Let’s assume we’re talking about a Pilates mat class and not a session involving all of the equipment. People are generally more familiar with the class environment because it is more common and much cheaper than having a one-on-one session. Plus, classes are usually complimentary at many gyms with a membership. Now, assuming you are working with a well-qualified instructor (so many techniques fall under the title “Pilates” these days), here are a couple important distinctions between a Pilates class and an Abdominal class.
First, an Abs class will build your stomach muscles very intensely, leaving you noticeably sore and visibly stronger – because you will soon see your developed “6-pack” muscles. These are your rectus abdominus muscles that line the surface of the abdomen. Twisting ab work will strenthen your obliques, the outer more lateral muscles used for rotation. Abs classes target these muscle groups generally by the technique of a contraction or “crunch”, building the muscle fibers in a way that tend to make them shorter and tighter. If your goal is to obtain visible “wash-board” abs, you should take this class. Your stomach will feel very strong and look great. By contrast, Pilates classes focus on a different set of abdominals called the transverse abdominus muscles, which lie deeper in the abdomen and help support the spine. They are found by learning to engage the entire “core” of the body (Joe Pilates called it your “powerhouse”), which includes the deepest muscles of the stomach, lower back, and hips all working together. Using the Pilates abdominals means pulling the muscles deeper into your center, described in ways like “drawing your navel to your spine” or “scooping the muscles in and up under your ribs”. This technique actually lengthens the deep, stabilizing muscles as it strengthens them, thus elongating the waistline while building a stronger framework for your spine. You still work the surface muscles, but they are secondary to the deeper ones.
Another distinction is in the overall purpose of each class. Where as an Abs class is only focused on strengthening the abdominals, a Pilates class is designed to strengthen, stretch, and balance the entire body, beginning with the deepest abdominals and lower back/hip muscles. Your stomach will become long, lean and strong in a more streamlined way. A Pilates class is made up of exercises that create a center of gravity in the body’s core, working from the “inside, out”. The result is that you tone and elongate your entire body while in fact every exercise is a stomach exercise.
Finally, you should know that it may take five to ten Pilates classes before you start to really feel the benefits, where as after a good Abs class you usually experience immediate results in that you feel how hard your stomach just worked. But the muscles being engaged and strengthened in Pilates classes are smaller, harder to access, and take longer to feel. As you continue to develop them, however, these muscles are felt very intensely. And the long-term results of a Pilates class generally extend far beyond strong abdominals – including a strong yet supple spine, nicely toned arms and thighs, improved posture, and an overall higher energy level.