Clinical Pilates

Trying Clinical Pilates/Reformer Pilates for the First Time: A Physiotherapist’s Experience

When it comes to Pilates, my experience is that some of my clients have either never heard of it or have a vague idea of it, maybe having seen some of the equipment at a studio. Others are fairly experienced and practice it with a fairly high degree proficiency.

Prior to last Wednesday, I had only a basic understanding of what Pilates is. Simply put, my understanding is that in the early 1900’s, Joseph Pilates, the creator wanted to develop a system of exercises and developed specialised equipment while working as a nurse in an internment camp in WW1. He wanted to help people tone their muscles and rehabilitate from war injuries.  Pilates is an exercise system used to create optimal movement patterns, and to correct alignment with an emphasis on proper breathing, core strength, pelvic stability, balance, and control. That’s not much information, I know, but there’s more!

What is a Pilates Reformer?

A Pilates reformer is a piece of exercise equipment that acts as a tool to train core strength, posture, flexibility, and movement patterns. It is a sliding horizontal platform within a box-like frame upon which a person sits, stands, kneels or reclines.

The Pilates reformer relies on a system of springs and pulleys to create resistance. These springs can be added or taken away to change the amount of challenge for any given exercise. While additional springs may increase the effort required to complete one exercise, they may increase stability for another exercise to provide more support. The reformer offers a low impact form of exercise that can target a specific muscle group or work the body as a whole. It’s quite intimidating when you first see the equipment and you almost don’t know exactly what you’re looking at.

My Experience:

With the rise in popularity of reformer Pilates, famous names such as Margot Robbie- who swear by the power of Pilates, as claimed by Harper’s Bazaar, how could I not try it out?

I’ve often seen Reformers around, having worked in different fitness settings and hearing about this practice for many years. However, my experience had been limited to learning exercises simply based on those taught in school and through previous mentors and instructors.

I would argue that I had a “reformer” experience at Lagree West, a studio that specialises in reformer-based workouts, but many Pilates practitioners would strongly argue that it isn’t the same as a “conventional” Pilates experience. Some of the differences being that in a class setting you don’t get much feedback on your form and technique, but rather it feels more like a high intensity cardio session where you’re trying to copy the instructor as quickly as possibly. I would agree that my experience was completely different.

Clinical Pilates

First of all, this 1 on 1 training session on the reformer was simply an amazing experience that I think anyone who wants to take their fitness to the next level should try.

I worked with Brita Unger, a highly experienced, clinical Pilates specialist based out of Vancouver’s Downtown West End.

Upon entering her cozy home studio, we first had a chat about my background, my (extremely limited) experience with Pilates, and goals for the session.

She began with a postural assessment and observed the way I stood and moved- and made assessments and adjustments to my stance. As a fellow therapist, I was really pleased to see an assessment that was not just based solely off of ‘static’ posture and also involved assessing my movement as that provides much more context! She immediately pointed out areas where she felt I could benefit from greater flexibility, strength, and a more balanced posture.

From there, she placed me onto the reformer, we worked together on breath control and finding a ‘neutral spine,' which is the natural position of the spine that minimizes the amount of stress on the muscles and bones. The intricate and subtle activation of the transverse abdominals and core, creating internal pressure and while breathing was no easy feat. We worked through several sets of squats, plank, and kneeling positions whilst she masterfully cued me with technical feedback on form, technique, and correcting my constant compensations and ‘cheats’ that my body would attempt in order to perform the movements. As we progressed through different movements, she would catch subtle things I would do, such as arching and collapsing through my low back instead of maintaining the neutral spine position which requires core activation. On certain movements where I did well, she would quickly progress the movement to a more challenging variation, or modify the exercise if she saw that I was compensating too much and unable to correct the movement without losing my breathing control.

Biggest Personal Takeaways:

I first and foremost love that the Pilates reformer is so individual and unique in its approach and system. Often, physiotherapists and kinesiologists prescribe exercises that come from Pilates and or Yoga without even knowing the origins.

I was really blown away by how my own body would subconsciously compensate for particular weaknesses.  The shrugging, tensing up of my upper traps and shoulders was a big one, and something I often see in my patients with neck pain! I found myself holding my breath often instead of having that rhythmic, relaxed breath. She patiently corrected my recurring mistakes and showed me how to improve each repetition as I practiced the movements.

As someone who has a consistent strengthening routine at the gym and runs a few times per week, I was surprised by how much of a challenge many of the movements were. Now due partly to the fact that I worked with an amazing instructor in Brita – who effortlessly progressed my exercises immediately and accurately to match my ability. As someone who frequently does a ton of chest and shoulder strength exercises, she easily challenged me through progressive loading, challenging me all the way from the plank, to shoulder cable exercises and four-point kneeling positions.

With that said, I want to be clear that you do not need to be ‘fit’ or ‘in shape’ to do Pilates. The focus is to build a stronger centre and core and progress from there, and an experienced and well trained instructor will modify and challenge you appropriately for your fitness goals.

When used and taught appropriately, Pilates can be an amazing tool for BOTH rehabilitation purposes after injury, and even as an intensive workout to challenge professional athletes.

After meeting Brita, I can confidently recommend her services. If you’re looking to understand and ‘connect’ with your body in a way that you’ve never experienced before, I highly recommend you try. If you’ve already tried Pilates equipment before, you would know that like any other sport or discipline, to become better at Pilates you need to practice, so don’t be afraid to give it another shot.

At Vancity Physio, Brita offers a private, 1 on 1 Pilates Studio experience, with a holistic, fun and challenging experience on the Reformer, Wunda Chair, tower and much more. Contact Us to book a session with Brita, or to find out more.

Happy Exercising!