There is a much loved piece of Pilates equipment called the Reformer or the Universal Reformer. This piece of equipment is known for universally reforming the body and was one of the first pieces that Joseph Pilates developed. It has changed greatly over the years as the popularity of Pilates has grown and manufacturers have modified and adapted it. Balanced Body was the first manufacturer back when I was a young 19 year old trainee with Alan Herdman and it’s wonderful to see how versatile the Reformer has become to adapt the growing needs of the client and teacher.
There is no record of exactly when the Reformer was developed, but during World War 1 when Joseph Pilates was interned in the UK as a prisoner of war he worked as an orderly in a hospital. A doctor took an interest in his ideas and principles and as the soldiers were being brought in from the trenches, Joseph began to try out some of his early exercises and concepts. He started by attaching springs to the hospital beds so the patients could work against the resistance as part of their rehabilitation. Some of the original exercises of the Reformer and Cadillac came from these experiments. It was after the war when Joseph moved to the USA that he developed the Reformer more.
It really is one of my favourite pieces of equipment. The person provides the movement on the Pilates carriage or bed which is attached to a framework in which a series of springs are embedded. Sounds like fifty shades of Pilates? Well, compared to the variety of other specialised exercise systems on the market, which allow a limited range of movement, the Reformer can accommodate hundreds of variations of exercises. The only limit is your imagination and safe client practice.
Four, colour coded, detachable springs hooked into the carriage determine the amount of resistance. The springs vary in strength so that you can use them for rehabilitation for more fragile clients right through to higher tensions and spring settings for athletes and dancers. The springs make the equipment accessible to all levels of fitness and provide a more natural progressive resistance for the muscles. The arms or legs can be placed in a variety of settings and movement planes and worked through various ranges of movement. There is also an adjustable set of straps which are used for upper and lower body exercises. The original straps were made of leather but now most manufacturers are using a strong rope cord.
The original Reformer exercises came from Joseph Pilates Original Matwork and have developed over the years. Eve Gentry, one of Joseph’s original disciples was famous for adapting Pilates exercises to help with her scoliosis and we still teach Eve’s Stretch on the Reformer today. In fact stop what you are doing, go and put the kettle on and settle down to look at some of the original film footage of Joseph teaching Romana Kryzanowska, a dancer and one of Jospeh’s fondest students. Just Google on You Tube and a whole history will unfold before you.
The Reformer really is a fun and versatile piece of equipment. It helps you to develop your awareness as you are supported by the equipment and you initiate and control the movements while keeping the spine aligned, allowing the machine to provide the necessary resistance. However, it’s not as easy as it sounds and often there is a lot of crashing and banging until you learn to control and develop the precision it needs to work with such a specialised piece of equipment. Eventually you will learn to stabilise yourself and work against the springs.
As your strength develops Pilates teachers can put your hands and feet into straps to work at a higher level and to introduce more open chain (less supported), destabilising exercises to challenge your body. When we work like this, we are aiming for optimum joint congruity and working against the resistance creates internal length through the fascia and allows a greater range of freedom in your joints and connection with the muscles. It allows you to work from a core and stable centre whilst allowing a more creative freedom of movement. We are literally transcending the limits of weight bearing positions without the risk of injury and opening the body to exciting possibilities.
To help you build into the Original Classical Exercises like Teaser a teacher will take you through a range of Pre-Pilates exercising and building strength and flexibility. Once you have an understanding of this and the fundamental of breath has been established then the Pilates teacher can add more dynamic movements. Because you have been placed in a reclining position gravity isn’t loading the lower part of your body and a whole range of choreography can come into play when a teacher adds momentum and speed. At a later date these exercises are used as a springboard in which to create new exercises tailored to your needs. That is a true skill and art form of an experienced teacher to effortlessly build you into a sequence of rewarding and challenging exercises. So it really is worth investing in individual Pilates sessions in a studio.
The original principles and fundamentals of the Reformer are similar to Pilates Matwork. The concept of Neutral Spine should still be considered, where the spine is in a neutral position neither over arched or flat. Neutral positioning of the pelvis is essential to create stability in the abdominal platform. All exercises on the foot bar are performed with neutral spine, however in the more challenging exercises some flattening of your lower back. You know you have lost strength and stability in the torso when you are pushing up against the shoulder rests. If you have sore shoulders on the Reformer you need to work your abs more. A non sticky mat underneath your feet or body can also help prevent you from sliding up.
Breath should be encouraged especially lateral breath as you have the feedback from the Reformer bed. Breath is key to bringing in your focus, concentration and release tension in the muscles. To optimise the breath try to make it as natural as possible and still maintain awareness of your deep stabilising muscles.
Placement of your rib-cage and pelvis. As the relationship of the shoulder girdle and pelvis balance each other it is important to consider their positioning when placing someone on the reformer or getting on for the first time. The rib-cage should not be allowed to expand up and forward and encourage the abdominals to slide under the ribs.
Placement of the neck. The neck should be placed in a suitably aligned position as follows the guidelines for Matwork repertoire. Most reformers have an adjustable neck piece that you can use to place your neck in its ideal alignment.
Rachel’s handy tips for teachers
Which Reformer is for me?
I always advise new teachers to work with credible suppliers of Pilates Equipment. It’s worth shopping around and looking for different options and payment plans. Ask yourself what is it you really need from a Reformer and how much space it is going to take up. Good equipment can last you for years and for teachers it’s a tax deductible expense.
All manufacturers should give you guidelines on how to maintain the Reformer. But you should also consider:
- Placing the Reformer on an even surface to prevent unbalanced performance of both the equipment and your client.
- Regularly oil the springs to keep them resilient and check for gaps appearing which indicate weakening in the springs. Springs need to be changed at least once a year depending upon the amount that the equipment is used.
- The runners and platform wheels need to be cleaned regularly and kept dust free. This will ensure optimum performance.
- Keep the upholstery clean and in good repair. It will need replacing every few years. I use baby wipes to clean my Reformer but a damp cloth will also suffice.
- Give your client a tour of the Reformer and how it works including its history.
- Give your client a demonstration of how to get on and off the Reformer and in and out of the straps as a Health and Safety consideration.
- Check that the springs are hooked on correctly and are the suitable strength for the client.
- Be careful not to overload all of the springs especially on the posts.
- Adjust the foot bar according to the client’s height and leg length.
- The risers should be correctly installed on the outside of the frame and at the right height for your client.
- The foot straps should be taut and not slack, if you don’t use the special foot strap and the general loops then you can use a hair band to shorten it.
- Check the straps for knots and kinks before your client gets on and that they are of equal length.
- The ropes should regularly be checked for fraying.
- When using the footplate ensure it is properly supported by the footbar.
- Ensure the headrest is at the correct height for the client.
- The point of contact for the foot straps to the ropes should be checked with every client to ensure that it has not been bound up.
- Check regularly for worn snaps.
Finally….Ron Fletcher an original disciple of Joseph Pilates sums up for me the Reformer experience. He said “Movement should be approached like life – with enthusiasm, joy and gratitude, for movement is life and life is movement, and we get out of it what we put into it.”
There is no better place to explore this than on a Reformer.
Rachel Rafiefar is a master Pilates teacher specialises in women’s health. She runs Teacher Training Certification Courses and Pregnancy and Postnatal Certification. To find out more about her visit website.