About the Pilates Reformer

An Introduction to the Pilates Reformer

The Reformer is the first apparatus, or Pilates machine Joseph Pilates invented as well as the most well-known. The somewhat intimidating contraption consists of an elevated wood or metal frame that supports a gliding upholstered platform (known as “the carriage”). This carriage is affixed to a set of metal springs at one end of the frame that delivers resistance as the carriage moves. The springs are what set the Reformer apart from other fitness equipment, creating a distinct feel as well as the opportunity to simultaneously stretch and strengthen the body.

Types of Reformers

As the Pilates Reformer has become more popular, equipment manufacturers have tweaked Joe’s original concept. These contemporary versions incorporate different materials (such as wood in place of metal, or “vegan leather” upholstery instead of vinyl, for example) and options that allow for more variations in spring tension, making the exercises more accessible to beginners or those with injuries.

The big brand names are Gratz, known for their fidelity to Joe’s original designs, and Balanced Body, famous for their innovations and snazzy extras. There are a couple of other manufacturers that sell directly to the consumer, such as Peak Pilates, Pilates Designs, Merrithew (also known as STOTT), and AeroPilates. Even discount stores like Costco or websites like Overstock now sell Reformers for home use.

Both traditional and contemporary Reformers have their fans. Choosing the one that best suits your needs comes down to personal preference. If you have a tight budget or a small space, look for a sleek and lightweight Reformer like those used in group fitness classes. If you are an instructor or an experienced practitioner, you’ll probably prefer the make or model of Reformer that you have been using at your local studio, so that the feel of the exercises will be the same. Another plus: you’ll already know your preferred spring settings.

Pilates Reformer History

According to a possibly apocryphal story, in 1912, while stationed at an internment camp for enemy aliens at the start of World War I, Joe got the idea for what would become the Reformer. Using the springs from the metal hospital beds, Joe devised a series of rehabilitative exercises that would allow bedridden German soldiers to return to health. In 1926, after emigrating to the United States, Joe filed the first patent for what he dubbed The Universal Reformer, inspired by the work he had done more than a decade earlier.

More recently, some equipment manufacturers have updated Joe’s original Reformer design and added an additional fifth spring, as well as offering varying levels of tension. These light, medium, and heavy springs allow for a more customized workout and have paved the way for new variations on Joe’s original repertoire. In addition, on some models the straps have been replaced by ropes that can be easily shortened or lengthened, allowing for more even personalization. Other Reformer variations result in different amounts of drag as the carriage moves in and out, giving each brand a distinctive feel.

Informational Reformer Videos

Benefits of Reformer Pilates

The Reformer repertoire includes exercises that are performed lying down, sitting, kneeling, or standing, offering tremendous versatility from a single apparatus. Unlike most strength training equipment that is designed to train one or two muscles at a time, the Reformer works the muscles of the body in concert with one another, resulting in a balanced physique and leaving no muscle over or under-trained. Depending upon the exercise, the spring-based resistance either supports the body as it moves through space or adds challenge.

The places where the body is in contact with the Reformer provide information that helps your brain orient your body in space. It’s one of the reasons Pilates is known for improving body awareness and the mind-body connection. Joe Pilates created the Reformer (as well as his other apparatuses) to enable his clients to gain the strength and control necessary for his signature Mat work. On the Mat, however, you use only your own body weight as resistance. On the Reformer, the straps provide additional resistance while the visual and tactile landmarks of the Reformer help you maintain good form.

Pilates Reformer Exercises

Footwork - Toes

This exercise strengthens the legs and feet while warming up your whole body. There are several different positions of the feet in footwork.

Long Stretch

This exercise strengthens the abdominals and challenges stability on the moving carriage.

Reformer Accessories

Reformers are equipped with several distinctive accessories that are used for particular exercises. The largest of these accessories is the Box, a removable platform that elevates the carriage. The Box can be placed horizontally or vertically, depending upon the exercise. Exercises with the Box in the vertical position are called the “Long Box” series. Those that are done with the Box in the horizontal position (perpendicular to the carriage) are referred to as the “Short Box” exercises. In Short Box, the exerciser sits atop the box with one or both feet hooked under a “Foot Strap” at the base of the Reformer. This strap provides stability and is important for safety. Removable loops called “Extension Straps” extend the straps or ropes that are used in Leg Circles or the arm work, providing more challenge in advanced exercises such as Long Spine Stretch.

The optional Jump Board is a sturdy reinforced, padded plate that screws or slips into the base of the Reformer. Lying down on the Reformer with the feet in contact with the Jump Board replicates the feeling of standing work, but with very little impact on the joints. When used with light springs, the Jump Board provides a very challenging yet safe cardiovascular workout.

Reformer Maintenance

The Reformer is a big-ticket item and like other expensive purchases, for example, your car, it requires regular maintenance. Check the springs for signs of wear such as bulges, unevenness, splintering, odd sounds, etc., and replace them as needed. Wipe down the rails and carriage daily, using a solution of water with a few drops of regular dish soap. A microfiber towel is especially good at grabbing dirt.

Avoid the temptation, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, to invest in hospital-grade disinfectants or “organic” products like tea tree or lavender essential oils, as they will break down the Reformer upholstery over time. A solution of water and plain liquid dish soap is actually better suited to the task because it’s formulated to fight grease, making it effective at destroying the fatty layer that surrounds the coronavirus germs. This is also why frequent hand-washing is recommended as a Covid-fighting precaution. If you prefer to outsource maintenance on your Reformer, the manufacturer’s website can usually connect you to a technician in your area.

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