A Guide to the Pilates Reformer

The reformer is an iconic and signature piece of the Pilates equipment inventory.  Its origins come from Joe Pilates who developed the reformer in a British internment camp during WWI.  Since then the Pilates reformer has evolved into a unique piece of equipment, helping to improve strength, stability, posture and balance.  

At Lee Pilates Method, my founding principles are neuromuscular re-education (connecting the brain to specific muscles), breath control, and precision movement. Reformer Pilates puts these founding principles into action and deepens one’s understanding of Pilates.  The reformer will allow you to recruit the appropriate muscles and neutralize overused muscles that can lead to injuries. 

What is the Pilates reformer?

Unlike typical weight machines, the reformer uses springs with a pulley system that offers varying levels of resistance. Here are the main components of the Pilates reformer: 

  •  The reformer mat, called the carriage, is a bed-like platform that rolls on wheels.  You can lie, sit, kneel or stand on the carriage depending on the exercise.  It is connects to the springs which add the resistance.  The shoulder blocks on the carriage keep you stable so that you don’t slide backwards off the carriage.  
  • There is a footbar at the front of the reformer that is used for the feet or hands, based on the exercise. 
  • The reformer also has long straps with handles on them that your feet or hands can be placed into.  The straps attach at the back of the reformer (the opposite end of the footbar) to create the pulley mechanism for resistance.  
  • The springs can be adjusted using the mount for the spring attachments to modify the workout for different skill levels and body types. This is either an adjustable bar or a solid structure to hold the spring hooks and offers different resistance options.  The  resistance created by the springs and straps is used to move the whole body, or just the arms or legs through various exercises.  

Using Springs on the Pilates Reformer

When the amount of spring load is heavy, there is a focus on building strength.  An example would be the Sitting Rowing series with the hands in the straps.  The heavier spring makes the arms work harder against the resistance, building strength and endurance. 

 A light spring load can stimulate the core muscles.  When the carriage is unstable, using a light amount of spring, the exercise activates core muscles to achieve balance and stability.  An example would be Pilates Control Back prep.  In this exercise the light spring load challenges and strengthens the core, shoulders and balance.  

The resistance provided by the reformer helps the brain form a clearer map of the body.  In simple terms this means that the brain learns how to turn on the right muscles for each exercise more consistently.  The outcome is more awareness and control of the body.  Pilates reformer work is low-impact and adaptable to all fitness levels.  It benefits everyone from teenagers to seniors and elite athletes to people with a more sedentary lifestyle. 

Pilates Reformer vs Pilates Mat

In contrast, Pilates mat work is a system of exercises performed on a Pilates floor mat. This conditioning program stimulates the brain, challenges specific muscles, and inspires the spirit.  The exercises are designed to build whole body strength, coordination, and balance. In Pilates mat work, very little equipment is used other than a Pilates magic circle or hand weights.  The resistance of the body is required to develop the strength and control that the mat exercises offer and require.  Because of this, the learning curve can actually be higher than using the reformer.

Although Pilates mat is an excellent method of physical training, the Pilates Reformer is my preference for introducing new students to this form of movement.  The resistance provided by the equipment helps my students understand and learn to use the right muscles more quickly and allows me to create completely customized workouts.  They can then apply this knowledge to a Pilates mat practice as well as all other forms of exercise.  

Benefits of Using the Pilates Reformer

  • Minimizes impact: The reformer uses resistance training in a supine position (lying on your back) as well as sitting and standing to minimize impact and pressure on the joints and spine.  
  • Gives full range of motion: The pulley system provides isokinetic resistance (variable resistance allowing muscles to contract at constant speeds) that strengthens muscles through full range of motion.
  • Challenges the core: The instability of the carriage challenges balance and proprioception (understanding where your body is in space) and stimulates intrinsic core muscles.   
  • Creates a full-body workout: The reformer’s versatility allows for a full body workout through all planes of motion to achieve optimum outcomes.
  • Balances muscular strength: The various levels of resistance can stimulate more stability muscles and conversely neutralize over-dominant muscles creating complete and balanced strength.  

Tips for using Pilates reformer

The reformer is a great method of training the body and the brain.  However, like all exercise equipment and programs, there is a learning curve.  As you explore different Pilates reformer workouts here are a few tips to consider.

Tip #1: Work with a certified Pilates instructor

Many gyms and Pilates studios may offer reformer classes in their member packages.  However, reformer training is more complex and involved than some equipment training programs, due to the many moving parts and instability of the equipment.  If you are new to the reformer, working with a comprehensively certified Pilates teacher is advised.  It will be safer and produce better outcomes such as improved strength, better posture, and more endurance for all other athletic endeavors.  You will also reduce the risk of injury. 

Tip #2: Master the basics first

While the reformer is a powerful piece of equipment, it can be intimidating at first. First, there are proper safety measures to follow when working with the machine. Second, those that struggled with balance may also need special attention. That’s why it is best to work with a certified Pilates teacher when getting started to ensure you get the most out of the Pilates reformer.

First, you should learn how to sit, stand, and lie on the reformer.  Then you should learn which springs to use for which exercise.  Next, you should learn what fundamental movement you need to address any specific areas you are trying to target. Remember if any exercise causes pain or discomfort, it’s important to alert your teacher immediately so that she or he can make the appropriate adjustments for your safety.

Tip #3: Private training or small group training is optimal

 Once you are well trained in reformer safety and all foundational exercises (one to two years of regular training), it would be safe to work out in a group environment or on your own.  

Once you have mastered the basics, you can move onto small group training.  In a private session the teacher can focus on you entirely with no distraction.  This will provide a learning environment that accelerates the accuracy of your movement and your safety.  

In a class setting, the teacher should limit the class to no more than 6 students.  This ensures that each person gets the guidance they need to learn the reformer exercises and stay safe.  

Tip #4: Focus on your breath

Each reformer exercises uses a specific breath pattern.  As you master an exercise you will also master the breath pattern.  This creates more breath competency. As it increases, you can apply this skill to more vigorous movement. 

 Reformer training is not designed to be a cardio workout.  However, if the breath is practiced correctly, reformer practice enhances cardiovascular abilities.  And the specificity of reformer training will help you learn to recruit the appropriate muscles for all other movements as well.  

Tip #5: Consistency is the key

Like any training program, repetition and consistency will yield the most benefit.  Aim for twice a week with private sessions and up to three classes a week in a small group class.  Both reformer classes and private sessions are usually 50 minutes to a full hour in length.  

Master reformer with a private session with Lee

As the Lee Pilates Method has grown over the last few years, I’ve been intentional about creating a studio that stimulates my students’ brains and spirits as well as their body.  I offer a calm, appealing and serene environment so that clients can focus on themselves without distraction.  This challenges clients to concentrate on moving with precision.  I teach clients to breathe with intention and awareness to oxygenate their brain and body; giving them more energy.  Mastering complex movements exhilarates and empowers them and they carry this confidence back into their daily round.  

The reformer is the perfect piece of equipment to either begin or deepen a Pilates practice. It enhances the training programs of all my students and mine as well.  Pilates reformer work focuses on core strength and proper muscle engagement which improves athletic performance, back pain, injury recovery, weight loss, balance, bone density and posture.  

It is a movement system designed to better our everyday life and well being.  And more than any other piece of the Pilates equipment, the reformer helps to create the beautiful, long, lean muscles that consistent Pilates training develops. Want personalized training on the reformer to develop your Pilates body? Set up a session with me today at leepilates.com to get started, get stronger and enjoy the vitality the reformer can offer you.

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