Ladies and gentlemen, I am pimping my ride! The more I study Pilates the more I realise how much the type of studio equipment really contributes to the whole experience. In the UK the cost of importing equipment from some suppliers is prohibitively high and so we have more limited choices than our US colleagues. Having taken classes in studios that have invested in more classical equipment the feel of the reformers is entirely different. One major contributing factor is the wheels that the carriage moves up and down the rails on. Many of the reformers manufactured now have wheels with ball bearings that ensure a smooth and even movement. Thus they are engineered to move very freely. Older models did not have such high tech wheels and there are still reformers manufactured today along the lines of Joseph Pilates original specifications with these type of wheels. This means that you have to work a bit harder to move the carriage out and back in again as the wheels themselves provide a degree of resistance.
This can fundamentally change how we experience an exercise. At a recent conference I attended a workshop with a studio owner who struggled with a couple of exercises. This lady was a very accomplished mover but was used to using a more low tech reformer. On the reformer with high tech wheels when she was used to having to push the carriage away for certain exercises, there was a feeling that the carriage would shoot away from her and thus required a different recruitment and use of her muscles. This requires a whole new approach to Pilates, if the equipment either ends up doing most of the work for you or you have to change how you move to accommodate the equipment.
The reformer in my studio was designed from measurements taken from a reformer that Joseph Pilates built. This means that certain exercises work so much better on its proportions than on some more modern reformers I have used where these proportions have been lost. The wheels are softer than the ones that manufacturer typically provides in order to facilitate more resistance to movement of the carriage. However, they are still ball bearing wheels. So my nerdy heart was set aflutter when I saw a another manufacturer had produced a set of bearing free wheels for their reformers.You can see from the video below how the new wheels turn far less easily and the push test on the carriage has more resistance.
The difference when you are on the reformer is profound. Now as I move the carriage I am aware of the rails wheres before the ride was so smooth there was little feedback of that movement into my body. Now the reformer is doing less of the work for me. When I push I really have to push to open the springs and I actually have to pull it back in to close them. Many instructors, and I have certainly been guilty of this myself, tell clients to pull the carriage back in to close the springs on a contemporary engineered reformer. What you need to do to close the springs is decelerate the carriage because the combination of spring load and easily moving wheels will slam it back in unless you control it and slow it down. This is a completely different recruitment pattern of often completely different muscles for what would otherwise appear to be the same movement. This really does change the fundamentals of the exercises Joseph Pilates created for this equipment. If you use one set of muscles to push away and then a different group to pull back in as opposed to the same group you used to push away to decelerate the return journey there will be more balanced muscular activity around the joint. Imbalance around the joints is one of the factors that can lead to wear and tear of the joints and various pain syndromes. There may be situations where this deceleration is useful. For example in rehabilitation eccentric muscle control, where the muscle both lengthens and contracts at the same time, is a great way to strengthen and repair tissue. However, in a healthy body I would rather work on the balance of muscles around a joint than isolating certain ones.
So I’m starting to explore familiar movements in a completely different way. I love the fact that Pilates keeps getting more fascinating for me and I keep feeling like I’m discovering it anew, when the reality is probably that I’m getting closer to how it was always meant to be.