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Reform your body with Pilates

Not counting the handful of classes I attended in a village hall where neither I nor the instructor had much idea what we were doing, my first real experience of Pilates was on the reformer. I was working as a journalist in Bermuda at the time and, thanks to bad posture and an even worse office chair, I was suffering from back pain. Someone suggested that Pilates could help so I headed off to Bermuda Bodyworks.

Unlike my putative matwork classes, this was the real thing, a studio where the instructors had trained with Pilates Elder, Romana Kryzanowska, and which was equipped with an array of machines I’d never seen. While I did some work on the mat and the occasional session on the cadillac or wundachair, most of the time I was on the reformer. I loved it instantly – the novelty, the challenge, the way my body felt afterwards. Even when I moved to Australia and became a matwork instructor, I still made time for one or two weekly reformer session.

The reformer, or Universal Reformer, as it was originally named by Joseph Pilates, consists of a bed-like frame with a moving platform. As with the other studio apparatus he designed, it utilises a system of springs and pulleys to add load. While the key principles learned on the mat still apply, the springs add a whole new dimension.

In an interview in 1946, Pilates, shown performing some of his exercises below, said: “I invented all these machines. I thought, why use my strength? So I made a machine to do it for me. Look, you see it resists your movement in just the right way so those long inner muscles really have to work against it. That is why you can concentrate on movement.”

Joseph Pilates Reformer star

While the springs are often used to increase the challenge of an exercise, they can also be used to offset gravity and provide support, making it ideal for rehabilitation exercises.

Another advantage is that while most matwork exercises are performed in an open chain (ie with the distal end of the limb free in space), most of the reformer repertoire is performed in a closed chain. With the hands or feet in contact with either the footbar or straps, the body experiences enhanced tactile feedback and an improved learning experience.

Pilates created more than 100 exercises for the reformer and, like the classical mat sequence, they were designed to be performed in a specific order with a smooth transition from one to the next. Exercises can be performed sitting, lying or standing and are designed to take the body through a full range of movement.

There’s some fascinating archival footage of Pilates teaching clients on the reformer which offers an insight not only into the way he intended the exercises to be performed but also his teaching methods.

This video of Eve Gentry is inspiring but she, like many of Pilates’ clients, was a dancer. The average Pilates client is incapable of moving with this degree of strength, flexibility and control but this does not mean they should avoid the reformer. Modifications and regressions mean that clients can still enjoy the benefits of this wonderfully versatile piece of equipment as they build the skill to perform the more advanced exercises.

People often ask the question, ‘Which is better, mat or refomer?’ and the answer is neither. Pilates always encouraged his clients to work on both the mat and equipment as each offers slightly different benefits.

Today, matwork is generally more accessible because there are more classes available and it tends to be cheaper but if you get the chance to try the reformer, seize it with both hands. Not only will you see and feel the difference in your body, it will deepen your understanding of the Pilates method and enhance your practice.

One-to-one reformer sessions are now available at Kinesis. For more information email me at or call 07932625144

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