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A Complete Guide to Conquering Pilates Machines

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Ever walked into a Pilates studio, ready to take on your hour-long class, only to be terrified by all that equipment? You're not alone. Non-mat classes, with their simple props like rings and rubber balls, are foreign territory even to many gym class aficionados—but as Karen Lord explains, these machines are not difficult to master (despite the multitude of ways you can set them up).

"Because each Pilates machine has so many possible configurations, there are an almost infinite number of exercises you can do," said Lord, who trains "everyone from models and athletes—whose livelihoods rely on their bodies—to doctors, lawyers, and fashion editors." It all happens in her eponymous Tribeca studio that opened just over a year ago with sleek black-and-white accents on blonde wood and the wafting scent of Diptyque eucalyptus candles.

Below, she's broken down the three most common machines (the tower, the reformer, and the Cadillac) to show that they aren't as scary as they look—and that they'll give a serious boost to the moves that you're probably already doing in the gym.

The Tower

"The tower is a vertical unit that uses a variety of attachments—a roll-down bar, arm springs, leg springs, a and pull-through (or push-through) bar—to provide a full body workout," Lord explains. "We've got about 30 components to this machine." Think of it as a series of simple machines (use your grade-school knowledge here), using resistance in the springs that provide an extra challenge to your core.

"It's a human body and resistance," Lord adds. "You're only as strong as your core, and with these kinds of exercises, if I wasn't using my core, I'd be going forward. So matter what you do on the tower, it's core-based, 100 percent."

"This is a 'Tower Squat' variation. I'm using my abs and challenging my core stability by hovering my butt a few inches off the mat and lifting back up again, as if my back were flat against a wall. The spring-loaded bar puts equal emphasis on the abs and glutes, while working the arms, back of the legs, and the chest too."

"With these 'boxing' arm lunges, I'm using the handles attached to heavy springs in a leg lunge position, alternating right and left arm punches. The key is to square your hips and ensure the arm movement comes from your obliques and lower abdominals. Strong gorgeous arms and defined legs are the bonus takeaway."

"There's lots of tower exercises you can do with the leg springs. Here, the ribs pull in and the obliques are engaged as I lower and lift my legs, keeping them long and resisting the springs trying to pull me back. Your legs and butt will never look the same—promise."

"This is my leg and butt toner, where I'm using the push-through bar to do little leg pulses. Abs are pulled in and up, arms are engaged, and the neck and spine are long. We're working all of the muscles in the legs and glutes, and it's powered by the abs. This is an incredible hip opener and one of my favorite, though less traditional, exercises."

The Reformer

"A reformer is piece of equipment that consists of a platform that moves along a carriage track," Lord said. Resistance is produced by the exerciser's body weight and by springs that connect the platform to the carriage." During a reformer class, an instructor will tell students to add or remove springs based on the exercise they're about to perform. You'll use more springs for leg moves and fewer for abs and arms, generally. "If the springs are really light, the carriage won't come back on its own," Lord explains. "So I have to use the low abdominals to pull myself in."

These days, reformers are used "so that you can safely align the body," she said. When you're lying down on the carriage, "the shoulder blocks pull your shoulders away from your ears, open up the spine, and show you where your physical imbalances are. What this machine does is it elongates the body and the musculature in a really safe way—you're uniformly working the body without danger to the joints. It makes you really lean. It doesn't bulk you up. That's why the reformer is so awesome."

"Here is a 'side split mashup,' a variation of a more traditional exercise using hand weights. You're extending the range of motion in the legs from side to side while keeping a strong, tight core for stability. This, like everything in Pilates, is a full body exercise that builds an incredible butt, works the arms in an isometric hold, and uses abs and inner thighs."

"The benefits of a Pilates plank are infinite. You're using your entire body—lots of upper body and ab strength—but the real trick here is imagining every single muscle from head to toe coming to life in equal measure. This kind of imagery is helpful in Pilates because it forges a stronger mind/body connection."

"If you come to a beginner class here, you will most likely do these leg circles with your feet in straps. The spine is long, tailbone is planted, abs are engaged like crazy, ribs and hips are stabilized, and shoulders are open. You draw little circles in the air with your feet. It's an invigorating exercise that challenges all parts of the body just mentioned. If I had to chose only 10 Pilates exercises to do forever, this would be one of them."

"A jumpboard is actually a piece that attaches to the foot of a Reformer. While all Pilates is actually a cardio workout, some people like to really get their heart pumping and the horizontal 'jumping' exercises done with the jumpboard will definitely do that. Sometimes we'll incorporate the jumpboard into reformer classes, but there's specific jumpboard classes as well.

"Depending on the weight of the springs, this really works your abs or abs and legs. Your abdominals will be burning in the best way, plus it help develop long, lean limbs and killer glutes. The best part for us is the laughter and surprise the first time a client tries it because it so much fun!"

The Cadillac

"The Cadillacs we have are 'convertibles,' meaning they're a combination of the reformer, the tower, and the mat, and then the canopy top provides additional functionality. We only use them for personal training—they're great for one-on-one rehab work, and we show our more advanced practitioners how to do all sorts of cool acrobatic tricks on them."

"This is a split with soft knees into a back extension. This is a really energizing move—it opens the hips and shoulders and develops strong biceps. The back extension is an awesome bonus."

"This is a 180-degree inversion, or as I call it, 'Kick Out the Lights.' This is only for the super advanced because it requires tons of core strength and focus—and, of course, the arms get a good workout here too. There are additional heart health benefits of being upside down, with the blood flow and circulation."

"The 'Inverted Hanging Pike' is all about abs and strong arms. Overall, this entire series develops gorgeous, lean, muscular tone for arms and lengthens and strengthens the hamstrings without putting pressure directly on the legs."

"This is a good spine stretch. There are almost endless variations here, but this is my current favorite, as you get that euphoric back extension in. It's great for anyone who sits at a desk or in front of a computer all day it opens the heart, shoulders, pectorals, chest, and hips, and requires arm strength as well as the ubiquitous core and helps define the glutes (as in, it makes your legs and butt look good). It's all done without any pressure on the neck or spine—it literally takes the pressure off."

Karen Lord Pilates Movement

137 Duane St, New York, NY