I often hear very strong opinions on the use of Pilates equipment. When people become familiar with Pilates, many have the same question: do I need to use Pilates equipment such as a Reformer or Cadillac to get the BEST workout?
Hopefully I can help answer this question. I will also explain how I like to integrate the use of Pilates equipment as a Licensed Physical Therapist and a Certified STOTT PILATES instructor at my practice, P.ilaT.es- Physical Therapy & Pilates, here in Oakland, CA.
Let’s get to the point!
“Do I need to use Pilates equipment like the Reformer or Cadillac to get the BEST workout?”
First of all, what is one’s definition of “best”? Does this mean the “hardest”? The “most fun”? The “most balanced”? Considering what one values in a workout will determine what the “best” is, and this is usually different (and based on an opinion) from person to person!
But there ARE benefits to using Pilates equipment! I will explain a bit more about this later on. But does a person NEED the Pilates equipment to get a full, well-balanced, and targeted workout for their body? If a Pilates mat program is tailored appropriately, my general answer would still be “No,” and, “You don’t need Pilates equipment to get a full, well-balanced workout!”
A secret that we Pilates instructors know is: if Pilates mat exercises (without equipment) are done right, these exercises are often the HARDEST and most difficult to perform. Many people have trouble with the more complex and difficult mat exercises because they are unable to perform them correctly and with stability. As a person’s Pilates knowledge and body strength, flexibility, and awareness improve, mat exercises that are more complicated and difficult can be added appropriately.
“Why is Pilates equipment used so often? And why does everyone LIKE Pilates equipment so much?”
The general public likes Pilates equipment because it can assist and allow for more movement during Pilates exercises. Most people can move a bit more freely using the equipment. Because of this, many people feel like they can do “more” on the equipment than when they are attempting to do Pilates mat exercises (that they may not have the optimal strength or flexibility for yet). Working on the equipment can also be kind of “fun” to use too! For example, the carriage on the Reformer often moves when you do many exercises, so it kind of feels like you are on a ride while you are exercising!
Furthermore, many people do not have the room or the budget to finance and store large, expensive Pilates equipment, such as a Reformer or Cadillac at home. So when people come into a Pilates studio to do a workout, they like using machines that they may not have access to at home.
As a licensed healthcare professional and certified Pilates instructor, I like to make use of each Pilates equipment’s unique qualities. I formulate plans to create challenges for the individual client’s body using various Pilates equipment, while also integrating this with select mat exercises to create balance! (Of course my client’s preferences are also always considered!)
“How do you use Pilates equipment such as a Reformer or Cadillac to optimize a Pilates workout?”
Before I answer this, I need to explain what I prefer to do before using any Pilates equipment. First, I like to look at a person’s posture, the way they move, screen for any injuries (if needed), and then introduce and/or review the core principles of the Pilates method that I am trained in. Sometimes this is a quick review, while other times this can be an extended period of time, depending on a person’s needs.
I do this first because a person must understand the basics of Pilates in order to perform the more complicated exercises correctly. A person can have very strong large, external muscles, but still be very weak in their core stabilizers! This person must also understand the focus that Pilates exercise involves in order to get the most out of a Pilates workout! Lastly, I want to test and observe a person’s functional strength, and see how the person moves BEFORE I start putting them on Pilates equipment that moves, supports a movement, or requires a specific level of strength to push against its resisted springs. I want to establish a baseline level of capability so I can tailor an optimal and targeted program for the client’s unique needs.
Key Concepts that Pilates Equipment Provides to Diversify Pilates Workouts:
Pilates equipment provides:
Straps and/or springs can be used to support the weight of a heavy part of the body, such as the legs, for example. In some Pilates exercises, the weight and movement of the arms and the legs challenges the core stability of the trunk. In mat exercises, one must be strong enough to support this weight without assistance of straps, pulleys, or springs. As the coordination of Pilates exercises increases, all of this is done while the body is also moving! The key is to keep core stability with all of these challenges, and Pilates equipment can help assist in performance, as described above.
Straps and/or springs can also be used to challenge the movement of body parts such as the arms and legs. This is a concept that many people who have done gym workouts can understand. One performs the exercises pushing against a load. In Pilates, we often use springs for this type of challenge. However, many Pilates exercises additionally challenge the muscles by requiring them to lengthen but control a movement, while the springs are pulling the body or limb towards an end point.
Creating an Instability Challenge:
Sometimes, Pilates equipment springs can be used in a totally different way than described above. In some Pilates exercises, if very light springs are used, it can create the challenge of instability, which is extremely challenging! The person must perform a movement, but they must also use their core stabilizers to stabilize against the instability of the springs or carriage!
Combination of Challenges:
Some exercises done on Pilates equipment offer a combination of the above challenges! (It seems impossible, but TRUST ME! When it is appropriate for a client, it IS POSSIBLE!)
Varying Body Positions:
Pilates equipment can be used to create positioning challenges. A body position can be chosen to either increase or decrease the challenge of an exercise, sometimes this is in relationship to gravity. Some examples of various positions would be: supine (on your back,) prone (on your stomach,) sidelying, sitting, standing, and standing balance. Of course, there are many other more detailed Pilates body positions that allow for a range of challenges, from beginning to advanced! Because various Pilates equipment are different shapes and sizes, (example: the Reformer versus the Stability Chair versus the Spine Corrector,) the varying equipment can allow for additional support and positioning options than if one is just using the mat.
Assist in the Protection of a Medical Condition or Injury:
If a person has a specific physical problem, condition, or weakness, some body positions may be better (or REQUIRED) versus others. All Pilates positions and exercises should be chosen thoughtfully. Pilates equipment can allow for alternative positions when a person’s body or condition requires it.
My Opinion as a Licensed Physical Therapist & Certified Pilates Instructor:
In summary, Pilates mat programs that do not use large Pilates equipment CAN be tailored using various positions and challenges to create an extensive, full body workout. However, if a person is just starting out, has limited strength or flexibility, or has a medical condition/injury, a mat program may be a bit limited until balance, flexibility, and strength (or whatever was limiting) has improved. Nonetheless, if mat exercises are chosen thoughtfully, one can still get a comprehensive Pilates program without Pilates equipment based on the level of challenge that is appropriate for that person. If one has access to Pilates equipment such as a Reformer or Cadillac, for example, this can expand the exercise options and facilitate movements that may not be (initially) possible on the mat.
My professional preference is to use a solid combination of both mat and equipment work, selecting exercises and positions based on the needs of each client’s body. However, if a person does not have access to Pilates equipment, I still highly recommend doing Pilates matwork and building one’s strength with it over time! Pilates equipment is NOT required to get a wonderful workout, but it can expand and diversify the exercise options.
Even with access to all large Pilates equipment, I love to integrate matwork into Pilates programs to challenge my clients. It also gives them more exercise options that they may be able to do at home. I have seen amazing transformations in dedicated clients who use Pilates exercise, both with matwork and using Pilates equipment, to balance their bodies, and improve their posture, spirit, and confidence!
For those who are curious, look for my future blog post that will describe various Pilates equipment and what they can do!
As always, be good to yourself and others! Stand tall and stay STRONG!
Would you like to learn more about about Dr. Magda Boulay, DPT, a physical therapist and Pilates instructor and her practice, P.ilaT.es-Physical Therapy & Pilates, and how she can help you? Click on this link to sign up for a free 15-minute discovery phone call to see if P.ilaT.es is the right fit to address your needs!
PLEASE NOTE! This blog post is meant for educational and instructional purposes only. This exercise is a wellness exercise only, and it is not medical advice. This post is not a substitute for professional medical consult, evaluation, & or treatment. If you have a current injury or condition, please consult in person with a licensed medical professional before attempting or starting this, or any other exercise program.