gaze down to keep your neck aligned with your spine. Begin raising your right arm and left leg at the same time, while lowering your left arm and right leg. Then alternate to the other side. Keep reaching your arms and legs away from the center. This is called pulsing. You can pulse slower by lifting once, then switching to the other side, or you can do quicker pulses by doing 2 pumps on each side. Inhale through your nose for 5 pumps, then exhale through your mouth for 5 pumps. Complete 10 reps.

2. Chest Expansion

What it works: Chest expansions are a great exercise to strengthen your upper back and arms and improve posture, Ostrowska says. As the name implies, it opens up the muscles in your pecs, which can unlock pain and tightness through your back, improve your posture, and help optimize shoulder mobility. The beauty of this exercise is its versatility. You can perform it kneeling, standing, or even in a split stance to get your lower body involved. Best of all, you can do it practically anywhere if you have resistance bands, Ostrowska adds. Flat bands or resistance tubes work perfectly (just anchor them to something sturdy); and if you want more of a challenge, use a cable pulley at the gym.

How to: Stand or kneel on the floor, facing the anchor point (of the cable pulley or whatever you’re using to anchor your bands). Hold the ends of the bands in both hands, palms facing each other. Engage your abdominals while gently tucking your pelvis under, keeping your glutes engaged, Ostrowska says. Position your arms straight in front of you and make sure your head is aligned with your spine. Keep your shoulders down and exhale as you press your arms down and straight back behind you. Inhale and return arms slowly to the starting position. Complete 10-15 reps.

3. Pilates Double Leg Stretch

What it works: Abdominals. “Your back and abdominal muscle groups correlate with one other, Ostrowska says. If you’re getting back into a fitness regimen after a hiatus, you can start with this exercise to strengthen your core, she adds. Over time, this will also improve your core stability and endurance—not to mention work on your coordination.

How to do it: Lie on your back. Bring your knees to your chest and wrap your hands around your ankles. Keep your tailbone grounded and press your lower back into the mat as you lift your shoulder blades off the floor. Think about keeping your chest lifted, Ostrowska says. Maintain this curved position throughout the exercise. Inhale through your nose as you reach your arms and legs away from the center on a diagonal. Exhale as you circle your arms out to the sides, pulling your knees to your chest and catching your ankles. Complete 6-10 reps.

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