Make no mistake: 2023 is the year of the reformer. If you're yet to give the ab-torching workout a go, we've found everything you need to know about reformer Pilates before you step foot in a studio.
Reformer Pilates is everywhere at the moment. If you haven't seen the method trending on TikTok (it's racked up an impressive 24 million views on the app), you've probably heard that ultra-fit celebs like Harry Styles and Jennifer Anniston are jumping on the bandwagon.
According to ClassPass, 'sculpt' pilates classes were the fastest-growing workout of 2022, with a 471% increase in bookings from January to October. You only need to look at the swathe of specialist studios popping up globally to know that the buzzy workout trend shows no signs of slowing down.
The reformer machine might look like a Medieval torture device, but this souped-up piece of gym kit is secretly your best friend when it comes to building lean muscle, toning your glutes and taking your flexibility to the next level. Let's get into it.
Chances are you've heard of Pilates, the original 1920s mat-based workout developed by and named after German physical trainer Joseph Pilates. Anyone who's taken a class will know that it's a killer mix of strength, flexibility, balance, coordination and breathwork, using a range of total-body movements that focus specifically on firing up the core.
Reformer Pilates transfers the techniques taught in the mat class to a machine that's loaded with springs, a sliding carriage, ropes and pulleys. Typically, the Reformer machine has a cushioned platform (called the carriage) attached to a metal frame by a set of five springs, offering varying levels of resistance.
Classes involve cycling through different Pilates exercises, using a combination of your own body weight and the spring-loaded table as resistance to help target specific muscle groups.
There's also a foot bar and ropes, which you can slip your hands and feet inside for isolated tension work. Handily, the carriage also has shoulder blocks on it to stop you from sliding while you push and pulse the bed away.
Reformer Pilates brings an extra-fiery burn to your regular mat workout. You need brute strength to complete the exercises, which generally involve pushing or pulling the carriage, or holding it steady during an exercise with tension from the springs.
"Pilates is a full-body exercise that lengthens and strengthens the muscles simultaneously," says Amy Brogan, Pilates instructor and founder of Pilates training platform A Body Forever.
"It's unique because very few methods do both in tandem. When you put those movements onto a Reformer machine, you get an added 'kick back' from the springs, which creates even more resistance, which means you get more of that lengthening and strengthening effect."
Putting your core through its paces during a reformer class isn't just about whittling a six-pack. "Pilates is good for building abdominal strength, but it's a total-body workout from top to toe," says Brogan. "We all need resistance training as we age to help retain muscle mass. Regular Pilates classes can build strength and bone density and it may have an effect on reducing your risk of developing osteoporosis later in life," she adds.
As you push the carriage away, you're not just lengthening the muscles but strengthening around the joint too. "This type of functional fitness is essential for equipping your body for everyday tasks like lifting, running, carrying, pushing and walking," affirms Brogan. Pilates is also great for improving your posture and spinal alignment, as it strengthens your body's core and stretches the joints to their fullest.
Because of its low-impact nature, the padded carriage in a Reformer class makes it an ideal option if you're recovering from an injury or want to avoid getting one in the first place.
And if you hate the idea of a sweaty, explosive HIIT or plyometrics class, it's a great way to reap the stress-relieving benefits of exercise without pushing your body to its absolute limit.
"As a Pilates instructor, I train lots of cyclists because there's a lot of lengthening of the hamstrings and hip flexors," says Brogan. "It's also great for people who lift weights and don't have any type of mobility training in their schedule."
"It's also a brilliant option for low-impact recovery and injury rehabilitation," adds Emily Rutherwood, studio manager and head trainer at FS8.
It's a good beginner route into strength training too. "If you're intimidated by the idea of walking into the weights room but want to add resistance to your training, Reformer classes are an accessible way to ease yourself in," explains Brogan.
Reformer Pilates is accessible to anyone of any age or fitness level, but it's worth going to a studio with qualified instructors so you can understand the foundations of the method and how to activate your core muscles correctly.
Right now, there are lots of hybrid reformer classes popping up that remix higher intensity, cardio, and strength training with classic Pilates moves. "For beginners, I would suggest going to a studio that's rooted in traditional Pilates, rather than a hybrid class," says Brogan. "It's good to learn from the method first and then branch out into different types of classes."
In a beginner's session, the teacher will show you the equipment and demonstrate how to step off and on the machine safely. "They'll show you how to adjust the springs, put your feet safely into the straps and get comfortable with the movements," says Brogan.
"Don't try to jump straight into an intermediate session, as you'll put yourself at risk of injury. Give yourself time to learn the correct form and posture for each movement in a beginner environment."
"So many people come into class and it's obvious that they aren't listening," Brogan says. "If you shut down your mind and let the teacher guide you, you'll be 'in' your body.
One of the main principles of Pilates is the mind-body connection, which is why I've started incorporating a lot of meditation and mindfulness with my teaching. People come into class with a million things on their minds, so we need to stop and connect first before we even start to move."
With that in mind, you might want to skip the pre-workout flat white and arrive 10 minutes early to class so you have time to sit quietly on the machine and still your thoughts. "Connect with yourself before you come onto the machine and you'll find it much easier to travel through the movements,” assures Brogan.
Words: Liz Connor
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