The Pilates reformer is a piece of equipment used to build strength, flexibility, and proper joint and spine alignment. The Pilates method of exercising has a lot of benefits, and it can be done on a mat with no equipment at all. A reformer adds more exercises, a more challenging workout and faster results.
What is a Pilates Reformer? Joseph Pilates and the Invention of the Reformer
The exercise phenomenon known as Pilates takes its name from its inventor. Joseph Pilates came up with his unique method of building strength and body condition while interned as an enemy alien in England during World War I.
After the war, Pilates emigrated to the U.S. and opened a body conditioning gym in New York with his wife Clara. He had developed his exercise method over several years and gained a major following at the gym, primarily with dancers. The Pilates method focuses on precision, control, proper alignment, flexibility and low-impact strengthening exercises.
While in England during the war, Pilates had a chance to work as a nurse. He worked with patients with limited mobility. He devised a system of springs attached to the hospital beds that allowed them to perform light resistance exercises. This eventually led to his development of the reformer still used by Pilates practitioners today.
A Pilates reformer is a narrow, bed-like frame with a sliding carriage and a system of springs and pulleys. The springs provide variable resistance to allow for low-impact strength training. Reformers today come in a few different varieties—wood, steel, raised, floor-level—but all function in a similar way. The user sits on the carriage, attached to one end by springs to provide resistance as the carriage moves.
How to Use a Pilates Reformer – Functions
One of the benefits of a reformer is that you can use it in several different ways to do all of the hundreds of classical Pilates exercises. In general, you use the machine by pushing or pulling the carriage against the resistance of the springs or by holding the carriage steady against that resistance. The basic components of the reformer provide all of its functions:
- The foot bar. The bar at one end of the reformer allows you to stabilize your feet or hands while you move the carriage.
- The spring system. This is the part of the machine that provides resistance. It functions as the main strengthening component. You can adjust it for greater or lower resistance and a more challenging or easier workout.
- The carriage. The carriage moves up and down the frame of the reformer with variable resistance depending on the springs. You sit, stand, kneel or lie on the carriage and move it or hold it stationary.
- Straps and ropes. With handles on the ends, the straps and ropes on a reformer allow you to pull and push the carriage. They function to help you work with the resistance of your body and the spring system.
A reformer can seem intimidating initially, but it’s much easier to use than it seems. For the best results, work with an instructor before trying to use the machine on your own. See the best pilates reformer machines here.
Advantages of Pilates Reformers
Pilates practice does not require a reformer. You can do most of the exercises on a mat. There are several benefits of using the reformer:
- The reformer allows you to do more varied exercises than mat work.
- The springs system provides greater and more variable resistance. On the mat, you work only with the resistance of your body weight.
- The resistance allows for more challenging workouts, which means you generally see results sooner than with mat work.
- Using the resistance of the springs, you benefit from eccentric muscle contractions, the lengthening of a muscle as it resists a force.
- The machine forces you to stabilize your body, providing additional core strengthening.
Disadvantages of Pilates Reformers
In terms of getting a good workout, there are few disadvantages to using a reformer. The only limitations are related to access. Reformers can be expensive to own, and classes with reformers are pricier than those that use mats.
There’s also a learning curve that limits access. Most people need a few private lessons to get the hang of using a reformer correctly. It’s not difficult to use, but is a unique skill that requires some initial guidance.
It’s important to start out small when using a reformer. Begin with basic, simple exercises until you understand how the machine works and get more comfortable using it. Here are some common Pilates reformer moves perfect for beginners:
- Footwork. Lying on the carriage with your head in the headrest, press your toes into the foot bar. Push against the foot bar to extend, bend the knees back and extend again. Do the same exercise with your heels on the foot bar to work different muscles in the legs and glutes.
- The Hundred. To do this abdominal exercise, lie on the carriage with your shoulders pressed into the shoulder blocks. Lift your legs and bend the knees to a 90-degree angle. Pull the straps toward your legs, so that your arms are parallel to your abs. Lift your head up and pulse the arms.
- Back Row. To work the back muscles, sit on the carriage, facing the straps. Holding onto the strap handles, pull your hands toward your chest, letting your elbows go wide as you lean backwards. Release, roll forward and repeat.
- Foot Straps. Lying on your back, facing the foot bar, put your feet in the strap handles. Start with the knees bent, push against the straps to straighten the legs, and repeat. This works the abs, inner thighs and hamstrings.
The basic reformer has several functionalities and allows you to do hundreds of exercises. A few additional accessories give you even more options:
- Tower. A Pilates tower is a vertical system you attach to the strap end of the reformer. It allows for more stretching and more advanced moves as you progress through easier exercises.
- Jump Board. The jump board attaches to the foot bar end of the reformer. It provides a stable surface to push against, essentially allowing you to jump horizontally. Many practitioners use the jump board to add an aerobic element to the workout.
- Sitting Box. Place this soft box on the carriage to elevate your body. You can do more stretching, balancing and core-strengthening exercises with the box.
- Plank Bars. These attach to the foot bar end of the reformer and help you do more advanced plank exercises. They have soft handlebars on posts to elevate you and allow you to plank without hurting your hands.
- Other Accessories. You’ll also find additional spring systems, leg sets to raise the frame up to different heights, non-slip carriage mats, and Pilates poles to aid stability in balancing exercises.
A Pilates reformer is the most important tool used in this type of exercise. It allows you to do more exercises, to progress and to try more challenging moves. You don’t need one to get started in Pilates, but if you are serious about becoming a regular practitioner, a reformer is a good investment.