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Integrative Health
|personal story

My Experience Switching From Pilates To Weight Training + Tips

Hannah Frye
Author:
September 27, 2023
Hannah Frye
Assistant Beauty & Health Editor
By Hannah Frye
Assistant Beauty & Health Editor
Hannah Frye is the Assistant Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.S. in journalism and a minor in women’s, gender, and queer studies from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Hannah has written across lifestyle sections including health, wellness, sustainability, personal development, and more.
Image by Studio Firma / Stocksy
September 27, 2023
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I was an avid pilates-goer for five years straight. I’d pop into reformer classes, practice at-home mat pilates, and sprinkle in a yoga class when I could. Over time, though, I started to find myself unhappy with this routine and its (lack of) results. I knew weight training could help me gain strength and muscle definition, but I was hesitant to give it a try. 

Part of me just didn’t want to start the journey to learn something new. I also had the common fear that I’d grow muscles bigger than I wanted.

However, I decided to take the leap and experiment with weight training six months ago. Here's an account of my transition, results, and tips that I wish I had known earlier. 

Why swap weight training for pilates?

For years, I went to countless studios, tried online courses, and pieced together my own pilates workouts, yet I was still feeling uninspired. The workouts started to bore me, which made me less motivated to engage in exercise at all. 

In addition, I wasn’t feeling much stronger or noticing increased muscle definition. While my motive wasn’t to fully transform my body visually, I still wanted to see or feel something, given that I was putting money and effort into the process. 

On the topic of money, pilates became quite an expensive hobby after moving to New York City from a small town in California. Reformer classes were undoubtedly my favorite, but they typically charge about $30 a class here, which is beyond what I wanted to pay for the sake of working out. Still, I struggled to get past my fear of “bulking up,” so to speak, so for a while, I just sat in the exercise discontentment.

But then, I began to notice a trend in my job as a mindbodygreen editor: Most experts I interviewed for articles and many of the guests on the mindbodygreen podcast reiterated that weight training will not inherently bulk you up, even if the stigma is widespread. 

Plus, as Nike Master Trainer and Hyperice Ambassador, Betina Gozo, told me, the benefits of muscle mass far surpass your physical appearance. Simply being able to keep up with daily activities and balance are worthwhile reasons to lift weights.

"I always advocate for pilates to be a complement to a weight lifting program versus being the only thing you do," Gozo told me. "As we age, our bone density and muscle mass decrease, but adding a heavy load to that can help keep them strong." In fact, a 2022 study1 found that strength training can help prevent sarcopenia, or age-related muscle loss. And the longevity benefits don't stop there. A systematic review from the same year found that just 30-60 minutes of strength training per week reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

All this expert guidance had me sold on a new routine. But there were so many pieces to the muscle mass puzzle, and I definitely wasn't going to start by lifting 100-pound dumbbells or eating above my weight in protein. So, I set out on a more gradual journey with weight training in pursuit of feeling stronger, defining my muscles, and sparking inspiration in movement again. 

How I got started weightlifting

My first step was signing up for a complimentary personal training session at my gym. I came armed with a list of my goals, what I’ve tried in the past, and what I wanted to learn. When I arrived, I asked my trainer to teach me how to use some of the machines so I could have at least a little bit of experience with supervision. They also checked my form on basic workouts like squats and bicep curls. 

My trainer recommended I split my workouts into upper body days and lower body days since I was committed to weightlifting 3-4 days a week—but to be clear, there's an array of options to choose from in terms of scheduling your workouts.

Gozo recommends splitting up the upper body workouts to keep the pushing motion exercises separate from the pulling exercises, for example. For the lower body, she likes to keep hinge exercises separate from knee-dominant exercises (this is a great tip for anyone with sensitive knee joints). But still, it's all about what works best for you. In my experience, I liked keeping my upper and lower body days separate and simple, but I may decide to switch that up later on.

After my intro session, I made a few buddy-system visits to the gym. I don’t know about you, but the thought of walking into a new gym by myself made me feel nervous, so I enlisted the help of some friends who regularly visit the gym to show me around and make me feel more comfortable—and it did just that. 

After just two or three workouts, I felt confident walking into the gym by myself and following a routine I made on my notes app. Here's what that entails.

What my workouts look like

With the help of my trainer, some personal research, and plenty of trial-and-error experimentation to find what I liked, I came up with a routine that I’ve stuck with. 

Per expert recommendations, I kept most exercises to three sets of 10 repetitions. Once I could do the exercise with ease, I’d bump up the weight. Now, I don’t work myself to the point where I literally drop the weight on the ground (dangerous), but rather to the limit of completing the repetition correctly—if I had to sacrifice my form, that told me I should stick with lighter weights. 

I always begin and end my workout routine with stretching. I’ve skipped it once or twice, and I could definitely feel it the next day.

A quick disclaimer before I jump into my routines: I definitely don’t do the same routine every single time. On some days, I have less energy so I keep my workouts quick so I don’t overextend myself. Some weeks I only practice strength training once or twice and add in a yoga class (a regular occurrence during my menstrual phase); other weeks, I’m too busy to even reach three workouts. I try to listen to my body and give it the rest it needs so I can perform my best the next time I go. 

Here are some of my favorite exercises from experience so far: 

Upper body & core

  • Bicep curls 
  • Seated row machine 
  • Lat pull-down machine 
  • Push-ups
  • Cable tricep rope push-downs
  • Plank up-downs
  • Side planks
  • Crunches
  • Leg raises

Lower body

  • Bulgarian split squats
  • Hip thrusts
  • Leg press machine
  • Abductor machine
  • Adductor machine
  • Calf raises

You might be thinking: These sound pretty basic, right? But for me, these simple workouts have been the most effective and the most enjoyable. Everyone's ideal workout routine will look different, and this is just what works for me.

The top benefits of my new routine

Now to the fun part: My results. 

I didn’t begin to see a significant change in muscle definition for about three months—which is pretty normal for new exercise routines. However, that time was packed with other benefits that were even better. Here are all the perks I've noticed so far. 

1.

The feeling of improvement

First of all, I felt stronger every week and had a major sense of accomplishment when I’d reach for a slightly heavier weight and get through my reps. Was it always easy? No, of course not. But walking out of the gym, I felt proud of myself and grateful for my body’s abilities, which made the process even more fulfilling. 

2.

More movement autonomy 

I recently moved into a new apartment, which required lifting a seemingly endless amount of heavy boxes and moving items up five flights of stairs. I did a lot of it on my own—something I doubt I could have done before I started weight training. 

The experience taught me how much independence I’ve gained since starting my new gym routine. I've learned firsthand how great it feels to not have to ask a friend or my partner for help with heavy boxes (though the couch is a different story; I’m not a superhero).

3.

Confidence in the gym

Now that I’ve been in the gym for six months, I find myself approaching new machines and new movements with curiosity, not insecurity. My time in the gym has taught me one thing for sure: Nobody really cares what you’re doing, just as you don’t care what they’re doing. 

I find myself approaching new machines and new movements with curiosity, not insecurity.

I also realized that people looking around the gym in between sets is kind of unavoidable unless you scroll on your phone during your rest time, which I don’t love to do. I’ve learned to take those awkward eye contact moments with a grain of salt, as my eyes are bouncing around the room just like everyone else's.

4.

More time for myself & my social life

When I was only doing pilates and yoga, I felt the need to schedule in movement five or six days a week. While this wasn’t a requirement by any means, it was just what made me feel the best at the time. Now that my workouts are more intense, I stick with three or four days a week, meaning more time to spend with friends or resting solo.

Not to mention, my workouts are about 45 minutes to an hour in length, so I’m not spending 90 minutes in a class after ending the work day at 6 p.m. This means I’m back from the gym earlier, which allows me to eat dinner earlier and wrap up my day just a bit earlier, too. Cheers to more sleep.

5.

Body confidence

I wasn’t unhappy with how my body looked before weight training, but as I mentioned earlier, I personally wasn’t seeing any increased definition with pilates. But after just three months of weight training, I noticed my entire body looked more toned, especially my arms and my thighs. 

But here’s the thing: Body confidence is about so much more than just how you look, at least in my experience. Now that I feel stronger and know I’m doing my body a favor by incorporating weight training into my wellness routine, I feel more confident as well—a positive ripple effect. 

Tips from experience

Now I’m no personal trainer, so I can’t deliver expert tips on things like form or how to build your routine. However, I do want to share some tips on starting a new weightlifting routine that I've found most helpful: 

  1. Prioritize protein: As a vegetarian, getting enough protein can feel tricky to me. This is why I made it one of my goals to meal prep more plant-based protein sources like tofu, lentils, tempeh, roasted chickpeas, etc. during the week. I also drink a protein shake before heading to the gym. I've found this makes a huge difference in how I feel during my workout and helps me build lean muscle mass
  2. Experiment with workout times: I started this journey working out in the morning, but quickly switched to an evening schedule. In my experience, I felt much stronger in the evening than I did in the morning—this won’t be true for everyone, but it’s what worked best for me. If you're new to weightlifting, I'd recommend trying out a few different schedules and seeing what fits. 
  3. Know your limits (or try to learn them): You don’t have to go to the gym 3-4 days a week or lift super heavy weights to start on your journey. Meet yourself where you are right now and do what you can. If you push yourself too hard, you may risk an injury.
  4. Bring a friend: At first, I felt so much safer entering the gym with a friend by my side. If you know someone who already practices weight training or someone who may be interested in it, bring them with you. The buddy system is a great way to face your fears with support. Plus, it’s a fun way to bond. 
  5. Refresh your workout wardrobe: If getting a new pair of leggings will motivate you to embark on a new workout journey, it just might be worth it. In my opinion, I feel a whole lot different starting my workout in an outfit I feel comfortable and confident in. Maybe I'm just a fan of athletic clothes, but hey, whatever works, right?
  6. Be patient: You won’t be able to go up in weight overnight or see increased muscle definition after just one week. I've found the process of building muscle takes time, so remember that the benefits of exercise extend far beyond what you can see on the outside. Even if you don’t feel like you’re improving quickly, just scheduling movement into your day is great for your overall health. 
  7. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing: I still book the occasional pilates class and visit my yoga studio here and there. Why? Because I enjoy it and sometimes I crave lower-intensity movement. Listen to your body and engage in exercise that brings you joy. Just because you add weight training to your routine doesn’t mean you have to abandon other forms of movement. It's all healthy.

The takeaway

After switching from pilates to weight training I’ve gained confidence, autonomy, strength, and fulfillment in my workout routine. If you’re considering dabbling with weight training but don’t know where to start, check out this list of 33 different exercises both with and without equipment to get you started. 

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