Around for nearly 100 years, Pilates is an effective workout regimen that strengthens and tones the body. The popular low-impact exercises developed by Joseph Pilates combine core stabilization, strength, flexibility, balance and proper alignment with concepts like mindfulness, breathing techniques and fluidity of movement.
If you’re already familiar with mat Pilates classes, you may be curious about all those Pilates reformers lined up at your local fitness studio. This unique piece of equipment provides a ton of variety for an incredible full-body workout in minutes. But how does a Pilates reformer work, and is it worth getting one for your own home? Here is everything you need to know about reformer Pilates, according to top Pilates instructors.
Before starting any new workout regimen, always consult with your healthcare provider.
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What is a Pilates reformer?
A Pilates reformer is a large piece of exercise equipment that looks similar to a padded table or platform with springs, ropes, pulleys and a sliding carriage. They can be made from different materials, including steel or aluminum.
“The key behind the effectiveness of a reformer is resistance, with springs attached to a moving platform (a.k.a. carriage) on wheels,” says Rachel Rothman, the chief technologist and executive technical director at the Good Housekeeping Institute and a certified Pilates instructor. “The springs allow for changes in resistance, and by pushing or pulling with arms or legs you can then initiate movement of the carriage along the frame to get a full-body, strength-building workout.”
Because you must move against the spring tension and pulley system, a reformer can also help put your body into better alignment. “In this way, the body can re-pattern default movements more efficiently,” says Laura Wilson, a celebrity trainer and the founder and CEO of Natural Pilates who has been practicing Pilates for over 20 years.
How to use a Pilates reformer
If it’s your first time using a reformer, certified clinical naturopath and accredited Pilates instructor Bianca Melas of Alo Moves recommends finding a local studio or beginner class online where you can be guided through how it works with a trained Pilates instructor.
“There are many moving parts to the machine, and it is possible to hurt yourself if you don’t know how to make the necessary adjustments for each exercise,” Wilson adds. “A Pilates instructor will also watch your form and give you hands-on adjustments.”
When it comes to understanding the components of a Pilates reformer machine and how to use them, Rothman says that these are the main areas to be familiar with:
- Moving carriage: This cushioned surface is flat and moves forward and backward. Some also have shoulder blocks for added comfort and stability.
- Front platform: This stable area on the reformer usually houses springs to adjust tension and can be used as a base for exercises. Many reformers will also feature an adjustable bar for more Pilates variations.
- Back platform: Another flat, stable area on the machine, this often houses shorter straps with handles and adjustable bars.
- Springs: These mechanisms are what allows for adjustable resistance on the machine to vary exercises. Springs tend to be color-coded. Sometimes a lighter spring may not mean “easier” as increased core stability will be required.
- Straps: Note that the longer straps found near the carriage are usually for balance and stability exercises, whereas the shorter ones are for more tension-driven exercises.
Some reformers may have other special components including jump boards, boxes and more that provide greater variety in the types of Pilates movements you can perform.
Benefits of reformer Pilates
There are plenty of potential health benefits to reformer Pilates:
- Tones muscles: Reformer Pilates provides a full-body workout that can help develop a strong core and tone a variety of major muscle groups.
- Builds strength: By adding springs to certain movements on the Pilates reformer, you can increase the exercise resistance and intensity to build strength. “You’re not using heavy weights like in the gym, but you will definitely feel the inner strength after a session,” Wilson says.
- Increases flexibility: Reformer Pilates is known to improve not only muscle strength but also flexibility and joint mobility. That’s because most of the exercises incorporate dynamic stretching.
- Improves posture: Reformer Pilates can support a strong core, promote flexibility and realign the body and spine, which can result in tremendous improvements in postural alignment.
- Corrects muscle imbalances: “In Pilates, we are always working opposing muscle groups,” Wilson explains. Reformer Pilates starts by building a balanced core and then strengthening all sides of the body evenly to fix muscle imbalances.
- Prevents injury: By focusing on posture, form and fixing muscle imbalances, the Pilates reformer can create greater balance and efficiency to help prevent injury in the future.
Melas adds that the benefits go far beyond physical, too: “Spiritually and mentally, we are reconnecting with our bodies through breath and movement, creating new neural pathways that strengthen our muscles.” She also says that reformers can make workouts fun, as you flow on the machine with the ability for a huge variation of movement.
Who is reformer Pilates best for?
Reformer Pilates can be done by almost anyone regardless of age or injuries, Wilson says, and the exercises can be modified for every body. Wilson adds that the reformer is highly adjustable, making it ideal for beginners to advanced practitioners, whether you want to tone all over or want an upper body workout.
“Many elite athletes and dancers use Pilates to help them in their professional pursuits,” she says. “But it is also suitable and beneficial for your son’s posture or your grandmother’s frozen shoulder.” If you tend to get bored with your routine workouts, reformer Pilates may be just what you need to change things up. Since the reformer is so versatile, the programming options are endless and rarely are two classes exactly the same.
How long does it take to see results from reformer Pilates?
When it comes to the frequency of how often you should do reformer Pilates to see results, Wilson says that three times a week is ideal but that you will feel the difference even if you can only train once per week. Melas agrees, recommending about three sessions a week, but says that since the workout is low-impact, you can even do it up to five times a week.
That said, consistency is key to seeing and feeling long-term results. “Begin to learn the language and movements, gain confidence, and then, in no time, you will become a Pilates pro,” says Melas. “After a month of trying classes, you will start to really understand the flow, movement of the reformer and the language that is used.”
What’s better: mat Pilates or reformer Pilates?
You can get a great workout with both mat Pilates and reformer Pilates, so it ultimately comes down to personal preference. To start, mat Pilates can be done pretty much anywhere with minimal equipment, whereas reformer Pilates requires you to go to a special studio or purchase a potentially costly piece of home exercise equipment.
As for difficulty levels, the Pilates reformer itself provides more assistance than a mat does, since the structure of the reformer and its parts can help assist your body into the correct form. “Mat exercises are very challenging to do correctly, so working on the reformer helps to strengthen the body for the mat repertoire,” Wilson says. The Pilates reformer also has a set of springs that can add resistance to exercises for building strength. “[Reformer Pilates] may seem more dynamic and challenging as you work with the spring tension on the carriage to either intensify a movement or add support,” Melas says.
Ultimately, the best type of Pilates is the one that you feel most comfortable doing.
Tips for starting reformer Pilates
If you’re new to reformer Pilates, Melas shares that it might feel weird and even unnatural at first, but like all things you will get comfortable with it over time. “Especially on the reformer, I know it can be daunting, but with a caring teacher and a beginner class to help you become familiar, you will be feeling confident in no time,” she says.
Wilson recommends doing at least one private session before jumping into a group reformer class, which can move quickly and be a bit intimidating. “Move slowly and mindfully through the movements — Pilates focuses on quality vs. quantity,” she says, adding that it’s important to remember to breathe and to lean into that in the slow, controlled way of exercising.
Pilates Essentials to Get Started
Why trust Good Housekeeping?
Stefani Sassos, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., NASM-CPT, has been working in the fitness industry for the past 10 years, specializing in indoor cycling and strength training. As a NASM-certified personal trainer, she uses her expertise and exercise science knowledge to create informed fitness content for the Good Housekeeping Institute. Stefani began practicing Pilates after an injury in college and has done it consistently ever since.
Nutrition Lab Deputy Director
Stefani (she/her) is a registered dietitian, a NASM-certified personal trainer and the deputy director of the Good Housekeeping Institute Nutrition Lab, where she handles all nutrition- and fitness-related content, testing and evaluation. She holds a bachelor’s degree in nutritional sciences from Pennsylvania State University and a master’s degree in clinical nutrition from NYU. Stefani is dedicated to providing readers with evidence-based content to encourage informed food choices and healthy living. She is an avid CrossFitter and a passionate home cook who loves spending time with her big fit Greek family.
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