I recently wrote a blog post on whether you need Pilates equipment, or if you can do Pilates mat workouts in order to get the “best” workout. Being a licensed physical therapist and a certified STOTT PILATES instructor here in Oakland, CA, I believe that you can diversify and optimize your Pilates workouts by using a blend of both mat and equipment exercises. (Read this last blog post for more details!) A person can do this by selecting targeted exercises and positions based on the needs of your body. This will improve your core strength and correct imbalance within your body.
Why is Pilates Intimidating?
I believe that sometimes Pilates can be intimidating to people who have never done it because:
1) There is a misconception that to do Pilates one must either be super strong, or be an elite athlete, such as being a professional dancer, gymnast, or pro sports figure.
2) Pilates large equipment can be intimidating to those who are not familiar. Pilates equipment appear to be large, complex-looking contraptions to those who don’t know them! Even the equipment names are a bit perplexing and mysterious to those unfamiliar!
But Pilates is for Everyone!
Today I will dispel the above listed notions and enlighten the reader! Pilates is for EVERYONE! One should start Pilates by learning the basic, but critical Pilates principles. These principles are building blocks to success with the Pilates method. Learning these concepts is beneficial for people of all skill levels. The basic principles can even be applied to someone who is deconditioned or has an injury. As a person’s flexibility, strength, coordination, and confidence improves, specific exercises are built upon, the complexity of the exercise increases, and additional challenges are added. There are literally hundreds of Pilates exercises, and this does not include various modifications (or ways to break down an exercise into “steps”) that can be chosen!
Something I like to explain is: “Dancers and athletes use Pilates because it WORKS to correct biomechanical imbalance, NOT because they are highly trained and fit!” Athletes and devoted Pilates enthusiasts are aware of the secret of Pilates! They use Pilates exercise to address injuries, decrease aches & pains, find balance in their bodies, and improve performance in their chosen skillset! But anyone can do Pilates because it is varied and can be adapted for injuries and all levels of fitness!
Pilates Equipment explained!
What Are They?
Now I would like to describe the most common large Pilates apparatuses to demystify them for people who don’t know them. First, I must say that Pilates exercises should be selected and chosen appropriately based on the needs and skillset of the client. This is true for both Pilates mat and Pilates equipment exercises.
Origin of Pilates Apparatuses:
None of the Pilates apparatuses should be scary! Knowing how the Pilates machines were first conceptualized may enlighten people to this fact! In fact, these spring-based pieces of equipment are ingenious, and they can help so many people of varying fitness!
Pilates apparatuses were invented by the creator of the Pilates method, Joseph Pilates. In my opinion, Joseph Pilates was a true visionary and genius! Check out this link to read about Joseph Pilates’ life story by the Pilates Method Alliance. Also, don’t forget to check out this very cool 6-minute cartoon video by InfobytesTV and Taube Pilates about Joseph Pilates’ life & his method. It is so fun and informative!
To briefly summarize the origin of the invention of Pilates equipment, when Joseph Pilates was interned at the Isle of Man during World War I, it is said that that he attached springs to bed frames to rehab injured soldiers and improve their physical health. It is also said that this was the basis for his invention of his original Pilates apparatuses, such as the Reformer. His Pilates method, including these Pilates inventions, have helped thousands of people all over the world!
The Pilates Equipment:
Now, there are many different modern brands and styles of Pilates equipment. Though each brand may be different in certain ways, most retain the main qualities of each original piece. Since I am trained in STOTT PILATES, a modern, contemporary Pilates approach, I use Pilates equipment made by Merrithew. They have very nice machines!
The reformer is one of the original Pilates apparatuses. It consists of a platform that is large enough for a person’s trunk to be supported while laying down. This platform is mobile, but it has springs that are connected to its main frame. The springs provide resistance and support during exercise. There is also a pulley system with handles that is connected to the platform. This is also used in certain exercises for resistance and/or support.
The reformer is an amazing machine, and it is quite versatile. There are various ways the reformer can be used. For example, a person can 1) lay down on it with their feet pressing against a footbar, 2) put their hands or feet within the pulley straps, 3) sit in various positions, 4) lay on their stomach on a large box platform, as well as 4) perform exercises in multiple other body positions.
But many reformer exercises are done with the body supported laying down on the platform. Here are a few examples of this option:
1) the straps/pulleys can support the weight of the legs while the person does exercises similar to ones that may be done on the mat. The straps/pulleys can support the weight of a person’s limbs, but they can also give resistance to the arms or legs when they are pushed against.
2) The reformer footbar can give a stable base of support for the feet to push against, similar to what some people would think of as a leg press. The arms can also push against this footbar in certain positions.
The Pilates reformer has many springs: one can select very light setting that feels like almost no weight, to gradations by selecting additional springs for more resistance challenge.
But one of the best things about the Pilates reformer is that many of its exercises challenge a person by providing a mobile surface challenging the core, while also providing many ways to create resistance with exercise. Using the correct exercises, all of this is done in a very safe environment. There are various levels of reformer exercises, from the very basic exercise, all the way up to very advanced challenges.
The Pilates Cadillac is also one of the original Pilates apparatuses. It consists of a long, raised mat that is large enough for the body, arms, and legs to be fully supported on its fixed surface. The mat is high enough for most people to sit comfortably on its edge. This can be helpful if one has trouble getting down on a mat on the floor.
In addition to its raised mat, there are upright bars on each corner of the mat that extend upward. These bars are all connected by a horizontal bar frame that runs high above the mat surface. The framework can be used to hold onto, but it is often also used to attach various springs or accessories to it. Specifically, these accessories are used for resistance or support while the person is exercising on the mat. Examples of the various Cadillac accessories are: arm springs, leg springs, a rolldown bar, a push thru bar, and some other hanging accessories such as the trapeze and the “fuzzies”.
The attached accessories can be adjusted in various places on the frame, depending on the exercise selected. All of this may sound overwhelming, but these attachments are used selectively! Most Cadillac exercises will make use of only 1-2 of the springs/accessories; they are not used all at once! 😉 The reason there are so many options is that this allows for a varied workout with hundreds of exercises and modifications, based on individual needs!
The Pilates Cadillac’s stationary mat surface can be used purely for Pilates matwork, or its various springs and accessories can be used to provide resistance or support for the limbs while performing many exercises that are similar to some in the matwork regimen.
Like the reformer, the Cadillac is an apparatus that allows for many varied body positions! For most exercises, a person will: 1) lay on its surface, (either on the stomach or the back), 2) sit on the mat, 3) stand on the mat holding its framework, or 4) stand on the floor using its springs. Again, there are other body positions that can be selected, but this gives you an idea of what can be done on it.
For the advanced client, there are many other options that can be done hanging on the bars and accessories themselves. But the Cadillac’s stable mat and its variability also allows for very focused, basic exercises for those who need this.
Stability Chair (Wunda Chair):
The stability chair is unique because it consists of a small platform that can allow a person to sit on its surface while pushing a pedal attached to the chair by springs! Essentially, it can allow the reformer footwork exercises in an alternative position: using this machine, the body is in an upright and unsupported position. This changes the body’s challenge relative to support, in relationship to gravity, and it also creates a very functional position to exercise in.
Because of the stability chairs “smaller” size, it is convenient to use in smaller spaces. It has been said that Joseph Pilates designed his original chair as a piece of functional home exercise equipment.
Of course, like the other Pilates machines, there are also other cool exercises in varying positions that can be done on the stability chair. A person can: 1) stand, 2) sit, or 3) lay next to the chair and push against its pedals. For more options, a person can also: lay with their trunk supported on its surface pressing the pedals with their hands. A person can even do some exercises that involve supported stepping and balance. For the advanced person, some bars that are often attached to its sides can be used to do some gymnastic-like exercises!
As I mentioned before, this exercise piece is space-saving and it facilitates many upright exercise positions such as sitting or standing. Like the other machines, its variability allows it to be used for people of all skill levels: from those who are beginners, all the way up to those who are advanced in Pilates training.
Spine Corrector, Arc Barrel, & Ladder Barrel:
These 3 equipment pieces are very similar. They all have a base that has an arc-shape. The spine corrector and arc barrel are relatively small in size, whereas the ladder barrel is larger in size, typically larger than a Pilates Chair.
The arc barrel has a rounded “arc” surface that sits directly on a mat surface. The spine corrector has a similar arc surface, but it is a bit taller than the arc barrel, and it has a “step” on one side which can be used, for example, to sit on for those who may have more trouble sitting directly on the floor. Both could also be placed on the Cadillac’s raised surface, if needed.
The ladder barrel is a larger piece of equipment that also has a rounded surface to it, but it is several feet tall, and it has a space in between its arc and its ‘ladder”. This space can be used for standing exercises, and the ladder is used to hold onto with either the hands or feet when in various sitting, and semi-reclined positions.
All of these arcs are very useful to improve articulation of the spine. Often a person can lean over the barrels to assist them with sidebending, stretching, and extending the spine when doing the core strength. These arcs can help reduce stiffness and improve flexibility over time.
To wrap this blog post up:
In closing, there is so much to say about Pilates! The Pilates method, its benefits, its exercises, and the Pilates equipment are truly amazing. There is way too much to say about all of this in just one blog post!
But, I hope this blog post and its introduction to Pilates equipment can make someone who is not familiar with Pilates more confident, and perhaps more curious about Pilates! (To read more about some specific benefits of using Pilates equipment, check out my prior blog post discussing matwork versus Pilates equipment exercise!)
Ultimately, I am hoping that this post can help someone be more comfortable, and even confident enough to try out our amazing Pilates method! Pilates should not be intimidating. Pilates is for every person!
I cannot say this enough: Pilates can be used by many different people with different circumstances and needs! It can help people who are deconditioned or injured, the “average” person, those who are active, and those who do competitive sports and recreation. And yes, of course Pilates is also amazing for elite professional dancers and athletes!
Pilates is truly for everyone! Pilates can be started at its basic principles, and then its challenges can be progressive, based on an individual person’s progress and skill with time. I like to say, “Practice makes progress!” This should be the new PERFECT!
Pilates has done so many wondrous things for me personally, for my clients, and for many other professionals and people I know! As a licensed physical therapist, I fully embrace and support this transformative method! Find out how Pilates can change your life for the better!
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.