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The Pilates Reformer created by Joseph Pilates

What is Pilates

Pilates co-ordinates mind and body through regular practice of a system of exercises created by Joseph Pilates. This wonderful form of exercise consists of 34 original movements that are adapted and modified across teacher training, to create an array of Pilates exercise variations. Pilates reformer is an addition to the mat repertoire, focusing on using apparatus to aid in alignment, rehabilitation and add resistance to an exercise. The practice of Pilates, be it on the mat or on the reformer, brings a wealth of benefits including developed all over body strength, mobility and flexibility, improved coordination, posture and core strength, whilst also working to correct muscular imbalances, increase breathing capacity and enhance overall wellbeing.

As Pilates teachers, should we be fully comprehensively trained? Should we expand our portfolio to include reformer training? Let’s explore the Pilates technique and the Pilates reformer in more detail.

The history behind the Pilates reformer

Joseph Pilates was a sickly child, suffering from rickets, asthma and rheumatic fever. He was born Joseph Hubertus Pilates, December 9 1883 in Monchengladbach, Germany. Enthused to develop his health through physical fitness with perseverance and devotion, he became a professional boxer, skier, diver and gymnast despite all his aliments. By the time he was 14 years old, he was modelling for anatomy and physiology charts as he was so muscularly defined. Joseph was inspired by his parents. His father was a champion gymnast and his mother, a naturopath. His experience of his upbringing supported his innovations for ‘Contrology’ – his unique system of movements that emphasised the importance of using the mind to control the muscles. The technique only became known as ‘Pilates’ following Josephs’ death in 1967 at the age of 84.

The Pilates methodology developed further in the 1920s, when Joseph was interned in a World War 1 prison camp. It was here that he introduced ‘Contrology’ to help strengthen and rehabilitate following injury, as he trained and worked alongside other internees. Joseph’s methods soon became apparently beneficial to those with war related injuries.

Joseph was able to take his methodology to the Isle of Man where he was given permission to work as a hospital orderly supporting those who were bedridden, where patients were unable to walk. This is how the apparatus was originally formed. In order to help the injured in rehabilitation, Joseph began to attach springs to bedposts and use these as resistance against the exercises. This saw the introduction of the reformer, and other apparatus such as the Cadillac, with the reformer becoming one of the most popular and versatile pieces of apparatus in Pilates.

The Pilates Method

There are many variations of the Pilates method and creations of the equipment, all inspired by Joseph Pilates. However, all apply the fundamentals and Principles of Pilates which essentially make this magical form of exercise unique.

There are 6 main Pilates Principles to the method:


To be in the moment, focusing purely on the instructions and the performance of the exercises and to block out all external thoughts is an active form of mindfulness.


Pilates breath is breathing into the ribcage whilst engaging the deep abdominals. This method of breathing is called lateral thoracic breathing.


Every exercise in Pilates is controlled by a core engagement. Working the deep stabilising muscles that support the spine.


Pilates exercises are performed with precision and quality of movement, every exercise should be performed exactly according to the instructions to gain the most benefit and to improve body awareness.

Flowing movement

Movements are seamless and flowing, with the use of the breath resulting in a balanced and functional training programme.


The Pilates movements are executed slowly and precisely, focusing on quality rather than quantity. To gain the control of a movement you must remain focused and become body aware, thus bringing together many of the Pilates principles at once.

The Pilates Reformer

The Pilates reformer is a sliding carriage with resistance springs of varying weight, pullies and straps. You can perform a range of exercises on the machine in various positions, supine, prone, seated, side-lying and standing. This is a unique piece of equipment, that is interesting and diverse and will be sure to attract a niche market.

In summary, these are benefits of Reformer:

  • The machine can be used with resistance to develop and enhance strength and endurance, stability and correct muscular imbalances.
  • Increasing the resistance may support body conditioning, toning and control of the movement
  • Encourage the stabilising muscles to work more effectively, developing core strength, improved posture, balance and poise.
  • The use of resistance and pullies also support rehabilitation and reformer beds are often used by healthcare professionals who choose to also teach Pilates, with the technique being so renowned for its healing qualities and equipment often used to guide movement and support body positions.
  • Using the reformer connects mind and body whilst focusing on the fundamentals of Pilates, the use of breathing pattern and the rhythmic motion of sliding the carriage back and forth, creating a harmonising and therapeutic effect.

Reformer Pilates

Many Pilates studios and teachers offer one to one training on the reformer with it being a specialist subject, however larger gym chains are now recognising the benefits of reformer training with this exercise form growing in popularity; many have introduced reformer studios and are including reformer Pilates classes within their group fitness timetables. This is a fun and enjoyable way to perform low impact exercise for a full-body workout.

There are different types of Pilates reformers from the professional classic wooden reformer, often used within a small Pilates studio or rehab settings to the more modern metal framed reformers that work just as effectively. Resistance springs vary depending on the manufacturer and the amount of resistance needed when exercising depends on experience and skill level, body weight and height and overall goals of what you want to achieve.

The tension of the springs should allow the exercises to be performed under control and a qualified instructor can assist in adapting the tension to suit individual needs.

The Pilates Reformer exercises

There is an abundance of exercises that can be performed on the reformer bed, promoting variety across training and offering a different sequence to the mat. The foot series uses the bar to push the sliding carriage forward and backwards allowing for different position of the feet and is normally used as a warmup.

Core exercises can be performed on the reformer bed, under resistance with the hands inserted into pully straps, such as The One Hundred and Double Leg Stretch. The feet can also be inserted into the straps for the performance of various Pilates exercises such as The One Leg Circle, The Role Over and The Jack Knife to name a few.

Exercises can be performed with the use of a Long box and a short box on the reformer. This is an extra piece of kit that sits directly on top of the carriage. The long box will enable prone exercises such as swan dive and breaststroke and the short box will support upper body sequences and seated work such as spine twists, spinal flexion and side bend. The use of a foot strap for support is necessary for some exercises and is an important accessory.

There are various exercises that can be performed with the use of the sliding carriage and the resistance springs, including strength exercises, mobility exercises and flexibility exercises. The workout is certainly different and will keep you feeling motivated and inspired.

Footwork Slide carriage back and forth balls of feet on foot bar, then heels of the feet on foot bar.
The One Hundred Arms in straps, legs extended diagonal, beat arms.
The Jack Knife Arms in straps, legs roll over, up into Jack Knife and control down.
Co-ordination Arms in straps, tabletop legs, elbow extension/double leg stretch. Flex back to start.
Rowing Arms in straps, horizontal shoulder flexion
Long Box - Swan Dive Lie prone on box, holding straps, perform abduction and adduction with the arms.
Stomach massage with twist Seat facing the foot bar, balls of feet on foot bar, legs bent. Slide carriage away, performing rotation through the torso, return.
Side lying Side lying on the carriage, bottom leg bent and top leg abducted with floot on foot rest. Slide carriage away and return.
Kneeling Feet rest against the shoulder pads, holding onto foot bar, knees in contact with the carriage bed– slide the carriage away and return.
Long stretch Feet rest against the shoulder pads, holding onto foot bar, plank position – slide the carriage away and return.

Reformer or Mat?

Where the reformer works against resistance with the use of apparatus, Mat Pilates uses bodyweight. Both forms of Pilates apply the fundamentals and principle of Pilates which is what makes the method unique. The mat work explores the foundations of the technique and promotes body awareness before starting to use the apparatus.

However, a workout using the reformer can be catered for any ability ranging from beginners to advanced and can often be useful for developing control of a movement before freely performing on the mat.

Although the benefits of either practice are comparable, each brings their own unique enjoyment and style and so the choice lies with individual preference.

Pilates reformer teacher

Pilates reformer is becoming increasingly popular with many major gym chains opening reformer studios for group reformer classes and Pilates teachers desiring to launch a fully compressive business.

Reformer training currently has no National Occupational Standards and so training providers can offer packages of varying content and depth. Therefore, you find many courses differing in time and level. Whilst the reformer has a new set of exercises to learn and teach, once you have established experience and competence as a mat Pilates teacher, then you will be able to apply fundamentals and principles of Pilates adequately to the reformer sequences. Being able to offer reformer training will add to your portfolio and skills as a teacher. At Future Fit Training we take pride in offering highly practical and quality Mat Pilates courses. When searching for suitable training in reformer, always look for a high-quality standard of practical tuition.

Author: Jo Curran - Pilates Technical Specialist at Future Fit Training