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The Reformer

The Reformer

By Benjamin Degenhardt     

re·form [riˈfôrm] verb:

1. To improve by alteration, correction of error, or removal of defects.
2. To put into a better form or condition.

When Joe Pilates created his work, he was on a personal mission to reform the world, one body at a time. Following a lifetime of studying the human body and movement, he knew that if we stop moving the way we are supposed to, we stop functioning the way we are supposed to. Of course he was not alone in recognizing the issue – but his attempt at a solution was rather unique. Instead of developing another athletic discipline, pill, or treatment, Joe developed an exercise system that reconnects us to the way we learned how to move as a human being in the first place, as a means to undo the damage caused by sedentary lifestyles. Additionally, he engineered furniture to make sure we can treat our bodies better during non-moving times. While his posture-improving chairs and beds never found their way into the mainstream, his exercise apparatus became an inseparable aspect of his work, and can be found in any part of the world today. Not surprisingly, the centerpiece of his inventions and the first apparatus he developed was called The Universal Reformer.There were many reasons for Joe to not just stick to the Mat exercises. For one, he realized that hardly anyone was able to do them properly. Also, a huge market for exercise apparatus was unfolding during his time. In an interview from 1946 he discloses a couple of other reasons. He explains: “Of course you can exercise without machines. But it’s not as efficient – would take longer. With them, three or four hours work a week is enough.”

Research backs Joe up in his assumption that moving with an external load such as provided by the apparatus (note that against common belief, Joe himself used the words apparatus and machine interchangeably) can make a movement practice more efficient. New movement patterns become habitual faster when performed under load, because resistance encourages a quicker adaptation in the neuromuscular system. 

In the same interview, Joe gives an important insight as to why building various pieces of apparatus were so elemental to his work. He implies that one of the many purposes of his apparatus was to provide tactile feedback, much like a teacher’s hand:

with permission from I.C. Rapoport

“I invented all these machines. I thought, why use my strength? So I made a machine to do it for me. Look, you see it resists your movement in just the right way so those long inner muscles really have to work against it. That is why you can concentrate on movement.”

Joe recognized that the constant resistance provided by the springs makes for improved proprioceptive feedback, and keeps the body alert and working in all portions of movement. This ultimately allows the Reformer to become a teacher in its own merit, because it teaches the desired movement quality we look for in a Pilates practice: full-bodied effort, length and lift, and opposition. It even teaches willpower, too! Think of a game of tug of war: the second the mind caves in, the others will win. On the Reformer, the springs will quickly remind you – with a bang if necessary – that they are constantly engaged if you decide to go through your shopping list during the practice.

So, to sum it all up in nerd-language: The Universal Reformer reforms a body by providing it with a clear trajectory to move within – hence increasing movement efficiency – as well as closing the kinetic chain for improved proprioceptive feedback, and adding load and resistance to the movement for accelerated neural adaptation.

In non-nerd-language: it makes you move better. Staying with the definition given in the introduction of this article, the Reformer moves organically along with the body, correcting and removing erroneous movement patterns. By simply putting the body into a better position to move from, and then supporting and resisting it along the way, it ultimately brings the body into a better form and condition, too.

For the Pilates teacher to fully benefit from the amazing properties of this apparatus, it is incredibly important to understand its engineering and how the dimensions of the Reformer relate to human movement. But most importantly, the good teacher is able to moderate the neural dialogue the body enters with the apparatus; from the second the toes touch the foot bar – until the universally reformed body steps off.

(see more articles by Benjamin here)

BenjaminDegenhardtPhotoBenjamin Degenhardt has been involved in the Pilates world for 15 years in addition to an extensive background in dance and movement teaching. While performing with acclaimed dance companies and suffering through several dance-related injuries, he immersed himself in the study of biomechanics and injury prevention. Realizing the importance of proper movement mechanics for any individual – not just for dancers – he found a passion in sharing his knowledge, and later decided to fully transition into a teaching career. With his main focus on movement, he believes that Contrology, the original method created by Joe Pilates, is one of the most complete practices to reconnect people of all walks of life to their fundamental movement potential. Benjamin studied with master teachers in Europe and New York, is a PMA® Certified Pilates Teacher, and holds additional credentials as a Simonson Technique teacher and Functional Movement Screen specialist.

Through his years of experience, he developed a high-powered way of teaching Pilates and has established himself as an international educator. His mission is to help teachers become more impactful messengers of the Pilates method, movement teaching, and of physical fitness and health in general. He shares his knowledge through his articles, mentoring sessions, and presentations around the world.

He is the creator and sole presenter of 360° Pilates, an education program specifically designed to reconnect movement teachers of any training background to the original teachings of Joe Pilates, with a keen eye on modern movement science. His methodology is based on unique and extensive research on the history of Contrology and how it relates to the realities of functional movement.

He has maintained a true passion for the Pilates method and its ability to improve people’s lives. Whenever he’s not teaching, he most likely can be found practicing the work, or else traveling around the world—

Always a life in motion!


  1. Thanks for such an informative share and for keeping us informed about Joe Pilates’ original work! Romana would always measure a day’s success by whether each person learned something new. In reading this I certainly did.

  2. Great article, Benjamin! That sums it up perfectly, nerd and non-nerd alike.

  3. Thanks to Benjamin and the ‘Nerd Keeper,’ Karen S Ellis. This article makes so much sense. And it brings more to life, the work of J H Pilates. With explanations like this essay – we can all better understand the reason for the equipment and how its usage fits into our workout sessions. We all need constant reminders – even just to walk through life, I know this for a fact personally. Once again, Karen’s super ‘palace’ wakes us all up – and should encourage us to get on these ‘machines/apparati” and just not leave it all to the gods and chance. Bravo, Benjamin! Curtain call, Karen!

  4. As always a great article. I keep learning from you Benjamin. All the best, Reiner

  5. Benjamin, you’ve done it again;)Educational historically and fundamentally…Not to mention just a great piece of reading.
    Thanks for continuing to bring it~

  6. Hi Benjamin. Great article, but… I am not sure I can agree with your statement that “The Reformer makes you move better…correcting and removing erroneous movement patterns”. I think the Reformer is a great environment that enables the above, but it is ultimately the form of the exercise and the cueing of the teacher that make one move better and “directs” the changes that will eventually happen in the neuromuscular patterning.
    Your thoughts?

    • Hi Amit – that is indeed a great point. Obviously the Reformer alone won’t make you move better unless you use it well, and – a big yes – as teachers we come in to further enhance the learning process. However, I do believe that the Reformer and its springs, trajectories, and force vectors provide us with a lot of good information about movement quality and control all on its own, by design.

      The way I understand this work is that it provides ways for us to explore and regain our natural movement patterns. Intellectual intervention (cueing), if done well, is undoubtedly helpful, but one could make the case that it can also get in the way of kinesthetically experiencing natural movement. The body learns to process movement in a non-intellectual, instinctual way in the first place, and that never really changes for as long as we live. We just become better at micro-managing and overriding our instincts. The Reformer can’t change its mind on how to guide you, so I believe it keeps you honest in your practice.

      But again, none of this means I disagree with you – if you want to move well, you have to do it often, with and without apparatus AND a teacher who can enhance that process.


      • Hi Benjamin

        Thanks for your reply! I agree with what you say and that it is very important to allow the person to interact with the qualities of the Reformer to enhance their own natural, instinctive movement patterns. Saying that, so many (most/all??) people today have switched off their natural movement pattern by sitting in bad chairs for years and decades, by wearing bad shoes, by looking at screens instead of being outside playing and moving about… etc etc. and so when you put them on the Reformer you see how the Reformer interacts with misalignment and a lot of tension as well as one’s perception of how they “should be” or “should move”. In other words- not much of the natural, instinctive process is there and so the teacher’s role in directing the person back “into their instinctive, natural body” is very important.
        Hope it makes sense

  7. I enjoyed this post and the comments. I am excited to find Pilates Nerd and can’t wait for more!


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