Reformer Pilates for Beginners

Benefits of Reformer Pilates for Beginners

While a Pilates Reformer can look strange to the initiated, with its springs, straps, and other moveable parts, it’s actually an ideal apparatus, or Pilates machine for beginning your Pilates practice. That’s because when you lie down on the Reformer with your shoulders resting against two blocks at the top of the apparatus and your feet resting against the Footbar at the other end, your instructor can spot imbalances in your body right away, even before you start to move. Is one hip higher than the other? Is one shoulder higher? This information will help your instructor give you the right mix of exercises to bring you back into ideal alignment.

How to Get Started

It’s possible to begin your Reformer practice online with a streaming video service, but due to the complexity of the apparatus and the safety risks, it’s best to get some instruction when you are starting out. Look for a studio offering private sessions (or Zoom sessions with an instructor, if in-person teaching is not an option). You can also start in a group Reformer class, but bear in mind that some studios will require students to take a few private sessions before joining a group class.

Before your first lesson, your instructor will likely ask you a series of questions about your health and fitness goals, your exercise and movement background, and whether you are dealing with current or chronic injuries or health concerns. Based on your responses, she or he will devise an appropriate and effective Pilates program for you.

While the bulk of your first session will probably take place on the Reformer, if you are practicing in a fully-appointed Pilates studio (as opposed to a group Reformer studio), you may also perform some exercises on other Pilates apparatuses, including the Mat. Because the Pilates method is a system, not just a series of unrelated exercises, expect to see the same shapes of the spine and body movements that recur in different formats. As you become more experienced, you will see how various exercises intersect, complement, and build upon each other. That’s part of the fun.

Tips and Precautions

It’s helpful to be aware of some best practices for safety when working out on the Reformer for the first time. Be aware that the platform will move, depending upon how many springs are attaching the carriage to the frame. Fewer springs mean less resistance, while more springs mean the carriage won’t move as much if you accidentally lean on it. Always check that there are at least one or two springs attached before mounting the Reformer.

For safety as well as hygiene (if you’re in a group class or studio), it’s helpful to wear special “grip socks” with silicone grips on the sole. This will keep the Reformer clean and also prevent slips and slides. Shoes are not worn on the Reformer. Not only might they damage the upholstery, but also Pilates exercises make use of the foot’s ability to articulate, and that’s not possible in sneakers.

Take a moment to make sure that the floor around your Reformer is clear of props, towels, or anything else that you or your instructor could trip on. Check that the Footbar is properly resting in its slot before you put your full weight on it in exercises like Long Stretch. Make sure that your clothing or jewelry isn’t loose or dangling, where it could get caught in the Reformer springs. Taking the time to think about best practices around safety helps prevent accidents and injuries.

Beginner Reformer Classes

Reformer Pilates Exercises for Beginners

As a beginner, you’ll work on exercises in which you are connected to the Reformer in several places to provide stability, and you’ll be starting with only a couple of spinal shapes. You’ll probably want to stick to exercises that work the limbs in unison, rather than one limb at a time because they don’t require as much stability or body awareness at first. You also won’t be doing exercises that require a lot of balance (for example, Side Splits or Lunges) at first.

Most beginners start out with simple exercises like Footwork. This series serves as a warm-up and allows you to get comfortable with the moving platform while remaining supported by the carriage (the bed-like part of the Reformer that you lie on). From there, you’ll progress to more challenging exercises, both in terms of choreography and level of strength or body awareness required, such as the Hundred, Knee Stretches, and Running. In some of these exercises, you’ll be lying on your back, and in others, you’ll sit or kneel on the Reformer or on a special apparatus called the Box that rests atop the Reformer.

Beginner Exercises

Mermaid

This exercise strengthens and stretches the obliques and shoulders.

Frog

This exercise focus on strengthening the abdominals, inner thighs and back of the legs while opening up the hips and stabilizing the pelvis.

Intermediate Exercises

Pulling Straps

This intermediate exercise strengthens the shoulders, arms and upperback.

Side Situps

This exercise challenges and strengthens the outer thigh, obliques and proprioception.

Progressions

You will probably start with a short Reformer set, but over time, your instructor will add in more exercises as well as more challenging versions of the exercises you are already doing. If you are able to perform the basic series while maintaining good form and using the desired muscle groups (not overloading the legs in Footwork, for example, but working the entire body in this exercise), you are likely ready to progress your Reformer practice.

At this point, you can add exercises that involve spinal rotation (twisting) and lateral flexion (side bending), such as the Short Box series, Stomach Massage, and Mermaid. You’ll also be ready for exercises that involve a bit more “choreography” or a sequence of movements, such as Coordination or Up Stretch. Also at this point, you can add one-sided exercises, such as Tree on the Short Box, and exercises that challenge your balance, like Lunges.

Don’t expect to “get it” after your first class. Pilates exercises are subtle. Trust the work, and you will get more out of the exercises each session. In fact, in classical Pilates, there is a set order of exercises that are performed each workout, with slight variations. The exercises are designed to build upon one another and challenge different areas of the body, such as the back body or the front body, or the upper body and the lower body so that no muscle group is overtrained.

Advanced Practice

If you’ve been looking at Instagram stories lately, you’ll see lots of creative and very challenging exercises. While some of these exercises are products of their creator’s imagination, and seemingly devised to generate “likes” instead of promoting good Pilates, there are plenty of traditional Pilates exercises that are the province of expert practitioners. These include the Long Spine Stretch and other exercises in which the hips leave the carriage, the full Lunge series, the Arm series, and the Long Box. These exercises are best explored under the watchful eye of an experienced Pilates instructor, and ideally, they can serve as a spotter or offer some tactile (hands-on) cueing as you begin.

An advanced Reformer practice includes rarely seen exercises performed at an accelerated pace, with one exercise flowing into the next one. An advanced practice isn’t only about executing the repertoire correctly and with a good understanding of the “how” and the “why” of each exercise, but it also includes memorizing the order of the exercises and seamlessly setting up the Reformer for each exercise (Footbar placement, spring settings, etc.). The result is a workout that almost resembles a dance between practitioner and apparatus.

How do you know when to progress safely to this level? The exercises in the advanced repertoire, require tremendous strength, flexibility, body awareness, confidence, and familiarity with the equipment. If you work one-on-one with an instructor, they will add new exercises into your workout one at a time, when your skills allow. Over time, and it may take several years, your Reformer workout will expand in duration as well as an increase in difficulty.

Intermediate Reformer Classes

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