Is Reformer Pilates Good for Weight Loss?

When Joseph Pilates invented his system of exercises, he focused on a holistic approach that would provide balance to the entire body. Using whatever was at his disposal, including bed springs, beer barrels and chairs, he honed his techniques to create a well-rounded approach to fitness, including weight loss. He called this system “Contrology “and spent the rest of his life teaching others at his personal gym and touting its benefits to anyone who would listen.

For Joseph Pilates, his system was both a success and a failure. It was effective for his health and those he taught, but it never gained the traction he had hoped for within his lifetime. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1990s that Pilates boomed onto the fitness scene in a big way, far too late to be witnessed by Joseph, who died in 1967.

Today, you would be hard-pressed to find a fitness center that doesn’t offer some type of Pilates training, and Pilates-specific gyms are common in many cities. And, in the tradition of Joseph Pilates, today’s Pilates enthusiasts are happy to enumerate the benefits of the Pilates system and the difference it has made in their lives. And for a good reason: Pilates has been proven to reduce pain, improve flexibility and prevent injuries.

With everything we know about Pilates today, there is no denying its benefit for your body and mind, but can Pilates actually help you lose weight? Although it probably seems like the answer should be a resounding “yes,” the honest answer is more complicated than that. Pilates is definitely not a one-stop miracle cure for weight loss, but regular practice can contribute to your weight loss journey in a big way.

How Does Weight Loss Actually Work?

That’s a pretty good question, and one that can be complicated by a myriad of factors. But looking at just the basics of weight loss, it boils down to how much energy you take in versus how much energy you burn. If you take in more energy than you burn, you will gain weight, whereas if you take in less than you burn, you will lose weight.

Of course, that is a simplified formula. The truth is that we all burn energy at different rates according to factors like our metabolism, body makeup and age. Unfortunately, without an in-depth understanding of how your body burns energy, your weight loss journey will likely consist of some trial and error.

Setting aside the dietary side of the weight loss puzzle to focus on the energy-burning side, let’s take a look at how you can most effectively burn calories. We can start by comparing the differences between aerobic exercise and anaerobic exercise:

  • Aerobic Exercise: Aerobic exercise is defined as movement exercise. Aerobic exercise increases your heart and respiratory rate and leads to positive changes in your cardiovascular system. Aerobic exercises burn a lot of energy. Examples include running, cycling, swimming and walking at a brisk pace.
  • Anaerobic Exercise: Anaerobic exercises break down glucose for energy without using oxygen. Anaerobic exercises are usually done in short bursts of activity and help your body build muscle and increases bone density. Examples include weightlifting, resistance training and calisthenics.

If we are simply looking at how much energy is burned in a training session, aerobic exercise is the clear winner for weight loss, and Pilates is most definitely an anaerobic exercise. However, the energy you burn in a single workout isn’t the whole story. There is also the matter of how your body burns energy as your body composition changes. Simply put, the higher your ratio of muscle to fat, the more calories you need to burn to maintain your body.

What Is a Pilates Reformer Machine?

Joseph Pilates invented the original Pilates reformer while imprisoned in an internment camp during World War I. The German-born Pilates, who found himself in England at the start of the war, had already developed a system of calisthenics taken from martial arts, gymnastics, boxing and bodybuilding. He used his “Contrology” calisthenics to keep himself and his fellow internees healthy during their internment, even when an outbreak of the Spanish Flu swept the globe. 

While in the camp, Pilates was able to work as an orderly at a hospital for returning veterans. While working with these bedridden patients, Pilates used his inventive mind to devise a way for them to do strengthening exercises before they were even able to walk. How did he manage such a feat during wartime, with a lack of materials and resources? He used bedsprings attached to ropes. 

Of course, the Pilates reformer is no longer a bed, at least in the sense that it isn’t a place you can sleep. It also no longer uses bedsprings for resistance. However, today’s reformer machines work with resistance coils, and you do lie down on it. To help you gain a better idea of what a modern Pilates reformer is like, let’s break it down into parts:

  • Carriage: The carriage is the platform on which you will lie when using the reformer. It is generally made of wood, covered with foam padding and upholstery. 
  • Frame: The carriage rests on a set of tracks on the frame, with which it slides up and down as you exercise. 
  • Springs: The springs attach the carriage to a spring bar, which attaches to the frame. Pilates reformers have a selection of springs that provide differing resistance and can be used either one at a time or in a group, depending on the resistance you need. 
  • Foot Bar: The foot bar attaches to the frame and is precisely what it sounds like: the bar on which your feet can push to move the carriage up and down against the resistance you have chosen.
  • Shoulder Rests: As you push your feet against the foot bar, the shoulder rests hold you in place on the carriage, allowing it to move. 
  • Headrest: The headrest helps you keep your spine in alignment when performing your Pilates routine. 
  • Ropes/Straps: Ropes and straps attach to pulleys at the top of the frame and allow the user to pull the carriage up and down with their arms. 

Not all Pilates reformers are created equal, and different manufacturers will have slightly different designs. Also, some Pilates reformers come with additional accessories such as a jump pad or grab bar to allow for different types of exercises.

If you are a beginner, you should seek instruction from a trained Pilates instructor before beginning a routine. Pilates exercises need to be done in a balanced manner, with specific breathing sequences. Without proper training, you may not be doing the exercises correctly. A trainer can help ensure you are performing the exercises in an optimal and healthy way.

In addition, if you are considering buying a reformer for home use, you will want to know what type of reformer best fits your needs. Once again, your best bet to finding the ideal equipment for you is to go to a Pilates gym and try working out on a few different reformers. Pilates gyms tend to have a variety of reformers, and you will want to know what you need before you decide to invest.

How Can I Use a Pilates Reformer as a Part of My Weight Loss Journey?

So, if Pilates is an anaerobic exercise, and anaerobic exercise builds muscle, which takes more energy to maintain, it is logical to think that Pilates can help. In fact, Pilates can be a regular part of your fitness routine while you lose weight. However, it doesn’t have to be your only form of exercise. If you are on a weight loss journey, adding some aerobic training can balance your fitness routine.

Doing Pilates on a Pilates reformer is particularly good for muscle building. Pilates reformers are explicitly built to tone and build muscle using resistance springs. The springs allow the user to adjust by using tighter springs or adding more springs for increased resistance.

Pilates reformers are great for anyone who is new to fitness or recovering from an injury because, like the bedridden soldiers, you can strengthen without putting a lot of impact on your joints. In addition, a reformer helps you maintain your posture so that you can target your muscles evenly. Remember, the idea behind Pilates is to strengthen your muscles in a balanced way, improve spinal alignment and curate overall health.

Maximize Your Results with Some Additional Cardio

You will achieve the best weight loss results by adding a cardio workout to your routine once or twice a week, in addition to your Pilates workouts. However, before you begin a cardio routine, it is vital to obtain a clean bill of health from your doctor. You will want to be especially careful if you have any injuries, cardiac problems or an ongoing chronic illness. If you are new to aerobic exercise, you should also confer with a fitness professional to make sure your workout plan is safe and effective before you get started. 

When deciding on a cardio routine, you will need to determine if you want to do low-impact or high-impact cardio. Low-impact cardio puts less stress on your body, especially your joints. If you are unsure about your health, you will want to start with a low-impact exercise routine. 

Some examples of low-impact cardio workouts include:

  • Cycling
  • Swimming
  • Walking
  • Rowing
  • Elliptical
  • High-intensity, low-impact workouts (can be done in a fitness center or at home)
  • Some aerobics classes (check with the instructor)

A few examples of high-impact cardio workouts include:

  • Running
  • Racquetball
  • Some aerobics classes
  • Tennis
  • Cardio-kickboxing (can be adapted to be low impact, depending on the instructor)

You can try a few different things to figure out what fits and what you most enjoy. Then make a choice and commit. Remember that you are more likely to stick to an exercise program that is fun and makes you feel good. 

Weight Loss and Nutrition

Optimizing your nutrition will help you to feel your best while still losing weight. As most of us know, there are far too many diets out there and a lot of confusing information about weight loss. For this reason, you will want to seek the advice of a nutritionist or another health professional before deciding on a diet.

Whatever dietary approach you settle on, it is essential to consume all of the calories and nutrients you need. Engaging in a weight loss routine can be taxing on the body, and it is vital to treat yours with care. Proper nutrition is crucial to your body’s recovery and ongoing health.

Putting it All Together for Your Best Self

Adding new routines and habits to your lifestyle can be incredibly challenging. Often, the changes that last are the changes you take your time making. Set yourself manageable goals that you can successfully reach and celebrate, remembering that each success is a step toward realizing your long-term goals.

Weight loss is hard for anyone, and you will want to plan a strategy for your missteps and bad days. You are only human, and making permanent change takes time. With the proper planning, you can get back on track without indulging in self-abasement or shaming yourself into giving up.

You will also want to have a strategy for days when you are ill or injured and can’t engage in your usual routine. Depending on your chosen form of aerobic exercise, you may be more prone to injuries, although your Pilates practice can help prevent injuries by keeping your muscles healthy and balanced. Additionally, because Pilates is so low impact, you can often continue your practice as you heal and some Pilates exercises may even accelerate healing.

And lastly, as you embark on the road to better physical health, it is essential to care for your mental health and emotional well-being. Pilates is all about balance and has been since its conception. Remember that your mental health is a large part of your overall fitness and you deserve to treat yourself with kindness.