by Mela Debiase
Recently in a group class, one of my students was finishing up her Kneeling Thigh stretch on the Reformer and hopped off saying “So next I should set up for Frogs and Circles because I have to do that Corkscrew chapter right? Corkscrew, Tic Toc, Frogs and Circles….”. She has not yet learned the Arm Circles, Snake/Twist, and some other exercises on the list, so I said yes. She then told me how her order is making so much more sense to her now, and that she sees her exercises grouped together in chapters. Each chapter being a different little story for her body. Well I tell you I was beaming from ear to ear hearing this! Yes! Yes! Yes! She gets it, I didn’t even have to tell her, she feels it in her body.
She is a writer, so it makes complete sense for her to make this analogy, but I thought what a great comparison of your Reformer workout to a story. It is a story. A journey you take your body on. Every story needs a beginning, middle and end. There is development, sometimes you lightly introduce an idea in the beginning, but later on when you are deeper into the story you revisit the idea in more detail. Of course a very clear underlying theme throughout to the story (use your center!), but you need structure - chapters. Joe put his reformer workout in a very particular order. When you are first learning the exercises and order, it can feel overwhelming to remember it all, but when you reach the point my student was reaching of seeing the chapters and understanding how it all fits together as a comprehensive workout to reform your whole body…..well then it becomes the best story of your life! Plus the chapters help to group the exercises together to create flow, rhythm and thus increase your heart rate. It is a symphony of exercise for the whole body.
So I decided to write out how I see the Chapters of the Reformer. I follow the order of the exercises as remembered by Jay Grimes, a 1st generation teacher. The order is the Joe’s order, these Chapters are my way of looking at the order and making sense of it. Perhaps if you are struggling to remember your order, seeing the exercises in chapters will help you. Some chapters are obvious as they are named a “series” eg. The Long Box Series. Some chapters might be short for you right now, but in time as you add exercises they will become longer and filled with more drama.
So let’s start at the beginning……
Chapter One: The Warm up
- The Hundred
- Frogs and circles/Overhead
Once upon a time there was a body that needed to be reformed. So a wise man started with the Footwork. A very good place to start. You start flat on your back where the apparatus gives you a lot of support and feedback. You warm up and get to know your feet from the toes, arches and heels and all the different lower leg muscles it takes to do these different positions, all the time working for that 2 way stretch and connecting to your center. With the last of the footwork series being the Tendon stretch, which moves you through all these muscles you just found, with your back and center strongly connecting to the carriage the whole time. I find the uncomplicated motion of pushing out and in repeatedly also helps me to clear my mind of all my other troubles of the day, it get’s my mind focused in on my body and what is about to embark upon.
Then you pick up the handles while putting down the footbar with your feet, to move straight into your Hundred. Now it’s your upper body’s turn to get activated: connecting your upper body to the springs. while working your breath. Inhale for 5 arm pumps, Exhale for 5 arm pumps. Why 5? Because it’s just at that point that challenges your lung capacity, without being unattainable. All the work you found in your legs during footwork can be applied to your legs right now floating up in the air. When I say floating, I do not mean aimlessly, they are reaching and lengthening just as they did against that footbar in the footwork. Ahh yes, it’s all progressing from one thing to the next.
If you are still new to Pilates, you will do Frogs and Circles next. You get to work your back connection into the carriage but now your legs are in a much more unstable set up (the extension straps), than they were in the Footwork (on the stable footbar). You get to move your lower body and challenge your pelvis stability while still having all the support of the carriage for your back.
If you have been doing Pilates for a while you will not do Frogs and Circles here (they will be moved to the end of the workout as you progress), instead you do Overhead. This is a much more challenging exercise, you are still working your back connection into the carriage with the assistance of the springs (by holding the handles in your hands) however you roll your spine up off the mat and back down. You warmed up your lower body in Footwork, you warmed up your upper body in the Hundred, now you really get to work them together. And together you must, or else you will be unsuccessful in this challenging exercise for your spine.
Overhead transitions straight into Coordination as if it’s one in the same exercise. And it is just that - coordinating everything you have worked on so far, lower body reach and the back connection, moving from your center with your breath. A more complicated exercise choreography wise that gets your brain working but you are still on your back with the support of the carriage.
Chapter 2: Propel your Boat down the River Thames
- The Rowing Series 1) Into the sternum
2) 90 degrees
3) From the Chest
4) From the Hips
I’m warmed up and now I’m ready to start going places. Ok so maybe in your story you are rowing down the Charles River in Boston, but I choose London! It is your own story after all. So here in chapter 2 a new idea is introduced - sitting. Life is a whole lot different sitting, gravity is weighing down on you and the fight to lift and lengthen your waist becomes more challenging. A theme was introduced in Chapter One, but now in Chapter Two we are really getting to know one of the main characters - The Shoulder, how our arms attach to our back. Our shoulder is a ball and socket joint allowing for big circular movements. While we want this mobility in the shoulder, without stability it becomes vulnerable to injury. In the rowing series we really explore working mobility and stability taking the arm and shoulder through many different motions. As with any Pilates exercise, it is never just about one body part. There are many supporting roles in this story, and you won’t see the big picture if you only focus on one character. You must use your legs and your seat and your center too! Thankfully the carriage is there for your lower body to press into and use to help you, while your upper body has the support of the springs to press into. Now Rowing is one of those exercises that often gets taught to soon. It is a hard exercise and you won’t get the most out of it if you are not ready for it. The Reformer is kind of like a choose your own adventure sort of book, pick what’s best for your body/your clients body. There are other places on the Cadillac and Armchair where you can work the back connection and shoulder stability with a mat behind your back for support. Choose these places first to introduce this idea.
In this video below, Chanda and Daniela demonstrate the exercises from Chapter 1 and 2. They are doing less repetitions, but are demonstrating the flow that can be created between exercises with efficient transitions.
Stay tuned for my next blog on Chapter 3: A Balancing Act, where we explore flexion and extension in our spines!
I’d love to hear your story too for Chapter 1 and 2 in the comments!