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What Is a Pilates Reformer?

By Andrea Cespedes

Pilates reformer exercise promises to make you stronger, to enhance flexibility and to improve functional movement. This piece of equipment resembles a bed frame, accessorized with a gliding platform, cables and pulleys. Joseph Pilates developed the reformer while he was interned in a German national camp in England during World War I. Its initial purpose was to help invalid internees perform exercises to build core strength and greater flexibility.The reformer has since become Pilates' most famous piece of equipment, as it assists people of all fitness levels in developing strong muscles of the core and fine-tuning muscular balance. Exercises on the reformer can work all the major muscles in the body, including the back and chest, as well as the core and lower body.

A Beginning Step

Pilates designed the original reformer as a way to help de-conditioned or injured people build the strength to graduate to Pilates exercises on the mat. Springs on the reformer provide resistance that can be adjusted according to a user's needs, though, so the machine offers a challenge to more advanced exercisers as well. Because many exercises occur in a reclined or seated position, reformer exercises put little weight-bearing stress on the joints, and people with knee or hip problems can use the machine.

Quality Instruction

Pilates reformers are available for home purchase, but you should seek personalized instruction before using one. Pilates reformer exercises are highly detailed, and require precise stabilization and spinal alignment that an instructor's tips and cues can help you develop. Most fitness centers and studios do offer group reformer classes, but you're usually required to complete an introduction session or sessions to become familiar with the equipment and basic exercises.

Sample Movements

Familiar movements you do in a mat Pilates class show up on the reformer. The pulleys and sliding carriage can assist you, or add resistance, depending on your level of practice.

In the Hundred, a classic Pilates warm-up exercise, you lay on the sliding carriage with your head elevated above the headrest and your legs extended at a 45-degree angle to the floor. In each hand, you hold a handle to a strap connected to the front of the reformer; with your arms extended alongside your hips, pump your hands up and down vigorously in a five-count inhale, five-count exhale rhythm.

For leg circles, which help increase range of motion in the hips, you lay on your back and insert each foot into one of the strap handles. Bring your legs into the starting position -- extended straight above the hips and toes pointed -- and circle them away from one another in a sweeping motion. The legs should remain straight and the back pressed toward the carriage for the entire duration of the exercise.

Quality Over Quantity

Just as in mat Pilates, reformer Pilates emphasizes precision over repetition. You may do just three to five repetitions before moving onto the next exercise.

A typical class begins with foot work -- in which you place your feet on a bar at the base of the reformer and bend and extend the knees to slide the carriage and work the entire leg area. You'll move into spine exercises, including the overhead reach, side reach and spine twist. The hips also get a strong workout on the reformer, with exercises that include extension and forward and backward bicycles.

The frog is another common reformer exercise that targets the hips. You lie face up on the carriage with your spine in neutral position. Place your feet in the strap handles and externally rotate your legs from the hip joint with the knees into to the chest. Extend the legs out to a 45-degree angle to complete one repetition.

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