This is more daunting – suddenly – than my previous post On the Order of the Pilates Mat Exercises.
My workout would have huge void without Joe Pilates’ original order of the Reformer exercises. JP’s original order is not an easy one to track down, mind you.
The Order of the Universe
The value of the order is such that once I begin my workout, that’s it.
There's no stopping in the middle…
or skipping things I don't like…
or doing 1/2 of my exercises…
I feel compelled to finish what I’ve started. I must.
I wonder if Joe Pilates would be surprised by this fact.
Or if it was part of his plan all along… and for the record, an hour is PLENTY of time even if you will do nearly every exercise.
It is possible.
You’ll just not be dilly-dallying…
Again, my primary interest is in ferreting out Joe Pilates’ original order: his original intent and purpose behind the major piece of apparatus with which he endeavored to reform mankind.
I firmly believe that Joe had a reason, a super objective, for his specific arrangement of his exercises and I continue to seek his guiding hand. It’s a great bit of Pilates detective work for your body and mind.
There have been changes over the years, some slight and some significant.
Of the Mat exercises, we have at least early documentation in Return to Life.
On the Reformer, despite Joe’s affinity for photo documentation, the order of exercises is more slippery. As a major piece of Pilates apparatus, the Reformer order has had more hands on it over the years, often to the point of becoming unrecognizable.
Isn't that chaos??!
Please note this examination is solely about the order and the exercises themselves…not about who should be doing them or if one is ready to do them, etc…
That’s a subject for another post.
My experience of the Pilates exercises in my own body will of course differ from every other person. But Joe Pilates has a way of distilling us into the humanity that we are: the same body systems and parts that probably need a similar kind of maintenance.
Am I the only newbie surfer with a tight hip out there?
This series is your segue from life outside the studio into your body, into your workout, into the here and now and your focus for the hour. The springs are sufficient to require you to anchor your body into the carriage and warm up the lower body.
The foot massage is an invigorating bonus.
Now that the lower body knows what to do and is getting hooked into your center thanks to the Footwork, the warm up continues with the upper body, some vigorous movement and deep breathing.
Together the Footwork and the Hundred make a good team.
Frog and Circles
I learned these 2 exercises as Leg Circles and Frog but Jay Grimes keeps them in Joe’s original order. The Frog is a simpler exercise to begin with and a throwback to the Footwork you have already completed. Your legs are also connected to each other which creates support.
The Leg Circles ask you to work the legs independently creating a further challenge. Both exercises work the connection of the lower body into the center.
So get ready…for what comes next.
For some individuals the Frog and Circles can remain here as a further warm up before the Overhead. For others they can be omitted and you can proceed right to the Overhead.
It’s not a surprise that this exercise ultimately begins in the same position as you will begin the Hundred. Legs long over the footbar (which is down) and arms straight up with the straps taut.
You have been properly warmed up with lower body exercises: Footwork, Frog and Circles, and you’ve connected your upper body into the center with the Hundred.
You’ve collected all the ingredients for success in the Overhead.
You’re good to go.
This exercise reminds me so much of the Double Leg Pull on the Mat.
I know, they all do right?
I enjoy the challenge of lengthening out, connecting into the inner thighs and the scoop of the stomach and then folding up into a tiny ball. Another opening and closing up exercise with deep breathing to work out the kinks.
I find it furthers the warm up before the first major exercise series: (don’t be scared) Rowing.
Here. We. Go.
The Rowing Series
A client of mine remarked recently that the Rowing series is challenging to do properly and that simply must be why it comes so early in the workout – when you are fresh and strong.
Hmmm. I like that.
The Rowing Series works to connect the upper body into the center, connecting the arms into the back.
Rowing 1+2 (Into the Sternum, 90°) work the front of the body and give a good lift and stretch to the back before the hard work it must do for Rowing 3-6 (From the Chest, From the Hips, Shave, Hug) which focus on the lift and strength of the Back.
Long Box 1
Whether done on the Long Box or on the Ladder Barrel, the Swan is a big flowing movement to get “the juices flowing” followed by exercises to work on the same long reach of the upper body connecting you to your back.
This theme of big movement followed by refining exercises will show up again and again: upper body free, lower body anchored.
Pulling Straps and T
Long Box 1 continues to refine the upper body connection. You're now on your stomach and working towards the same connection of the arms into the back.
Make no mistake, this is a full body exercise: upper body attached to straps, lower body free.
The arm movement reiterates the Rowing movements challenging the upper body connection in a new orientation. We have also added in the reach of the lower body, because we’ve already covered that in the Footwork, Frog and Circles and Overhead, right?
The addition of a second spring works to strengthen and prepare you for the Teaser, coming up next.
Don’t worry if your lower body connection is not perfect yet, you’ll get your chance to work more on this in just a bit…
The same connection continued from the Rowing, albeit with added challenge. Yes, get the lower body connection involved as well if you can.
This exercise is the ultimate in control and 2-way stretch.
What can I say? Is the work from the Rowing series paying off yet? Cause here we go again.
Big flowing movement? Check.
An echo of the Swan, the BreastStroke provides the upper body with resistance and gives support for the lower body.
Now for some refinement.
This exercise works on the strength of the muscles you have just encountered in the Breaststroke, and further opens up the front of the body.
You get your first direct connection into the straps with the lower body since Swan and the Frog and Circles – a little foreshadowing for what’s in store for you in the upcoming series.
Really just a Teaser flipped forward onto another angle, see how you do with that upper body connection, cause it’s killing me by now.
Oh and a little more foreshadowing of the Long Stretch series, using the lower body to gain strength by holding onto that box.
The Long Stretch Series
In the Long Stretch Series we begin our work on the connection of the lower body, the legs, hips and buttocks into the center. The upper body is now just for balance. Bonne chance!
Straightforward. Just move the carriage in and out with your lower body. Keep everything together like a solid piece of steel.
I repeat: the arms are only for balance.
First and foremost a breathing exercise, it can feel nearly impossible to close the carriage when your oppositional forces are in full swing.
Each end of the body fighting for dominance: the lower body wins as the carriage moves out, and it resists like hell while the lift of the waist drags you back in again to close the springs (if you're lucky).
Try to get as much of a full body massage out of this one as you can. The undulating motion of this exercise can challenge the stability of the upper body.
Again arms just for balance, reach from the upper stomach all the way to the toes to move the carriage.
One of the 1st exercises we learn and a lifetime of opportunities to move it toward perfection, the Elephant is a lengthening of the entire back of the body, straightforwardly pulling the lower body into the center.
Long Back Stretch
The series of exercises on the Reformer often end with a “recap” exercise and this is one of them. The same reach out of the lower body now flipped the other way round.
Again NOT an arm exercise.
Stomach Massage Series
Now we regroup after the Long Stretch series with a familiar action in a new way. The lower body in the same movement pattern as the footwork, but no more lying down for you – you’ve done the Rowing right?
Let’s work on your lift in the Round and Arms Back. Can you keep it tall and taller in the Reach? Now let's move toward an entirely new element: rotation (Twist)!
Holee fooooooook, the Elephant is back again with a vengeance!
Quick! Use what you’ve learned in the last 3 exercises: Elephant, Long Back Stretch and the Stomach Massage Series and tackle the Tendon Stretch.
Then show off your badass connection with the one-leg variations.
Short Box Series
I sweat more during the Short Box series than I do in any other section of the workout.
This is the real workhorse section of the Reformer.
First you get a nice massage (Round) and then you’ll do some serious work on your standing in the air (Reach) your side-bending (Oh joy, Side to Side) and your rotation again (Twist and Reach)! Around the World variations challenge the reach in both directions from your strong center and ultimately the Tree gives you the first taste of your High Bridge, completely stretching your back and your front.
Short Spine Massage
Of all the exercises that have the word ‘massage’ in the title, the Short Spine Massage definitely delivers.
Positioned here after the grueling work of the Short Box, Joe Pilates finally gives us something nice. It is later in the workout, you are warm and you can really take full advantage of this deep stretch of the body.
After the thorough stretch of the Short Spine Massage, the High Frog further pinpoints the strength of the lower body reach in preparation for what’s to come.
Another of the ‘recap’ exercises, the Semi Circle builds on the articulation found in the Short Spine Massage and further prepares you for the subsequent exercises (Headstands, Chest Expansion, Thigh Stretch, etc…).
I like to think of it as a unique Long Back Stretch – LOL.
Headstands 1+ 2
You’ve cultivated the strength of the back, buttocks and hamstrings in the previous 2 exercises.
The Headstands will now put that strength to the test as you work towards performing them ultimately without holding on with the arms.
Look Ma, no hands!
Now you’ll find out if your butt is working.
I like to think of this exercise as the upright version of the Pulling Straps and T. With less support than you had lying on the Long Box, you’ll cultivate the same connection to the back muscles.
Since we've been here before you get the added challenge of a kneeling position on a moving platform.
Notice we are getting more and more upright and above the carriage as we get further into the workout.
This is not an accident.
Work here on the strength and flexibility of the lower body for back bending cause guess what’s up next. In the Thigh Stretch you’ve got some assistance to bring you back up again.
Try not to get too used to it…
Backbends are really the ultimate in a thigh stretch, yes? Here you’ll use all you've cultivated in the previous exercises: the open front of the hips and the strength of the back to accomplish this challenging exercise.
You gotta ask yourself: Footbar up or down? Not for the faint of heart, this one.
The Arm Circles and Swakate further challenge the strength of the lower body. All of what you have been working on for the last 5 or 6 exercises, ostensibly the entire workout even.
Remember your Leg Circles not being about your leg?
The same applies here: make yourself solid as a piece of steel and use the circling of the arms as a further challenge for your rock-solid self. Find your length in the back again as a Joe Pilates Backbend-recovery system.
What can I say? Hope and pray you’ve got it all together because this one’s a doozy.
So many skills and variables are represented.
It's our first return to an exercise where only the hands and feet are connected to the apparatus since our old friend the Elephant and his Long Stretch series compadres.
I feel this is significant.
Now we have, among other things, another lower body exercise, but your feet are not on the moving carriage, they are on the stationary footbar.
Plus the extra-added benefit of challenging one side at a time, upper back extension and the Elephant all over again.
Et tu, Elephant?
Ooh and the one-arm version (foreshadowing!) will build strength for more challenging side exercises to come.
Can you tell I spend a lot of time thinking about this one?
Headstand with Straps
This is lovely spin on Chest Expansion, yes? Oh, this one's great – lots going on!
Building on Headstands 1+2, Chest Expansion and the preceding exercises, now in the Headstand with Straps you've got a more restricted position requiring (1) more flexibility and (2) more strength to control the resistance of the straps.
It can give a great stretch of the whole back and be a preview of the High Bridge. I have seen this exercise in a few slightly different locations in the order, always later on, when the body is very warmed up.
The next several exercises: Corkscrew/Tic Toc, Balance Control Off and Long Box 2: Grasshopper, Rocking, Swimming share a common theme.
For this group of exercises you find yourself on your own and without the resistance/assistance of the Reformer.
Karen Frischmann has described this section as an interlude. Exciting, no?
As interludes go, it's perfection: round exercises, rotation and backbending.
See how you do!
This is a test. I repeat, this is only a test.
The twisting and working of the sides pairs the Corkscrew nicely with the preceding
debacle exercise. I personally think of this one as “Snake Recovery Protocol” and the Tic Toc further completes the Twist-o-rama.
And of course, a bit of foreshadowing…
Balance Control Off
OMG I f@**ing love this one!!
There are the exercises we suffer through of course, and thankfully there are those that are just super fun and I wouldn’t mind doing a few extra times.
I know, a big statement.
But what’s it doing for you? Why now? This is a global stretch of the entire back of the body – if you can get it. And once you’ve got it all long and strong, why not stretch ALL the way over and roll up to standing only to tumble back on again?
If you can, you've simply gotta.
With complete control, of course. You've come a long way since lying down for the Footwork.
“I dare you,” says the Reformer.
Long Box 2
Way back in the Naughty Aughties I remember Lesa McLaughlin‘s description of this series:
“Just 3 little exercises.”
These ‘3 little exercises’ are quite challenging here as well as on the Spine Corrector they are also wonderful. In any event, Grasshopper, Rocking and Swimming are a good incentive to proceed to the next challenging exercise – and hey, at least it’s not another backbend…
Long Spine Stretch
Here the word ‘massage’ may lure you in, but I’ll venture you need at least 3-4 decades of Pilates in your body to actualize any sort of massage.
Placed here, Long Spine Stretch follows the group of exercises (the aforementioned interlude) where you are on your own – using only your own strength in several different positions.
Now with the Long Spine Stretch – ironically a strength exercise in my opinion – you've got support, but there's not a ton of it and part of it's moveable. True, it's better than nothing…
If you were pleased with the previous exercises' absence of support, you've always got the version without the straps… but again, that's kind of another post.
My understanding is that you are looking for a lengthened position in the round shape on the way up – not so easy in those long straps – and then a long straight position solid as a rock on the way down to the carriage.
Oh and each repetition a bit longer and more lengthened, please. Yes, I’ll get right on that…
Do your best, you may just be on to something…or at the very least you’ve developed a new way to cheat.
Included in the Reformer repertoire for those that need it, the Mermaid is a lovely thing. In theory it is a gentle exercise between two high-energy/high-exertion exercises: Long Spine Massage and Knee Stretch Series.
However, maybe there's a bit more going on…
JP does throw in a treat every now and then, but often it's a treat with a purpose.
The Mermaid returns us to the strength of the Side body for the first time since Snake/Twist (one-arm version). Here you've got lots of support and you're seated. Work on that lift!
Watch out for more strength of the Side body coming up.
The High bridge here helps you mine as much enjoyment out of the subsequent Knee Stretch Series as a backbend recovery system.
It’s also nice at the very end of the workout, followed by some rolling on the Mat.
The main point being: you are warmed up!
Remember way back at the Footwork? Under an hour and you're all ready to do an awesome backbend!
Kneeling Knee Stretches
These 3 exercises are like the series of 5 abdominal exercises on the Mat: you learn them fairly early on and they never disappoint.
I like to refer to them as “the beginning of the end.” They are your last dash of strength, stamina and endurance.
And probably the reason that clients are so fond of Running (and lying down again).
Now you’ve been up, down, around and everywhere, so the Running is a lovely place to collect yourself, your center and return to the place where you began this wonderful journey.
Remember way back in the Footwork? What does your body feel like now on the Mat?
It is a great place to check in to feel the fruits of your labors. And to catch your breath.
‘Cause you’ve been busy!
This exercise is a nice hearkening back to the lengthening work you did earlier in the Short Spine and Semi Circle exercises. Simply to lengthen the back of the body one last time before the big finish exercises.
You’ll find yourself in a long lengthened back position in the next series, but it’s got to be solid and strong.
Here you get one last chance to be nice to it…it doesn’t yet know what you’ve got in store!
Control Push Ups – Front, Back and Side (Star)
Another spin on the Long Stretch Series, this series promotes lift and length in the back and adds the element of one side at a time. See – all that Side strengthening a few exercises ago gets revved up into the Star! (:44)
Reminiscent of the Leg Pull Front and Leg Pull exercises on the Mat, the body must stay long and strong as you lift one leg up and move the carriage about: facing down, facing up or as a Single-Side Sensation.
The Side Splits are about pulling both of your standing legs up and under you.
Literally pulling yourself together.
I mean, you’ve got to walk out of the studio at some point after your workout, yes?
Test yourself now: How far can you open the carriage and still keep your integrity and ultimately close the carriage again? This one is full of bells, whistles, cadenzas and riffs on controlling the apparatus both open and closed.
No part of this exercise is a walk in the park.
This exercise works on the opening of the hips necessary for better lunges and front splits. What you’ll cultivate here, you’ll use in the subsequent 2 exercises.
If you are like me and you don’t have the bendiest splits, feel free to refer to these split exercises as “Hip Stretches” LOL.
And again a tall strong back position to finish this one… we are getting more upright!
I must confess I like this exercise more and more even though it is getting harder and harder.
The more you know 🙂
Yes, they all get harder, it’s true.
The Russian Split is actually a great help for the Snake exercise or any of the exercises where you must use the lower body to move the carriage while the feet are on the footbar, the non-moving part of the apparatus. And yes, I realize this one is quite an exercise to be a “helper” exercise for any others…
So again, enjoy the hip stretch!
I have heard this one called “Grande Finale” and “Grande Ecarte.” You have worked on your strength and flexibility in the split exercises that precede this one, now both are paramount.
The strength and flexibility of your split must control the carriage in and out.
Just when you have wrung yourself out, performed a full reformation, who doesn’t want to stand up on the Reformer?
The Russian Squats were originally classified as “Men’s Exercises.” They require strength, stamina and a will of steel to even make yourself step up onto the carriage to begin.
Please find a friend to assist you the first time you attempt the Russian Squats.
I love the Reformer.
Just wanted to get that in there…
A few changes in the Order of the Universe
The order I have specified in this post is the one I currently use for my clients and my own workout. I learned a slightly different order initially from my training through Excel Pilates and Romana’s Pilates.
Several lovely colleagues shared their experiences to help me present as much factual information as possible regarding inconsistencies in the order.
Do bear in mind of course that in Pilates often there is no black and white, clear-cut answer.
Every teacher from Joe Pilates to Romana to you and I responds to the skills and needs of the body in front of them. I’d wager that led to an eventual alteration of the order nearly every time.
But it's all interesting, n’est-ce pas?
- Where in the world is the Short Box?
With her older clients circa early 1990s, Romana would direct them to keep the box with them after Long Box 1 proceeding directly to the Short Box Series. Romana herself was probably moving the box for them in those days and those particular clients were most-likely not doing Long Box 2 anyway.
However apprentices at the time continued to take the box away and bring it back for its encore performance as the Short Box. This group presumably would be progressing to Long Box 2.
Indeed, older orders from both Joe and Romana place the Short Box series considerably later in the order.
- Uhm, Long Box 2 anyone?
Any good discussion of where to place the Short Box must include Long Box 2. Back in the day if one was to do the entire Reformer repertoire, the Short Box would disappear after Long Box 1 and return after Long Box 2, immediately preceding the Long Spine Massage.
Another order from nearly the same era flip-flops them, Short Box, then Long Box 2, then Long Spine Massage.
Jay Grimes does not care how many times you must get that box, follow the order in this post and you'll schlep it thrice.
Record highs on the nerdometer I know.
However, all scenarios make the same kind of sense: at the level where one does all of the Reformer exercises both the Short Box and Long Box 2 are essentially a bunch of backbends.
All of which leaves you super-psyched to do the Long Spine Massage. Necessary!!!
- The sweetness of Short Spine Massage
Teacher Training Programs organize the Pilates exercises into manageable installments of Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced exercises. This is a necessary codification to teach apprentices how to be safe and effective teachers.
In my initial trainings I learned to teach students at the intermediate level (which is a large number of our clients) to do the Short Spine Massage after the Hundred.
Ok, eventually one will do the Overhead in its stead. Same dif, yeah?
Well, let’s look at the names of the exercises:
Overhead vs. Short Spine (also called Spine Massage)
To be honest, I prefer to have my massage later in the hour when I am warm, sweaty and much more pliable. One can get so much more out of the exercise then, as opposed to Short Spine as the 3rd exercise in the routine.
And for those that do not do the Overhead yet, Frog and Circles are not exactly for sissies.
a rose by any other name would smell as sweet
You may know the exercise by a different name. Or maybe there's an exercise that is new to you and you LOVE meeting new friends.
Use the image below as a guide (and for further proof I didn't resort to a stunt double).
If you would like to purchase a poster of the Reformer Exercises mentioned in this post (similar to the image below), I thank you very much. Visit the shop.