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Pilates Equipment - What is a Reformer?

Updated: Oct 22, 2021

Today we are going to chat about one of the common pieces of apparatus (or equipment), how it works, and the safety aspects!


Tinkering Tom (or Joe)


All the original Pilates apparatus was designed and built by Joseph Pilates. He would use anything he could find and frequented the local hardware store. Joe would build and tinker with his apparatus to make them work for his clients' needs. I've seen pictures of his studio where he has a piece of apparatus bolted to a window sill or a wall. Joe was 50 years ahead of his time with his exercises and apparatus.

-I like to think of him as the original MacGyver (I'm likely dating myself with that reference).


Why did Joseph Pilates create the different apparatus?


When WWI broke out in 1914, Joseph Pilates was sent to two different internment camps for Germans. During his time there, he started working with the bed-ridden patients in the camp hospital. It was during this time he started creating adaptations to help the patients do exercises to heal them from the inside out. He adapted the hospital beds with anything he could find, such as straps, springs, and pulleys. All of these modifications became the groundwork for the apparatus you see today.


-Apparatus can help strengthen you where you are weak and become more flexible where you are rigid.

-Apparatus can be an extra set of muscles for you to help you find the work

-Apparatus can be "the muscles" for the teacher: meaning the teacher doesn't have to work as hard to help a client physically - instead they can guide the client while allowing the apparatus do the heavy lifting.

-Apparatus can help you do the mat exercises better. Joe originally created the mat work to return the body back to its original form. The apparatus was created later to help clients do the mat work better. One should never undervalue the mat work.

-And all of Pilates can help you do life better.


Now on to today's Pilates Apparatus...


Pilates Reformer

Re-form your body from the inside out!


Basics:

-The Reformer has a carriage that is on wheels.

  • The carriage is the large black mat in the picture.

  • The carriage is hooked up to a set of springs and moves along a track.

-The Reformer is set up to have 1 - 5 springs* of varying tension pending the model.

-The Reformer has a foot bar that will be up or down pending the exercise.

-The Reformer has a set of shoulder blocks to help with alignment & used in varying exercises.

-The Reformer has a head rest that will be up or down pending the exercise or your needs

-The Reformer has a set of straps with handles that are hooked to the carriage (which means they are linked to the springs).

*The number of springs and tension of each spring can make the work harder or more accessible, pending the exercise and objective.

Springs & Wheels!

The Springs hook directly into the carriage bar. You can add and remove springs for any exercise.

Manufacturers have different "weights" or tensions per spring color.

-They range from heavy to light.

-You will use a combination of number of springs and tensions to find the work for each exercise.

-To note: not all manufacturers use the same color scheme. Don't fret this - your teacher should know the spring tensions and help you find the right number of springs and tension.

I have a Balanced Body Centerline Reformer. It has 5 spring options. I have 4 Green springs + 1 Red spring on.

-Green is the heaviest Reformer spring

-Red would be a medium weight spring

-Blue would be a light weight spring


My Reformer has gripping wheels, which gives the carriage some "drag" - it is not available on all types of Reformers.

Alone, the wheels can make the exercises feel harder because you have to really find the work. I have found that I cannot use the lighter springs with the original wheels.

*You can buy an alternate set of wheels without grip for this Reformer. I had them on my Reformer for about 2 months, but took them off. I found my work more with the grippy wheels.


Foot Bar

Regardless of what it is called, the Foot bar is not only used to put your feet on. You will be placing your hands on it, too.

My Centerline Reformer only has ONE position for the foot bar. Many Reformers will have multiple settings for the foot bar.


Why would you want multiple positions available?

-Foot bar placement is essential for feeling successful in some exercises.

-If it is too high or too low, it can change everything about the exercise you are doing.

-Pending placement, you may not be able to get into the correct position for an exercise.

-All of this has to do with body size and shape (even arm and leg length).



Don't fret - there are some modifications that can be done even if you only have one position for your foot bar. Joe likely had just ONE position - and he taught all kinds of bodies!!!

*If you are struggling on a Reformer that only has one foot bar position - please feel free to contact me with suggestions on how to modify an exercise.


Shoulder Blocks & Head Rest!

Regardless of what are called, the Shoulder Blocks and Head Rest will not only be for your shoulder alignment and to rest your head. You'll be utilizing these in a multitude of different ways!


Shoulder Blocks help with alignment, can help you do an exercise, and can challenge you during an exercise.

-Alignment isn't just for the head and shoulders. You'll be using the shoulder blocks to align your feet, knees, hips, arms, and hands. There are so many exercises that utilize the shoulder blocks.

-You may be placing your feet against them or on them.

-You may be placing your hands on top of them.

-You may be using the poles attached to help you lengthen or pull your body into an exercise.

Shoulder blocks are so much more than a tool for alignment, but are also essential for alignment of the whole body!


The Head Rest can help with alignment and can make exercises more comfortable.

-If you are lifting your hips, your head rest should be down to cause less neck strain.

-There are exercises where you place your legs or feet on your head rest such as Rowings, Long Stretch, and Russian Splits.

A Head Rest isn't just a place to rest your head in Pilates!


Straps & Handles!

I am going to base the below on my Centerline Reformer, which has leather straps that end with a loop. They have a metal circle that allows handles or an additional clip on loop to be added. Picture below shows a set of wooden handles attached to the leather straps.

The straps of a Reformer are hooked to the carriage (which means they are linked to the springs).


-The straps can be used with or without the handles pending the exercise.

-You may be doing arm work with the straps or you may be putting your feet into straps to do leg work.

-You may use the straps to help you with control during an exercise or the straps may become a balance challenge during an exercise.

-You will be adjusting the number of springs and the weight of the spring for different exercises.


Carriage Bar/Carriage Length

Some/most Reformers have an adjustable carriage, which means that pending your height, body shape, or body size - you can move the carriage in or out to fit your body better in an exercise.

My Centerline Reformer has 3 carriage positions.

-If you notice the black circle in the lower right - this is called a "stopper".

-The stopper keeps the carriage from crashing in and possibly damaging your springs.

-The stopper position correlates to the position of the carriage bar. If the stopper is in 2nd position, the carriage bar needs to be in 2nd position.

-Again, the springs attach directly to the carriage bar.

Shown: carriage is in the middle position (called 2nd position). Note - springs are not attached, so you could see the stopper position.



Pilates Reformer - Class Expectations


When I first encountered a Reformer, I thought it was a "step up" from mat work. Meaning, I had the preconceived notion that I had to be at a certain level to try a Reformer class - because obviously it HAD TO BE difficult (because it looked so complex). Luckily, the studio I go to offered a beginners equipment class meant to introduce the equipment. I found that the Reformer was less intimidating once I understood all the safety protocols.


Now, as a teacher, I LOVE teaching fundamental (or beginner) classes on the Reformer. I like to have a 4-6 week session where I break my classes up into four (4) segments.


These four segments are based on safety and human fear factor. A lot of humans are afraid to fall or afraid to get hurt, so I break my session series up to address these potentials and continuously give supporting cues during class. I remind clients of what they have done and relate it to the next step, so they feel secure enough to try something new.


#1 - General Safety & Basic Knowledge

-See safety points in next section

-I spend 15 minutes of the first class going over the entire Reformer and allowing

clients to touch their Reformer, understand what it can do, and get used to how it

feels.

#2 - Into the Well (back)

-Leaning back into the well, such as during Short Box series

#3 - Over the Well (front)

-Leaning over the front well, such as during Long Stretch series

#4 - Standing on the Carriage

-Actually standing on the Reformer (knowing it moves) such as during Elephant


Picture: Showing Short Box-Twist. Example of the "Into the Well (back)"

Picture: Showing Long Stretch. Example of the "Over the Well (front)"

Picture: Showing Side Split - picking daisies. Example of "Standing on the Carriage" - here added difficulty because one foot is on the frame and one foot is on the carriage.

Picture: Showing Elephant. Example of "Standing on the Carriage"

Pilates Reformer - General Safety and/or Awareness

A quick note - please do not be afraid of the Reformer because of the list below! There are always safety concerns associated with physical movement. I once got kicked in the face during basketball practice because another team member went left instead of right. I would never have thought I'd get a black eye in basketball from someone foot (LOL!)

Trust me - the more you know about the machine, the more confident you can be in yourself and know when to ask for a cue or some help!


- Foot Bar

  • Pulling up on the foot bar:

    • The foot bar is not locked into place on any Reformer I have used. It is meant to go up and down based on the exercise you are performing. It has to be easily moveable, which makes it a safety point.

    • I cue that the thumbs should be with the fingers when hands are on the foot bar. If your thumb is wrapped around, you may be more likely to pull up.

  • Foot bar not secure in its position:

    • When you are transitioning from one exercise to another, you'll be moving the foot bar. Some Reformers have a notch for the foot bar, so you know it's in the right place, but a lot of them do not. It means that if the foot bar is off enough, it could slip down during an exercise.

  • Going too far over the foot bar:

    • There are a few exercises where the body comes over the foot bar. Trying to keep shoulders over wrist is the best safety advice for most of these cases, but your teacher should be cueing you and spotting you on the exercises until you have spacial awareness.

  • Slipping on foot bar:

    • It could be your hand or foot.

      • My hands get sweaty, so between certain exercises, I wipe them. You can also wear gloves, but that is a personal preference.

      • In some exercises, only part of your foot is on the foot bar, so there is less body contact to machine.

  • Standing on foot bar or missing the foot bar:

    • Much like slipping, you could miss the foot bar when getting into an exercise. Take things slow enough that you are aware of your body position and flexibility.

Picture: Showing Front Split with Control (an intermediate-advanced exercise that would not be done with beginners). Notice the small amount of contact of foot to foot bar.



- Straps

  • Feet in straps

    • For exercises where you are putting your feet into the long straps - getting your feet into the straps and out can be awkward when you are first starting. It can also cause you to become off balanced.

    • Your teacher should teach you how to get into feet in straps and out - and your teacher should spot and help you the first few times.

    • Another note is that if you are feeling tight one day, it may be a little trickier to get into your straps. This is totally fine! Ask for a quick spot from your teacher!

  • Hands in straps

    • Handles are connected to the long straps.

    • When performing certain exercises, if you go too fast, you may lose tension in your strap. This can cause you to become unbalanced. Pending the exercise, you could go backward or forward toward the well.

    • Your teacher should use proper cues and teach you to hold tension in your straps.

  • Foot strap:

  • Note: I did not mention this strap in the breakdown above - it is located below the foot bar and in front of the gear bar.

    • The foot strap is used during the Short Box series and is related to the safety mention above called "Into the Well (back)"

    • The foot strap is your lifeline when you are leaning your body back into the well.

    • The foot must stay flexed to keep the strap on.

    • Your teacher should use cues and continue to watch your feet during these exercises and help you find your working level.

Picture: Showing Side Sit Up. Notice the foot strap over the top foot. Without the strap, there would be no way to anchor to do the exercise.


- Head Rest

  • Typically, whenever your butt goes up into the air - you should have your head rest in the down position, so your neck isn't at an angle.

  • Your teacher should cue head rest down for these exercises.

Picture: Showing Short Spine. Feet are in straps and without pointed foot, could slip off. Also, butt is up in the air, so head rest should be down.


- Into the Well (Back of Carriage)

  • When you lean back into the well during certain exercises, you'll have one or both feet hooked into your foot strap. As I mentioned above, if you don't keep your feet flexed, your foot could slip.

  • Your teacher should use cues and continue to watch your feet during these exercises and help you find your working level.

  • During some exercises, such as side sit up, you can rest one hand on the head rest for support. And it other exercises, your teacher may spot you from behind.

- Over the Well (Front of Carriage)

  • Any exercise where your hands will be on the foot bar and part of your body will be leaning over into the front well.

  • Your teacher should help you find your working level and allow you to come out of an exercise, safely, while you build your strength.

  • Another note about this one, "pulling up on the foot bar" is a danger for this safety section, as well. As you come out of an "over the well" exercise, you may feel the urge to pull up on the foot bar. Your teacher should be cueing a reminder for this.

- Standing on the Carriage

  • Standing on a carriage that moves can challenge your balance.

  • You may be standing on the carriage with your hands on the foot bar (safer) or you may be standing on the carriage with your hands out to the sides (no tactile connection)

  • Safety decreases (danger increase) as the number of springs being used decreases.

    • One light spring allows the carriage to move very easily, which will increase the balance challenge and potential for danger.

  • Pending the exercise, you may need teacher assistance or a gondola pole (5-6 foot pole meant to help with balance during splits)

- Springs

  • A few exercises call for one spring.

    • The "danger" is if the spring were really old or compromised it could break if it was lengthened to its full spring tension.

    • I think this is pretty rare, but I always check springs over when I am getting ready for class - if we are going to be doing a one spring exercise.

  • I typically have clients do a minimum of two springs for exercises, so there is a built in second spring safety. One exception to that is when I add the Jump Board to the Reformer. I always pull springs and tug them before class, even though my clients would be lying down for that class.


I hope that this post has given you the information you need to give the Reformer a try! It is an amazing way to build strength and flexibility.


If you have any Reformer questions, please feel free to DM me!


Picture: Showing Short Box-Flat Back. Example of "Into the Well (back)" and "Foot Strap"


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