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The Anatomy of a Pilates Reformer

The Reformer is the most well-known and popular Pilates equipment designed by Joseph Pilates. You will see reformers lined up in Pilates studios as Reformer classes are usually one of the main choices offered. Reformers are also becoming very popular as home exercise equipment. The Reformer makes a dramatic impression when you first see one, and an even more dramatic change in your body when you use it. A good understanding of the parts and functions of the Pilates Reformer and familiarity with the terminology when you arrive at your first Pilates lesson will help you get more out of your workout.

1. Pilates Reformer Anatomy

how to choose a pilates reformer

All Pilates reformers a built with the same basic structure. However, with differences in price come significant differences in quality, features, stability, and durability.

Despite the somewhat medieval name, the Pilates Reformer is actually an amazingly elegant workout and rehabilitation machine. A historical note, Mr. Pilates preferred the term "apparatus" for the machine.

The Reformer apparatus functions primarily as a resistance device forcing the user to work precisely within its grid. This promotes the development of good alignment, core strength, and flexibility.

Even though there are many styles and manufacturers of Pilates Reformers, the heart of all Reformers is a carriage that moves back and forth along tracks within a wood or metal frame. Adjustable resistance is provided by the Reformer Pilates practitioner's body weight and by the Refromer's secret sauce—a set of springs attached to both the carriage and the frame.

In a classical Reformer, the carriage is propelled by leather straps. Most modern Reformers are using smooth ropes and risers. While the recent variety of Reformers have many alterations in materials and features to the blueprints crafted by Joseph Pilates, the classical manufacturers still adhere closely to the  original measurements and mechanism.

2. The Reformer Frame

The Reformer frame is one of the most distinguishing factor between manufacturers and price categories. The classical Reformer frame is made from solid hardwood. Metal frames used to be steel and are now offered mostly in lighter and more elegant aluminum frames. The most important factor for the frame is stability.

An important distinction is the height of the reformer. Some entry-level Reformers rest on the floor but most are raised by legs of varying length. Height ads to user-friendliness and some Physical Therapy Reformers are as high as 24 inches. However, if you are planning on many standing exercises, then a lower reformer might feel safer.

3. The Reformer Springs, Footbar, and Gear System

Stott Pilates Reformer

The Reformer footbar provides a perch for the feet or hands as a launch pad to propel the carriage out. The height of this foot bar is adjustable. Classical Reformers have only two positions - either up or down. Modern Reformers have options for the height of the footbar that allow you to make adjustments. Your Pilates instructor will help you figure out which height is best for you based on the exercise you are performing.

Four to six springs provide the resistance on the Reformer. The remaining resistance is provided by your own body weight. Each springs hooks onto a single springbar, allowing for graded resistance. Unhooking springs will either increase or decrease the total resistance. High-quality Reformers have color-coded springs if differing strength.

Classical Reformers keep their spring tension uniform, but other Reformers often  color-code their springs and vary the tension. Your instructor will tell you which springs to use for each exercise. Beginning students are never expected to know how many springs to use.

The gear system allows you to change the distance of the springbar from the end of the carriage. This is sometimes used to adjust for a person's height. Adjusting your gear or distance will necessarily adjust the spring tension so beware. Again, your teacher will suggest gear changes if need be.

4. The Reformer Carriage

Pilates Reformer Parts

The carriage is the largest surface area on the Reformer and the piece you are most likely to lie your body upon. The carriage is moved by whatever part is resting on it. Kneeling, lying down, standing or sitting all help to glide the carriage in the frame as you pull the straps or push the foot-bar. The carriages are upholstered to provide a comfortable surface area. In Joe Pilates' time, the carriages were merely covered with Naugahyde but not padded.

5. Reformer Headrest and Shoulder Blocks

Many Pilates Reformer exercises are done lying down with the head on the headrest. The headrest can be down flat or raised up. Each exercise there is a prescribed position for the headrest. Instructors often adjust it for you or will cue you when to lower or lift it.

The shoulder blocks site on either side of the headrest. The blocks keep you stable on the Reformer as you push or pull the carriage. Often your shoulders are against the blocks, but there are also exercises that use the shoulder blocks as props for the feet, knees or hands.

6. The Reformer Straps or Ropes

The two Reformer straps are connected to pulleys at the top end of the Reformer. The straps have loops or handles on the end that you can grasp to pull or push the carriage. Most modern Reformers have integrated hand and foot loops. Again, the basic principle is that you will be pushing or pulling yourself on the carriage against the resistance provided by your own body weight and the springs.

Don't worry about knowing all of the Pilates Reformer parts for your first Pilates class. Reformer Pilates Studios offer special intro classes to familiarize you with all parts and functions of the Reformer and your Pilates Instructor will always be there to help with any adjustments.

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