Pilates Reformer machines

Pilates Reformer machines

Every month or so ih8exercise.com reviews a new type of workout we've never done before, something we're a "virgin" to. We give you our take as a first-timer to help you figure out if you might want to try this activity or workout yourself.

In fairness, I have to say up-front that in spite of the huge popularity of Pilates I've never been drawn to try it.  For those who don't know, Pilates is a training method first developed by Joseph Pilates and his wife Clara back in the early part of the 20th century. It blends "Eastern disciplines, like yoga and martial arts ... with more Western forms of physical activities, such as bodybuilding, gymnastics, boxing, and recreational sports," according to the Pilates Technique website, and the techniques are probably best-known as a favorite of dancers—Pilates is credited in helping them achieve their enviable long, lithe muscles. Its emphasis is also mostly on the core (abdominals and low back).

The fact that Pilates emphasizes the core above all else (it is the foundation of all movement and a strong belly and back enable you to do most everything you need to do) with little or no calorie-burning cardio, as well as the expense of the classes (it's not unusual for one class to cost $30 in large cities), definitely turned me off over the years. While I know that stronger muscles burn more calories even at rest, I couldn't justify the cost, plus with no cardio it meant that I had to fit that in elsewhere. Not ideal.

 The Pilates studio I went to had two kinds of Reformer machines.

The Pilates studio I went to had two kinds of Reformer machines.

But in an effort to give Pilates a fair shot, I signed up for a Sweat Pilates class, which combines cardio and Pilates moves on a Reformer machine (shown above). And whereas I usually write up these "virgin" posts after taking just one class, to share my first impressions of a workout (since most of us aren't going to give anything we don't love a second shot), I  also took four regular Pilates classes. I wanted to be sure I was giving Pilates a fair try. Three classes were done completely on the Reformer machine and one was done partly on the machine and partly as a Pilates "mat" class (same/similar movements, but done on a mat).

The truth is that cost and time are still barriers for me; I can't afford $30 for a class, or even $20, and I don't have enough time to try to fit in more workouts. And unless you use a bunch of coupons from daily deal sites and jump around from studio to studio, you would have to pay that, or close to it, in a large city like Los Angeles, where I live.  I bought a Groupon to try the four regular Pilates class at a West Los Angeles studio. I also paid for my Sweat Pilates class.

On the plus side, Pilates doesn't require buying any equipment, though some people like to wear special "toe socks"; I did the moves in bare feet.

What It's Like

Over the five classes I took I had three instructors. None was warm and fuzzy,  so I had to wonder if Pilates attracts a sort of bossy, militaristic style of teacher, the opposite of many (but far from all)  yoga teachers,  for example.

We all know from movies how hard ballet dancers work (and the damage dancing does on their bodies) and what taskmasters their teachers are, so I had to wonder if this "Black Swan" approach to teaching was representative of all Pilates teachers. I don't know if it is, but if so, don't expect a lot of encouragement or patience; you're expected to do the move properly in very short order.

This was surprising, and a little disheartening, to me for a couple of reasons. First, using the Reformer machine is far from intuitive. There are springs and handles and bars and a multitude of things on the machine that will make no sense to a newbie. (I'm sure I am among a long list of writers who've described it as looking much like a torture device, which of course it is.)  I would have expected more patience from teachers who knew that I was new to Pilates as I tried to get into position quickly, get the straps on my hands and feet, etc. 

If you're brand-new to Pilates, you'd probably do best to say something to your teacher before class, and also give her an idea of your fitness level. You will adjust the springs on the Reformer machine (among other doo-dads on the machine) to make each exercise more or less challenging, so you'll need her help figuring out which springs (each is colored) to use and how many to use. Pilates classes done on machines are small (under about 10 people, I found), which helps ensure personal attention. Because the number of machines is limited in a room most studios ask you to sign up in advance to reserve a machine. Mat classes may not require prior sign-up.

Expect that your class will last an hour and probably move along quickly: There's no real warm-up or cool-down. That's something I did like about classes I took: You dive straight in and when you're done,  you're done.  The teacher will count out each rep and also the breathing (in or out breaths) as you go, which is a big help too, for keeping pace. With the emphasis on the core you should expect many commands to engage your abdominals or glutes (butt), to keep good form at all times. With any luck these commands won't be barked at you like they mostly were to me and my fellow students.

 Headrest and straps on a Reformer machine

Headrest and straps on a Reformer machine

To be clear, I don't need a lot of coddling when it comes to workouts. But I'm also not someone who responds to terse, impatient commands. (I wanted to say, "Believe it or not, I am trying to engage my belly and glutes and keep my knees together and my hands flat!")  That's not motivating for me, but I do recognize that it is for lots of people, or that many don't mind it either way.

It's definitely worth mentioning the number of very lean, muscled women in my classes (there were no guys in any class I took)—many of them in their 40s and 50s. They had exactly that sleek dancer look, including exceptionally flat bellies, that so many of us aspire to.  It's also worth adding that although I do core work regularly, just one of these classes made my deep abdominals ache even days later. This is very targeted work and for most of us our stomach is probably our most challenging area. (Now I just need to get rid of the layer of fat over those muscles...)

As I mentioned, I also took a Sweat Pilates class, which combined cardio work along with Pilates moves on the Reformer. I only took one class, but it was incredibly difficult. Though I work out four or five times a week, typically at a boot camp, I could hardly keep up with this class. The teacher was, again, not so encouraging and even with modifications most moves were tough for me to do. The whole class felt stressful, to be honest, and I couldn't wait for it to be over. Not something I'll be repeating; it just wasn't any fun.

In sum, classic Pilates classes may be a good choice if money isn't a real issue for you; if you want to build up your core strength (always a good goal); if you don't mind doing cardio some other time (or you don't like to seriously sweat -- though you will definitely work hard, and sweat, in a Pilates class, it probably won't be buckets of perspiration pouring off you as in some other workouts); and you like a no-nonsense style of teaching. You may even get that dancer's body.

Are you a fan of Pilates? If you've never tried it, do you want to?

Other "Virgin" Posts:

I Was a Soul Cycle Virgin

I Was a Tabata Virgin

I Was a TRX Virgin

I Was an Elliptifit Virgin

"Black Swan" photo courtesy of IMDB.com

Ballet dancer photo by svetlanamiku