Reformer Pilates: What it is, who it's best for and how to do some moves without the reformer

Everything you need to know about the Pilates reformer machine — plus how to take some of the popular exercises out of class and onto a mat a home.
Image: Pilates teacher assists student using reformer for leg exercises
Pilates exercises performed on a Reformer machine are great for injury rehabilitation and isolating the core muscles. Betsie Van der Meer / Getty Images
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By Stephanie Mansour

Chances are, you’ve heard of Pilates. The popular low-impact workout is comprised of a series of core exercises that helps flatten and tone your mid-section, as well as stabilize and support your spine and back.

Pilates mat classes are offered in mainstream gyms across America. But a different kind of Pilates — Pilates exercises performed on a reformer machine — has been picking up steam, too. This workout is great for people recovering from an injury or those looking to home in on precise core movements and isolate more muscles than in Pilates done on a mat. It is also a great option for low-impact recovery and injury rehabilitation. As for the cost, a class at Club Pilates (which has studios all over the country), will run you anywhere from $25-$35 depending on your location.

As a certified Pilates instructor, I recommend that people try a Pilates mat class first to learn the fundamentals without the added requirement of getting used to the reformer machine. Yet some people like to start immediately on the reformer to learn how to activate the core properly before even stepping foot on to a mat for a Pilates class. But before you hop on the reformer, here's everything you need to know about what to expect in a class — plus how to take some of the popular exercises out of class and onto a mat a home.

What is a Pilates reformer ?

The reformer was invented by Joseph Pilates and is a bed-like frame with a flat platform that rolls back and forth on wheels. "It is an apparatus used as a part of a Pilates exercise session under the direction of an instructor that uses springs for assistance and resistance to achieve proper muscle length and strength in an organized way," says Julie O'Connell, PT, DPT at Athletico Physical Therapy. "The reformer assists the individual in achieving the goals of Pilates, which include the use of diaphragmatic breathing to organize the body’s posture through coordinated movements with an emphasis on postural control.”

The platform is called the carriage, and the carriage is attached to one end of the reformer by a set of springs. The springs allow you to adjust resistance to the carriage, which will be pushed and pulled along the frame by your own body weight and strength. There are also shoulder blocks on the carriage that keep you in a stable position so that you’re not sliding off of the end of the reformer .

There is a footbar at the end of the reformer — an adjustable bar that holds the springs. Your feet and hands can be placed on this bar depending on the exercise. The reformer also has long straps with handles on them that your feet or hands can be placed in to; these are at the top of the frame opposite of the footbar. The springs can be adjusted to affect both the footbar and the handles, to modify the workout for different skill levels and body types. In fact, the reformer is used not only by people looking to strengthen their core, but also by dancers for training and injury rehabilitation.

Is Pilates reformer a good workout for you?

“The Pilates reformer is best for individuals who are seeking to achieve core stability and good postural alignment," says O'Connell. According to Tianna Strateman, VP of Education for the Club Pilates, Pilates reformer can be a great workout for anyone. “Both the equipment and the exercises can be modified and adjusted to any body, which makes it perfect for those looking to tone up, rehab from an injury, train for a particular hobby or sport, or for those looking for low impact, full-body workout.”

Shelley Kapitulik, an instructor at Prive Swiss Fitness, agrees that Pilates reformer work is low-impact and adaptable to all fitness levels. “It benefits everyone from teenagers to seniors and elite athletes to people with a more sedentary lifestyle,” she says. “Pilates reformer work focuses on core strength and proper muscle engagement which improves athletic performance, back pain, injury recovery, weight loss, balance, bone density and posture to name a few. It is a movement system designed to better our everyday life and well being.” As a Pilates instructor myself, my sister often comes to me for workout advice. During her pregnancy, we discussed working out on the reformer with a private instructor so that she could properly isolate her core muscles without rolling around on the mat. The reformer gave her more control and stability during her pregnancy.

But that doesn't mean there aren't some restrictions to be aware of. "There are requirements for participants to be able to tolerate lying down flat on your back to participate on a Pilates reformer ," says O'Connell. "For pregnant patients, in the third trimester, it is not recommended to lie down on your back for prolonged periods."

And people with other spinal or neck issues may need to be aware of proper modifications, she adds. Always speak to your doctor before starting any exercise program — and be sure to tell your instructor if you have any injuries. "If any of the exercises recommended by the instructor cause pain, then communicating with the instructor is important and the exercise should be stopped. It is important to listen to your body and adjust the amount of resistance through changing the springs, and modifying the positions to allow for proper alignment," O'Connell explains.

What results can you expect to see?

The reformer accommodates a full range of motion, which is great for increasing flexibility while building strength. The pushing and pulling with the arms and legs against the resistance of the springs, carriage and body weight makes this a unique strength-building full-body workout that’s different from the regular Pilates exercises performed on the mat. Specifically, when you hold the cables in your hands or put your feet in the cables, you allow your muscles to extend to the fullest position. And while mat Pilates does include some exercises that work the legs and arms, they’re usually done with no resistance unless you’re using light dumbbells or a Pilates ring as an accessory. The reformer is able to target your arms and legs while still focusing on the core, providing a more comprehensive workout.

According to one study, Pilates reformer exercises performed once per week for 10 weeks resulted in reduced fall risk and significant improvements in static and dynamic balance and functional mobility in adults age 65 and older at risk for falling. Another study showed that after twelve sessions of Pilates with the reformer equipment, there were improvements in lower back and shoulder strength.

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O'Connell says that you can expect to see increases in flexibility, muscular strength and muscular endurance with an improved mind-body connection. “Visually, you will see strong and lean muscles with improved posture. With the focus on core stability and total body strength, Pilates will help to facilitate muscle activation and development to support proper spinal alignment,” she explains.

I have had a few clients that swear by Pilates reformer workouts. I recommend that they do 2-3 sessions a week to really work on leaning out the body. It’s great for building the smaller core muscles, and also stretching out the longer muscles in the body. In fact, many of my clients see weight loss as a result of their reformer classes and feel that their posture has transformed because of it.

Common Pilates reformer exercises — and how to mimic them at home

Curious what exercises exactly you’ll be performing on the contraption? Here are a few popular Pilates reformer exercises, and ways that you can mimic these exercises on the mat in the comfort of your living room without a reformer machine.

Footwork

Footwork is most often the first exercise done on the reformer . It is done lying down with both feet on the footbar. “This series encourages proper alignment of the hips, pelvis, knees and ankles,” explains Kapitulik. “Since our feet take so much abuse daily just by walking, the footwork series is helpful as it strengthens the muscles of the feet and stabilizes the ankle joint. It can help with pain in the feet including plantar fasciitis,” she adds.

Footwork on the Mat

In a mat class, or at home in your living room, you can also practice Pilates footwork. Simply lie down on your back and bend your knees. Pull your naval in towards your spine and bring your knees up to a table top position. From here, point your toes and press the feet on a diagonal in front of you, and then bring them back to the starting position. Repeat 10 times.

This is a basic move in Pilates footwork, but you can also add on. Instead of doing the movement with pointed toes, you can do it with flexed feet. You can also open the knees as wide as the hips and keep the heels pressed together with the feet flexed. Do each of these variations for 10 repetitions at the beginning of your Pilates Mat routine.

Long Stretch

“Long Stretch is essentially a moving plank done standing on the reformer holding the footbar and placing both feet on the headrest,” says Kapitulik. This total-body exercise recruits every muscle fiber in the body leading to a stronger core. It helps with joint stability and balance, and strengthens the abdominals, glutes and hamstrings. These support the spine and lengthen the hip flexors, which increase flexibility and improve posture.

Long Stretch on the Mat

A close movement to the long stretch is the Spine Stretch Forward on the mat. To do this, sit on your bottom on your mat. Open your legs the width of your shoulders. Pull your naval in towards the spine, and reach the arms out in front of you. Be sure to keep your shoulders back to maintain a straight spine. Then reach forward without moving your legs, and round your spine forward with your head coming in alignment with your outstretched arms. Repeat this 10 times. Breathe in as you come back to center, and breathe out as you reach forward into the spine stretch.

Chest Expansion

This exercise works the back of the body while opening up the chest and shoulders and improving posture. “This move is great for those who sit at a desk or drive often,” says Strateman. “Sitting on the long box on top of the reformer with the hands in the loops, place your feet on the headrest with knees bent and arms extended down by the sides of the body,” explains Strateman. “Press through the palms of the hands to extend the shoulders and arms behind the body. Return the arms forward and repeat.”

Chest Expansion on the Mat

For this exercise, you’ll need a pair of light weights that are 2 or 3 lbs. Go onto your mat on your knees opening them as wide as the hips. Hold the weights down at your sides, and turn the palms towards the back of the room. Pull your naval in towards your spine, and press the weights and arms towards the back of the room. Make sure your chin does not jut forward and that your shoulders do not round up. Exhale as you press back, and inhale as you come to the starting position. Repeat this 10 times.

Side Overs

Side Overs work the obliques, which are important for a well-rounded, strong core. “It also challenges the body in the ‘frontal plane’ which doesn’t always get worked as often,” says Strateman. To start, sit sideways on the short box on top of the reformer with all of the springs hooked on to keep the carriage stable. “The foot closest to the footbar is in the strap with a flexed ankle, extended knee, and the leg and hip lifted in parallel to the ground keeping tension in the strap the entire time,” instructs Strateman. “The opposite leg is bent resting on the box. Hands are clasped behind the head creating one long diagonal line from head to toe. From there, laterally flex the spine lowering the torso towards the floor and returning to the start position on the diagonal.”

Side Overs on the Mat

To recruit similar muscles and movement, I recommend performing a side crunch on the mat. This movement will work the obliques and recruits both the upper body and lower body. Lying on your mat, knees bent and feet on the mat as wide as your hips, place your hands behind your head. Tilt your pelvis and engage your low abs as you bring your right knee up to a table top position. Then curl your head and neck up and crunch your right elbow towards your right knee. Lie your head back down towards the ground as you extend the right leg, keeping your low back pressed into the ground. Repeat this 10 times, and then switch to the left side.

Leg Circles

This exercise not only works the core, but the entire hip joint. “Lying on your back on the reformer with both feet in the straps, start with the legs extended long on the diagonal at a 45-degree angle with legs straight and together,” explains Strateman. “Then, lift the legs towards the ceiling just as high as the legs can remain straight with the whole spine from head to tailbone stable on the reformer . Next, separate the legs and continue to complete the circle ending in the starting position.” Repeat this 10 times and then reverse the circles in the other direction.

Leg Circles on the Mat

Lying on your back, pull your naval in towards your spine. Reach the right leg up towards the ceiling. Lower the leg down to 45 degrees. Then open the leg as wide as your right shoulder to draw a circle open, around, and then back up to the starting position. Repeat this 10 times, and then reverse the exercise. Then perform on the left leg. To make this more difficult, perform both legs at once. Start with the feet at the ceiling, and then open the legs as wide as the shoulders to make a circle down to the 45 degree angle. Then press the legs together as you draw them up towards the starting position with the legs together. Then reverse the circle.

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