A Beginner’s Guide to Reformer Pilates

9th January 2018 8 Minute Read

Josh Douglas-Walton

Josh Douglas-Walton

Health and Fitness Writer

Josh is passionate about all things health and fitness, and in his spare time he's a keen marathon and ultramarathon runner....
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Pilates has become a staple of personal training and group fitness over the past few decades. Once practised only by professional athletes and dancers, the mainstream popularity of Pilates has helped many people improve their posture, flexibility, stamina and strength. It has been used to reduce back and neck pain and as a form of rehabilitation following injury. This guide looks at the difference between mat-based Pilates and Reformer Pilates, the basic principles of Pilates, the history and development of the Reformer style, and a list of the main Reformer exercises and the benefits of practising Pilates regularly.

As a personal trainer or group exercise instructor, you may be asked about the differences between mat-based and Reformer approaches and which style clients should choose. Like any mode of exercise, it’s important to remember that the appropriateness of one form or technique over another largely depends on the interaction of a number of factors – personal preferences and individual goals are fundamental in this decision-making process. Only when all of the facts are known can informed decision then be reached – this is the goal of this post.

Difference between mat-based and Reformer Pilates

There are many similarities between mat and Reformer Pilates, but there are a number of differences also. All Pilates exercises, irrespective of whether they are performed on a mat, or using what Joseph Pilates referred to as ‘apparatus’, seek to achieve the same goal. This goal is ‘to develop the complete co-ordination of mind, body and spirit to promote suppleness (flexibility), endurance, strength and posture’.

Mat-based Pilates comprises of a core set of 34 exercises which primarily focuses on strengthening and stabilising the core region. In the main, these 34 exercises are often too difficult for most exercise participants to be able to perform in their entirety, and so it is common for mat Pilates sessions to breakdown these movements into simpler and less intense exercises. It is for this reason that most modern mat Pilates classes will use exercises that are somewhat unrecognisable to the original movements that featured in Joseph Pilates 34 exercise repertoire.

Reformer Pilates is often considered more dynamic and intense than its mat work counterpart because most of the exercises are performed through greater ranges of motion and involve resistance that is applied from springs and bands. The Reformer was initially created to complement the movements that Pilates originally called “Contrology exercises”, and was designed to prepare Pilates students for the more advanced mat work exercises.

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Nowadays, however, the Reformer is not only used to prime students for floor-based exercises, it is also used as a progression from these movements with more advanced participants. The Reformer serves the same purpose as many of the mat-based Pilates movements, to accelerate developments in flexibility, strength and body alignment.

Mat Pilates is primarily performed from a mat on the floor and as such the range of movement is restricted; resistance is also typically limited to bodyweight, although in some cases bands and stability balls may also be used.

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Mat Pilates primarily focuses on the core region and peripheral limb movements are usually performed to perturb the core, forcing it to work harder in its stabilising capacity. With Reformer Pilates, however, exercise often load the arms and legs, making it more effective for strengthening the muscles and joints in these areas than mat work.

Due to the sheer number of exercises that can be performed on a Reformer and the different variations of each of these exercises, many suggest that the Reformer has a greater repertoire of exercises.

What is a Pilates Reformer?

The Pilates Reformer, originally called the ‘Universal Reformer’ because of its wider application to exercise, is a structure that looks like an old-fashioned bed frame. Originally made of wood, the Reformer now has a number of different designs and is commonly made from plastic, wood and aluminium, or a mixture of all three.

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The carriage of the Reformer is usually loaded by a number of springs that attach to the carriage to the frame – when the carriage slides, horizontal resistance is created. A number of ropes and pulleys are also attached to the carriage and frame and can be used to create additional resistance or alleviate it, as required by the exercise participant.

The level of resistance level is normally adjusted by the number of springs attached – one spring would provide the least resistance whereas five springs would normally represent the maximum resistance available on a standard Reformer.

History and development of Reformer and Mat Pilates

Joseph Pilates was the founder of the Pilates system and believed physical activity was the key to developing and maintaining health. As a child, Pilates was regularly sick and suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. Inspired by his father who was a gymnast and his mother who was a naturopath, Pilates became determined to overcome his physical fragility, and dedicated his life to becoming stronger and healthier.

While interned by the British during WW1, Pilates taught other soldiers his exercise system. He attached bed springs and ropes to the beds of bedridden soldiers, allowing them to perform more effectively strengthening and stretching exercises. This is where the inspiration and prototype for the Reformer came from.

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Traditionally, the Reformer was used to teach Pilates students the correct technique for each exercise. He believed that performing an exercise correctly only a few times was far more beneficial to one’s overall health and strength than repeatedly performing an exercise poorly. By using the Reformer, his students learned the correct technique from a supported posture. Once a technique was mastered and the student had acquired sufficient strength, they would then progress to more advanced mat-based exercises where the body was required to support and stabilise itself.

Principles of Pilates

When creating his exercise system, Joseph Pilates devised six key principles that he believed were absolutely essential for creating better health through exercise. These principles are each explained briefly below.

Concentration – Pilates believed that complete and absolute concentration was an important part of the mind-body connection. By allocating sufficient mental and cognitive energy to the exercise, Pilates believed that a wider range of physical and health benefits could be realised by his students.

Centring – The core is often referred to as the ‘powerhouse’ of the body and there is a wealth of evidence to support the benefits of core stability. A strong core is crucial to the practice of Pilates and while most exercises develop this characteristic, a number of the more advanced exercises also require high levels of core stability in order to perform them safely and effectively. Pilates believed that a strong centre provided the body with the necessary foundation for optimal alignment and quality patterns of movement.

Control – Contrology was the name that Joseph Pilates gave to his system and so it stands to reason that control would be a central principle. Pilates believed that being able to control the body when stationary and while moving was essential for musculoskeletal health and musculoskeletal health was necessary for the body to be healthier in a wider sense of the term. Learning and practising correct patterns of movement in a slow and deliberate manner is how control is created and provides the necessary foundation for a stronger, healthier and more functional body.

Breathing – Correct breathing is an integral component of Pilates practice. Focused breathing with deep exhalations helps to activate the muscles, re-oxygenate the blood and cleanse and invigorate the body. In Pilates, lateral breathing techniques are usually used to direct air participants breathe out during effort and breathe into the core on release.

Precision – Pilates believed precision was more important than repetition and that more benefits can be derived from correct form than anything else. The use of force hath no place in Pilates because movements should be initiated in a controlled manner, and with an accurate range and flight of motion.

Flow – In Pilates, each exercise flows outwards from the core. Additionally, each exercise (and series of exercises) is designed to flow into the next and should look and feel smooth and graceful. Pilates was inspired by yoga and the way in which a number of wild animals move – the flowing element is perhaps the best representation of this influence in his system.

Reformer Exercises

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Like mat-based exercises, Reformer exercises are often grouped into and performed as series. Each exercise within a series is designed to flow into the next, and builds upon the previous movement. While there is some variations between the exercises in each series, and even the order of each series, most Reformer sessions follow the following structure:

  • Footwork
  • Hundred
  • Overhead
  • Coordination (these four work together as a warm up)
  • Rowing series
  • Long box 1 series
  • Long stretches
  • Stomach massage series
  • Side series
  • Long box 2 series
  • Short box series
  • Knee stretches

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