Stretching the Limits at Reformer Pilates with a Movable Torture Rack

It might look like something recovered from a Guantanamo interrogation room, but reformer Pilates isn't an exercise in torture. We got limber at a class in London.
July 6, 2016, 3:25pm

Everyone knows someone who knows someone who swears by reformer Pilates, but these are friends who almost invariably have bank balances that are strong enough to support classes that can cost up to £30 an hour (and almost certainly eat gluten, dairy and wheat-free, too).

Reformer Pilates, put simply, is a core workout aided by a menacing supermarket-charcuterie-slicer-esque machine. If the studios weren't so trendy, you'd be forgiven for thinking you've just arrived at Guantanamo Bay to discuss your role in a sleeper cell busted for trying to infiltrate the Pentagon.

For the first ten minutes of the class, the reformer machine is nothing to fear. Sliding up and down with your legs in the air seems easy—almost fun—on a movable torture rack, but pain starts to kick in by the 11th minute. Then a plastic circle (a.k.a. the "Pilates Magic Circle") is introduced. As the instructor says to clench it between your knees, muscles I never knew existed are awakened in my inner thighs.

Next up is weights, as arm movements are introduced to the routine of sliding up and down the machine with the assistance of coiled springs. When the springs are adjusted to increase resistance, it starts to feel like torture. Fifteen minutes have passed.

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Pilates, which focuses on increasing core strength, takes its name from inventor Joseph Pilates—a sickly boy born in Germany in 1880 who later became obsessed with body conditioning, according to the website Pilates Central.

During the First World War he spent some time as a nurse, where he helped his patients to regain their strength using a series of springs and ropes attached to hospital beds. This was thought to be the first iteration of reformer Pilates, a fitness trend which would take another hundred years to take London by storm. We're a few years into the trend now, but the Evening Standard says that people are still queuing up for classes by the dozen.

Popular gym-cum-lifestyle hangouts like Frame offer classes. There are a number of small studios that offer extras, including themed music soundtracks—like Tempo Pilates, which has a studio in Hackney's London Fields, another down the road in Shoreditch, and one more in central London. Their playlists are upbeat and house-y: Mr Motivator for the millennial age.

Like mat-based Pilates, nailing the reformer is about nailing your flow, your movement, and your breath. But it's complemented by the machine, which "moves organically along with the body, correcting and removing erroneous patterns," say the Pilates Nerd blog.

"By simply putting the body into a better position to move from, and then supporting and resisting it along the way, it ultimately brings the body into a better form and condition, too," they add.

"You stroke it, you don't poke it," says Toby Davis, an instructor at Tempo's London Fields branch. "Feel the movement, feel the control… You're not trying do it fast, it's about the flow and the precision."

The great thing about reformer is that "there is no impact, so it's great for rehabilitation," Davis explains. "Lots of physios send people send people to our classes." In my class of ten, one girl had just injured her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her knee, one man had tendonitis, while another had problems with his hip joints.

Only two out of the ten people in the class were men. That's a fairly standard ratio, says Davis, who started out in the fitness game as a personal trainer. "I think men are scared to try it. I was before my wife booked me a class and then I was hooked."

Now he is almost evangelical about reformer. "I love teaching it. The springs, ropes and weights can make it exceptionally dynamic."

Davis rejects some people's fears concerns that it is overpriced. "If you look at the class we just had… There was a lot of teaching involved. I think you get a bargain." He says he would never teach a class of more than ten, as he wouldn't be able give everyone the attention they need.

When compared to your average Pilates class at a popular studio like Triyoga (with class sizes of 20 costing around £15 an hour) or a one-on-one personal training session (anything up to £150 an hour), he has got a point. A walk-in session at Tempo is £26, but if you can end up paying around £14 for a class if you buy blocks of six sessions in bulk.

It's very sweaty business on a hot Sunday in early June, and you would be forgiven for hating the job-shy hipster layabouts drinking Bloody Marys outside the window once you're ordered to coordinate your lunges with lifting 5.5 pound tricep weights.

But the speedy class pass, the sounds of Michael Jackson wailing through the stereo, and the novelty of sliding backwards and forwards on the reformer means that the time doesn't drag. As Lucy Watson from Made in Chelsea once helpfully Instagrammed: "Sweat is just your fat crying." This is biologically untrue, but I found it helpful to meditate on nonetheless.

The class ends with a five-minutes series of "elephants", a maneuver that feels like trying to do a plank while while trying to stop a ton of water escaping from a leaky dam using only your tiptoes. In reality, it involves getting into plank position and then using your feet to drag the carriage of the machine in and and out, underneath your body.

Then comes the stretching, which is where the reformer really comes into its own. As someone training for a marathon, I'd pay to use the machine just to be able to sink into a deep, machine-assisted stretch.

Reformer Pilates isn't easy, nor is it a one-class fix. It does take five to six sessions to really "grasp the method, relax and start reaping the benefits," according to the follow-up email sent by Tempo an hour after class has ended.

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They too revert back to Joseph's early words of wisdom: "In ten sessions you will feel the difference; in 20 sessions you will see the difference, and in 30 sessions you will have a whole new body."

"It's good to fail," Davis says to me at the end of the class. I infer that he means it might be worth taking up that offer.

All class prices are correct at the time of publishing.

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This article was presented by Danone and was created independently from Broadly's editorial staff.