The Anatomy of a Classical Pilates Reformer

Headed to try a Pilates workout on the Reformer? Take some time to know this specialized device before you go and you'll feel much better prepared. 

An Overview of the Classical Pilates Reformer

Three women exercising on a Pilates machine.
Kristian Sekulic/E+/Getty Images

The Reformer is the most popular Pilates apparatus designed by Joseph Pilates. It consists of a carriage that moves back and forth along tracks within a frame. The resistance is provided by the exerciser's body weight and by the Pilates secret sauce - a set of springs attached to both the carriage and the platform.

Pronunciation: Re-form-er

Despite the somewhat medieval name, the Pilates reformer is actually an amazingly elegant apparatus. A historical note, Mr. Pilates preferred the term "apparatus" to the machine. The Reformer apparatus functions primarily as a resistance device forcing the user to work precisely within its grid. This promotes the development of good alignment, core strength, and flexibility.

There are many styles and manufacturers of Reformers. The Reformer pictured here is a classic Pilates Reformer made by Gratz Pilates. Most Reformers are wood or metal. The carriage is propelled by leather straps in a classical Reformer or ropes and risers in a more modern one. Some Reformers rest on the floor and some have legs. While the recent variety of Reformers have many alterations to the blueprints crafted by Joseph Pilates, the classical manufacturers still adhere closely to those original measurements and mechanism 

The Springs, Footbar and Gear System

Reformer Footbar and Gears
Reformer Foot-bar and Gears. Gratz Pilates

The foot-bar provides a perch for the feet or hands as a launch pad to propel the carriage out. The height of this foot-bar is adjustable. Classical Reformers are either up or down. Other Reformers have options for the height of the foot-bar relying on notches inside the frame that allow you to make adjustments. Instructors will help you figure out which height is best for you based upon your height, weight and strength.

The springs provide the resistance on the Reformer. The remaining resistance is provided by your own body weight. Each springs hooks onto a single spring bar, allowing for graded resistance. Unhooking springs will either increase or decrease the total resistance. There is also a gear system that allows one to change the distance of the spring bar from the end of the carriage. This is sometimes used to adjust for a persons height. Adjusting your gear or distance will necessarily adjust the spring tension so beware. Again, your teacher will suggest gear changes if need be.

Classical Reformers keep their spring tension uniform, but other revised Reformers may color code their springs and vary the tension. Your instructor will tell you which springs to use for each exercise. Beginning students are never expected to know how many springs to use.

The Carriage

Pilates Reformer Carriage
Classical Pilates Reformer. Gratz Pilates

The carriage is the largest surface area on the Reformer and the piece you are most likely to lie your body upon. The carriage is moved by whatever part is resting on it. Kneeling, lying down, standing or sitting all help to glide the carriage in the frame as you pull the straps or push the foot-bar. The carriages are upholstered to provide a comfortable surface area. In Joe Pilates' time, the carriages were merely covered with Naugahyde but not padded. 

Head Rest and Shoulder Blocks

pilates reformer
Head Rest and Blocks. (c)Peak Pilates

Many Pilates Reformer exercises are done lying down with the head on the headrest. The headrest can be down flat or raised up. Each exercise there is a prescribed position for the headrest. Instructors often adjust it for you or will cue you when to lower or lift it.

The shoulder site on either side of the headrest. The blocks keep you stable on the Reformer as you push or pull the carriage. Often your shoulders are against the blocks, but there are also exercises that use the shoulder blocks as props for the feet, knees or hands.

The Straps or Ropes

pilates reformer
Reformer Straps and Ropes. (c)Peak Pilates

The straps are connected to pulleys at the top end of the reformer. The straps have handles on the end that you can grasp to pull or push the carriage. You may also be asked to thread the straps through the handles in order to work with your feet in the straps. Again, the basic principle is that you will be pushing or pulling yourself on the carriage against the resistance provided by your own body weight and the springs.

Understanding the basic physics of the Pilates Reformer will help you get more out of your workout. Be familiar with the terminology when you arrive at your Pilates lesson.