Reformer, Mat, Tower: How to Find Your Perfect Pilates Class

Woman on Pilates Reformer

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When it comes to models getting toned and lithe, a lot of them turn to Pilates (Karlie Kloss and Miranda Kerr are both fans). But what if you have never set foot in a Pilates studio let alone know your Tower from your Wunda? Not to worry. We called on Pilates experts to give you an overview of exactly what to expect at your first class. This is the perfect guide to help you know what's involved, what type of class to book, and where to start.

Pilates is a workout method named after the inventor, Joseph H. Pilates. It focuses on specific movement and breathing techniques to help strengthen and stretch your body, often using equipment such as the Reformer or Wunda Chair, to provide resistance.

What Is Pilates?

"Pilates will give you a super strong core, which gives you strength and power, and helps to prevent injury so you can stay stronger longer," says Heather Andersen, master pilates instructor. "You can apply the concepts you learn in Pilates to all of your other movement practices. Plus, you’ll have a perky butt, strong abs, stellar posture, and toned arms!"

Meet the Expert

  • Heather Andersen is a Master Pilates Instructor and is the founder and owner of New York Pilates. She has trained celebrities including Vanessa Hudgens and Emma Roberts. She has five studio locations and just launched NYPWorld, a streaming subscription platform for pilates.

  • Shannon Adams is a Pilates Method Alliance Certified Pilates Teacher and the owner of a pilates and Gyrotonics studio Urban Body San Jose. She is also a certified teacher in the American Ballet Theatre National Training Curriculum and works with dancers for conditioning, training, and rehabilitation. 

Many big chain gyms are now offering pilates classes, however, if you prefer smaller classes you can find studios that offer small group classes. Pilates classes often consist of a group Reformer class, mat pilates without the machines, or a combination of the two. Most pilates classes last between 45 minutes and an hour. Private classes will cost around $60 and up, while group classes are around $25 and up. Many gyms and studios also offer memberships or class packs that often offer better rates than purchasing just a single class.

If you prefer to work out in the privacy of your home, know that the equipment is expensive, which is why classes are a better option for most. You can expect to pay around $2500 and up to purchase a basic Reformer machine. For a more affordable home gym option, you can also skip the machines and stick to mat pilates.

“All pilates equipment was designed by Joseph Pilates to reinforce his method of physical fitness, which he believed leads to happiness,” says Andersen. “He was a boxer and trapeze artist and a lot of his techniques and machines were designed to build the strength needed to do such intense physical work. He did this by creating assistance and resistance for various exercises using his simple but amazingly effective machines.”

 The most common pieces of equipment in studios around the world include the reformer, the trapeze table, specialized chairs, and a mat.

To get us started, here is a brief introduction of the different types of pilates and the most common types of equipment that makes the pilates system so unique.

Types of Pilates

Each type of pilates has different techniques and benefits, so it is important when starting out that you pick the right type of class for you. Even though the classes have slightly different techniques, they all hold by the same basic principles of pilates.

"Pilates is a technique and style of movement based off of these six principles: Concentration, control, centering, flowing movement, precision, and breathing," says Andersen. "These are all designed to teach you to move better and build strength."

Classical Pilates

“Classical Pilates is the most authentic to Joseph Pilates original method since it has been passed down directly from Joseph Pilates to his students, to their students, and so on,’” says Andersen. “Practice makes perfect is really the idea here."

Classical Pilates follows a strict repertoire, training protocols, and specific apparatus. You can expect that there will be only slight variation between teachers who are classically trained. 

“The exercises are designed to be repeated in a specific succession in every single session to the point of total control and perfection. You can expect all Classical Pilates classes to be taught in a “C Spine” or tucked pelvis,” she says. This type of pilates often uses classic moves like The Hundred, The Bicycle and The Jack Knife.

Traditional Pilates

Traditional pilates is based on the teaching of Joseph Pilates and utilizes much of the equipment. “At a fully equipped studio, sessions are taught on multiple pieces of apparatus, not just the Reformer, which somehow over the years has become the most commercialized," says Adams. "You can expect to see additional apparatus such as the Wunda Chair, Cadillac, Wall Unit, Ladder Barrel, Spine Corrector, Foot Corrector and Magic Circle are all utilized in a session to create balance, strength, and freedom within the entire body.”

You can expect that there will be slight to moderate variation between teachers who are traditionally trained via each of these different lineages, but that teachers trained within each lineage have more similarities than differences. Adams says these sessions typically last 55 minutes for a full-body workout.

Contemporary Pilates

“Contemporary Pilates incorporates modern knowledge of the body and biomechanics into the pilates method and is very much geared towards re-establishing balance within the body,” says Andersen. “Aside from the near endless range of movements incorporated into Contemporary Pilates programming, the most notable difference between Contemporary and Classical Pilates is that most work is done in a neutral spine rather than a 'C Spine,' as this was discovered in more recent years to be a more optimal setup for your spine.” 

Contemporary workouts do not usually follow the same training protocol as Traditional or Classical. It may or may not include props like foam rollers, balls, or bands. A Contemporary workout may be apparatus biased, for example, a pilates mat or a pilates reformer class. Sequencing is generally up to the teacher or studio and can vary in style from teacher to teacher. 

Dynamic Pilates

Dynamic Pilates could be considered a subcategory of Contemporary pilates and may or may not include Traditional pilates exercises. 

“When I launched New York Pilates seven years ago I created the Dynamic Pilates Method which fuses Joseph Pilates’ original method with the focus on biomechanics from Contemporary Pilates to create a workout you could do everyday to strengthen and tone the body,” says Andersen. “Dynamic pilates is the most effective workout because it is a series of highly targeted exercises that strengthen and tone local and global muscles.”

Clinical Pilates

Clinical Pilates follows the same principles of pilates, however, this is often done with a physical therapist or other health professional with the goal of rehabilitation after an injury such as back pain.

Clinical Pilates specialists are trained both in pilates and in anatomy, physiology and rehabilitation. Your exercises or pilates routine will focus on healing and repairing your injury, and will be monitored for progress towards your goal. At the end of your treatment, it is often recommended to continue the exercises through a mat pilates routine or a pilates class.

Pilates Hybrids

Many pilate hybrid workouts take some aspects of the pilates method and incorporate it into other traditional exercises.

"Pilates-inspired workouts are just that, inspired by pilates, but are generally more akin to traditional gym workouts than pilates," says Andersen. "I always recommend that anyone interested in trying pilates inspired workouts first take some Contemporary or Dynamic pilates private classes to get a solid handle on how to perform these exercises to help avoid injury during these sessions."

Pilates Equipment

Joseph Pilates created many pieces of equipment to be used with his method of body conditioning. Here is an overview of what you can expect to see in a pilates studio.

The Reformer

The Reformer is the most well-known of the pilates equipment and it provides an amazing full body workout. “Basically it’s the best workout machine ever,” says Andersen. She explains that the Reformer consists of a bed-like frame with a platform on it, called the carriage, which rolls back and forth on wheels within the frame.

“There are springs attached to the carriage, which you can use to create resistance or assistance in your workouts,” she says. “What’s amazing about the Reformer is that because of the moving carriage and springs, you actually get double the workout since you’re facing resistance on the way out and in for each movement.” 

Peak Pilates Reformer
Peak Pilates Reformer $2600

Wunda Chair

The Wunda Chair is a backless chair with springs attached to a foot pedal and, according to Andersen, the Wunda Chair is one of the most underrated pieces of equipment.

“The Wunda Chair is the smallest of all pilates equipment and the possibilities are almost endless in terms of what you can do with it,” she says. “I love using the chair for extension work since you can really push your limits in a supported way.” One of her favorite exercises on the chair is a chest opening Swan Stretch. 

Basi Systems Wunda Chair
BASI Systems Wunda Chair $1790

The Trapeze Table or Cadillac

The imposing structure of a stable platform surrounded by four poles and an overhead trapeze gives all new clients visions of a medieval torture device; however, the gains in spinal and hip mobility and strength and the upper and lower body strength provided by including this apparatus in a balanced Pilates workout quickly forgive any poor first impressions.

“The Cadillac is a direct adaptation of a bed with a frame and springs attached to add support or challenge to traditional Pilates mat work,” says Andersen. “The Cadillac is amazing because it can accommodate both individuals with very limited range of mobility and advanced movers with extended ranges of mobility. It can allow you to work on general rollbacks to help with spine mobility or allow you to hang upside down and lift yourself up like a circus performer. So basically, it does it all!”

Trapeze Cadillac Table
Balanced Body Trapeze Table $3895

The Tower

The tower can be attached to the reformer or in some cases used against a wall with a mat. It allows you to try some of the moves you would usually perform on the Cadillac. The tower can also be used to isolate muscles through the movements performed on it and it's a great aid to a really good stretch!

Supreme Toning Tower
Supreme Toning Tower $248

The Pilates Mat

The traditional pilates mat is a bit thicker than a yoga mat and is raised with a dowel on one end and a strap on the other. It can also be quite expensive. For beginners or those doing basic mat pilates, you can also use a regular yoga mat, just make sure it is at least one inch thick. Joseph Pilates's method involves many exercises for spinal strength and mobility and the thicker mat provides better protection for the spine.

The Pilates mat is a great environment for challenging the strength of the muscles of the hips, back, abdominals, and glutes (aka the "powerhouse") as well as upper body strength and mobility. Without the assistance of spring tension that is available on other pieces of Pilates apparatus, the Pilates mat work may not be a suitable starting point for many clients.

Pilates High Rigid Mat
Gratz Pilates High Rigid Mat $820

While all styles aim to give you a great workout, it's fair to say that just like any other fitness modality, there is no one-size-fits-all option. Keep in mind the goal of pilates, which is a strong body and mind. "Not only will you leave feeling connected in your body, but your sense of well being will be enhanced by a focused mind and body connection inherent in the work," says Adams.

Try out different types of pilates and don't be afraid to ask teachers about their training. Take advantage of introductory offers at different studios until you find the right fit for you.

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