Reformer Pilates: What is it and Does it Get Results?

Words by Isobel Coughlan

Reformer Pilates is fast becoming the go-to class if you're looking to strengthen and sculpt your perfect body. The practice has received particular press attention this year, with personalities from newlywed Megan Markle to professional World Cup football players singing its praises.

With a focus on resistance and alignment, this 20th-century concept of exercise is undoubtedly challenging for both the body and the mind. The whole workout is done on a Pilates Reformer machine - a sliding metal bed with springs and pulleys - adding intensity to the exercises through resistance.

The equipment might look more like a torture tool from the 19th century than the basis of a good sweat session. But fear not! It's a more straightforward piece of equipment than it first looks. Keep reading to find out more.

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What is the difference to Classic Pilates?

You can’t scroll through your Instagram feed without seeing someone snapping a chic reformer Pilates class these days. But how does this swanky alternative measure up against classic Pilates workouts?

Classic Pilates focuses on working your body on a simple mat. No machines around here! Rather than relying on a Pilates machine for resistance, you use your body to simulate the same movement.

Also, classic Pilates is the basis for the whole system of these workouts. Reformer Pilates takes this resistance-based approach and transforms it from you vs gravity to you vs pulleys and springs.

Here’s a quick comparison of Pilates vs Reformer Pilates at a glance:

  • Intensity — Typically, Reformer Pilates is more intense than mat-based Pilates.
  • Resistance — Both types of Pilates are based on resistance. However, Reformer Pilates offers more resistance due to the machine.
  • Equipment — Traditional Pilates is based on a floor mat, while Reformer Pilates uses a specialist “reformer” machine.
  • Cost — Reformer Pilates classes require big studio spaces for the machines and tend to be more expensive than traditional Pilates.
  • Accessibility — Without a reformer machine, you can’t do Reformer Pilates at home. But you can watch online videos and simulate traditional Pilates classes from anywhere.

Which style of pilates is best for beginners?

Most Pilates teachers would say classic Pilates is the best option for beginners. This is because it teaches you how to control your muscles during the workout, where to focus, and how to pace yourself.

However, don’t let this put off trying out Reformer Pilates classes first. They can be a great way to challenge yourself, especially if you’re already fit and into strength training.

The only place beginners probably shouldn’t start is with advanced classes! Advanced classes are designed to be tougher, and the teacher won’t explain the basics.

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Where did Reformer Pilates come from?

Pilates, and the reformer equipment, has been around in its earliest forms since around 1915, thanks to the German-born exercise guru Joseph Pilates.

Throughout his life, Joseph had dabbled in various disciplines of exercise. He'd tried everything from bodybuilding as a teen to gymnastics, yoga, diving, and even becoming a professional boxer.

In the early 20th century, he began experimenting with a new type of mat-based exercise, and while working as a nurse, he came up with the idea of the reformer. He experimented with springs attached to a hospital bed to create a resistance-based exercise, hoping it would help patients recover faster.

Years later, while living in New York, he collaborated with Rudolph Laban - the world-famous dancer and choreographer - and what we know as modern-day pilates was born.

After opening the first studio in New York with his wife, the idea spread, and soon, well-known dancers flocked to study Pilates with the expert.

Initially called 'Contrology', pilates focused on using the mind and breath to control the muscles. Just like today, it centred around core movements, spine alignment, and deep abdominal muscle strengthening.

Do you like to come prepared? Learn the core benefits of Pilates now.

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Reformer Pilates FAQs

What to expect from your first class?

After walking through the studio and catching a glimpse of the somewhat confusing-looking reformer, try to resist the urge to run out of the door. First, the instructor will explain how the reformer works, what each strap and bar is for, and how to change the springs.

Adjusting the springs changes the level of resistance on the moving platform. So, for example, specific exercises to target, say, your legs require a higher level of resistance than those for your arms.

However, the instructor will tell you whether to alter your springs each time the exercise changes. And if the exercise is too strenuous, you can always lower the resistance yourself.

Depending on the exercise, the loops are there for either your hands or feet and, often, a bar to assist with stability.

All classes and studios will differ, but a typical Reformer Pilates move is the runners' lunge. Standing in a slight lunge with one foot on the stationary platform at the front, the other foot pushes the moving part of the bed backwards against the resistance of the strings.

Repeating this movement slowly and with control won't last long before your muscles burn.

Generally, Reformer Pilates classes are taken slowly and to the point of fatigue (expect to feel your muscles shake!) to build strong but lean muscles by increasing the time under tension.

Thanks to the tempo and resistance, even the simplest moves feel much tougher and target muscles you might not usually reach. So, whilst it might not seem as aggressive as a HIIT class, the required control and precision will still make you sweat.

In most classes, one exercise will follow straight into the next, like a continuous yoga flow, and after 45 minutes, you'll be more than ready for the cool down.

Where should I go?

The best Reformer Pilates London include Frame, Tempo and Ten Pilates. Most Reformer studios offer a beginner's class, so sign up for a few of these first.

Check out our guide to London's top reformer pilates classes.

However, if you're not based in London, the best way to find a high-quality studio is by searching "Reformer Pilates near me" and looking at the reviews of the top options that come up. Just make sure they have Pilates Reformer equipment! Some might be mat-based classes.

And when you're ready to take your Reformer Pilates to an intermediate or advanced level, we can't get enough of Bootcamp Pilates, Power Reformer at Frame or one of Lagree Studio's killer sessions!

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What should I wear?

So, what to wear to Pilates?

For Pilates Reformer exercises, freedom of movement is vital. You want to exercise comfortably and without restrictions, so steer clear of running shorts or big, baggy tops.

Instead, choose leggings or close-fitting shorts and a stretchy top. Reformer Pilates can get pretty sweaty during an intense session, so opt for breathable fabrics to stay cool and comfortable. You'll find some great options via our dedicated Pilates Clothing collection.

As you'll be getting into various positions and potentially going upside down, it might be worth considering some high-waisted leggings for full coverage and comfort.

Many studios also require those doing Reformer Pilates to wear grip socks to avoid your feet slipping while on the reformer. Reformer Pilates socks are a lifesaver!

Reformer Pilates clothing often crosses over into barre class fashion. Sprinkle some ballet style into your fitness wardrobe and learn what to wear to a barre class today.

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What is Reformer Pilates good for?

We see plenty of questions about Pilates. From ‘Is Pilates good for weight loss?’ and ‘Does Pilates help you lose weight?’ to “Is Pilates strength training?’ or simply ‘What is Pilates good for?’ the questions are endless.

We’ve put together the main benefits of Reformer Pilates to help you decide if this fashionable workout is for you:

  • It’s a full-body workout
  • Helps to tone and strengthen muscles
  • Low-impact but high-intensity workout
  • Improves core strength
  • Improves posture
  • Benefits your mental health
  • Helps with mindful breathing
  • Better flexibility

Reformer Pilates is a great way to change your workouts, try something new, and unlock science-backed health benefits. So, if you were wondering, "Is Pilates good for you?’ we hope this Pilates benefits reformer list clears some things up!

The Takeaway!

If you're already a fan of yoga or Pilates, reformer is the perfect way to up the intensity of your workouts, perfect your alignment, burn fat and help build a really strong core.

And by taking the pressure off your joints and increasing flexibility, it's also a great option for runners and HIIT lovers. So, this is your sign to take the plunge! You’ll be posting your Pilates Reformer before and after pics in no time.

Stay in the loop. Read more expert sports advice on The Sports Edit blog.