To many people today the dream of firm, perfectly toned and supple hips remains just that: a dream. Firming up the muscles of the hips is a never ending battle, and sadly, a losing battle, especially for most women. I have seen women with good upper bodies and good legs but with hips that are too big. This makes the legs and the upper bodies look quite out of shape, making the figure and posture bottom heavy, no pun intended.
In this day of unprecedented knowledge explosion, different types of solutions are proffered to this persistent problem, guaranteeing to solve the problem completely within the shortest possible time. Most make the common mistake of laying emphasis on just a few muscles to the detriment of overall wellness and development, while some are too impractical to work at all, because an active pursuit of the exercises proffered will in the end lead to serious health complications. There is, however, a proven and time-tested technique that achieves the result of smooth, svelte hips, and an overall toned body. This is a method called Pilates, a system of physical fitness exercises using special apparatus, designed to improve physical strength, flexibility, and posture, and enhance mental awareness. The most famous of this special apparatus is the Pilates Reformer Machine, and with good reason.
The Reformer Machine and How it Works
To aid the understanding of the Reformer, here is what its inventor and the inventor of the Pilates form of physical fitness, Joseph Hubertus Pilates has to say about it: “I invented all these machines. Began back in Germany, was there until 1925 [or was that 1923?], used to exercise rheumatic patients. I thought, why use my strength? So I made a machine to do it for me. Look, you see it resists your movements in just the right way so those inner muscles really have to work against it. That way you can concentrate on movement. You must always do it slowly and smoothly. Then your whole body is in it.” This adaptable exercise machine was designed to help accelerate the process of stretching, strengthening, body alignment and increased core strength, the core being the muscles of the abdomen, lower and upper back, hips and buttocks. This collective group of muscles is called “the powerhouse”, by Pilate’s practitioners. The whole purpose of this machine is to create resistance which will then be used to stretch the muscles in a series of smooth, flowing, graceful movements.
What it Looks Like
The reformer is a bed-like frame with a flat platform on it, called the carriage, which rolls back and forth on wheels within the frame. The carriage is attached to one end of the reformer by a set of springs. The springs provide choices of differing levels of resistance, and color-coded to indicate differing levels of resistance; the colors range from green (the least resistant) to red (the most resistant) as the carriage is pushed or pulled along the frame. The carriage has shoulder blocks on it that keep a practitioner from sliding off the end of the reformer as they push or pull the carriage. At the spring end of the reformer there is an adjustable bar called a footbar. The footbar can be used by the feet or hands as a practitioner moves the carriage. The reformer also has long straps with handles on them that are attached to the top end of the frame. They can be pulled with legs or arms to move the carriage as well. Body weight and resistance of the springs are what make the carriage more or less difficult to move. Reformers parts are adjustable for differing body sizes and for differing levels of skill.
You may be thinking that the description is more fitting for a medieval torture rack if you are a new comer to Pilates, but this is actually a piece of equipment that is renowned for its adaptability. Exercises can be done lying down, sitting, standing, pulling the straps, pushing the footbar, perched on the footbar, perched on the shoulder blocks, with additional equipment, upside down, sideways and all kinds of variations thereof. In other words, the reformer can train many parts and dynamics of the body in so many different ways with just one comparatively sleek piece of equipment.
Tone Up and Tighten Those Hips
Now that we know what the Reformer is, and how it works, it is important to mention here that the equipment is best used initially under the supervision of a Pilate’s instructor. The importance of a proper foundation in Pilates before attempting the use of the Reformer cannot be over-emphasized; the principles of mind and body co-ordination can only be learned in this way, and the beginner learns the value of concentration, control, centering, flow or efficiency of movement, precision and breathing. This method of physical fitness is about gaining total control of the body, “….and not [being] at its mercy”. The focus is achieving a holistic balance. In the words of its chief proponent: “Pilates develops the body uniformly, corrects wrong posture, restores physical vitality, invigorates the mind and elevates the spirit.” It is getting many benefits for the price of one.
Bearing in mind the fore-going and making it our goal’s navigational compass, here are some of the ways the Reformer can help you achieve the long, lean hip muscles you’ve always wanted.
Depending on how much resistance you want, choose two strong springs with either a medium or light spring. With the headrest in the down position, lie down on the carriage face up. Place your feet on the foot bar, shoulder width apart. Make sure your knees are bent. Lift your hips up into a bridge pose, while the carriage remains still. Stay in the bridge position as you push back. You will feel a contraction in the hamstrings. Complete this exercise for 10 to 15 repetitions. Once you are done, repeat the same exercise while your feet are hip width apart.
For the next exercise, you will be changing the resistance. You can either use two medium springs or one medium and one light spring. Lie down in the same position on the carriage as before. Place the long loops on both feet. Make sure to keep your knees bent. Slowly straighten out your legs. Bring your feet towards the ceiling while keeping your lower back flat. Without moving the carriage, slowly open your legs to the sides. This will stretch the adductor muscles. Bring your legs together and lower them down toward the foot bar. Now allow the carriage to move while you open and close your legs. Repeat this exercise for 10 to 12 repetitions.
Add one strong or medium spring for resistance for lateral lunges. Facing the reformer from the side, position the left foot on the floor, then place the right foot on the carriage by the shoulder block. The legs will be in a wide stance. Keep the left leg straight as you bend the right knee and move the carriage to the right. Hold the lunge, and then return to the starting position. Complete 15 to 20 repetitions before changing to the other side. Finish by kneeling with one leg, pushing the carriage back to stretch the hip flexors and quadriceps on each side for 30 seconds to one minute.
Bear in mind always that the more spring resistance added to the Reformer, the more stable the carriage will be, but also the more challenging to move. With all reformer exercises it is imperative that you feel that you have to engage the core muscles -your hip muscles being one of them – to properly execute the moves. When the feet are in the loops, the hamstrings and adductors will feel a stretch. Make sure the tailbone stays down on the carriage when the feet are up in the air in the loops. All of these movements can only get you closer and closer to your goal, and before you know it, you are golden!
A word of caution though: the reformer can be an unstable surface. Take your time when transitioning from sitting to supine and stepping on and off the reformer, especially with light spring resistance. More importantly, pay close attention to your instructor, and follow their direction to the letter. You will minimize the risk of injury and gain all the benefits of the proper usage of the Reformer.
The Benefits of the Reformer
As the name of the mechanism implies, it universally reforms the body, helping to accelerate the process of stretching, strengthening, body alignment and increased core strength. As the core is strengthened, the core muscles, of which those of the hips are an integral part, become better defined. The result this achieves is suppleness, muscle strength, length, flexibility and balance. To achieve balance, the muscles of the hips are key, and the more posture and balance improves, the firmer and more tone the hips become.
The Reformer provides enough resistance and movement variety to help build strong bones. And there is a special feature: eccentric muscle contractions. This is when a muscle lengthens as it resists a force. The reformer is a set-up for eccentric contraction. That is one of the keys to achieving the long, strong muscles without bulk that Pilates is known for.
The reformer has been known to ease lower back pain, and it is a favorite with physiotherapists. The inventor of the machine himself started out using it for “corrective exercise” or “medical gymnastics”, which should look and feel like a workout (not a therapy) when properly manifested. Many injured and sick people, mostly soldiers, were the first beneficiaries of the first primitive Reformer, which he made by rigging springs to hospital beds, enabling bedridden patients to exercise against resistance, an innovation that led to his later equipment designs.
It was not long before the dance community embraced Pilates and the use of the Reformer, with notable dancers and dancing schools adopting it as part of their routine and regimen. From there, gymnasts, athletes, actors and actresses all embraced this holy grail of overall fitness.
Brief History of Pilates and the Invention of the Reformer
Nothing can be said about the Reformer without mentioning the exercise method which engendered it, and ultimately the inventor of the fitness method. Joseph Hubertus Pilates was a German national who went to England in 1912, where he worked as a self-defense instructor for Scotland Yard Operatives. As a result of an unhealthy childhood, Joseph Pilates studied many kinds of self-improvement systems. He drew from Eastern practices and Zen Buddhism, and was inspired by the ancient Greek ideal of man perfected in development of body, mind and spirit. On his way to developing the Pilates Method, Joseph Pilates studied anatomy and developed himself as a body builder, a wrestler, gymnast, boxer, skier and diver.
He developed a system of exercises which were intended to strengthen the human mind and body. Pilates believed that mental and physical health is interrelated. He strongly believed that exercise can cure and/or prevent ill-health. An influenza epidemic struck England in 1918, killing thousands of people, but not a single one of Joe’s trainees died. This, he claimed, testified to the effectiveness of his system.
Pilates, who called what is now known today as Pilates “Contrology” preferred fewer, more precise and slow movements, requiring control and technique over increased repetition. He believed that mental and physical health was essential to one another, creating what is a method of total body conditioning.
Pilates’ system allows for different exercises to be modified in range of difficulty from beginning to advance or to any other level, and also in terms of the instructor and practitioner’s specific goals and/or limitations. Intensity can be increased over time as the body conditions and adapts to the exercises.
Up until his death at the age of 86, he remained in remarkable physical condition, and has been known to boast saying: “I must be right. Never an aspirin. Never injured a day in my life. The whole country, the whole world, should be doing my exercises. They’d be happier.”
Need we say more? If you still have misgivings about whether to try out the Reformer for your hips, here is one last quote from Joseph Pilates: “In ten sessions you will feel the difference, in twenty you will see the difference, and in thirty you’ll have a whole new body.” Pretty cocky, one might say, but the man knew what he was about.