Planning to attend your first Reformer Pilates class can be quite daunting. The machine doesn’t look like common fitness equipment. It has a moving carriage, straps attached to it, and uses springs as resistance. The moves you see on social media make you think that the Reformer exercises are only meant for advanced practitioners. And you may think that Pilates mat is your only option as a first-timer.
There are exercises on the Pilates Reformer that are easier than Pilates mat, and there are also more challenging exercises. The Reformer machine is designed so that the springs can either assist or challenge the actual movement.
Let me explain how the Reformer machine makes the exercises easier or harder than mat Pilates.
Pilates Mat and Reformer Comparison
|Pilates Mat||Pilates Reformer|
|Movement Complexity||Less complex as you only have your body to deal with||More complex as it involves the equipment set up|
|Convenience||You can do it anywhere||You need a Pilates Studio to practice or buy your Reformer machine|
|Variety||Limited variety||More variety|
|Assistance||You have to rely on your own strength||The straps, the foot bar, and other parts of the machine can give you assistance to your exercises|
|Feedback and awareness||No feedback except the floor and mat||The setup of the Reformer is a good added feedback to increase your awareness with you the exercises.|
|Range of motion||Limited range depending on your mobility||Wider range because of the straps and elevated platform|
|Stability||Very stable||Harder when the carriage has very low spring support|
|Resistance||Depends on your body weight||It can be controlled by adjusting the springs|
|Easier to mount||Harder for older people and those with back and knee injuries.||Easier to mount|
|Intensity range from 1 to 10 (1 = easiest and 10 = hardest)||Between 3 to 8 intensity||From 1 to 10 intensity|
What is a Pilates Reformer?
Let me describe to you briefly what a Pilates Reformer is before we go on with the topic. This machine has the size smaller than a single bed with half of its length is covered by a moving carriage that can move horizontally. The springs are attached from the front of the frame to the front of the carriage, making it return to the front all the time.
The back of the carriage has a headrest that can be raised up and down, and it has a pair of shoulder pads. The carriage is connected to the back of the frame by a pair of straps looped in a pulley system. You can do a lot of things on the Reformer. Here is an article I wrote about the different positions you can be in on the machine.
What is Pilates Mat?
Pilates mat exercises are movements on the mat to work your whole body without using any equipment. Originally, there is a 34 exercise list that was written by Joseph Pilates in the early 1900s for the purpose of giving us a daily routine to move better as we age. It is very effective to strengthen your core, improve your flexibility and work on your breathing.
What makes the Pilates Mat harder than the Reformer exercises?
Relies on your relative strength to weight ratio
When doing the Pilates mat exercise, you will solely rely on your strength to move in certain positions when doing the exercises. That means if you carry extra kilos in your weight, it can be more challenging than someone lighter.
For example, doing bodyweight squats or heel raises can be more challenging if you are heavier. If you compare these with the same exercise done on the Reformer, the intensity can be adjusted by having lower or higher spring resistance.
Harder when you lack the flexibility
There are exercises on the Pilates mat that can be harder to hold if you lack flexibility. A good example of these are exercises that require you to hold either one or two legs up in the air like single-leg circles and double leg raises. When you do these movements on the Pilates Reformer, the exercises will be a lot easier. The straps will help you carry your legs, and will assist you to move your legs in different patterns that would be otherwise impossible or very challenging to do if you do it on the exercise mat.
What makes the Reformer exercises easier than Pilates Mat?
An elevated platform is easier to mount on
Aside from the adjustability of the springs and the assistance of the straps that the Pilates Reformer can do for your exercises, it is also easier to go onto the machine than on the floor. This is especially true if you have lower back pain or knee injury, as it will be challenging for you to go up and down from the floor.
Easier to establish alignment
The Pilates Reformer will also help you do your movement in better alignment. The straps, shoulder pads, and foot bar can give you feedback on making your movement more symmetrical. Thus, it is easier to do it correctly than doing it on the mat, where you have to rely fully on your awareness in space as you work through the exercises.
This is why Pilates Reformer is popular in Rehabilitation clinics.
If you want to try some exercises on the Reformer that you can do without the machine, I wrote an article about 12 Pilates Reformer exercises that you can do at home.
What makes the Reformer harder than Mat exercises?
More Resistance from springs
On the other hand, the Reformer machine can also be used to make the exercise more challenging. A simple way to make the exercise harder is to add more spring resistance. This will be true to arm exercises that will be significantly harder when you use heavier or more springs.
The moving carriage will make the exercise more unstable; thus, it will require more strength, balance, and concentration to do it. These exercises are best done when you have more experience with the machine.
A bigger range of movement
Because of the setup of the Reformer exercises, you will be able to go bigger with your movement than what you can do on the mat. The elevated platform will allow you to move further down than where you are mounted and the moving carriage will get you into stretch positions that are very awkward to do on the mat. This makes the Reformer exercises more intense.
More movement complexity plus the features of the equipment
The Reformer exercises are also more complex in general. So a total beginner will have a hard time in terms of learning the exercises and at the same time getting to know the machine.
There are hundreds of Reformer exercises for you to learn, so it is harder to master them all compared to the original 34 mat sequence.
In summary, the Pilates mat exercises can be harder to start with regards to intensity, but it is simpler to learn as there are not as many variations compared to the Reformer exercises.
The Reformer exercises, on the other hand, can be a lot easier to start with but it is a little more complicated to learn as you have to learn to set up the machine. This will require you to have a guidance of a teacher to start with.
At the same time, Reformer exercises can be a lot more advance than the mat exercises.
The Pilates Reformer exercises are unique, and they are hard to replicate without the machine. The combination of the springs, the moving carriage, and how you position your body on the Reformer gives you a very different experience with the movement. But because of this complexity, it can be overwhelming to understand the exercises even after several sessions.
After teaching Pilates for more than 20 years, I found a few things that work very well for my students to help them understand the exercises on the Pilates Reformer.
These are the six things you need to do in order for you to get better with the Reformer exercises:
- Understand how to properly align your body
- Improve your awareness without the Reformer machine
- Adjust the resistance or the intensity of the exercise
- Move slow and with purpose
- Coordinate the movement with the breathing
- Breakdown the movement into small components
I will explain to you one by one, so you will understand better what I mean.
1. Understanding proper alignment
Pilates Reformer exercises are specifically designed to work on realigning your joints and the way you move.
In the leg and footwork exercises for example, where you push the foot bar while you are lying down in a supine position. It is very important to understand that your toes, knees, and hips are properly aligned as you move back and forth.
Another angle you can look at these same exercises is at the hip and shoulder area. It is quite common for the hips and shoulders to be off-centered as you do the movement, which can compromise the benefit of the exercises.
You want to make sure that you are always properly aligned when doing Reformer exercises as you want to reinforce a better posture. Otherwise, you will end up reinforcing a bad alignment.
2. Awareness of the body without the Reformer machine
The Pilates Reformer is very effective in improving your flexibility, strength, and awareness. Still, sometimes it can be quite overwhelming, especially when you are new to the machine or learning a new exercise.
The best approach to work around this is to take the movement out of the Reformer and do part of the movement in a similar position. Then you can focus more on engaging the right muscles or doing the right sequence.
A good example is when you are doing the Seated Rowing exercise, which is a relatively long sequence to memorize. You can improve faster if you do the exercise seated on the floor and work on the arm movement sequence. Then go back to the Reformer once you have developed better awareness of the body in relation to the exercise.
3. Adjust the intensity or resistance
Reformer exercises can be quite challenging, and you need to learn how to adjust the intensity of the movement. You will end up compensating if you are struggling too much, which will develop into a bad habit in your practice.
On the other hand, doing an exercise at the same intensity for a long time will no longer stimulate your body to get better.
Depending on the movement, there are a couple of ways you can adjust the intensity of the reformer exercises.
- Changing the springs – this is pretty obvious, but one thing to take note of is that more springs don’t mean more intensity on all Reformer exercises. For example, when doing Pelvic press or Elephant stretch, lesser springs will intensify the movement. Compared to working on an arm press with straps in the supine position, adding more springs will make it harder.
- Decreasing or increasing the range of motion. The same with the springs; changing the range of different exercises can go either way. Abdominal exercises can be generally harder if you do a smaller range. It is good for you to explore multiple ranges to understand the movement deeper.
- Changing the setup of the machine or movement will also affect the intensity. In the Stomach Massage exercise, the height of the foot bar and where you sit on the carriage will play a big part in increasing or decreasing how hard the movement is.
4. Slow and purposeful movement
You should be familiar with this if you have been doing Pilates for some time, but sometimes we forget how important it is. Slow movements will also make it harder as it requires more control, and it gives you enough time to feel and check your form if you are doing it correctly.
Doing it slowly is not enough; understanding the purpose of the movement, knowing which muscles to contract, keeping your spine lengthened at all times, opening the shoulders back and down on arm exercises are among the few common things you have to remember as you do the movements.
5. Pair the movement with the breathing
Controlled Breathing exercises alone can do a lot of good things to the body. And incorporating the breath in your movement practice is one great way to still get the benefits of the breathwork, and it will also make your movement better.
Your breathing in Pilates will create a tempo in your movement to control the exercise and help activate the deeper core muscles.
Here is an article I wrote on Pilates breathing so you can understand more about it.
6. Breakdown the movements into small components
The best way to get better in any exercise is not just doing the same movement all the time but to break it down into several parts and practice them independently. Once you have fully understood all the components of the movement you are working on, you put them together.
In most arm exercises, for example, it is very common that your shoulder posture will be compromised as you do the movement. Instead of just correcting the shoulders while doing the actual exercise, you can step down, face the mirror, and do a separate drill just for your shoulders only. It can be a simple as shrugging up and down your scapula or protracting and retracting it. This will deepen your control on the specific muscles of your shoulders will give you a better chance of controlling it once you go back to practicing the whole exercise.
Once you have experienced a good Pilates session, whether, on the mat or Reformer, you’ll be hooked on it. The after-session sensation that it brings is just very different compared to other exercises you can do in the gym and regular fitness centers. That feeling of tallness, inner strength, improved flexibility, toned-abs, and soreness on the inner muscles that you don’t know existed is very addictive that you want to do the session again the next day.
Reformer Pilates exercises can be done daily. In fact, Pilates methodology that was originally founded by Joseph Pilates in the early 1900s is low impact, and low repetition type of workout was designed to be done every day to improve your breathing, concentration, alignment, coordination, the flow of movement, and centering.
We know that doing daily exercises is good for us. According to an article from the International Journey of Physical Education, Sports, and Health,
“Exercise not only makes you physically fitter but also improves your overall health and a general sense of well-being. Daily exercise can reduce stress and anxiety, boost happy chemicals, improve self-confidence, increase brainpower, sharpen memory, and increase our muscles and bones strength. Physical activity and exercise can have immediate and long-term health benefits. A minimum of 30 minutes a day can allow you to enjoy these benefits.”
Now that we know the benefits of doing regular exercises let us look at the added benefits of doing Pilates Mat and Reformer exercises daily.
Improve posture alignment
Our posture is greatly influenced by what we do regularly. That means that if you are sitting down hunching on your computer desk the majority of your time, the more your posture will hunch as well. So, if you want to correct your posture, doing a few exercise sessions a week may not be enough to establish a deeper correction.
Doing daily Pilates exercises will boost the correction of your posture as it will correct imbalances and strengthen the inner muscles of your joints and spine to make them stronger in a good alignment.
The Pilates Reformer machine will give you better feedback on how to hold your body alignment better which will help you actively correct your posture as you do the exercises.
Learn more exercises
Since you have more time to do your exercises, you will have more chances of learning new movements which will be an added benefit to your basic routine. The pilates method offers a wide range of exercises that you can do and each movement works differently on your body, so working on more variety of exercises will allow you to aim to more specific goals that you cannot achieve with lesser frequency sessions.
Polish your basics and develop a stronger foundation
“Perfect practice results in perfect movement”
Most people think of exercise as just an exercise rather than a skill to develop and practice. But this is far from the truth, especially with the Pilates methodology. The effectiveness of Pilates exercises depends on the quality of how you do the movements.
In fact, the more experience I have become, the harder the basic movements felt. This doesn’t mean that I got weaker, but instead, I am able to access more of the smaller muscles of my body, engage them more; thus it feels harder. This makes the movement even more beneficial to practice.
There has been always a debate against daily core workouts especially in the gym setting where you’re doing hundreds of crunches and a variety of abdominal exercises all the way up to exhaustion. Here is an article from Livestrong where they discuss how you can approach daily core exercises.
Isolated abdominal exercises, in general, are not advisable to do daily as the same as any muscle in your body; your abs need a break. On the other hand, your core muscles are designed to work perpetually in conjunction with the rest of the body. Otherwise, you will not be able to hold an upright position.
Pilates exercises, though it is well known for their effectiveness in strengthening the core, don’t isolate the abdominal muscles as much, compared to common core strengthening movement. Most of the Pilates movements will employ the whole body to work together as one unit which is more functional and can be effectively done daily.
Prevents injuries and improve low back pain
Pilates exercises are done slowly and with full awareness of the movement. This makes the method very effective in preventing injuries as you are moving mindfully all the time. You will be able to move your body in better form and will transfer well into other forms of exercise or to your daily activities.
According to this study done by G. Maccagnano for the European Journal of physical and rehabilitation medicine, that there is a significant improvement of pain, disability, and physical and psychological perception of health in individuals who did the daily sessions of pilates.
Better body awareness
One of the main reasons I choose Pilates exercise as my base routine for sports and more demanding routine is how it can effectively develop my awareness. The slow and precise nature of the practice, coupled with the breathing, works really well to help me concentrate on my exercises.
This gives me a very good foundation to push further in my exploration to advanced bodyweight training like learning handstands as I can control my legs and pelvis better, even when upside down.
Decrease stress with breathwork
Focusing on the deep breathing work incorporated with the Pilates exercises works very well in reducing our stress. It releases the tension that you are unconsciously holding throughout the day.
Breathing has a big role in reducing stress; according to this article by Bruce Cryer, Rollin McCraty, and Doc Childre, on “Pull the Plug on Stress”, simply taking several slow, deep breaths can quickly diminish the feeling of stress.
Here is an article I wrote about Pilates breathing.
Either you get tighter or more flexible on a daily basis. If you stretch or you’re moving your body in various ranges, then you are getting more flexible. If you are staying on your office chair or slumped on the sofa for hours, then you are on your way to becoming tighter.
Unfortunately, flexibility will be an ongoing battle, especially as we grow older, and doing daily Pilates exercises will help you work on your flexibility.
Better symmetry and balance
Pilates exercises on the Reformer are great to correct asymmetry in strength and alignment. The machine is designed to give you feedback if you are exerting more effort on one side. The shoulder pads, the straps, and the foot bar of the Pilates Reformer, coupled with slow and controlled movement, will force you to concentrate on evenly working the muscles in multiple directions.
You don’t have to be perfectly symmetrical with your entire body, but you cannot allow a significant imbalance between the front and back muscles or between your left or right sides. Slight imbalances overall are normal, but if you leave this out of control, it can cause one side to work too hard to compensate for the imbalance.
Enhance performance in sports and daily activities
Pilates exercises target the small stabilizer muscles of the body, which is seldom worked in high-intensity exercises. Most sports practices or even our daily activities will require us to use bigger muscle groups which is not a bad thing in general, but it will leave the smaller muscle groups left out.
Working these smaller muscles will stabilize the joints and will make you more efficient and balance when doing more demanding work. This would fill the gap between performing well and performing at your best.
Doing a single session in Pilates will offer you more than just a core strength workout. It also works on relaxing and elongating your muscles and correcting imbalances which will make you rest better at night.
Pilates is a great exercise to do daily, but if you are new to Pilates, it might be a good idea to seek out guidance from an experience Pilates teacher to give you a well-balanced program. It is a good exercise on its own, but it will also be good to complement it with some bodyweight training exercises to have a more holistic approach to your training.