A Guide to Reformer Pilates

7th March 2019 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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Over the past few decades, Pilates has become a staple of personal training and group exercise. Once solely practised by professional athletes and dancers, the mainstream popularity Pilates has helped people the world over improve their posture, flexibility, stamina and strength. It’s also been used to reduce back and neck pain and as a form of rehabilitation following injury

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 decisions then be reached. This guide explores the differences between mat-based and reformer Pilates, the history and principles of Pilates, and the benefits of the practice in general so that you can make your own informed decisions. First, however, let’s start at the very beginning…

History of Pilates

What we now know was Pilates actually began life as Contrology and was pioneered Joseph Hubertus Pilates. Born 1883 in Germany, a young Joseph found himself afflicted with several conditions including asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. The outlook was so dire that doctors told his parents that he would die prematurely. Joseph was not swayed by what could be seen as a death sentence and he became determined to return his body to peak physical condition.

This grand undertaking eventually brought him to England in the early 1910s. When WWI broke out, Joseph found himself interned with fellow European nationals on the Isle of Man. During this period, he worked with patients who were unable to walk. His solution for rehabilitation was to attach springs to hospital beds as a way to support patients’ limbs. This allowed for more effective strengthening and stretching exercises. It’s interesting that this apparatus devised by Joseph was actually the prototype and inspiration for the modern-day reformer.

After the war, and a brief return to Germany, Joseph travelled to America and with his wife, Clara, opened a studio in New York. The strengthening and restorative nature of Joseph’s work very quickly attracted the attention of dancers and others from the world of performing arts.

Joseph Pilates resides over a mat-based Contrology class

In an attempt to document his work, Pilates wrote a couple of books, the most notable being Return to Life Through Contrology – a text that is still highly regarded by the Pilates community today. The Contrology method is what we today call Pilates.

Pilates never sought any trademarks for his writings or patents for his equipment (which he referred to as “apparatus”), this is one of the reasons why there are so many different schools and interpretations of his work. Central to most of these schools however are the same founding principles.

Principles of Pilates

During the creation of his Contrology system, Joseph Pilates devised six key principles that he believed were absolutely essential for creating better health through exercise.

Mat-based Pilates comprises of a core set of 34 exercises which primarily focuses on strengthening and stabilising the all-important 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.

HFE students perform exercises in a mat-based Pilates class

All Pilates exercises, irrespective of whether they are performed on a mat, or using apparatus like the reformer, cadillac, trapeze, chair or barrell, seek to achieve the same fundamental goal, which is to develop complete coordination of mind, body and to some extent, spirit.

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 modern evidence to support the benefits of core stability training. 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 – Joseph believed precision was more important than repetition and that more benefits can be derived from correct form than anything else. The use of force has 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. Joseph 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.

What is a Pilates Reformer?

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

A typical wooden and metal Pilates reformer

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. Some springs are tighter than others and therefore provide more or less resistance, as is required. The springs are often  colour coded so that reformer instructors and their students can identify them easily.

Traditionally, the reformer was used to teach Pilates students the correct technique for each exercise. Joseph 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.

Reformer Exercises

Reformer Pilates is often considered more dynamic and intense than its matwork 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 matwork exercises.

A man performing exercises on a reformer

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

  • 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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