Reader, I tried reformer Pilates

We're not so different, you and I. Plus: the lesbian lumberjack of the internet; husband meal; Cillian Murphy almond mom. This is Link Letter 94!

Reader, I tried reformer Pilates
The Pilates reformer: not a torture device, but also, somewhat of a torture device. Photo by freya yanggg yang on Unsplash

I’m in the New York Times, and so is my cat litter! Real Swole Woman heads know that the third photo, especially, is true to our roots. If you are newly here via that article, welcome! Feel free to peruse the archive and check out LIFTOFF.

I’d like to give a special shoutout to the commenters saying, “Ms. Johnston is not ‘swole,’ as her muscles are not bulging; she merely looks healthy.” Thanks, that’s always been the joke since my column began publishing on The Hairpin seven years (!) and one day ago!

That makes it a great day to tell you that, for science, I tried a reformer Pilates class.

I admit to not knowing a ton about Pilates, other than what I gleaned from the backs of women’s magazines in the Pilates surge of the mid-2000s. I’ve sensed that lately there’s been a new Pilates surge, but especially for reformer Pilates. Reformer Pilates is the opposite of “mat Pilates,” where all of the Pilates is done on the floor. Reformer Pilates is done using a reformer machine designed by, you guessed it, Joe Pilates.

If you’ve never tried to sign up for one of these classes, the first thing to know is that they seem to be extremely competitive everywhere these days, bodies clawing over one another for a spot. It took a few weeks just to get the timing right of signing up after a class posted but before it filled up. When I arrived in the intimidatingly beautiful studio, I was immediately scolded by the instructor for not wearing the proprietary “Pilates sock,” which are like those hospital socks with tread, but make it fashion. I apologized and promised to try and not fall down nonetheless.

I'm not here to say "everyone should be doing Pilates," but I do believe in knowing about things even if I don't believe everyone should be doing them.

I’d never really seen a reformer up close before; it calls to mind a torture rack. But really I would describe it as a slidey platform that you sit on, like a children’s playground ride that ends almost before it starts. There are little doohickies underneath it that change the tension, straps for pulling yourself up and down the angled track, and some other bits to rest parts of your body on. Next to each machine was a small, squishy ball and two sets of very small dumbbells. At this time, I took in a very sharp breath. “We’ll be starting with the red and yellow tension rings on, though if it’s your first time”—she glanced a beat in my direction—“you can start with just the yellow.” I waited for her back to turn and hooked on both red and yellow rings.

We started a series of warmups, which was the beginning of a lot of working out next to the reformer machine but not on it. We did some pulsing lunges, and I got my near-immediate sock comeuppance when my sweaty feet began to slide dangerously away from each other. I clenched every muscle I had to not fall on my face and prayed to the tiny dumbbells I was squeezing in my two hands.

Once on the reformer, we floated up and down as a class, holding the squishy ball between our knees as we glided. The reformer looks like it belongs in medieval Guantanamo Bay, but it was actually peacefully rhythmic. And then it started to get difficult, with holds and slow releases of the movements at the end. We flipped over on our hands and knees and did a bunch of single-arm movements. I began to regret my red-ring hubris as sweat trickled down my forehead and neck.

Then we flipped over again onto our backs and did a movement that, I submit, the reformer was really invented for: with one strap looped around each foot and legs straight in the air, the instructor told us to swoop our legs in circles, up and away and back together at the bottom, and then eventually the opposite direction. Everything up to that moment had been tougher than I’d expected but basically replicable in any gym. I have to hand it to Joe Pilates; the big swooping leg circles hit. The next move was even better, a strap around our thighs just above the knee while we laid on our side and did quadruped hip rotations, such that the sliding platform provided constant tension. I’ve been to the top of the glute accessory mountain, but I’m forced to admit: nothing has ever been quite like the Pilates reformer constant-tension quadruped hip rotation on my glute medius. They burned! They hurt! When the class was over, everyone put their shoes back on and put their squishy balls and tiny dumbbells back on the wall shelves; they took cleaning cloths from a dispenser and dutifully wiped down their reformers before thanking the instructor and filing out. I cannot prove that the instructor knew she was double-reverse-psychologizing me into owning myself with the resistance rings, but I can’t help but feel she slightly avoided eye contact on my way out.

Was it a good workout? Sure, but I’m a firm believer that the bar for a good workout is low. However, I like that reformer is not as fixated on “the core” as mat Pilates often seems to be. The reformer is not as mystical as it seemed even to me at first; it’s really just a big weight stack and pulley system, basically something like this (though without the fun of floating up and down like a dandelion tuft in the breeze, bobbing in unison with the rest of your class).

A reformer: not so different from this, imo.

But these are all over the gym! If you do reformer Pilates, I’m delighted to inform (reform?) you that you are basically lifting weights. (Not the free-weight kind that is important, but still: we are not so different, you and I.) There are not ready substitutes for the two leg-sweeping and quadruped-hip-rotationing movements that I’m now fascinated by; to me, moves like that are the real unique-ish offerings of reformers. And I’ve never actually seen them done outside of this class, consistently weighted in that way (you could do a markedly worse version using bands). But I think with a weight stack, some straps, and enough floor space, they could be replicated; maybe I will, at long last, do some engineering.

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