A Guide to Reformer Pilates, the Celeb-Favorite Workout for Low-Impact Body Sculpting

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“The rise and popularity of reformer Pilates has come from people seeing their personal results quickly,” says Laura Quinn, the head Pilates trainer for Alo Wellness Club in Los Angeles. We’re discussing the low-impact workout beloved by celebs including Hailey Bieber and Meghan Markle, and why it’s become the insider-favorite body sculpting class of the moment. The reformer machine’s spring-based resistance system, originally designed by Joseph Pilates, creates a gliding, zero-electricity workout. In the past, it has required equipment typically only available in a gym setting—but as at-home options have become increasingly available, even celebrities and in-the-know athletes are now subject to months-long waitlists to get involved.

Quinn’s students usually arrive hoping for a visible transformation in their core or body overall, she notes, and reformer classes have the power to deliver that without the strain of other workouts: “Many of my clients come in telling me they cannot do specific exercises, but, in time, are doing them because we build the strength and release tension.” There’s also been a wider shift toward exercises that don’t stress the body and mind, something Jennifer Aniston credits as part of her own fitness evolution. Before the pandemic, the norm of grueling fitness routines and boot camps often “raised cortisol levels in the body,” says Marisa Fuller, owner of Studio Pilates in Brooklyn. “These workouts can leave us feeling exhausted and burnt out.”

Fuller says that reformer pilates falls into the “mindful exercise” trend that has swelled over the past few years—and agrees with Quinn that pilates reformer workouts will only get more popular as the public learns of their benefits. Here, find their guide to reformer Pilates for beginners.

The principles of reformer Pilates

“Reformer Pilates is a low-impact—but high result—workout,” Fuller explains, noting that it’s suitable for a wide range of clients, from supermodels to people dealing with injuries. Also, it’s great for fitness novices: “Those who might not have a lot of experience, or those who are a bit older and unable to do other forms of exercise are great candidates,” she says. Since the workout itself focuses on core activation, the benefits develop gradually. “Strengthening core muscles improves posture and helps to prevent injuries, but it also provides a stable base for the rest of the body,” says Fuller.

The reformer machine offers a gliding, zero-electricity way to build that base. “Using spring resistance, we take advantage of the unique properties of springs to challenge and provide resistance to the muscles,” Fuller explains of the logic behind the unique reformer machine design. “The springs provide constant tension to the target muscles, which in turn leads to better results as the muscles have to adapt to this constant level of tension.”

Quinn adds that controlled movements with a sense of flow, and that incorporate breathing and concentration, are key. Doing something the right way a few times—and with the right alignment—is more important than pounding out reps or intense cardio. “Alignment is my most important principle to keep the body safe and prevent injuries in and outside the classroom,” she says.

What are the benefits of reformer Pilates compared to other workouts?

Reformer Pilates utilizes the resistance of your own body weight, which can then be increased or decreased by adding or decreasing springs to completely customize the workout to your goals. From sculpting your body to improving your golf swing (something I can attest your partner may thank you for), there are a range of benefits.

“Reformer Pilates has so many incredible benefits including increased core strength, injury prevention, correcting muscle imbalances, improving posture, flexibility and so much more,” says Fuller. “It really is a jack-of-all-trades workout.” Hundreds of exercises that can work out, stretch, and improve balance and range of motion for the entire body are possible on one machine, making it a great cross-training tool for a range of sports. “Reformer Pilates works on core stabilization which is vital to any athlete,” says Fuller, who name-checks muscle endurance, lactate tolerance, peripheral joint stability, and coordination as added bonuses.

Tips for starting a reformer Pilates practice

Since maintaining proper form is a main principle, learning the moves with a set of professional eyes can help kick things off safely. “Unless you’re at an intermediate or advanced level, I wouldn’t recommend doing Reformer Pilates at home, personally,” says Quinn, who thinks the first step to a Reformer Pilates practice is finding a teacher or class setting that works for you.

Fuller agrees, emphasizing that precision is key, though she shares a few general tips:

  1. Slow down: “Pilates isn’t about how fast you perform the repetitions,” says Fuller. “Instead, focus on controlling the movement to help isolate and strengthen the correct muscles.”
  2. Coordination will catch up: “Everyone feels out of their element when they try Reformer Pilates for the first time, but don't let that deter you—with every class you'll gain confidence and feel the difference in your body as you develop strength and tone,” Fuller says. “There are a lot of different exercises that you'll be learning so don’t worry if you don’t feel like you’ve mastered them in your first class!”
  3. Focus on “the squeeze”: “All exercises have target muscles, so when performing the movements, be deliberate in squeezing the target muscle to actually move your body,” Fuller explains. “The more you focus on the squeeze, the more effective the exercise will be.”

A step-by-step guide to two basic reformer Pilates moves

The Horsekick 

Fuller notes that for these exercises, both glutes are engaged with “one side to stabilize you, the other to kick the legs” and that one should aim to lift the leg to hip height—but only as high as you can without arching in the lower back. Start by “kneeling on all fours with the hands under the shoulders and the knees beneath the hips, neutral spine,” says Fuller. “Bring the supporting leg knee in slightly to be underneath the body, and lift the other knee off the floor. Exhale, extend the lifted leg out behind you. Inhale, bend the leg back in underneath the hip.” Perform for 90 seconds and repeat.

The Reformer Bridge

This exercise is designed to “fire up” the glutes. “Lay on your back and plant your feet flat on the ground hips weight distance apart,” says Quinn. “Start by slowly lifting your glute into the air and gradually peel your spine off the mat until you’re in the bridge position, then, slowly reverse.” To make it a little more difficult, Quinn suggests trying it with one leg in the air and on alternate sides.