Flex Rec: Experimenting with Reformer Pilates
Published on Feb. 23, 2015
By: Becky Robinson
In high school, my best friend and I decided to try a Pilates class at a local gym. We sat on a mat for an hour doing various stretches, trying to balance on a skinny foam roller. My friend, who was 5'9" and about as coordinated as me, kept rolling over the side of her roller, landing with a thud in the dead-silent room, and leading me to unsuccessfully stifle my uncontrollable giggles. Needless to say, my first foray into Pilates was a bust.
What my friend and I experienced was Mat Pilates. Pilates Reformer, however, uses pricey Balanced Body machines—$6,000 guillotine-like contraptions with straps—to offer core resistance and to promote body awareness.
My instructor, Diana Jones, has been teaching Pilates Reformer at UA's Student Recreation Center since May 2014, mat yoga for a few years and leading various classes at the Rec since 1986 — "way before you were born," she laughed.
"Reformer just makes you feel better," Jones said as we positioned ourselves on the machine for the first round of stretches. "It's all about better."
Pilates was developed by German Joseph Pilates as a rehabilitation technique to strengthen both the mind and the body. The machines offer more resistance than Mat Pilates and yoga to tone muscles, center students' spinal and hip bones and promote proper breathing.
Admittedly, I was really intimidated at first. I had no idea of what to expect, but Jones guided me through the stretches and moves. I wasn't sure if I was doing the exercises correctly at first, because I couldn't feel much.
The key to gaining the most from your Pilates experience is to concentrate on your moves. You're not racing anyone and you're not doing your body any favors. Wearing comfortable workout clothes also helps make the most of your experience. You'll be barefoot, so there's no need for adorable Nikes or crazy socks (although you can leave socks on if you really want).
Once we stretched out my hamstring on the footbar, I immediately saw the benefits of Reformer. Yes, it hurt—I'm no workout buff—but it there was also a relief in my muscles that I'd never felt before. Jones said that this is a favorite move for runners and athletes, whose hamstrings often tighten or cramp.
Throughout the class, Jones and I worked on "zipping my core," or using my (weak) ab muscles to do the work instead of my legs or arms. I struggled to keep my tailbone flat in order to gracefully work my deep muscles. Trust me, it's harder than it sounds. Especially the grace part.
Another move called the "mermaid" has students lay on their backs with their legs stretched upward and out. Using the leg straps, students then make circular motions that work their side obliques. It was an awkward position at first, but soon I was concentrated on how to properly execute the exercise instead of how ridiculous I probably looked. Unlike weight training, Pilates Reformer is about the quality of movements over the quantity of repetitions.
"Reformer is like the weight room of mind-body," Jones explained.
Cathy Elliott, one of Jones' students, said she has been to four of the Reformer classes to aid with her movement in yoga.
"You're encouraging muscles that are deep, muscles you often didn't know even existed," Elliott said. "You figure out how to be strong in a different way. Because of Reformer, I have a hard time not standing up straight now since I'm training my spine."
The morning after my 20-minute intro class, my back muscles were a little sore, but I was otherwise fine. Jones said first-timers to the full-length, fifty-minute beginner course are often "exhausted" at the end of their session. She said she's also worked with numerous student athletes in prime condition and even they have difficulty maneuvering the machines at first. That made me feel better.
Most Pilates Reformer students attend class once or twice a week in addition to their other regular work outs. As Elliott said, it helped her better her yoga moves. Pure Barre members have also claimed benefits in refining their muscle movements with the inclusion of Reformer.
I can say, though, I'll definitely be back.
Reformer Pilates is offered at the UA Rec Center in group, individual or partner classes. For more information, visit http://urec.sa.ua.edu/fitness_pilates-reformer.cfm or contact Whitney Spota for a free 30-minute intro session at email@example.com.
Becky Robinson is a graduate student in UA's journalism department. She currently serves as the graduate assistant in Student Affairs' External Affairs office.
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