What to Expect Your First Time on a Reformer

For a beginner, a Pilates Reformer can appear more foe than friend. With long, wily straps, a large frame and moving platform, there’s good reason for the trope that this particular Pilates apparatus looks like a medieval torture device. But there’s no reason to fear the Reformer, especially if you know what to expect before your first attempt at Footwork or Knee Stretches. You, too, can master (or at least, control) the Reformer and other Pilates apparatus with a little help and a little practice.

Here’s what to expect your first time on a Reformer for Pilates at home or in the studio:

1. The carriage moves, and so will you.

Moving without gravity is one of the hallmarks of equipment-based Pilates and one of its great joys. But lying on your back (supine) on a moving platform can feel disorienting, even weird.

Amy Havens teaches the Beginner Series.

The more you use the equipment – and use caution and safety at all times – the more comfortable you will be in all your movements. The goal is to experience the motion of the carriage. You’re in charge, and you can control it all.

Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and exhale. You got this.

Watch Footwork on the Reformer:

2. You will feel as coordinated as a baby giraffe.

Listening for and learning cues, learning to use new muscles, and learning to use new equipment can throw anyone for a loop. There’s a lot going on!

If you’re practicing at home Pilates, lucky you. You have the freedom to explore, to experiment, and to make mistakes with no one watching.

If you’re in the studio, though, you might be next to a cadre of ballet dancers or someone who thinks she’s a ballet dancer (but really isn’t). It’s okay to check out what your classmates are doing; your experienced neighbor can be a good guide through the class. Go ahead, be inspired, just don’t be discouraged or intimidated by “Miss Balenchine” to your left. If you feel out of place, know that every person in the world has felt this way at some point in their Pilates practice.

Over time, you will build connections, learn proper form, and know what feels good to your body. Right now, though, it’s all new, and it doesn’t have to be perfect. So, you do you.

3. The springs are like a box of chocolates.

Pilates equipment uses springs with varying degrees of tension that are connected to one side of the Reformer. The springs provide both resistance and support for your exercises. The number and strength of springs vary from exercise to exercise, and the springs on the equipment can vary depending on the equipment manufacturer.

Peak Pilates® Reformer (left); Balanced Body® Allegro 2 Reformer (right)

If you’re practicing at home, check your owner’s manual. In a group class, listen to your teacher. Most importantly, listen to your body. A heavier spring might make your workout more challenging while at the same time help you perform an exercise better or help you connect to your muscles. Then again, a heavier spring can make exercise easier because it requires you to use less of your own body weight.

4. You get props.

Diane Diefenderfer teaches students using the Magic Circle on the Reformer.

Not the congratulatory kind (though, you will get those, too). We’re talking about balls and Therabands. The Reformer is a work of wonder, to be sure, but Pilates teachers often incorporate props like Magic Circles to help you connect to your muscles and to help improve your form. It’s all part of the fun.

Courtney Miller uses the Theraband.

5. You will break a sweat…eventually.

Pilates is a full body workout. When you are focused and concentrating (two of the Principles of Pilates) on your body and your movements, you are maximizing your energy output. Your muscles will warm up (you may even “feel the burn”), you will use muscles that you typically don’t use, and if done correctly, you will engage every.part.of.your.body. What if you’re not dripping with sweat by the end? You likely got a good workout. As you practice more and more, you will learn to go deeper and properly engage. And when you do, have those handy wipes handy.

Focus on the workout, breathe, and have fun. At the end you can give yourself a different kind of prop – a pat on the back – for giving Pilates a go!

How to Use a Pilates Reformer for Beginners

Whether you started on the mat and want to test out some apparatus work or you’ve heard buzz around studio Pilates reformer classes, hopping on the machine can be intimating and confusing at first. They are outfitted with straps, springs, and a sliding carriage, so if you’re not careful, you could actually hurt your body-or, at very least, your ego. But we promise this isn’t a cruel contraption. It’s a super-useful tool that can take your burn to heights you never knew existed.

To break down the reformer for beginners, we tapped Pilates instructor Elizabeth Heidari of Flex Studios in New York City to fill us in on everything a newbie needs to know before taking that first class. (Take it a step further and catch up on the seven things you didn’t know about Pilates.)

Mechanics of the Pilates Reformer

The Pilates reformer consists of a flat, cushioned, moving carriage with shoulder blocks for comfort and stability, which you’ll definitely need during certain exercises. You’ll also find a back and front platform at either end of the machine. The front platform usually hides the springs (more on those below) and sometimes a moveable bar that facilitates other possible exercise variations. The back platform may also have two adjustable bars. There are two sets of resistance straps with handles-one at the back platform and another, longer set near the carriage.

“Stepping onto either platform and stepping down to the floor is going to be the easiest way off, even if you feel like you’re losing your balance,” says Heidari. (Try thisworkout that combines Pilates and Tabata.)

The Springs

It’s this set of springs underneath the front platform that makes reformer Pilates what it is. Changing them makes the carriage and strap resistance lighter or heavier. The springs are typically color-coded to differentiate them, and you can have one or multiple springs attached at a time. It might seem like the lighter the resistance, the easier the exercise. But you’ll realize fairly quickly that when tension is low, you’ll have to recruit those core stabilizer muscles a lot more to maintain control, which is anything but easy. “Because Pilates is just as much about the balance of stability muscles versus muscles that are mobilizing, the springs come into play with that,” says Heidari. Using a lighter spring setting for a mobilizing exercise may feel too easy, but this lighter resistance will make a stability exercise incredibly difficult. Think of trying to hold a side plank when a gliding carriage is loose beneath you. Quivering limbs come to mind, right?

If you have any trouble changing springs or if you feel unstable with the current settings, just flag the instructor for help, says Heidari. And you’ll never have to guess which springs to be using-the instructor will call out any changes throughout class. As with any fitness method, proper form is everything (and you’ll want to avoid falling off the machine), so you’ll want to get this right.

The Straps

Carriage and platforms? Check. Springs for resistance? Check. Next is getting the hang of the straps attached to the reformer. Some traditional Pilates machines will have only one set of straps. But in many boutique fitness studios, Flex Studios included, you’ll find the hybrid reformer machines have two sets of straps-a long set and a short set. These will have loops on the end and can usually be found at the shoulder rests and at the front or back of the machine. They can be used in endless ways, but generally, Heidari says the shorter straps are used to create heavier tension, such as for lower-body or abs-focused moves. The longer straps on the carriage are typically used for more traditional Pilates exercises that focus on balance and stability while on the carriage.

One easy way for newbies to know which straps to use and when “is that the loops that go over the shoulder rests are only for when you’re on the carriage,” says Heidari. “There’s no other time they’re going to come off.”

The first time you try to wiggle your way into one of the longer straps’ loops, you’ll probably struggle to release them with enough slack to get into position. Remember that like the springs, the straps provide tension. Heidari shares how to look like a pro, instead of trying to stretch your extremities into contortion-like positions: Lie down, putting your head between the shoulder blocks. Reach behind to remove the loops, then bend your knees into your chest to bring the loops and your feet closer. This should allow you to slip one foot through a loop. Extend that leg to release the tension for the other strap and you’ll be able to easily get the other foot in.

The Front Platform

Depending on how wide it is, the front platform can be used to stand on. “I know a lot of teachers like to hop up there and do lateral work,” says Heidari. “So, facing the side you can do standing inner thighs, you can do pistol squats, you can do all kinds of stuff. But it’s basically just to give you a stable place for one leg or one arm.”

This platform can also be a “safe space” if you’re still getting used to the instability of the carriage. If you feel like you’re going to fall or injure yourself, Heidari says the front platform is a perfectly fine place to regain your balance and reset yourself to continue the movement. “It depends on what we’re doing on the machine, but that’s a great place to fall back on, to just step off,” she says. “To just know that there is a piece of non-moving equipment that’s not going to change or move on you.”

Common Pilates Reformer Mistakes Most Beginners Make

Moving Too Quickly

If you’re used to sprints and bursts of intense Tabata work, the slow and controlled movement in a Pilates reformer class might seem foreign at first, but you’ll quickly realize why slow doesn’t mean easy. Keep in mind that having control during the eccentric part of an exercise (when the muscle lengthens, like the lowering movement of a biceps curl or the standing movement of a squat), is critical to everything you do in class. So if the springs are on a heavy setting for a forward lunge, you should be mindful not to let the carriage slam closed from the tension, says Heidari. “Can you control the carriage to come back in, or control your arms to return back to neutral?”

Forgetting to Breathe

“I witness a lot of not wanting to breathe,” says Heidari. “I think that breath is something that’s really hard for people to grasp in the beginning.” But classes at Flex Studios will include breath coaching throughout each twist and turn-as much as you’d expect from a yoga class, she says. Plus, Pilates was first designed as a form of rehab, so it makes sense to think of a reformer class as a way to fine-tune your body’s natural movements and perfect your breathing. Heidari says she and other instructors can watch how you set up for and get out of an exercise, and offer guidance on how to control the movements and your breath.

Making Movements Big

“My biggest tip when I talk to newbies is that a lot of the stuff that we’re asking you to do in our space is a lot smaller than you think,” says Heidari. “Pilates is the little muscles.” Using a limited range of motion really targets those small, deep muscles that Pilates is known to recruit, but this can be confusing for rookies who think bigger movement equals bigger results. The aim is to get those tiny muscles to fire first, before using larger muscles or muscle groups, says Heidari.

Keep in mind that not all Pilates reformers are exactly the same, but this guide should help you get a sense of what to expect. (BTW, Pilates apparatuses and other equipment don’t start and end with the reformer. There are many other pieces that resemble a jungle gym, and these are typically utilized in personal training situations, but…baby steps.) Regardless, one round on the reformer, and we can all but guarantee your core is going to burn and shake like never before. With the lean, toned muscles and bonus flexibility you’ll gain, don’t be surprised if you’re hooked on the Pilates reformer. (Try this at-home Pilates workout for when you’ve been sitting all day.)

  • By Alyssa Sparacino @a_sparacino

A Guide to Reformer Pilates

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.

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.

All Pilates exercises, irrespective of whether they are performed on a mat, or using apparatus like the reformer, Cadillac, trapeze, chair or barrel, 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.

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 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.

Like mat-based exercises, reformer exercises are often grouped into and performed as a series, which may also be referred to as a repertoire. 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
  • Rowing (front and back)
  • Long box
  • Short box
  • Stomach massage
  • Side-lying
  • Kneeling
  • Long stretches
  • Knee stretches

Reformer Instructors

Reformer Pilates instructors undertake extensive training on the reformer and which surpasses what is taught on the Level 3 Diploma in Mat Pilates Qualification. There are no National Occupational Standards (NoS) or Professional Standards for reformer Pilates and as such, standardisation between different reformer Pilates courses is highly variable. There are a number of providers offering reformer Pilates training (including HFE), some of which are delivered entirely online. Pilates is a very tactile form of exercise and one which requires highly specific patterns of movement in order to target key stabilising muscles. It’s highly unlikely that anyone completing an online reformer Pilates course would be able to get the requisite level of skill without physically attending their training.

Features

The Flow Form™ Pilates Trainer combines Pilates exercise methods with a sophisticated, yet easy-to-use unit. It is designed to stretch, strengthen and balance the body while stimulating circulation, increasing lung capacity, toning and firming muscles. By engaging one or more of the four resistance bands, you can tailor your Pilates workout to your own strength and fitness level without any unnecessary strain to your body. The cushioned Glide Board gives you the ability to move with ease and to target the muscular areas you want. This innovative design can be stored on the floor or upright. The offer includes a nutrition guide to help maximize your results.

  • Designed to shape and strengthen your abdominals, upper & lower back, hips, outer & inner thighs, hamstrings, triceps and pectorals
  • Cushioned Glide Board supports smooth low-impact movement
  • Four color coded bungee resistance bands offer multiple levels of resistance
  • Padded handles, footbar, headrest, and shoulder rest
  • Slim design can be stored flat or upright
  • Comes with 12-Day Super Slim-down and nutrition guide
  • Transport wheels
  • Assembly required (mostly pre-assembled)

Shipping Note: Shipping to Alaska, Hawaii, and APO addresses is not available for this item

Warranty: 90 Day Woot Limited Warranty

Reasons why you should try the Pilates Reformer

Okay so I am about to start teaching Reformer! Eek! this begins in January at the Watertown BSC. Nervous, excited, yes, but still learning it and loving it. If you haven’t tried reformer yet…check it out. It will really help bring your mat work to perfection.

For those of you that aren’t really sure what the heck a refomer is…here’s a quick rundown from livestrong.com!

The Pilates Reformer is an exercise machine used to incorporate the Pilates exercise technique for a challenging and intense workout. Springs, leverage and body weight are used as resistance while performing movements targeting specific muscle groups. Workouts consist of controlled, flowing movements working your muscles through a full range of motion. The reformer adds increased resistance to the movement. By working to overcome this resistance, training results in increased fitness levels.

Benefits of using the Pilates Reformer:

Muscles exert force to overcome resistance. Training results include increased muscle fiber endurance, size and strength along with increased connective tissue strength. With increased muscular endurance, your muscles are able to exert force for extended periods. Increased endurance enables you to perform everyday tasks without fatigue. Additional benefits include improved muscle tone as muscles are lengthened and strengthened without appearing bulky.

2. Increased Core Strength

Exercising on the Pilates Reformer requires proper form and technique. The focus of proper positioning is within the core, your abdomen and lower back muscles. By conditioning the core muscles, they will contract with all movements to stabilize and align your spine. A strong core will increase the effectiveness of all exercises due to your ability to maintain proper alignment. Core strength increases your ability to generate power to your muscles and decreases the risk of injury.

3. Improved Posture

Workouts on a Pilates Reformer will improve your spinal alignment. With improved alignment, your muscles will strengthen to improve spinal support and stability. Improved posture will lengthen your joints giving you a taller appearance. Muscular imbalances will be corrected decreasing the risk for injury, especially to the lower back. Awareness of proper posture during exercise will carry over to awareness of proper posture when performing everyday movements.

4. Increased Flexibility

Flexibility is the range of motion of your muscles and connective tissue. Workouts on a Pilates Reformer require your muscle groups to move through a full range of motion. Improved flexibility decreases strain and stress on your joints and muscles. Muscles contract with increased efficiency, and workouts are more effective. Improved flexibility reduces stiffness, soreness and the chance of injury. You can perform everyday movements with less strain and fatigue.

5. Improved Breathing

Pilates workouts emphasize proper breathing. Breathing becomes deeper and less frequent, resulting in improved relaxation. Benefits include increased lung capacity and breathing efficiency during workouts and at rest. Your lungs are better equipped to supply your body with increased oxygen during workouts. Energy levels increase during exercise and at rest.

6. Reduced Body Fat

Exercise increases your metabolism, your body’s ability to burn calories. Increased muscle mass increases the number of calories burned. When the amount of calories burned is more than the amount of calories eaten, excess body fat is burned and used for energy to meet the increased demand.

To the unfamiliar eye, the Pilates reformer might look like a torture device. A sliding platform, springs, ropes, handles and foot bars…oh my. It can be overwhelming to behold and even more confusing to watch the workout take place: why would anyone do Pilates reformer, you might ask.

Truly, the reasons to do reformer are many. Whether you’re brand new to Pilates or have previously trained in mat, this technique on one of the most versatile, interesting apparatus offers many benefits to the mind and muscles.

What is Pilates reformer?

Pilates reformer was developed as part of the Pilates protocol for whole-body fitness by Joseph Pilates in the early 1900s. Intended to help the body “relearn” how it was meant to move, this intricate piece of machinery helps the body flow and move against resistance to gain strength, stability and fluidity.

Pilates exercises unite mind and body through controlled breathing and a carefully crafted sequence of movements. In the case of reformer, movements are performed on a machine that provides external resistance as you push, pull and twist through the series.

The machine—a seat on track, attached to springs for resistance and outfitted with ropes and bars for balance and alignment—became central to the Pilates practice. When performing exercises, the machine keeps the body in the correct position, providing tactile feedback to help us know when we’re in the right spot and hitting the right muscles.

The Pilates reformer sequence follows a series of moves to open, lengthen and strengthen the feet, legs, glutes, hips, shoulders, back and arms—all the while engaging the core to stay stable and balanced. Some exercises are performed supine on the cadillac (that moving seat) while others are performed kneeling, sitting or laying on the side. Each exercise is balanced by another: for every contraction, there is a release and for every push there is a pull. It truly is a full-body routine. You will leave feeling longer, more connected with your breath and in touch with some tiny muscles you may not have known you had.

Physical benefits of Pilates reformer

Like other styles of Pilates, reformer is a phenomenal workout for your body’s “powerhouse,” or your abs, lower back, hips and glutes. It is heavily focused on alignment and accurate muscle engagement, which can lead to improved posture, better balance and more stability, especially when in motion. If you’ve ever coveted a ballet dancer’s graceful, fluid movement, Pilates could be a great way to help you work towards that. An integrated, stable body moves well and is less at risk to injury.

This workout also requires you to work against resistance that can be adjusted using the springs on the reformer. Training with resistance builds strength, and although Pilates doesn’t look like it’s burning a ton of calories or breaking a sweat, the long-term benefits of more lean muscle mass are great, including an increased metabolism and greater resistance to metabolic disorders.

Reformer also provides a terrific no-impact workout. You spend the majority of your time laying down or sitting or kneeling on the cadillac, exerting little force on your joints. This makes it a great tool for recovering from injury and strengthening the muscles around problematic joints to keep them strong (and injury-free).

Mental benefits of Pilates reformer

Pilates relies heavily on the integration of mind and body. Careful syncing of the breath with movement is integral to the practice. These help to create more body awareness, more attention to physical signals and deeper understanding of how controlling the breath helps quiet the mind. (It can take a lot to push through some of those tough holds and pulses!)

Focusing on how your mind and body relate as you work through the movements helps bolster concentration and has been suggested to improve thinking and problem solving.

There is something very soothing, too, about the fluid, rhythmic movements performed on the reformer. You may feel as though you’re swimming (albeit a challenging, active swim). This calm motion can be a tremendous stress-reliever as tension is physically worked out of the body.

Plus, there’s just something really satisfying about completing an hour on the reformer—or the full series of moves in the sequence. It can be quite daunting at first, so the confidence boost is something to look forward to!

Pilates reformer is a highly effective, unique way to use your body. It will help you gain strength, stability and a deeper connection to your core, plus, it’s just really fun to play on what feels like a grown-up jungle gym.

ClassPass offers a ton of amazing Pilates reformer classes, many with unique takes on the sequence that incorporate additional tools, exercises or music. There are, of course, other studios that teach the classical set of moves performed in order in a quiet space. Each will provide different benefits and a different class experience. Explore what’s around you to find the one that feels best.

No matter what, you’ll start to develop a rock-solid core and killer strength—all while looking like a swan.

The first time you take any new fitness class can be a little intimidating. But for some reason, Pilates classes have an extra air of “avoid this if you don’t know what you’re doing.” Maybe it’s the reformer, with its straps and springs. Maybe it’s the exercise names that you’ve never heard before. (What’s this “Pilates Hundred” thing?)

If you’ve wanted to try Pilates classes but something has been holding you back, now’s your time to sign up for your first one. Pilates offers plenty of benefits to your body, no matter your fitness background. You’ll improve your posture, focus on bodily alignment, and get one heck of a core workout.

Whether you’re on the mat or machine, you can snag the same benefits. A 2016 study found that eight weeks of Pilates classes improved abdominal endurance, flexibility, and balance. Plus, Pilates has seen a resurgence in popularity, with franchises such as Club Pilates popping up around the country.

Want to know what the hype is all about? Here’s everything a Pilates newbie needs to know to enjoy their first class.

What is Pilates, anyway?

Pilates is a form of low-impact exercise that aims to strengthen muscles while improving postural alignment and flexibility. Pilates moves tend to target the core, although the exercises work other areas of your body as well. You can do Pilates with or without equipment (more on that below), but no matter what, expect the moves to involve slow, precise movements and breath control. “Pilates is a full-body exercise method that will help you do everything better,” Sonja Herbert, a Pilates instructor and founder of Black Girl Pilates, tells SELF. “It strengthens and stabilizes your core body, which is your foundation, so that you can move efficiently while improving your posture, flexibility, and mobility.” A typical Pilates workout is 45 minutes to an hour long.

1. There are two different kinds of Pilates classes: mat classes and reformer classes.

You’ll be tackling a class that’s based on either a mat, which is a tad thicker than your standard yoga mat, to cushion pressure points, or a machine called a reformer, which is a sliding platform complete with stationary foot bar, springs, and pulleys that provide resistance. Know which one you’re getting into before you commit to your workout.

Both options focus on the concept of control rather than cranking out endless reps or muscle exhaustion. In Pilates, your muscles are working to lift against gravity and (in the case of the reformer) the resistance of the springs or bands, with the ultimate goal of strengthening and isolating the right muscles. Your goal should be to take your time with the exercises, focus on the task at hand, and connect to your breath.

“The reformer experience is maybe the most fun you’ll have in a Pilates class,” says Heather Andersen, founder of New York Pilates. “The machine gives you added resistance and a sliding surface that challenges your workout. It often feels like you’re flying or gliding.”

There are also many Pilates-inspired workouts, like SLT, Brooklyn Bodyburn, and Studio MDR, that aren’t considered “classic” Pilates but offer many of the same benefits. These studios use a next-level reformer called a Megaformer, which is larger than a traditional reformer.

Regardless of what class you choose, make sure to let your instructor know you’re a beginner. This way, they’ll be able to keep an eye on you throughout the class and offer modifications or form adjustments.

2. There are a few other pieces of equipment to know, but they probably won’t show up in most beginner Pilates mat classes.

Many Pilates mat classes don’t require any equipment other than, yes, a mat, which is usually provided. But other classes can use different equipment in addition to the reformer. The most common pieces of equipment are the Wunda, a low chair with padding and springs, the Cadillac (which looks a little like a bed with a canopy frame and is used in various ways for advanced students), the spine corrector, the high chair, and the Magic Circle, a ring you often use between your legs to create resistance. “In most class settings, you will typically use the reformer, the chair, Magic Circle, spine corrector, and a smaller version of the Cadillac called the tower unit,” says Herbert, who advises beginners to take a few private lessons, if possible, to safely learn how to use the equipment before signing up for a group class.

3. You’ll feel your muscles burn during class, and you’ll probably be sore the next day.

While you may not be crushing high-intensity exercises like squat jumps or lifting heavy dumbbells, the mostly bodyweight routines that Pilates classes offer can be pretty intense. Take the signature Pilates Hundred, for example. A core-focused move that involves less than two inches of constant movement will make your abs burn. A good instructor should give you modifications so that you can perform each movement with good form (another reason to introduce yourself as a beginner before class starts).

7 Things to Know Before Your First Pilates Reformer Class

If you’re thinking about taking a Pilates reformer class, but not really sure what to expect, you’re not alone. For one, if you walk in believing it’s going to be a slow, easy workout, you’re in for a wake-up call. Pilates classes focus on utilizing the entire body to improve strength, flexibility and even posture. While many of the movements might be small and performed slowly, they’re done to target specific muscle groups, many of which you may never work in your usual fitness routine. And reformer classes introduce a whole other element, too, utilizing the machine to add resistance and leverage to certain exercises.

Don’t read this wrong — Pilates is great for beginners and totally open to all levels of experience, but it might help to know a few things before walking into your first reformer class. We spoke with one of our Pilates experts to get the rundown on what to know before your first reformer experience.

1

THIS ISN’T A MAT CLASS

While a lot of the foundational movements are the same across Pilates classes, know that when you walk into a Pilates reformer class, you won’t be lying on a mat on the ground. You’ll be performing most of the moves on a Pilates reformer, which is a machine that’s comprised of a carriage that moves back and forth along a track. Said carriage is connected to springs of varying resistance, which provide the weight for the exercises you perform, explains Elizabeth Heidari, Pilates instructor at Flex Studios in New York City. “The biggest difference between a mat and reformer class is this addition of resistance to the exercises,” she says. “This makes moves more intense than they would be in a mat class.”

2

TIGHT CLOTHING IS BEST

Think: form-fitting tanks and leggings (or tighter T-shirts and shorts). Not only will you be moving your body in all different positions where loose clothing might creep up, but tight clothing allows the instructor to assess your alignment, which in turn allows you to get the most out of the class, explains Heidari.

3

INVEST IN GRIPPY SOCKS AND GLOVES

You know those socks with little dots all over the soles? Well those dots are actually small rubber grips and these socks were made for classes like Pilates reformer (and barre). The grips provide traction and prevent your feet from slipping on the machine … especially once you start to sweat. There are also gloves available with grips, and while you may think it seems silly, trust us when we tell you that your hands — especially beginners’ — will be sweaty in no time. “Grippy socks and gloves also give you better grip even when you’re not sweating, so you can focus on activating the proper muscles and not crunching your fingers or toes to stay in place,” says Heidari.

4

EACH SPRING REPRESENTS A DIFFERENT AMOUNT OF RESISTANCE

At the beginning of class, your instructor will explain the machine and all the different parts including the springs, which is where the resistance comes into play. “Most traditional reformers have yellow, blue and red springs,” says Heidari. “Yellow is usually the lightest resistance, blue is medium and red is heavy.” Adding or subtracting springs makes exercises more or less challenging. And don’t worry about deciding which resistance to use — your instructor will shout out the resistance levels, sometimes with options based on experience level, so as long as you listen, you’ll be just fine. Which brings us to the next point …

5

LISTEN TO YOUR INSTRUCTOR

When you bring the reformer machine into the mix, there’s a lot of moving parts in a Pilates class … especially if you’re a beginner. It’s easy to get lost trying to change resistance, properly place your hands and feet on the platform or using the handles attached to the reformer. “It’s OK to look at your neighbor, especially if they’re a veteran, to get a feel for the position you’re supposed to be in,” says Heidari, “but listening to the instructor first should give you a good indication of where you’ll be on the machine.” Looking around can give you confirmation that you heard correctly!

READ MORE > 7 THINGS I WISH I KNEW BEFORE STARTING REFORMER PILATES

6

YOUR WRISTS MAY GIVE OUT BEFORE THE REST OF YOUR BODY DOES

Pilates works a lot of the smaller, less commonly used muscles in your body, including the wrists. Many moves have you balancing on your hands, which isn’t a position many find themselves in too frequently (unless you’re doing a plank). “Your wrists have muscles just like any other part of your body,” says Heidari. “It takes work and time to build strength there.” If your wrists really start to fatigue, take a quick break to shake them out and then jump back in.

7

YOU’LL WORK EVERY MUSCLE

Pilates reformer classes are full-body workouts, so don’t be surprised if the class is harder than you initially thought it would be. Chances are you’ll be working many muscles you don’t use very often. And your core will take a beating. “The core, including your abs, lower back and pelvis are utilized throughout the entire class,” says Heidari. “Whether to stabilize the torso so that the arms and legs can move or as a mobilizer so the ribs and hips can rotate and shift, your core will be activated.” Hey, you wanted a six-pack, right?

What is Reformer Pilates?

Developed by Joseph Pilates in the 1920s, Pilates exercises are one of the most popular exercise techniques being used today. The best thing about these exercises is that anyone, including athletes, children, and senior citizens, can perform them. Reformer Pilates is one of the most common types of Pilates equipment.

Curious about what Reformer Pilates is all about? Read on to learn what this piece of equipment can do and how you can benefit from reformer Pilates exercises.

Understanding Reformer Pilates

The Reformer is an adjustable frame designed like a bed. It involves a movable carriage attached to part of the frame by several colored springs. These springs are designed to provide different levels of resistance as you push or pull yourself on the carriage along the bed.

The equipment also features shoulder blocks that ensure you don’t slide off the carriage. There are also straps with handles, which you can pull with either your hands or legs to perform various exercises. Also worth noting is the adjustable footbar where the springs are attached.

You can use the footbar with your hands or feet as you move the carriage. Various parts of the reformer are adjustable to suit different body sizes as well as different skill levels.

How to Use a Pilates Reformer

The reformer is a versatile piece of equipment. It allows you to perform a wide range of exercises to improve strength, balance, and flexibility. You can perform exercises while sitting, standing, lying down, perched on the shoulder blocks or the footbar, as well as by pulling or pushing the straps.

You may also use the Reformer with other equipment. That means you can use it to target different parts of the body with variations of exercises. Whether you are a beginner or a veteran, there’s a selection of pilate reformer exercises for you to choose from.

The Benefits of Reformer Pilates

Reformer Pilates has been proven to have a wide range of benefits. According to research, Pilates reformer exercises are effective in improving body awareness as well as spinal and pelvic alignment. These added benefits help you to perform exercises without exerting undue pressure on your joints and muscles.

Moreover, it is effective for treating groin and hamstring strains. It can also be beneficial for managing and preventing lower back pain.

Below are some other benefits of Reformer Pilates:

  • Improving tone and helping with weight loss
  • Strengthening major muscle groups
  • Building core strength
  • Improving balance and stability
  • Enhancing flexibility and range of motion
  • Calming the mind and improving focus

Conclusion

Pilates reformer is an excellent piece of equipment with loads of benefits and a wide range of usage options. You can learn reformer Pilates by attending reformer Pilates classes; if you don’t like the idea of group reformer classes, however, you may consider engaging a private trainer. There are also online Pilates classes, so you don’t necessarily need a live instructor in order to learn. Once you understand the basics of Pilates exercise, you very well might consider purchasing a Pilates home reformer for yourself.

The reformer pilates machine

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