When it comes to exercise’s effect on the body, not all workouts are the same. Different sports use different muscles. By doing them regularly, you can, to some extent, alter the shape of your body. The following five popular workouts produce very different physiques. By learning how certain types of exercise shape your body, you can choose the workout regime that will give you the results you seek.
If you’ve seen Madonna’s arms or Sting’s lithe frame, you know that yoga, particularly Ashtanga yoga, can contribute to a lean body. Since yoga poses focus on supporting the body’s own weight with the arms, shoulders, core, and legs, yoga can help strengthen and tone the entire body without adding bulk. Yoga practitioners often have increased flexibility and agility since the poses emphasize lengthening and stretching. Since so many poses use the upper body for resistance, the arms particularly benefit from a regular yoga practice.
Ashtanga is one of the more active, aerobic yoga practices, while others like Iyengar and Hatha focus more on holding poses for longer amounts of time and on breathing. As such, practitioners of different types of yoga may develop different body types; the more athletic types of yoga will have you looking most like the stars.
Just as you’d imagine, running is a great way to tone your lower body, including your legs, hips, calves, hamstrings, and glutes. A regular runner—especially a long-distance one—is typically lean. Muscle definition usually results from having a low percentage of body fat rather than from muscle building, per se. Good running posture also results in toned arms and core muscles, though running will not tone these muscles to the extent it will the lower half of the body. Sprinters, who need power over endurance, tend to have larger leg muscles than distance runners do. Overall, running is a great way to burn fat and to tone your lower half, but if you’re looking to bulk up, especially in the upper body, running is probably not the sport for you.
A regular swimmer will develop the characteristic V-shaped body—broad shoulders that taper toward the waist. But swimming is actually a great full-body workout that uses arms, chest, shoulders, stomach muscles, and legs. Swimmers usually have visible muscles but don’t look too bulky or too sinewy. Since the core is engaged with most strokes, a flat stomach is another nice perk of this sport. Although swimming is an intense calorie-burning sport, swimmers tend to have higher percentages of body fat than runners or other endurance athletes do. This may be due to two reasons: in cool water, the body has to work to keep itself warm and will keep a layer of insulating fat, and cool water can stimulate the appetite, so after an intense workout swimmers may consume more calories than they would after other types of workouts.
Pilates is focused on two goals—increasing core muscle strength and achieving spinal alignment. As such, regular Pilates-goers might tone some of the lesser-known muscles like the erector spinae (a muscle along the back of the spine) but will also get nice-looking internal and external obliques (sides of the abdomen) and, quite possibly, a robust six-pack.
Pilates is a resistance-based workout rather than an aerobic one, so although you won’t reap the same cardiovascular benefits as you do running, Pilates’ emphasis on spinal alignment and core strength leads to better posture and a tighter, more defined physique.
A great cardiovascular and calorie-burning exercise, cycling can help strengthen calves, quads, hamstrings, and to a lesser extent, the upper torso. Most regular cyclists have low body fat; professionals often have a skinny upper body with large thighs and glutes built up from powering up hills. However, you’re likely to see recreational cyclists in all shapes and sizes, and extra weight can even assist in downhill speed.
Unless you develop a long-term, regular practice, most sports won’t dramatically change your body composition. But the most important thing is to do what you like—and your body will follow.