8 Ways to Get the Most Out of Your First Reformer Pilates Class

OK, so there may be models in your class — but you’ll leave feeling like one too. (Photo: Instagram.com/KarlieKloss)

If you’ve thought about trying reformer Pilates lately, you’re not alone. The OG boutique fitness class — Pilates done on a reformer machine — has undergone something of a renaissance recently, with Pilates studios offering group classes popping up like Starbucks in many major cities across the country.

And, as with caffeine, those who try Pilates usually get hooked. Pilates makes you feel stronger, taller, and more aligned, like someone’s pulling you up by a string sprouting up from the top of your head. Plus, as grueling as the workout can be, you get to lie down for half the class and pull on a bunch of straps and levers as if you’re on an adult jungle gym. How fun is that?  

If you’re considering trying out a class — typically ranging from $20 to $40 per session, depending on the studio — then you certainly should. But it’s best to go in armed with some basic knowledge. To fill you in on what you ought to know, we tapped three pros: Zayna Gold, founder of Boston Body, a group of Massachusetts studios teaching both classical and contemporary Pilates; Amy Jordan, founder of Wundabar, a Los Angeles-based, celebrity-favorite, barre-infused reformer Pilates class that’s now in New York as well; and Amanda Freeman, founder of SLT (which stands for strengthen, lengthen, tone.), an intense, heart-pumping reformer class.

Classical Pilates, or Pilates taught in the way its founder, Joseph Pilates, taught it, is pretty regimented — there are certain moves to do in every class, and a specific order in which to do them. But in recent years, instructors have taken a bit of a rebellious approach, mixing Pilates with barre, yoga moves, cardio, and strength-training moves to create a fresher workout. There are even different takes on the reformer itself — the machine used in all reformer Pilates classes. While the traditional one is made up of a carriage, springs that add resistance, a foot bar, and several straps that are used for arm, leg, and core workouts, modern twists include added boards, bars, and bungee straps.

Want to focus on alignment and lengthening? Stick with classical. Won’t consider it a workout unless you’re dripping in sweat? Try SLT. Want a mix of both? Go for Wundabar. Just like the many forms of yoga, there are different ways to do Pilates. Consider trying out a few classes to find the one that works best for you — or mix them up so you don’t get bored. 

Both Gold and Freeman suggest wearing clothes that show your figure (think leggings and a tank top) so that instructors can see how your body moves and be able to offer corrections. Sweatpants and other comfy gym gear are fine if that’s your thing, but watch out for clothes that are too loose-fitting. “You don’t want anything to be too drapey, because you don’t want it to catch on the springs [on the reformer],” Jordan cautions. 

It’s also worth investing in a pair of socks with grippy pads at the bottom, often sold in the studio. “We do a lot of standing on the machine, so having a good grip is important,” Freeman says. “And you can also sweat a lot in an SLT class, and that can make you even more slippery. And then for sanitary reasons as well. We wipe down the machines between every class, but I wouldn’t walk barefoot in an airport — why would you go barefoot in a studio?”

Yes, a private session with an instructor is pricey, but it’ll help you get more bang for your buck in future group classes. “What I always say to clients is, if private training didn’t cost anything, I would make every single new client do at least two privates,” Gold says. “But because it is more expensive, we’d never prevent anyone from coming in and enjoying Pilates as their budget permits.”

Either way, know that everyone learns at his or her own pace. “For some clients, it takes a month to get the hang of Pilates, and for some of them it takes years because they should have been doing private,” Gold says. “All of them get to the point of moving like dancers — it’s just how long it’s going to take. After the first 30 privates or so, you’re where you’d be after three years of class.” Still, if you’re not in a place to take private classes (I’m not either!), don’t sweat it. Because while everyone would benefit from one-on-one instruction, Gold says, there’s still a chance you’ll pick it up quickly. 

There are three things to look for in a teacher, Gold explains. First is that you should be able to understand what the instructor is saying to you — by using anatomy terms and explaining how exercises work in your body but in a way that’s easily digestible. If you feel like the teacher is speaking another language entirely — and isn’t open to translating — look elsewhere. 

Your instructor should also encourage you to make modifications or variations to protect your joints and lower back. “Whether you’re 18 or 70,” Gold says, “there are so many people who have joint problems. It’s from using a computer, or doing certain workout classes — these really, really fit women who have the backs of people much older than them. You want to go to a class with an instructor who really encourages people to adjust.” 

Lastly, you should get a great workout. If you leave feeling like you didn’t do anything, look for an instructor who gives better cues — and corrects your form to activate the right muscles. 

A good teacher, Gold says, will teach the class in “layers,” offering the basic move, and then modifications that make the move harder or easier, for students at different levels. If your teacher doesn’t give an alternative for a move you find difficult, ask for one — it’s better to do an easier move that works than a harder move that can hurt you.

If you have a question about an instruction or move, Jordan says, “raise your hand and flag us over. I view it as an opportunity to share that question with the whole class  — I think it only helps everyone’s experience. If you have a question, I’m sure more people have it as well.” This goes for one-on-one time, too. “If you’re supposed to feel it in your inner thighs and something else is burning, let us know! Don’t hesitate to ask for support,” Jordan pleads.

And if you don’t know what a word means, or what to do with your machine, be sure to ask in the moment. “Don’t get distracted by the new language we’re speaking,” Jordan advises. “Really just get moving the best you can, and we’ll help you get there. It doesn’t take long to make that transition, but the first time it can be like, ay yai yai!” There’s a lot of equipment in a reformer Pilates — springs, straps, balls, bars, and a carriage — and you’ll come to learn all the terms (and love them) in due time. But don’t worry about it before your first class. Instead, think of it as a mental workout to go along with the physical one.

This is where the different types of classes come into play. If you’re doing jumps in a Wundabar class or pikes in SLT, your heart rate will climb and you’ll probably sweat. But in a more traditional class, there are other signs that you’re doing things right. "You’ll feel your muscles engaging,” Gold says. “You’ll want to look for the feeling of gracefulness, of engaging your core muscles, your glutes, but it’s going to feel very relaxing even though you’re engaging your core. You do want to feel really elegant — you don’t have to be jumping up and down.”

“If it’s your first time on a reformer, it can be a little scary,” Freeman cautions. “People joke at SLT, they can be intimidated by the look of the machine — it looks like a torture device.” She suggests arriving 10 to 15 minutes before the start of your class and telling the instructor it’s your first time. Ask the teacher to show you the parts of the machine you’ll need to adjust for your height at the start of class and as you move throughout. 

“I would say I touch every single person in the room at least two or three times in a class,” Jordan says. “If you’re new, you’re going to get more than that. You can’t see your own body, even if you’re looking at your profile in a mirror. That’s our job.” If an instructor pushes your shoulders down your back or lifts your hips higher, it doesn’t mean you’ve made a mistake but that you’re getting some valuable one-on-one instruction. Look at it as a freebie.

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