Created by Joseph Pilates at the turn of the 20th century, Pilates entered the mainstream during the past few decades with the help of the Madonnas, Gwyneths, and Giseles of the world. Now the once-niche workout is offered around the world at nearly every gym, with many boutique fitness studios offering both private and group classes in person and virtually. While Pilates can be done on a mat, the more popular version for at-home workouts, the traditional method is executed on a piece of equipment designed by Joseph Pilates himself: the reformer.
What Is Reformer Pilates?
Reformer Pilates is the Pilates method of movement done on a reformer. “A reformer is an apparatus designed with a system of springs and pulleys that allows an exercise to become more accessible (read: easier) or more challenging based on the choice of setup. The closed-chain setup allows for a deeper proprioception of the body,” explains Tara Gordon, owner and founder of 212 Pilates. She points to the myth or common allure of the “long lean” muscles that Pilates is known for, attributing them to the full range of movement and load on the muscle that the reformer creates. “No exercise will change genetics, but Pilates offers a safe ability to work the muscle in and out of its most lengthened state,” she adds.
Gordon explains that classically, there was an “order” to the reformer Pilates repertoire: All classes within a classical studio would pace through nearly the same order of exercises and spring tensions that represent different weights (some exercises are harder with heavier weights, but many are more challenging the lighter the weight). However, while honoring the initial system, the contemporary Pilates world “allows for modifications, variances of order and within honoring the Pilates principals new versions of older exercises.”
Vanessa Johnson, Pilates instructor at the Club Pilates Franchise, explains that their studios, as well as many others, offer reformer classes that both rehabilitate injuries and help prevent people from feeling pain, in addition to creating more of a cardio and restorative effect. She also points out that the support of the reformer gives your body the support it needs to move in ways you wouldn’t be able to without it. “Most reformer classes rely on the fact that your spine is decompressed as you lie down on the machine, so you can work in deeper angles during movements compared with standing up,” she says.
Type of Class: Building Muscle and Alignment
There are a variety of reformer pilates classes offered, but generally the classes help with muscle building and alignment. “The beauty of reformer pilates is that it is truly for every body and there is a modification for everyone,” maintains Gordon. It is also a full body workout and can “feel therapeutic,” starting slower with a focus on alignment and biomechanics, “but I promise you, the smaller and more precise the move, the more you’re going to feel it tomorrow so enjoy the meditative focus on the slower deep burn,” she says. She adds that pilates can also be cardio. “If that’s what you’re looking for, sign up for a Jumpboard Pilates class and be prepared to get your heart rate up.”
Best For: Anyone
Everyone from supermodels to athletes and even those who have sustained physical injuries benefits from reformer pilates classes. “Pilates in itself is a complete full body system that strengthens and aligns the body to allow you to do whatever else you want to do more efficiently,” Gordon explains. “Dancers and other athletes praise pilates for meeting them where they are at and always being able to add an extra challenge when needed.”
Modified pilates is great for injury rehabilitation, pre and post natal and other contraindications to strengthen the body, “just make sure you are reading class descriptions,” she advises.
“In its simplest form from runners to my almost 70 year old mother, reformer pilates meets you where you are at, allows you to flow through movement and should make everything else you do easier and allow you to continue to do it longer.”
What to Expect During a Reformer Pilates Class
Johnson, who teaches reformer pilates classes at Club Pilates explains that classes are generally around an hour and are a full body workout. “You should wear comfortable pants,(most people wear tighter fitting pants or shorts) along with toe socks or other grip socks,” she suggests. Note that you don’t wear shoes on a reformer, and that while you can wear regular socks, “it’s best to have a supportive surface under your feet.”
Reformer pilates classes are generally smaller than other group fitness classes, as the reformers are large and take up more space. Gordon notes that it is the instructor's job to make sure you are set up properly for your height and will also correct you throughout the workout. If you have any injuries you should let them know ahead of time, “it won’t make the class easier, it will just make it safer for you and your body, she explains.
Also, be aware that reformer pilates classes aren’t necessarily a budget-friendly workout option. Per Balanced Body, the average cost for a private pilates session is similar to personal training ($50 to $100 per session), with group reformer classes averaging around $20-30 a class. However, many clubs do offer multiple session packages in order to reduce the per class cost.
Benefits of a Reformer Pilates Class
- It Is Easy on the Joints: Gordon explains that reformer Pilates is “closed chain,” meaning you move in a controlled manner against an adjustable spring system, “so there is no pounding impact on the joints.”
- It Offers a Full-Body Workout: Both experts agree that a key benefit of reformer Pilates is that it is an integrative workout, involving your core and lower and upper body.
- It May Help With Flexibility: Similar to yoga, reformer Pilates may be beneficial in terms of flexibility. A 2015 study published in AGE found that it can increase the length and stretch of muscles in addition to range of motion in the joints.
- It Can Help Improve Your Posture: One of the main benefits of reformer Pilates is that it can help you achieve and maintain a healthy posture. “Reformer Pilates allows for a proprioception of the spine, and a utilization of the deep intrinsic muscles of the core and spine to help you find space and stand taller and more connected,” Gordon says.
- Anyone Can Benefit From It: The beauty of the reformer is that it “really meets you where you are,” Gordon maintains. “Every day our bodies are different. Things such as how we sleep, our stress levels, where menstruating humans are in their cycles, and other factors affect our bodies on a day-to-day basis. The same principles can be used at different spring tensions or different setups to meet us where we are and offer either support or challenge.”
Safety and Injury Considerations
Gordon advises you to read the fine print of a reformer Pilates class before signing up. “Every reformer class is different, and every teacher is trained differently,” she explains. “Read class descriptions—if they say ‘no xyz,’ please believe them.” You can always call the studio and discuss concerns, preexisting health conditions, or injuries ahead of time, so they can suggest the right class and teacher for you. “Some studios focus more on injuries or other special populations that have contraindications that would affect movement,” she explains—such as pre- and post-natal, osteoporosis, and superficial injuries and pain.
If you have any preexisting spinal conditions or poor posture, you can still take reformer Pilates classes—and they can be incredibly beneficial. However, you should proceed with caution.
“While a healthy body should be able to move in and out of different spinal positions, we, as a society, spend hours hunched over computers and phones and desks already in a C curve," says Gordon. "Pilates created the method, originally called Contrology, during a time when we needed more spinal flexion. There is quite a bit of flexion (think C curve of the spine) and loaded (think with weight) flexion in many popular reformer Pilates classes that are not safe for the aforementioned conditions as well as spinal herniations.” She adds that a good teacher will modify moves for you and have you work in a neutral spine. “Typically, when looking to avoid injury, you should make sure you can perform the movement correctly in a neutral spine and/or pelvis before moving in and out of other positions," says Gordon.
As for how many classes you can take in a week? “It’s not like a ‘leg day’ or ‘arms day’ type of workout,” explains Gordon. “A good Pilates reformer class should be a full-body workout that incorporates dynamic stretching, biomechanical movement, and the type of muscle burn that makes you feel supported and strong the next day vs. in pain.” This means you can safely take a reformer Pilates class daily if you please, “pushing yourself at different levels.” To see change, she recommends at least 2—3 classes a week of 30–55 minutes.
Gordon also notes that the Megaformer or Lagree Method is “not Pilates,” despite claims as such. “They are burnout methods and totally different.”
At-Home vs. In-Studio
The only way to do reformer Pilates at home is by owning a reformer. Unfortunately, a high-quality reformer will set you back $2,000 and up. If you have a reformer in your home, it can be exactly the same, explains Gordon. But if you don’t, it’s no longer considered reformer Pilates.
Reformer Pilates vs. Mat Pilates
Mat Pilates is the most similar alternative to reformer Pilates and may be a more cost-effective option. Many gyms offer mat Pilates classes for free with a membership, while reformer Pilates classes often come at a premium. According to Gordon, while mat Pilates is effective, the reformer is a next-level workout. “Pilates itself is a full-body exercise system based on anatomy and biomechanics,” she explains. “Mat Pilates translates onto the reformer, so almost all exercises from the method build on one another with the added challenge—or help—from the apparatus.”
What to Wear to a Pilates Reformer Class
Getting dressed for a reformer Pilates class is easy. Gordon suggests wearing something comfortable and easy to move in. “It doesn’t have to be tight or loose, whatever you feel best in,” she says. The only request that most studios have is to skip the cool leggings with zippers or other hardware, as those can ruin the reformer.
A Pilates reformer class is a great workout for any and every type of body. “The reformer is a modifiable, adaptable, user-friendly piece of equipment and classes typically led by instructors with a comprehensive education that makes it both an achievable challenge for just about anyone,” says Gordon. Johnson adds that reformer workouts literally help to “reform" the body's movement patterns in an efficient workout. “Done properly, Pilates workouts are often referenced as the most difficult because you are restoring old habits that have created inconsistencies in daily patterns,” she explains. “The goal of reformer workouts are to make sure everything is evenly displaced creating flexibility, strength, and mobility throughout the entire body.”
Geremia JM, Iskiewicz MM, Marschner RA, Lehnen TE, Lehnen AM. Effect of a Physical Training Program Using the Pilates Method on Flexibility in Elderly Subjects. Age (Dordr). 2015;37(6):119. doi:10.1007/s11357-015-9856-z