The Pilates Reformer is one of the most unique pieces of exercise equipment, carefully crafted to effectively work every area of your body. Pilates practitioners use the reformer machine to tone, stretch, challenge, and in every sense of the word ‘reform’ their bodies. Developed in the early 20th century by the method’s founder, Joseph Pilates, the reformer has gone through decades of improvements to become what it is today.
What is a Reformer Machine?
The reformer machine is an all-in-one piece of exercise equipment with more than 200 potential positions and 200 more modifications.
Anybody can use the machine: young, aging, injured, peak health, experienced, or unskilled.
Users need training before using the reformer, though, and our team at Reforming Foundations is ready to walk you through all aspects of this masterfully crafted machine.
There are several variations of the Pilates reformer machines, but they all have the same basic structure. The apparatus is set on a bed-like structure with four legs and a center support system. Machines are typically made with wood or metal, and the frame rises roughly 14 inches high (though this can vary depending on the machine). The majority of frames are 7 to 8 feet long and 2 to 2.5 feet wide.
Sitting in the middle of the frame is a flat surface ‘carriage,’ able to glide back and forth on two parallel rails. It is the largest surface area of the apparatus. Users will typically lie or sit on the carriage as they go through the exercises. Carriages have upholstery to cushion the user’s backside or knees. The user’s main goal is to keep the carriage stabilized and controlled, even as it is moving back and forth. Depending on the direction and speed that the carriage is moving, muscles are worked to their full range. The carriage allows users to complete a wide range of movements and is a very functional piece of equipment.
A set of springs are at the front base of the reformer, sitting slightly under the platform. The springs have different levels of tension that offer different challenges to the user. The levels are designed for either resistance or assistance, depending on the movement. They can help the user move the carriage during the exercise to help flexibility and alignment, or they can work against the user to build stronger muscles. The springs are typically color-coded to mark their tension level, and your instructor will tell you which to use at different points of your practice.
During exercises that use less tension, a key focus is your balance. The springs aren’t holding the carriage tightly in place, so users need strong core muscles to maintain control. Think of doing a plank on a moving floor, then trying to stabilize the floor and hold the plank. It isn’t easy!
Exercises that use more tension have similar effects on the body to traditional weight training. The springs add resistance and the users must make weight-training-like motions to fight that resistance. Consider a bench press machine: A set amount of weight is being pulled toward the ground by gravity, then pushed away from the ground with a user’s strength. The more strength, the more resistance required; the more resistance, the more strength is built. A spring apparatus operates similarly. The biggest difference is that instead of a set amount of resistance, the resistance changes throughout the motion. Resistance builds the further the user moves away from the spring, and it takes a strong push to get moving.
This fluid motion and change in resistance presents a unique challenge to the body, helping build deep and strong muscles in the areas being used.
An adjustable bar sits at the foot of the reformer machine and serves several purposes. First and foremost, it helps a user match the bed to their height. It can be moved in toward the center for shorter users or stretched out further for those who are taller. During the exercise, the footbar will often be used as a launch pad or a resting place. The footbar can be a place to launch their hands and feet or a place to stabilize them, depending on the exercise. Instructors will help users know when and how to use the footbar in their movements.
Reformer Headrest and Shoulder Blocks
On the end opposite to the footbar is a headrest and two shoulder blocks. Users nestle their heads and shoulders in this area during the many exercises that are performed lying down. The upholstered headrest cushions the user’s head to avoid injury or discomfort. The headrests can be repositioned to help support the head and neck during different exercises, and instructors will help users know when to adjust. The shoulder blocks help users stay steady and in place when they are lying down. They are also used as props similar to a yoga block in a number of movements such as tough stretches or positions.
On the ends of the reformer are sets of pulleys and straps. Users can wrap their hands or feet into the straps, and pull the carriage (and their bodies) in the opposite direction. Pulleys help the straps move fluidly. Users can use the springs to adjust the tension of the straps, and the pulley height can be adjusted to set the direction of resistance.
Straps (or ropes) are not solid structures, so they present a great challenge to core stabilization and balance. Straps are typically used to pull the user in a certain direction or just to hold one position for an extended time. Working to balance the straps builds deep muscle and strength.
Reformer Machine Safety Tips
The unique design and use of the reformer machine can make it challenging for new and experienced users. People have fallen off the machine, gotten caught in between the frame and carriage, been pinched by the springs and other accidents. It is critical to maintain concentration on the machine, your body, and your instructor throughout the workout. There are many safety principles to keep in mind while using the reformer to prevent injury.
Before getting on the machine, test that everything is working properly: that the carriage is moving smoothly, the head and shoulder rests are in place, the straps are securely fastened and the correct length, the pulleys move easily, and the spring hooks are loading.
It is easy to fall on the moving carriage, especially during fast-paced Pilates practices. When standing on the reformer be sure to step on to the stable surface first which is the footplate before the carriage when getting on the reformer.
Be Mindful of the Springs
Loaded springs create tension in the carriage and straps. They are a powerful tool to build muscle and stability in Pilates practice. It is critical to always be aware of their presence. If a spring is heavily loaded, the carriage will quickly return toward the footbar. Users want to learn control, precision, and concentration a.k.a some the principles of Pilates, so as to prevent injury on the reformer machine. Listen to your instructor closely when using the springs, and aim to keep the reformer controlled at all times. Always add spring(s) before you remove spring(s).
Understand Pilates Deeper
The most important safety tip for Pilates users is to build a strong foundation in your Pilates practice. The more understanding you have of the reformer machine, the safer you will be. This foundation is built through consistent practice and engagement in Reforming Foundations classes.
Reforming Foundations Reformer Class
Reformers are powerful tools to build muscle, align the body, practice stability, and reform your body. Any body can take advantage of their unique design, especially under the careful watch of our skilled instructors. Reforming Foundations offers a wide range of reformer classes for all levels of experience and needs. Classes are available to people across eastern Michigan, in our professional studios in Berkley, Rochester, of Milford. Our instructors will work with each individual as they learn to use the reformer machine and embrace the Pilates method. Find a studio location and class that fits your schedule and lifestyle, then come join us!