How to Get Pilates Reformer Results – When You Don’t Have a Reformer

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Helen Foster
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The Pilates Reformer is a brilliant piece of exercise equipment. It lets you carry out a number of different Pilates moves on the whole body and uses springs, pulleys and cables to increase the resistance – this means it can work the body more intensely than just doing Pilates moves on a mat. But, it has a downside.

woman wearing a pink top and purple leggings using a Pilates reformer

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Reformer moves, need a reformer and if you can’t get to a reformer Pilates studio – whether that because your studio is closed, as it might be right now, because you’re on holiday or are just too busy to fit in a session, you’re kind of stuck. Or are you? I wondered can you replicate some common reformer Pilates at home – without having to buy a reformer?

That was the question I asked my Pilates instructor Amanda Platts from Inline Pilates in Sydney when the lockdown began.

I’d started Reformer Pilates ten weeks earlier to tackle a long term knee injury that had stopped me running and a very unwelcome muscle tightness that I was determined not to let get worse.

It had frankly worked miracles.

My hip had regained almost all of the range of motion that I had lost before my diagnosis and the pain I was experiencing had all but disappeared. My knee had got strong enough to be able to run for 10 minutes on grass – a huge improvement – and then the world went mad.

I was worried. I was sure a lot of my improvement was down to the work I’d been doing on the reformer and I didn’t want to lose progress – but, current restrictions meant Amanda and I could only do online sessions and I don’t have room for a reformer at home!!!

At this point, I decided I probably wasn’t the only person with this problem and so, I asked Amanda – what Pilates moves can you do at home that offer an alternative to reformer moves. And she came up with the plan that mimics some of the most common reformer exercises helping you keep strong and toned ready for when you can get back to the studio again…

Pilates also comes in the form of mat classes. If you’re considering those, have a look at our guide to what to expect in your first Pilates class.

Over to Amanda….

How to Do Reformer Pilates Moves at Home

If you Want to Strengthen Legs

One of the basic moves on the reformer sees you using your legs to push the bed back and forth – the different positions of your feet lets you target different muscles for toning or to stretch and lengthen the muscles of the leg.

“But instead of the leg and footwork series on the Reformer, you can try – a standing leg series instead,’ she told me. “This series will work all of your legs -your quadriceps muscles, inner thighs, hamstrings and calves. With the added focus of balance and posture seeing as you are standing and not lying on the reformer.

Start standing feet hip-width apart, neutral spine, knees soft, abdominals/pelvic floor engaged.

Single leg transfers. Lift one knee up into the air, hold for a second, return to start position. Repeat on the other side. Do x10-20 reps.

Parallel squats – flat and on rise. Start as above. Inhale and bend your knees into a squat position, as if you are going to sit onto a chair, no further than 90 degrees at the hip/knee.

Exhale and stand tall. Do x 10-20 reps.

Repeat with heels lifted to increase the balance challenge.

Turned out squats – flat and on rise. Start as above, but with your feet out wider, a bit further than shoulder distance and turned out slightly.

Inhale bend the knees into a turned out squat, keeping hips, knees and ankles all in alignment.

Exhale and straighten your legs. Do x 10-20 reps.

Repeat with heels lifted as for parallel squat.

Calf raises and walking. Start standing feet hip-width apart, knees soft.

Exhale to rise up onto your toes, inhale to lower. Do x 10-20 reps.

For walking – repeat rising up on toes, then lower one heel as you bend the opposite knee, rise back up and repeat to the other side. Do x 10-20 reps.

Calf stretch. From your previous standing position – step one foot forward and bend the knee.

Keep your back leg straight to feel the calf stretch, you can also do this with feet a bit closer and back knee slightly bent to bring the stretch lower down towards your heel.

Instead of Supine Arms

Supine arms is a move where you lie on the reformer holding some cables in your hands. While moving the bed of the former back and forth, you pull the cables down to the bed. Despite the name, it doesn’t work the arms, but your abs.

“Instead of the supine pulling straps on Reformer, you can try this supine abdominal series on the mat instead,’ says Amanda. “This series will work on strengthening your abdominal muscles and will also help improve muscle coordination!”

Chest lift/twist. Lie on the mat with your hands linked behind your head, legs up at “tabletop” – 90 degrees at hip/knee with your feet/knees together.

Make sure you have neutral spine, abdominals/pelvic floor engaged. Exhale curl your upper body forward, eye line on your bellybutton to protect your neck.

Inhale to relax back down x 10-20 reps.

For the twist, start as above – exhale as you lift and twist your upper body gently, reaching your shoulder towards the opposite knee.

Inhale, return to centre and stay high through your chest. Repeat to the other side x10 reps total.

Chest lift with arm pulls. Start as above with your head resting on mat and arms straight up opposite your chest.

Inhale to prepare, exhale curl forward and pull your hands down to your hips (see the second pic below – that’s the position you need to end up in). Inhale relax body back to mat, bring arms back to shoulder level.

Chest lift with arm circles. As above with head down or chest lifted (which makes it harder). Exhale and then circle your arms away from your body, down to your hips.

Inhale then continue to circle arms back up to shoulder height. Do x 10 reps and then reverse.

Tip – this whole series can be done with legs straight to increase the abdominal workout.

If you Normally do Feet in Fluffies

That’s the move when you put your foot in the fluffy loops (or looped straps if you don’t have fluffy bits) attached to the Reformer and move your leg and in and out. When I first tried it I thought it was called Feed the Fluffies – which I still prefer as a name!

‘You can try single leg work with a Theraband/loop band,’ says Amanda. ‘This series will work your legs and inner thighs, and will also focus on abdominal control and pelvic stability.’

If you don’t have a Theraband, you can order one here.

Parallel Frog. Start lying on your back with knees bent, feet hip-width apart, neutral pelvis. Place the band/loop around one foot, starting with the hip and knee at 90 degrees.

Inhale prepare, exhale press the leg out toward straight, inhale to return to “table top” or 90 degrees at hip/knee.

Tip – the lower you extend your leg the harder the exercise becomes.

Leg press. Start in the same position as above, but this time extend the leg to straight, or towards straight – in a position where you can maintain your neutral spine and keep relaxed through neck/shoulders. Them, exhale and lower the leg straight down towards the mat, inhale to lift the leg back up.

Leg circles. As above, this time circle your legs, 5-10 times in each direction. Exhale as the leg circles away from you, inhale as it returns.

The bigger you make the circles, the harder the exercise becomes.

Instead of Swan on the Box

This is a tricky move that sees you lying face down on the reformer, middle on a box – you then, arch back, arms outstretched and move the reformer back and forth. Without a reformer though try…

Swan on the Mat: ‘This exercise will help strengthen your back muscles, improve posture and stretch your stomach and chest,’ says Amanda.

Start lying on your stomach with your toes together and heels apart, then gently press your pubic bone forward into the mat. This helps activate your deep abdominals/pelvic floor and will keep your lower back and pelvis in better alignment.

Head is resting down, on a rolled-up towel or pillow if you have them, and arms beside your head in a diamond shape.

Inhale to prepare. Exhale press up into a slight back extension as you draw your elbows in by your side. Pause and inhale at the top of the extension, thinking of lengthening through your spine.

Exhale let your elbows slide back out to diamond shape as you relax your body back down to the mat. Do x 5-10 reps.

To finish, sit up and back into rest pose. Enjoy some nice deep breaths as you feel your spine lengthen and your hips relax.

Instead of Scooter on Reformer

Scooter sees you standing with one foot on the reformer, the other on the floor and gently, pushing the reformer bed back and forth stretching out your leg. But you can also do a similar set of moves standing on a mat.

This exercise works on your legs and glutes muscles. It will also help improve your balance and stability!

Start standing with your feet hip-width apart, knees soft and abdominals/pelvic floor engaged. Inhale and lift one knee up into the air.

Exhale extend the leg out straight behind you, tipping your upper body forward slightly as you do so.

Inhale bend the knee in and bring yourself upright, back to start position. Do x 10-15reps. Repeat on the other side.

Tip – You can start alternating with the movement from right to left, one scooter at a time to increase stability before trying the repetitive scooter action on each leg.

Finish with a glute stretch, lying on the mat.

Instead of Sides on the Box

This move sees you resting your foot on the reformer, hip balanced on a box, you then use your side muscles to bend down, then up again. But without a reformer you can try side bend prep on the mat.

This exercise will work on strengthening your side waist muscles, strengthening your shoulders and also works the glutes a little too!

Side bend prep. Start lying on your side with your knees bent, hips stacked, and feet in line with your hips and body. You are resting on your elbow/forearm which is in line with your shoulder.

Pay attention to the side of your waist closest to the floor. Focus on gently lifting that up so your shoulders, ribs and hips are aligned. Now you are ready to move!

Inhale to prepare, as you exhale lift your hips up into the air, trying to make a C-curve or “harbour bridge “ with that lower side of your waist. Inhale to relax back down.

Side bend with arm. As above, but as you lift your hips sweep your free arm up overhead.

Side bend with clam. As above, but as you lift your hips, hold there, open and close your legs like a clam. Do 5-10 reps.

Repeat all on the other side.

Mermaid side stretch. Sit cross-legged, or with legs to one side and stretch arms overhead from one side to the other. This will stretch and lengthen the side waist muscles and lat muscles.

So, there you have it – a killer Pilates workout that mimics all the moves you’d normally do on a reformer, without one. Either pick the sequence you like most and do a short session each day or try the whole thing. ‘But as with all exercises listen to your body and only do what feels right for you!,’ says Amanda.

If you want to check out Amanda for when things go back to normal her website is here – I can safely say she’s made a huge difference to my body in a matter of weeks. And I’ve had this knee injury for three years!!!

Amanda is also doing some simple home Pilates sequences on her Facebook page right now so you might also want to join that for some extra moves to try.

Who is The Wellness Nerd?

My name is Helen Foster, and I’m a health journalist and wellness author. Publications I’ve written for include Women’s Health, Reader’s Digest, Body and Soul, Good Health at the Daily Mail, and more. I have also written 16 books on health and nutrition.

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