How a Pilates Reformer Can Amp Up Your Ab Workout

Equipped with straps, springs, ropes and a leather sliding carriage, the Pilates reformer may look more suited for 50 Shades of Grey than a workout studio. But the apparatus is a staple in some Pilates classes, helping people move, groove and muscle-control their way to improved strength, flexibility, mobility and posture.

The Pilates reformer is a great, low-impact way to ramp up your ab workout. (Image: Photology1971/iStock/GettyImages)

Sure, it looks intense, but don't fret. "Reformer Pilates is a regime that meets you where you're at," says Pilates instructor Lesley Logan. "If you can't perform an exercise, there are ways to scale it down. And when you 'get' an exercise, there are ways to make it harder."

Intrigued? Below experts break down everything you should know about the Pilates reformer — including which fitness goals it'll help you conquer.

What Is a Pilates Reformer?

Designed by the founder of Pilates himself, Joseph Pilates, the reformer has a flat, sliding platform, called the carriage, that sits on top of a a bed-like foundation. The padded carriage rolls back and forth on wheels and is controlled by your movement, whether you're pressing off the end with your legs or using your arms to operate the pulleys on the other side.

Mat vs. Reformer Pilates

Many of the foundational body-weight movements of mat Pilates (Pilates that takes place exclusively on a mat or the floor) will make an appearance on the reformer. But the device's springs, straps and gears can be used to add varying levels of resistance to those moves and also used for exercises like Sliding Lunge, Tree Hug and Frog, which aren't possible without a reformer.

"The added resistance during reformer exercises can challenge the muscles in a slightly more robust way," says Elaine Hayes, founder and CEO of MNTSTUDIO, a Pilates and barre studio in San Francisco.

That doesn't mean reformer Pilates is necessarily better than mat Pilates, however. "There's a huge repertoire of strengthening and stabilizing exercises you can do on a mat, so whether you opt for mat or reformer really depends on your preferences — and what your local studio, home-gym and finances allow," says Heather Jeffcoat, a physical therapist at Fusion Wellness & Physical Therapy.

Benefits of Using a Pilates Reformer

"Improved functional strength, flexibility and mobility, balance and coordination are all benefits of using the Pilates reformer often," says Hayes. "It's also a great workout for deepening the mind-body connection and really enjoying your workout routine." Here are some of the other amazing benefits:

Build muscle: If you're used to HIIT, CrossFit or cycling workouts, the slow-and-controlled movements you'll do on a reformer might feel a bit strange. But that's exactly what makes it so effective, Jeffcoat says. Moving slowly during the eccentric portion of the exercise (where the muscle is lengthening) is associated with greater muscle adaptation, according to a July 2017 study published in Frontiers in Physiology.

Strengthen your abs: Pilates exercises emphasize the core — also called your "powerhouse" by practitioners — which is why the regime is credited for improving posture and balance and reducing low back pain. But it's actually a full-body workout, Jeffcoat says. "You can tailor your workouts to focus on lower body and core one day, then upper body and core the next day, but typically a Pilates reformer class targets the whole body."

Support weight loss: Because reformer Pilates is effective at helping folks build muscle, which burns more calories per day, Jeffocat says, "It's a great form of exercise for weight loss, building muscle, general fitness goals and even prehabbing or rehabbing injuries."

Helps rehab injuries: Because it's low-impact, reformer Pilates exercises is a great option for those with joint issues or those recovering from injuries, especially lower-body ones. In fact, there are instructors and studios (like Jeffcoat) who specialize in using Pilates with her physical therapy patients.

To see these results, experts recommend committing to three to four classes a week. Can you do Pilates every day? Hayes says you certainly can if you want to. "All the stretching and lengthening that takes place also allows for you to practice daily, without needing to take a rest day." Of course, you should always listen to your body.

Calories Burned on a Pilates Reformer

Factors like age, sex, weight, body composition and the intensity of the exercises performed during class will affect how many calories you burn during a reformer class. But, Hayes says, "You can expect to burn anywhere from 200 to 450 calories in a 50-minute session."

For an exact calorie estimation she recommends using a fitness tracker with a calorie counting feature. Or you can use a calorie-tracking app like MyPlate to estimate how much energy you're expending.

"The goal in reformer Pilates isn't really about the calories burned during the class, but rather about coming consistently so that you put on more lean muscle mass and burn more calories all day long," she adds.

What to Expect in a Reformer Pilates Class

"All Pilates reformer classes will be different based on class length, the instructor and the studios style," says Hayes. "But most classes will start with a few stretches to warm up the body before getting right into the business of activating, engaging and working all your muscles head-to-toe." Class usually ends with a few relaxing cooldown stretches, she says.

The Best Exercises for a Pilates Reformer

There are probably close to as many Pilates exercises as there are Pilates studios, but according to Jeffcoat and Hayes, these are the staples.

Single-Leg Circles: With your back flat against the carriage and arms by your side, loop a strap around your foot or ankle. Brace your core and lift one leg into the air. Draw a big circle with your big toes in the air, then reverse the direction.

Pilates Hundred: Lie on your back with your arms by your sides, legs lifted at a 45-degree angle and holding a strap in each hand. Engage your core to lift your upper back off the platform and begin to flutter your arms alongside your body. Inhale for five quick counts, then exhale for five quick counts. Repeat this sequence 10 total times.

Side Leg Clam: Lie on your side in fetal position with a strap around your top knee. Glue your heels together, then lift your top knee up while your feet remain touching. Slowly lower that knee down. Repeat on the other leg.

Roll-Up: Lie on your back with your arms overhead, each hand holding a strap and facing the ceiling, and point your toes. Engage your core and press your lower back into the platform and begin to life up one vertebra at a time to a seated position. Slowly lower back down.

Side Over Abs: For this move, you'll use the box attachment to target your obliques. Lie on your side with the box under your hip and your feet stacked under the foot straps so that your body forms a straight, diagonal line from your feet to your head. Put your hands behind your head with your elbows out and dip your upper body down to tap your elbows to the platform before returning to the start.

Hug a Tree: Kneel facing the carriage with the banded loops closest to your feet in your hands. Position your arms out in front of you as if you're hugging a giant tree, then open your arms out to the side in a giant V and repeat.

Differences in Pilates Reformer Workouts

An important distinction in Pilates is classical versus contemporary. Classic Pilates follows a specific sequence of exercises that Joseph Pilates programmed decades ago, while contemporary Pilates uses additional exercises in whatever order the instructor or studio sees fit.

Reformer Pilates can be done in either of these styles, says Julie Erickson, Pilates instructor at Endurance Pilates and Yoga in Boston and New York City. "The majority of Pilates reformer classes are often taught in contemporary style — so there's no specific order of exercise," she says. Rather, it's up to the instructor to choreograph.

Logan suggests trying a classic Pilates reformer class and also exploring a few different contemporary classes with different instructors and at different studios until you find the one that makes you want to go back for more.

How to Stay Safe on a Pilates Reformer

Not all reformers are the same, which is why Erickson says it's important to let your instructor know if you're new to Pilates in general or new to this specific apparatus. "If you're working through an injury or experiencing any muscle soreness or fatigue, you should also tell the instructor," she says.

Regardless of whether it's your first or 300th class, "listen to the cues from the expert leading the class, ask clarifying questions as needed, and stop if you are feeling pain that is more than muscle soreness," she says.

You should also wear grippy socks (so you don't slip) and form-fitting clothes, and if you have long hair, pull it back so it doesn't get tangled in the equipment, says Hayes.

Add a Pilates Reformer to Your Home Gym

With new Pilates studios popping up seemingly every month, chances are you live near one that offers classes on the machine. But if you're a devotee of the sport or unable to squeeze in time to visit a studio, having a reformer at home is a great way do the workout and see results.

Brands like Balanced Body, Gratz Pilates and AeroPilates offer machines available for any budget, space and experience level.

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