Have you ever been in a Pilates studio?

If you have then you’ll know that the fluffy ankle cuffs, leather-clad beds and all the straps and springs that make up the Pilates equipment can be quite intimidating.

But whilst these machines might look like they belong in a torture chamber, we promise that using them does amazing things for your body.

On top of that, equipment Pilates is also supposed to be the most effective way of practising the method. “You can exercise without machines” Joseph Pilates once said, “but it’s not as efficient.”

This is why we specialise in teaching equipment Pilates at Complete Pilates. We use the full studio equipment, which includes the barrel, reformer, trapeze table and the chair. These assist and challenge your body during your sessions with us.

But why exactly is the Pilates equipment so special? And what does each piece of equipment do? To answer these questions – and to help you get to grips with the Pilates machines – we’re going to be publishing a series of posts focusing on the different pieces of equipment.

First under the microscope is the Pilates reformer. Read on to discover all about how it works and why it’s such a useful piece of kit.

a female balancing on her hands utilising a reformer machine

The Pilates reformer

The reformer is one of the original pieces of equipment designed by Joseph Pilates, the man who invented the Pilates method. Thanks to the growing success of reformer group classes it is also probably the most famous piece of Pilates equipment.

For those of you not familiar with the reformer, we’ve got you covered. Below you’ll find a description of the main features of a reformer. A brief introduction as to how it works and the benefits of using it.

Pilates reformer – What is it?

The reformer consists of a bed-like rectangular frame. Depending on whether the reformer is a classical studio version or a contemporary model, this frame is made from either wood or metal.

On top of the frame sits a padded platform known as the carriage. The carriage is attached to hidden runners and so is able to slide up and down the length of the frame freely. Design elements like this makes the smooth execution of exercises possible. This helps practitioners achieve the “flow” Pilates principle.

At one end of the reformer frame is the foot bar. This is adjustable. It can be moved to change the size of the reformer to accommodate for different heights. The foot bar can also be quickly lowered or raised if an exercise requires it.

The carriage is attached to this end of the reformer with a series of springs in a range of spring tensions. These springs are only hooked on to the frame, though, and are easily removed.

By adjusting the spring tension in this way, the resistance provided by the reformer is altered. Exercises are made either easier or more difficult. Surprisingly, one light spring is often more challenging than several heavier ones.

At the opposite end of the frame are two long ropes with loop handles attached to pulleys. When it comes to the loop handles there is usually an option of a small one and a large one. The smaller ones are intended for hands and the larger ones are designed for feet.

The reformer carriage has other features such as shoulder pads (to stop you from sliding off when you’re lying down) and an adjustable headrest. All of which is designed to make your experience on the reformer more comfortable.

two females using pilates reformer machines

Pilates reformer – How does it work?

The reformer is an incredibly versatile piece of equipment and can be used lying down, standing, kneeling or on all fours.

Most exercises on the reformer involve some sort of pushing and/or pulling action. Other exercises involve keeping the carriage still whilst the tension of the springs works against you.

Another useful application of the reformer – and part of why it is so effective – is that it can be either assistive or resistive. In basic terms, this means that exercises can be made more or less challenging using the machine.

The Pilates reformer can be assistive

Take an exercise like the “roll down”, for instance. The “roll down” involves the fluid movement of the spine from a “neutral” position in seated through to a rounded one. It is an exercise that mobilises the spine and strengthens the abdominals.

You can do this exercise on the mat without any equipment. But it is a pretty difficult one to do without over-recruiting muscles or using the wrong ones to help you cheat your way through it. On a reformer, however, you have the choice to hold on to the straps and add extra springs for support. This makes the exercise easier to execute.

So, rather than challenging your movement, the reformer in this instance is actually helping you perform the movement correctly. In doing so, you are forced to activate the right muscles – the muscles intended to work in “roll down”.

The Pilates reformer can increase the challenge

The reformer works differently for standing exercises such as “Scooter”. This is like a running movement where one leg is placed on the floor and the other on the reformer.

Instead of aiding the movement, the leg extension phase of the exercise is resisted by the springs of the reformer. This means that, as well as teaching the body to move in the “correct” way, the force created by the reformer springs is also building strength in the leg and glute.

Other benefits of the Pilates reformer

The reformer’s moving carriage and variable spring settings create a lot of opportunities for challenging the body.

For example, movements performed on the unstable surface of the carriage in combination with a light spring are great for strengthening the body’s deep stabilising muscles. These types of exercises also promote better balance and coordination.

Other important features of the reformer, such as the straps and pulleys, are designed to help improve mobility, flexibility and range of motion, and they are particularly effective at doing so.

Elements like the adjustable spring tension also mean that Pilates on the reformer can be made to work for everyone. This includes beginners, pregnant women and people with injuries.

The reformer’s official name is the “universal reformer” – and clearly with good reason. Pilates on the reformer can be adapted to work for everyone. It meets every need.

pilates myths - two females facing away from the camera with their left arms arced over their heads while the right arms arm straight against a pilates bar and they lean towards the bar with their torsos

Time to try the Pilates reformer

So, you’ve had the low-down on what the Pilates reformer is and how it works. Hopefully this piece of apparatus doesn’t seem quite so terrifying anymore!

If you’ve been avoiding Pilates classes because of the look of the machines, we’re hoping you now can sign up for that reformer or equipment class with confidence.

For those reformer class regulars, we believe you’ll have got something from this too. Because knowing how the equipment works and how it interacts with you during exercises can mean better outcomes in your body. Time to get studying!

Want to learn more about the equipment? Then check back next week for our post on the Pilates “wunda chair”.

Education is key:

These blogs are designed to give information to everyone, however, it is important to remember that everyone is different! If you have not seen one of our therapists and have any questions about injuries, what you have read or whether this may be useful to you, please just ask.

At Complete Pilates we would advise you to always speak to your doctor, physiotherapist, or clinical Pilates instructor here at Complete Pilates if you are worried about starting a new exercise regime.
We are more than happy to help anyone and point you in the right direction. Our biggest belief is that education is key. The more you understand about your injury, illness and movement, the more you are likely to improve.