Reformer Pilates: Why this trendy torture is here to stay

reformer pilates
This is not me, but instead a beautiful Getty model doing Reformer Pilates. Photo credit: Getty

Nervously driving to my first ever reformer Pilates class, I got a fright at a flash of skin. Great, I had put the leggings on with a socking great hole along the stitching on my left thigh. Very professional. 

There was no time to go back and change; I was already running late as it was (professional reporter x2). "Maybe nobody will notice if I just hide at the back," I thought hopefully. "How small could the class be?"

Turns out, pretty small.

Reform Fitness in Mt Eden takes place in a small studio space boasting only around 10 reformers, meaning each class basically feels like a personal training session. This wouldn't be like a spin class where you can hide at the back on no resistance, making strained faces when the instructor looks your way.

There's no escape.

"Are you scared?" 'Master Trainer David asked me on entry. "Yes," I said firmly.

"Good", he smiled. "You should be." He was joking. I think.

David showed me how to set up my snazzy reformer, which actually bore a strong resemblance to an actual bed.

"Maybe this would be like a yoga class and we'd do Shavasana at the end," I thought. "That leather cushioning looks like a great spot for a nap."

Unfortunately not. On this apparatus, you lie, kneel, stand and sit to create a balanced body and strong core - or 'powerhouse', as creator Joseph Pilates called it.

The single leg press kicked things off, an exercise to warm up the body and get used to the movement of the machine. With one foot above the body in small hoop, the other foot pushes against the bar at the end, moving the carriage back and forth. 

"This is so easy," I smugly thought. "Reformer is a bloody cinch. I could do this all day."

Then a slow, gentle burn began in my left quad, delicately growing like someone was holding a match to it. Had someone set me on fire? No, it was just my quad being sparked into action.

"What are you doing?" my thighs internally yelled. "We don't do this!"

"I'm so sorry," I helplessly internally replied. "Forgive me. It's only going to get worse."

Over the next hour, David took us through a series of exercises, each more lactic acid-inducing then the last. Lunges, pikes, even shoulder raises with hand weights to make our arms burn as much as our legs. Fun!

"Hold that core," was the continual mantra from David, often correcting and adjusting as he did his laps around the room. I was too busy trying to hold myself still, my whole body shaking so hard my foot kept falling out of the strap I was supposed to be rotating in small clockwise circles.

"Nice, Sarah," David shouted encouragingly on one of sweeps. "You're doing really well. Rest when you need it."

I was resting more than I was actually doing the exercise, but the burn was still a full body affair.

Why? It turns out Reformer Pilates is pretty much the bomb-diggity for your bod. It strengthens your entire core, which, as David informed me, was not the small ball around my belly button I've always thought. 

"It goes from here," he said, with an arm over my shoulders, "down to here" with a hand across my hips. Great, so just everything that's not my head, arms or legs. No biggie.

NetDoctor explains it a little further.

"As a general rule, surface muscles are responsible for large powerful movements and are referred to as 'global' muscles. Muscles that lie deeper in the body, closer to the vertebral column, usually have more subtle functions which stabilise the body," they write.

"These are referred to as 'local' or 'stabiliser' muscles. They are responsible for making small adjustments to the alignment of the spine.

"Many Pilates movements require you to hold your torso in place whilst moving your limbs in different directions. This therefore challenges your body with balance, stability and flexibility. In time, this will strengthen your core and will streamline your body.

"During the ageing process, our bodies have a tendency to become stiff and inflexible. In tail, this creates a poorly aligned body, which causes a stiff neck, headaches and back pain. Pilates works on your joints and mobilises your spine which can prevent problems such as tight hamstrings, bent knees, rounded shoulders and forward-pointing neck."

That means for those of us in desk jobs or prone to sporadic PT sessions at the gym, it's important to work to break down your body into parts and stretch out those muscles. Turns out left butt cheek isn't as strong as right butt cheek. Upper abdominal muscles are stronger than lower. Every piece of my corpse was screaming and sweating. My face was a red, sweaty mess.

But the burn is addictive. Even though you're in a particularly well lit and pleasant smelling medieval torture chamber, it's enjoyable and it's challenging. 

The next day, I had could feel muscles that surely had not existed before that day, and I actually stopped myself from slumping so far over at my desk.

Guess I'm a sucker for pain because Reform Fitness, you just about killed me - but I'll be back.

Reform Fitness has three locations; two Auckland studios in Mt Eden and Newmarket, and one in Mt Maunganui. You can find out more about classes, prices and have a read of their blog here.