What’s a Pilates Machine and How do You Use One?

Updated: May 13, 2021

A Pilates reformer can take your practice to the next level—as long as you learn how to use it properly first. Here's everything Pilates experts want you to know.

The rise of Pilates

If it feels like everyone is talking about Pilates these days, it’s probably because they are.

The low-impact exercise method has been around in the United States since German-born founder Joseph Pilates immigrated here in the 1920s, but interest in the practice has blown up recently.

That may be thanks, at least in part, to technology. In the past, Pilates classes were taught in a studio, primarily in major cities.

Now, many big at-home fitness apps list Pilates among their offerings. So you can take a Pilates class in your living room—or wherever you are.

All you need to get a great workout is a floor mat.

If you’ve been practicing mat-based Pilates at home or in a studio, you may be ready to graduate to exercising on a Pilates reformer, also known as a Pilates machine.

The big, looming apparatus is often what makes Pilates so intimidating. But the Pilates reformer is actually a really practical piece of equipment, and it’s easy to understand once you learn how to use it.

You’ll need to take a class at a Pilates studio to learn how to use the reformer, but before you do that, it helps to have a general understanding of the device and how it works. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about this useful workout tool.

What is Pilates?

“Pilates is a form of exercise that focuses on both physical and mental conditioning,” says Davina Wong, master instructor at Club Pilates in Los Angeles.

During Pilates, you won’t just focus on the exercise moves. You’ll also pay attention to your breath and how your body is aligned.

“Throughout the class, you are guided on how to breathe and are given specific instructions on form and alignment, leaving very little space for your mind to wander and think about your to-do list for the rest of the day,” says Amanda Jenny, Pilates expert and founding instructor with virtual fitness community Bande. “Being present, turning inward, and connecting with your body is what Pilates is all about.”

Pilates exercises are meant to be done slowly and in a very controlled manner. This is so that you can really focus on exactly what muscles you’re working and executing moves with proper form. Again, moving thoughtfully and intentionally is the key.

There’s a chance you’ve done some classic Pilates exercises before without realizing it. If you’ve ever done a roll up, leg circles, single-leg stretch, or spine twist, you’ve done a Pilates move.

Benefits of Pilates

There are a lot of benefits of Pilates. The low-impact system of movements enhances your strength, flexibility, coordination, and balance while also reducing stress and improving mental focus, Wong says.

The mental health benefit comes from the fact that breathing deeply and intentionally with your movements is a key part of the workout method.

“The emphasis on breath and mindful thinking can help to reduce stress and enhance concentration,” says Jenny.

Pilates is truly a total-body workout, incorporating moves to hit your upper body, lower body, and your core. “Most Pilates exercises train several muscle groups at once in a smooth continuous motion,” Jenny says.

The practice is beneficial in and of itself, but it can also equip you to perform other activities better.

“Pilates is for anyone who wants to improve their performance in their go-to sport or workout,” Jenny says. “A stronger core, greater flexibility, and enhanced body awareness will not only help when you perform basic day-to-day activities, but they can improve your golf game or even help you run faster.”

Having a stronger and balanced body can also help you avoid injuries.

The Pilates reformer

When Joseph Pilates created his system of movement in the 1920s, he invented an apparatus that eventually became the modern-day Pilates reformer. The goal: address physical dysfunction and injury and condition the body.

The Pilates reformer is a large piece of fitness equipment that kind of looks like a bed frame. It might look complex, but once you understand the parts and how to use them, you’ll more easily pick up the exercises.

The device is made up of a few key elements:

  • Carriage: This is a flat, moving surface that glides on wheels along the frame of the machine. It’s the part of the apparatus that you sit, stand, kneel, or lie on.
  • Springs: The carriage attaches on one end to several springs, which range in weight.
  • Foot bar: At the end of the reformer that contains springs is the adjustable foot bar. You’ll rest your feet or hands here.
  • Straps: At the end opposite from the foot bar, you’ll find straps that your hands and feet can use to perform various exercises.

There are a lot of different ways to do Pilates exercises on the reformer, but they ultimately all require you to control the carriage and work against the resistance of the springs.

“Most exercises are designed around pushing or pulling the springs, or holding the tension of the springs and the carriage still as you execute a movement,” Jenny says.

While you may do the same Pilates exercises on the mat and on the reformer, the reformer allows for a more versatile experience and offers endless ways to change it up.

“The resistance created by the springs provides a more-challenging strength and endurance workout,” Jenny says. “The versatility of the equipment allows students to never plateau, as there are always ways to make an exercise more challenging.”

(Check out these 11 other pieces of Pilates equipment that help change things up.)

Sportsman Doing Reformer Pilates ExerciseFreshSplash/Getty Images

How to use a Pilates reformer machine

Chances are, you won’t encounter a Pilates reformer in your regular gym. They’re usually found only in Pilates studios or other specialized boutique fitness studios that offer Pilates-style classes.

Reformers are not solely for experienced Pilates practitioners—there are plenty of beginner classes that get you on the machine. But it’s important to always work with a certified and experienced Pilates instructor your first time using a reformer.

They can teach you how to set the springs and help you get a feel for different resistance levels. Having some supervision while you get comfortable with new equipment and how your body moves on it is the best way to prevent injury.

For some background, here’s an overview of the different parts of a reformer and how the machine works.

Adjust the springs

A Pilates reformer’s springs will be specific colors that represent varying tensions—usually light, full (regular), and heavy, Wong says. “There can be all kinds of combinations, depending on the brand [of reformer you’re using],” she says.

While it might seem like using a heavier spring will always make the move harder, that’s not necessarily the case.

“You’d be surprised to learn that some of the most challenging moves are performed on the lightest spring load,” Jenny says. “Of course, it depends on what the exercise is, but for the most part, this is because the springs are essentially supporting you and helping you move the carriage.”

The less weight assisting you in a movement, the less support you receive. In short, a lighter spring means your muscles have to do more work to keep you stable and in the right position as you move.

Move the straps

“The straps are connected to the carriage, and the carriage is connected to the springs,” Jenny says. “So when you move the straps, the carriage moves as well.”

Depending on what moves you’re doing, you’ll put your hands or feet in the straps.

Because the straps are connected to the carriage, moving them means you’re constantly resisting the springs, Jenny says.

Where to find a Pilates reformer

You can buy a reformer for your home, but that’s only a good idea if you’ve been using one in a Pilates studio. For starters, the apparatus is a really big investment. If you’re not sure you’ll practice Pilates regularly, it’s probably not worth the splurge.

If you’re interested in trying a Pilates reformer, your best bet is to find a studio near you and drop in for a few sessions to get acquainted with the machine.

Jenny recommends taking a few mat Pilates classes before your first reformer class.

“The equipment can be intimidating to newbies, so it’s best to have an understanding of the Pilates principles and know how to control your body in an exercise before you have to worry about controlling a moving surface underneath you as well,” she says.

If you do decide to take a reformer class first, let your instructor know you’re new to Pilates. “They can give you a machine demo and keep a close eye on you in class,” Jenny explains.

No clue where to find a Pilates studio? Try the Pilates Near You app, which lets you search for Pilates studios in your area. MindBody is another great resource for finding studios nearby.

You might not be able to find all local studios listed, though, so you can also do a Google search to see what might be out there. Better yet, ask around in your community for personal recommendations.

If you want to try a few mat Pilates classes from home to get acquainted with the fitness method in general, Alo Moves, FitOn, Peloton, and Glo are all great at-home fitness apps that offer Pilates classes.

Next, check out these Pilates chairs, which you can use at home for a better workout.