They sound like they belong in a torture chamber: The reformer. The chair. The cadi. Even by the looks of them, with their stiff headboard-like designs, detachable springs, and parts that move with ominous squeaks and clanks, they’re not the most inviting of workout equipment. But in the world of fitness, the Pilates apparatus are hallowed machinery that have been improving spinal alignment, core strength, and overall toning since the 1930s.
I’ve been practicing yoga fairly regularly for about six years, and have always lumped it into the same category as Pilates. So when a co-worker invited me to a mat class at Momentum Pilates Studio on Ivy Road, I was less intimidated than with some of my other recent exercise endeavors. Having never tried my hand at the core-focused workout before, I was only vaguely familiar with the concept of the Pilates apparatus, so I was immediately intrigued when I noticed a wooden and metal contraption with black padding in the corner of the studio.
Pilates instructor Jennifer Arrington Spratley recommended I get a feel for the movements on the mat, with no props or equipment, before taking on any of the apparatus. So I braved rush hour traffic on Main Street during UVA exam season for an evening group class at Momentum, where I learned the basics that I would later apply to three different pieces of Pilates machinery.
Turns out my assumption that Pilates and yoga are cousins wasn’t entirely off-base—traditional yoga moves like downward-facing dog, cat and cow, and child’s pose were sprinkled throughout the workout. But Spratley’s class induced a much more intense sweat than my yoga podcasts, and I found myself straining to hold several of the positions, relying more heavily on my abs and back than I’m used to.
Class began with a classic warm-up exercise: the Pilates 100s. You start out in the teaser position: sitting back on the tailbone, legs lifted at a 45 degree angle, head and shoulders raised off the mat, arms by your sides. Once you’re comfortable—and I use that term loosely—begin pulsing your arms up and down in time with your breath. Inhale, five pulses. Exhale, five pulses. We cycled through different leg positions, maintaining the v-sit position, until we reached 100 reps.
“Resist the urge to push your right hand into the mat,” Spratley reminded the class as we positioned ourselves for a series of leg raises on our left sides. Oh, so resist the urge to do exactly what I was doing—got it. I shifted my weight from the hand resting in front of me on the floor and, sure enough, instantly felt my core tighten. Guess that means I’m doing it right?
The next day, once I was lying on my back on the reformer—which resembles a bed frame with a moveable carriage, equipped with springs and straps—with my feet hooked under a padded loop and my hands clasping a pair of stirrup-like handles over my head, I quickly discovered that the apparatus makes it easier to determine whether or not I’m doing it right. That’s not to say they make the exercises easier, necessarily—they provide more stability and support for some moves, but the springs create a resistance that can’t be matched on the mat. Teaser-position exercises were less challenging with the extra support for my legs. But I found basic leg presses surprisingly strenuous with the added use of the springs, as I was forced to use my core to control the speed of the sliding carriage.
The chair is a deceptive little wooden box, with a spring-loaded movable platform that looks like the back of a moving truck, and a sturdy handle on either side. (Some chairs have tall backboards for extra support.) Framed photos on the wall of studio owner Grace Ranson display just how beautiful and graceful chair Pilates can be, and I found myself eager to contort myself into the acrobatic-looking positions. For the sake of both time and safety, Spratley limited my session to just a few exercises on each machine, but I like to imagine the daily handstands and Cirque du Soleil moves I’d master if I invested in one of those chairs for my apartment.
The cadillac—affectionately referred to by Pilates professionals as the cadi—was by far the most intimidating of the apparatus, and my extremities were so worn out from the reformer that I wasn’t sure how much energy I’d have for it. The cadi consists of a padded table underneath parallel metal bars about 6’ off the ground, supported by thin upright posts. Overhead elements include arm springs, leg springs, loops to hang from, a spring-loaded bar that allows for extensive stretching, and even a trapeze.
We only spent a few minutes on the cadi, but the first exercise Spratley had me try was oddly reminiscent of my days hanging upside down from the monkey bars in elementary school. With my hands grasped firmly on the overhead bars, I hoisted my feet into the fuzzy straps hanging from an adjustable crossbar, allowing my body to drop into a U-shape. Per Spratley’s instruction, I pulled my upper body up and through the parallel bars, keeping my feet still, legs straight, and core engaged. I was pretty convinced my triceps were going to give out after one rep, and I barely made it to five before dropping back down, tailbone three inches above the padded table.
I walked out of there with Jell-O limbs. Turns out those machines aren’t actually medieval torture devices, but for someone who’s not used to strength training, they may be pretty close.
Pilates through the ages
The son of a naturopath and a prize-winning gymnast, German-born Joseph Pilates suffered from asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever during his childhood in the late 1800s, and decided early on to devote his life to improving his health. As a young teenager he studied kung fu, yoga, and body-building, and developed a career as a boxer, circus performer, and self-defense trainer.
During World War II, Pilates worked as an orderly at a military camp, where he rigged the bedsprings to the walls so injured patients could practice core-strengthening resistance exercises without leaving the bed—thus, the cadillac was born. He named the movement method “contrology,” and over the years developed the reformer, chair, and other apparatus including the ladder barrel and ped-o-pull. Most modern studios introduce new clients to the practice via mat exercises before graduating to the apparatus, but ironically, Pilates invented the equipment for participants to first build strength and perfect the movements before attempting matwork.