Joe Pilates Training a man on the Reformer Pilates

What is a Reformer? How does it work?

The Pilates Reformer is one of the apparatus, or pieces of equipment, that Joe Pilates invented in the early 1900s. It is used for the Pilates Method of exercise. German-born Joe Pilates invented the Method, which he called Contrology, during his lifetime (1883-1967). He was influenced by his study of boxing, yoga, martial arts, gymnastics, body building, swimming, diving, skiing, and more. He invented the Universal Reformer to enhance his Contrology Method. The design of it was based roughly on a moveable bed, with springs (he originally used springs from hospital bed frames attached to the head board for exercises with bed-ridden patients in England). He continued to develop his apparatus designs after moving to the United States in 1925.

The Reformer has a low rectangular frame about 7 feet long. The frame has four legs, and in the frame rests what is called the carriage. The carriage is a thick, padded rectangular mat on wheels, so that when one is lying, standing, or sitting on the carriage, it can move. At the base of the carriage is a set of four springs that are used in various configurations (0-4 springs, plus different spring locations) to properly align the client, and to make the exercises more challenging. At the head of the carriage is a set of leather straps. At the head of the Reformer frame is where the leather straps loop through another set of wheels and terminate in a pair of handles. These handles can also be for the hands or feet. At the base of the Reformer frame is a moveable foot bar. This can also be for the hands or feet.

What is a Pilates Reformer used for and how will it change my body?

 Joe Pilates invented hundreds of Reformer Pilates exercises that can be done on the Pilates Reformer. The Reformer is used for a full body workout. Exercises on the Reformer tone your stomach (upper, lower, and deep abdominals), obliques (your side abs and waist), lower legs, inner thighs, outer thighs, hips, bottom, whole back, arms, neck and shoulders. You will increase your heart rate, balance control, flexibility, lung capacity, circulation, and concentration. Additionally, the Reformer exercises enhance your coordination, rhythm, and stability.

Reformer Pilates can be used by all body types, regardless of age, height, weight, or how fit you are. Not every client will do the exercises being demonstrated by Joe Pilates below. Your instructor will choose the appropriate exercises for your abilities and work up from there.

Joe Pilates demonstrates Reformer Pilates exercises on the long box

Your instructor may have you lie down on your stomach or back, stand up, balance, sit, or kneel on the Reformer. You can have your hands or feet in the straps, or on the foot bar. There are hundreds of different exercises of varying levels that can be used to increase mobility where you are tight, and build strength where you are weak. On everyone, one side is stronger than the other, whether it is because you are right or left handed, have scoliosis, drive a stick shift, play an instrument, or a sport, for example. The springs can be adjusted to challenge your weaker side, and sometimes your instructor will have you repeat an exercise on one side. Reformer Pilates is excellent for revealing discrepancies since you are meant to be completely square on the apparatus. With the shoulder blocks and foot bar helping to keep you even, you will feel truly “reformed” after even a basic Reformer Pilates workout.

If your instructor wants to work you out on other pieces of equipment, Reformer Pilates can also be used for specific exercises to target a particular muscle group, rather than being the main workout apparatus of your Pilates session. For example, your instructor may choose for you to do some exercises on the Wunda Chair, the Cadillac, the High Chair, etc., because the Reformer doesn't offer the same exercise, or because that particular exercise suits your body better on a different piece of apparatus.

How long is a Reformer Pilates session?

Typically, private Reformer Pilates lessons last about 55 minutes. You may spend your entire session on the Reformer, but depending on your instructor and what your body needs, you will likely be using other pieces of equipment and the mat. Also, it is recommended that you do Pilates 1-3 times a week, at least. This is especially important when you are starting out, so that your body can learn this new form of moving. You can combine your Reformer workout with mat classes, and other equipment lessons as well, depending on what your studio offers.

The original Reformer design plans by Joe Pilates

What type of Reformer is best?

 In my opinion, the best Reformer is manufactured by Gratz. Visit their website at www.pilates-gratz.com.

 Gratz is the original manufacturer of the Universal Reformer (as it was called by Joe Pilates). Gratz continues to make all of the Pilates apparatus at the highest quality and standards outlined by Joe Pilates. Gratz is the only equipment used by Classical Pilates Master Teachers Jay Grimes, Kathi Ross-Nash, Dorothee VandeWalle, Brooke Siler, Mari Winsor, and many more. All of these instructors studied with Romana Kryzanowska who trained with Joe Pilates. Jay Grimes also studied with Joe Pilates. Says Grimes, “Joe Pilates developed his exercise method and his apparatus hand in hand. He was adamant about performing the exercises with precision, and was equally adamant about the precision of the apparatus. For over four decades Gratz has been manufacturing Pilates equipment to these exacting standards, and for me Pilates and Gratz go hand in hand. To achieve the true Pilates experience, and to get the full benefit of these exercises, Gratz is the only way to go.”

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Pilates was in his early 80s in this photo on the Cadillac, another apparatus that he invented.

Romana Kryzanowska studied with Pilates for many years, trained hundreds if not thousands of teachers, and carried on Pilates's legacy well into the 2000's. She was chosen by Pilates to share his work that he developed over his extensive career. Says Kryzanowska, “Gratz is an undeniable part of Pilates history, having built Universal Reformers to Joseph Pilates' rigorous specifications, but it's an even more essential part of this exercise method's future. No other Pilates apparatus feels as good, lasts as long or preserves the Pilates Method as safely and authentically as Gratz. The difference is clear with the first workout.” Kryzanowska passed away in 2013, but her well-trained instructors carry on her work.

Many other manufacturers have produced Pilates Reformers, but have made changes to their dimensions or parts. Other Reformers are manufactured by Basil, Peak, Balanced Body, Stott, Aero Pilates, Malibu Pilates, Pilates Power Gym, and more. These apparatus have varying degrees of quality and price. Gratz straps are leather, while some others are made of nylon cords. Angles of the foot bar are different, and newer locking mechanisms for the foot bar obstruct the flow of the Pilates routine. Some newer Reformers also have 5 springs instead of four, and the springs are varying tensions. Gratz springs all have the same tension. The reason this is important is because if you are adjusting the spring setting for a client who may need more tension on the right or the left of the carriage, you can't do that with a Reformer that has 5 springs of different tensions. The five springs are pre-set in position on the carriage, so you can't choose which side has more tension.

Additionally, newer models of the Reformer help the carriage come back in more, making it less work on the body. Those who work out on Gratz notice that the spring tension is stronger, and the design is more simple, making your body do more of the work. If you're going to do Pilates, why do Reformer Pilates on equipment that wasn't designed for it in the first place? Gratz is the most expensive equipment on the market, but you're paying for quality apparatus that will last forever.

Can I use a Reformer at home?

My best recommendation would be to do Reformer Pilates with a trained Classical Instructor on Gratz equipment, and if you want an at-home practice, do Pilates Mat at home. You can get small at-home props such as exercise weights and a Magic Circle and get an amazing workout using those props (and you can even use a wall at home too). Your instructor can teach you the “Reformer on the Mat” series which is a class offered by Cisco Pilates, once you have advanced enough. Chances are, you may be given homework by your instructor anyway.

Students at Cisco Pilates practice the star on the mat in a Reformer on the Mat class

The Reformer and other Pilates apparatus were designed to support your body in the mat workout. Mat Pilates is extremely challenging, so Joe Pilates created all of the apparatus so that your ultimate workout, the mat work, would be more accessible. There are many exercises on the mat that are difficult for particular body types (such as people with tight low backs, tight hamstrings, or in opposition, too much mobility). The Reformer provides the stability and strength building of the springs, and its unique design allows for you to open your low back, hamstrings, and much more, in ways that are not possible on just the mat. Combining your mat workout with a Pilates Reformer, and other Pilates equipment, is the best overall, full-body workout that you can achieve.

In conclusion, don't waste your money on the smaller, less expensive "at home" Reformer Pilates. It would be more worth it to have private or small group lessons with a trained professional. You can even take mat classes at a Pilates studio, but definitely do Pilates at a private studio instead of a gym. A private studio is where you will find certified instructors, and proper apparatus.

How Reformer Pilates is Changing bodies