What Are Those Weird Pilates Machines & Do I Need To Use One?

Photo: Getty Images.
To the untrained eye, Pilates reformers look more like fancy BDSM beds than pieces of exercise equipment. If you've never seen or used a Pilates reformer or apparatus, it's pretty much just a large machine with straps, springs, and bars that are used to strengthen your muscles through a series of exercises found in the classical Pilates technique.
Pilates reformers are certainly trendy. Fitness bloggers like Hannah Bronfman swear by them, and boutique fitness studios across the country are incorporating the machines into their classes.
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But Pilates reformers have been around for a while, and the story behind them is actually pretty surprising for such an of-the-moment workout regimen. In the midst of World War I, a German man named Joseph Pilates was interned in England with other German nationals for being an "enemy alien." During that time, he invented an exercise technique that we now refer to as "Pilates." Later on in the war, he worked in a hospital, and legend has it, he created the first Pilates reformer by rigging springs to hospital beds so that patients could exercise with resistance. And look where we are now!
Reformers look scary, but they're really not, says Heather Andersen, studio owner and director of New York Pilates, a Pilates studio in New York City that offers reformer classes. The reformer is just there to "resist and assist your bodyweight to help find and strengthen your core and limbs," Andersen says. And there are hundreds of exercises designed for the reformer, so it's surprisingly versatile, she says.
There's really nothing like being on a Pilates reformer, but it kind of feels like swimming or riding a scooter that's also attached to a bed. "The best part of working out on a reformer is the gliding sensation — it always makes me feel like I'm flying," Andersen says. Usually, in a Pilates reformer class, your body is positioned on the carriage, which glides forward and back using resistance from the springs, and then you use the straps to move through the exercises. Each part of the reformer has its own special purpose: The springs resist you, the jump boards launch you, and the straps stretch and strengthen you, Andersen says.
If all this sounds way too high-maintenance for you, that's understandable, especially when you could just take a mat Pilates class with no equipment, or find a free Pilates workout on an app. But a Pilates reformer class is distinctly different than a mat Pilates class, says Michelle Fama, co-founder of Core Pilates NYC. "The mat utilizes just your own body weight for resistance, while the reformer class takes places exclusively on the Pilates reformer apparatus, which includes weighted springs, resistance, and a moving carriage," she says.
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In general, Pilates reformer classes tend to be much more expensive than mat classes. So, if you can't afford a reformer class, is a mat Pilates class just as good? "With any kind of exercise, it comes down to the skill and training of your instructor; a mat class can be just as wonderful as a reformer class if your instructor has excellent training," she says. Of course, there's no need to go to take a Pilates reformer class, but some people prefer it. Also, trying a few reformer classes might actually improve your mat practice, because it can help guide you into perfect alignment, Fama says. "On the mat, it's just you and your body in space, so it's tougher to find precision," she says.
If you're still intimidated, the good news is instructors usually don't just throw you on the Pilates reformer and expect you to know what to do, Andersen says. In fact, many studios require that you take an introductory course or a private lesson before you jump into a group class, Fama says. And like anything, once you actually use the machine, it will become demystified over time, she says.
Fortunately, really anyone can learn how to do Pilates and use a Pilates reformer: "The best thing about Pilates is that you don't have to be good at it to get the most benefits," Andersen says. "Pilates is designed to help you be stronger and more fit, no matter where you are in your practice."
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