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The Ins and Outs of Utilizing the Pilates Reformer

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

Whether you commenced on the mat and wish to experiment with some device work or you’ve heard the excitement about studio Pilates reformer classes, getting on the machine can be daunting and perplexing at first. They are equipped with straps, springs, and a sliding carriage, so if you’re not cautious, you could actually harm your body — or, at the very least, your ego. But this isn’t a cruel contraption, guarantee. It’s actually an exceedingly practical tool that can elevate your workout to levels you never knew existed. Used interchangeably with a Pilates mat, the reformer can provide a splendid full-body workout.

Here, a breakdown of the reformer for beginners, plus everything a newcomer needs to know before attending their first class, according to Elizabeth Heidari, a NASM-certified personal trainer and certified Pilates instructor.

Mechanics of the Pilates Reformer

The Pilates reformer comprises a flat, cushioned, moving carriage with shoulder blocks for comfort and stability, which you’ll unquestionably require during certain exercises. You’ll also discover a back and front platform at either extremity of the machine. The front platform usually conceals the springs (more on those below) and sometimes a movable bar that enables other potential exercise variations. The back platform may also feature two adaptable bars. There are two sets of resistance straps with handles — one at the back platform and another longer set near the carriage.

“Stepping onto either platform and stepping down to the floor is going to be the easiest way off, even if you feel like you’re losing your balance,” suggests Heidari.

The Springs

It’s this set of springs underneath the front platform that makes reformer Pilates what it is since modifying them alters the carriage and strap resistance to be lighter or heavier. The springs are generally color-coded to distinguish their resistance, and you can have one or multiple springs attached at once. It might appear that the lower the resistance, the simpler the exercise. However, you’ll swiftly realize that when tension is low, you’ll need to engage those core stabilizer muscles to a far greater extent to sustain control, which is anything but easy.

“Since Pilates is just as much about the equilibrium of stability muscles versus muscles that are mobilizing, the springs come into play with that,” states Heidari. Employing a lighter spring setting for a mobilizing exercise may feel excessively effortless, but this reduced resistance will render a stability exercise remarkably challenging. Visualize attempting to maintain a side plank when a gliding carriage is loose beneath you. Trembling limbs come to mind, don’t they?

If you encounter any difficulty altering the springs or if you feel unsteady with the current settings, simply notify the instructor for assistance, advises Heidari. And you’ll never have to speculate about which springs to use — the instructor will announce any changes throughout the class. As with any fitness method, proper form is paramount (and you don’t want to be tumbling off the machine), so it’s crucial to master this.

The Bands

Carriage and platforms? Verify. Springs for resistance? Verify. The following step is familiarizing yourself with the bands attached to the reformer. Some traditional Pilates machines will only have one set of bands. However, in many boutique fitness studios, you’ll come across hybrid reformer machines that have two sets of bands – a lengthy set and a brief set. These bands will have loops at the end and are usually located at the shoulder rests and either at the front or back of the machine. They can be employed in endless ways, but the shorter bands are usually used to generate heavier tension, such as for movements that target the lower body or abs, notes Heidari. The longer bands on the carriage are typically utilized for more conventional Pilates exercises that concentrate on balance and stability while on the carriage.

One simple method for beginners to determine which bands to use and when “is that the loops that go over the shoulder rests are exclusively for when you’re on the carriage,” says Heidari. “They won’t come off at any other time,” she adds.

The first time you attempt to position yourself in one of the loops of the longer bands, you’ll likely struggle to release them with enough slack to get into position. It’s important to remember that, like the springs, the bands offer tension. Here’s how to appear like a professional, as opposed to attempting to contort your limbs into stretching positions, according to Heidari: Lie down, place your head between the shoulder blocks. Reach behind to remove the loops, then bring your knees into your chest to bring the loops and your feet closer. This should allow you to insert one foot through a loop. Extend that leg to release the tension of the other band, and you’ll be able to effortlessly place your other foot in.

The Front Platform

Depending on its width, the front platform can be utilized as a standing surface. “I’m aware that many instructors like to hop up there and engage in lateral work,” says Heidari. “So, while facing the side, you can perform inner thigh exercises, pistol squats, and a variety of other movements. However, its primary purpose is to provide a stable platform for one leg or one arm,” she explains.

This platform can also serve as a “safe zone” if you’re still adjusting to the instability of the carriage. If you feel like you’re about to fall or injure yourself, the front platform is a suitable place to regain your balance and reset yourself to continue the movement, as noted by Heidari. “It depends on what exercises we’re doing on the machine, but it’s a great fallback option. Just step off. Just know that there is a stationary piece of equipment that won’t shift or move,” she says.

Common Mistakes Made by Pilates Reformer Beginners

Moving Too Rapidly

If you’re accustomed to fast-paced sprints and intense Tabata workouts, the slow and controlled movements in a Pilates reformer class may initially feel unfamiliar. However, you’ll quickly realize why slow doesn’t equate to easy. Keep in mind that maintaining control during the eccentric phase of an exercise (when the muscle lengthens, like the lowering phase of a biceps curl or the standing portion of a squat) is crucial to everything you do in class.

So if the springs are on a weighty setting for a forward lunge, you should be cautious not to allow the carriage to forcefully shut due to the pressure, clarifies Heidari. “Can you manage the carriage to come back in, or manage your arms to return back to neutral?” she states.

Forgetting to Inhale and Exhale

“I observe a lot of reluctance to inhale and exhale,” says Heidari. “I believe that breath is something that’s really challenging for individuals to grasp in the beginning,” she adds. However, many classes will include breath coaching throughout each twist and turn — as much as you’d anticipate from a yoga class, she says. Additionally, Pilates was initially designed as a form of rehabilitation, so it makes sense to perceive a reformer class as a method to refine your body’s innate movements and enhance your breathing. Heidari mentions that she and other instructors can observe how you prepare for and complete an exercise, and provide guidance on how to manage the movements and your breath.

Emphasizing Large Movements

“My most significant advice when speaking to beginners is that many of the actions we ask you to perform in our environment are much smaller than you anticipate,” says Heidari. “Pilates focuses on the minor muscles,” she remarks. Utilizing a restricted range of motion truly targets those small, deep muscles that Pilates is known to recruit, but this can be perplexing for novices who believe that bigger movements lead to greater results. The goal is to activate those tiny muscles first, before engaging larger muscles or muscle groups, says Heidari.

Keep in mind that not all Pilates reformers are exactly identical, but this guide should assist you in gaining an understanding of what to anticipate. (By the way, Pilates apparatuses and other equipment don’t solely consist of the reformer. There are numerous other pieces that resemble a jungle gym, and these are commonly utilized in personal training situations, but…taking gradual steps.) Nonetheless, after a session on the reformer, you can nearly guarantee that your core will engage and tremble like never before. With the lean, strong muscles and additional pliability you’ll acquire, don’t be astonished if you become addicted to the Pilates reformer.

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