The reformer, the most asked about and widely used piece of Pilates equipment, has come a long way since Joseph Pilates conceived it many years ago using ropes, pulleys and a moving platform (carriage) to “resist . . . movements in just the right way so those inner muscles really have to work against it” (The Pilates Center 1999-2003).
Today’s Pilates equipment manufacturers have refined and enhanced Pilates’ “Universal Reformer” to meet the demands of a wide range of users in a variety of settings—from rehab patients in physical therapy clinics to group exercisers in multipurpose studios to professional athletes working with personal trainers.
A great all-in-one piece of exercise equipment, the reformer accommodates more than 200 exercises and another 200 modifications. Many reformers can be adjusted to accommodate an individual’s height or body type. You can perform both closed- and open-chain exercises in lying, sitting, kneeling, lunging and standing positions. The way the reformer moves makes it ideal for working on balance and joint stabilization—specifically core stabilization. The reformer’s construction facilitates neuromuscular “repatterning” as the body moves in semi-weight-bearing positions. Changing the position of the body as it works against the variable external resistance enables you to train every muscle group.
A torso-sized bed approximately 2 feet by 3 feet, the carriage glides back and forth on rails and accommodates supine, sitting, kneeling and lunging positions. As the carriage moves, muscles stabilize about the core and various peripheral joints, encouraging symmetrical, controlled movement. This variety allows all muscle groups to be worked through their full range, increasing the functionality of the exercises.
Look for a comfortable and supportive carriage (not too hard, not too soft), with a smooth gliding action. Add a box (optional accessory) for prone positions.
2. Carriage-Stopping Mechanism
Some reformers have a carriage-stopping mechanism to adjust how closely the carriage slides and stops relative to the foot bar. This feature controls and customizes joint range of motion, making it possible to accommodate clients of various heights and clients with reduced knee or hip flexion.
Look for a reformer with at least five or six different stopping positions so that the range of motion can be adjusted appropriately for different users.
3. Foot Bar
Either the hands or the feet can be stabilized against this bar while the carriage moves. For example, when a client is lying supine on the carriage with one or two feet planted on the foot bar, the legs can push out, working the quadriceps, while the torso is stabilized in a neutral position on the carriage. In a push-up position, the hands are on the foot bar and the feet are on the carriage. The hands stay fixed as the carriage slides back and forth, working the muscles around the shoulder. Changing the relative height of the hands and feet can make this exercise more challenging.
Look for a reformer with an adjustable foot bar (at least three or four different positions) that is secure, comfortable and nonslip and allows for the full exercise repertoire.
Springs provide dynamic variable resistance. Working against this type of resistance requires muscles to control both concentric and eccentric contraction speed and thereby encourages control at the end range of motion. Springs challenge core stability in a different way than free weights do. Resistance can come from the front, back or side—not just the line of gravity— so stability can be challenged while working in an upright position. Initial resistance can be as light as 2 1/2 pounds or in excess of 32 pounds. As the carriage presses out, the resistance can increase to more than 100 pounds. Resistance can therefore be closely matched to the specific exercise and the individual performing it.
Look for a reformer with four or five springs of various strengths to allow for as many different resistance permutations as possible.
5. Gear Bar
The gear bar enables you to change the initial tension on the springs (before the carriage is pressed out). This feature lets you accommodate clients of different strengths and heights. A taller client will begin with the carriage farther away from the foot bar than a shorter client will.
Look for a reformer with at least two, preferably more, settings.
6. Ropes and Pulleys
As an alternative to working with hands or feet against the solid foot bar, clients can slip the hands or feet into loops or handles attached to the ends of the reformer ropes. The ropes are looped through pulleys at one end of the reformer. The multidirectional movement gives users feedback about working symmetrically. Ropes and pulleys challenge core stabilization, balance, and stabilization through the peripheral joints (for example, the hips when feet are in the straps). The height of the pulleys on some reformers can also be adjusted to fine-tune the direction of resistance.
Look for a reformer that allows you to adjust the length of the ropes and/or the size of the loops to make sure the ropes are even.
The headrest should be adjustable to accommodate different clients and to make neck and shoulders comfortable and tension-free when clients are lying supine. The raised headrest also provides a brace for the feet in some exercises.
Look for a headrest with at least three different settings. It should be easy to adjust, comfortable, supportive and secure.
8. Shoulder Rests
When a client is lying supine and pressing the carriage back, the shoulders press against foam pads. For some exercises, the feet may be placed against the shoulder rests while the hands are on the foot bar; therefore, the rests should be big enough to prevent the feet from slipping off when pressing the carriage back. Shoulder rests are also used as hand holds—for example, in a push-up position or when a client is reaching overhead in a supine position. The rests should therefore offer a secure and comfortable grip.
Look for adjustable shoulder rests (to accommodate various shoulder widths) with comfortable padding.
9. Standing Platform
The standing platform is at the foot bar end of the reformer. Standing exercises for the hip abductors and adductors, quadriceps and hamstrings can be performed while facing the side, front or back of the reformer with one foot on the platform and the other on the carriage.
Look for a platform with a sturdy, nonslip surface that is big enough for one foot.
The box is an indispensable accessory for several prone, supine and sitting exercises. By draping the legs and upper body over the ends of the box, a client can work through a fuller range of motion and change the direction of resistance to work different muscles. Performing exercises seated on the box rather than the carriage allows less flexible individuals to be better aligned and feel more comfortable.
Many reformers allow you to slide the carriage to the pulley end and insert a solid platform between the carriage and standing platform, thus turning the equipment into a large, elevated mat. Trainers enjoy this raised-surface option for floor-work because it makes teaching easier and is good for clients who have trouble getting up and down off the floor.
Foot Bar Options
In addition to the foot bar for supporting the feet and hands, many reformers have the following options:
- a solid platform for performing plyometric exercises
- rotating disks, mounted on a platform, for working on hip rotation and challenging leg alignment
- extra padding for clients with sensitive feet
- a wobble surface, mounted on a platform, for challenging symmetrical use of the legs and for balancing on one leg
The kind of reformer you buy will depend on your specific needs. If you have a dedicated space for Pilates, you may want a reformer with the carriage elevated at least 1 foot off the ground. This makes it easier for clients to get on and off and allows instructors to teach clients without bending over. If your space is used for additional activities, consider purchasing the portable/stackable model, which should offer all the functionality and adjustability of a standard reformer but sits lower to the ground. Any reformer you buy should be built with sturdy, durable, quality materials and come with a warranty.