Thanks to a gift from a relative, I just completed the final session of a set of three private Pilates reformer lessons. If you’ve ever thought about taking a class or wondered what it’s like, here’s my take.
Perhaps the better question is “who” is Pilates? In fact, the reason the word is capitalized is because it actually is the name of the founder of the exercise – Joseph Pilates (1883-1967). There are some misconceptions about Pilates himself and the exercises that carry his name.
First, he wasn’t a dancer. He was a very sickly child suffering from asthma. He believed that physical fitness was the key to overcoming his illness. He became a self-taught athlete, strengthening his body using the methods we now attribute to him so that he could compete as a skier, diver, gymnast and boxer. Much later in life, he would share exercise studio space with the New York City Ballet. His exercise methods caught the attention of his neighbors who recognized his methods, which uniquely combine strengthening and flexibility movements with focus on the core (the collective term for the abdominal and back muscles), would be extremely beneficial to their dancers. As a result, the Pilates method was adopted by professional dancers and has been associated with dance ever since.
Second, the exercises preceded his development of the machine now known as the Pilates reformer (pictured above), not the other way around. Many Pilates purists insist that one isn’t really doing the Pilates method as it originated unless it’s done on a reformer. The reality is, Joseph Pilates developed his exercises for himself on the floor using only his body weight. But, the German-born Pilates was training self-defense to detectives at Scotland Yard in England when World War I broke out and, as such, he was interned as an “enemy alien” by the British army. While there, he trained others who were interned. Some of them were ill or maimed. He attached springs and pulleys to hospital beds to help train those who were too weak to do his methods on the floor. This is how the very first Pilates reformers came to be.
What Joseph realized was most people don’t have the core muscle strength to do his methods with proper form without machine assistance. So, using a reformer is a way to build up that muscle strength in order to do the Pilates method properly on a mat. For this reason, Pilates reformer classes are very beneficial as a starting point for those who are rehabilitating from injury or who have other musculature challenges.
Joseph Pilates’ methods are perhaps more popular in the mainstream today than they ever were when he was alive. His philosophy, that all movement comes from the core and that one isn’t really fit and strong unless the core is very strong, was far ahead of its time. Exercise science has since proven he was right. Slowly, his methods, first adopted by dancers and gymnasts, have become a cornerstone of training for all athletes. And now mat Pilates, Pilates reformer and Pilates hybrid classes, such as Barre and the Lotte Berk method, are mainstream offerings for novice exercisers as well.
Pilates Reformer Classes: The reformer machine is a rectangular box with a sliding seat or platform. The platform is attached to springs for resistance. The springs can be interchanged for different resistance levels. Similarly, straps that can be looped through hands or feet are attached to the box with resistance springs or to the platform through pulleys. A trained reformer instructor guides you through a series of movements either seated or lying on the platform, sometimes using the straps as well. The machines themselves are costly. This along with the small class size with a specialized instructor makes these classes rather expensive compared to other exercise classes.
Mat Pilates Classes: Because reformer classes are out of reach financially for many, mat Pilates classes are a more affordable alternative. Done on a mat similar to a yoga mat, using mostly body-weight resistance and some props, such as resistance bands and a magic circle, these classes mimic the movements done on the reformer.
In Pilates, form is valued over repetitive motion. Whereas traditional strength training usually involves a high number of repetitions, Pilates uses slow, controlled and physically challenging movements at low repetitions.
What Did I Think?
Though I’ve done some mat Pilates work and many Pilates hybrid classes, the work on the reformer took the challenge to a whole new level for me. These classes, each lasting an hour, were tough! But, as a trainer myself, I appreciated how the machines, coupled with an experienced instructor, forced me to put form first. This tells me it’s an excellent, safe way to strength and flexibility train. Yes, the core muscles were targeted throughout and I left there with my abdominal and back muscles completely fatigued. But it wasn’t just a core workout. Use of the straps meant I was working my legs, arms and shoulders as well. If you’re looking for a unique way to get a full-body workout, I highly recommend giving it a try if you have the means and Pilates reformer classes near you.
A big shout out to Jennifer at Pilates and More in Dobbs Ferry, NY for three great workouts!