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Joseph Pilates - His "Foot-Work" & The Universal Reformer

Updated: Aug 14, 2023

Please visit for historical information on the above photo of Joe & his student

Also give a complete story of Joe and his migration to the United States and his life here in the US

The Universal Reformer is iconic in its image and presentation. It is one of the first models someone conjures up when they think of Pilates. And, it is a central apparatus piece designed by Joseph Pilates, himself, for his method of exercise known as "Contrology". Today it is commonly referred to as Pilates (this occurred as a result of legal challenges over 20 years ago).

But, today, do most people truly understand its function? How it allows a Pilates practitioner to view and watch a patient move in the anti-gravity position? How it is a part of his integral system of movement? Most likely not. And, a part of that is because the reasoning and explanation of its purpose has not been conveyed and passed down to the population at large. It is only Pilates geeks that love the history and want to know as much about his work as possible, and pass on his legacy to others.

Visually, The Reformer is odd in its design and the spring loaded mechanism for movement is not fully understood as to why it is so beneficial to both practitioners and clients. At first glance, it can be "somewhat" likened to the cable-designed Smith Machine in the gym. And, the basic concept of movement, "vertical squats" is achieved by turning the cable system horizontal and into The Reformer's spring loaded design. Additionally, the client is given a mat (known as "the carriage" or "the trolley"), to lie down on. Instantly, it positions the client in a "squat" position. This position is the beginning position for the first set of exercises on The Reformer known as "footwork".

Balanced Body:

We move in a world that bares down on our bodies. Gravity and the normal force, from the ground up, are consistent forces that we sustain, and dissipate, at all times and daily. Gravity, above us, and the normal force, from the ground up, do not adjust to us - we adjust to those forces, always - without exception; if we are moving in the vertical plane on our feet. In a wheelchair or with another assistive device, that is another topic. However, no longer is it just our 2 feet, but 4 additional points of contact in a wheelchair - hence now 6 points of contact. That is the same application for a quad cane, a single point cane, crutches, and/or a walker. Our base of support (BOS) has now increased and widen. And, the explanation of dissipation of forces, on our bodies, is a separate post.

Generally, we don't think about being upright unless we sustain an acute injury or become aware of a chronic and/or painful condition. Our feet are the only structures between us and the ground, and, hence, should be THE consideration, for us, when we begin to explore returning to movement, from a rehabilitative condition and/or just moving in our daily lives.

Please visit for a complete history of Joseph Pilates and his history and to view the above historical picture

Please visit for additional historical information about Jospeh Pilates and his wife Clara Pilates

And, intuitively, Joe knew our feet were central to our daily health. This is one of the underpinnings of this piece of his equipment. When learning about The Reformer, it becomes evident that the foot is also central to the beginning of the choreography of exercises on this piece. Once a student lies down on the carriage, a traditional lesson begins with Joe's "footwork". What is footwork? It is the beginning of a very specific ordered set of exercises which starts with the movement of the feet and touching all points on the foot, reflecting the construct of reflexology. Reflexology is an alternative medical practice involving the application of pressure to specific points on the feet.

Beginning with foot exercises, the whole body is beginning to be "connected" and "organized". Such constructs as "connected" and "organized" prepare the practitioner to make ready for more complex and precise movements. It is the beginning of a "workout" that is highly structured and purposeful, as Joe designed his work on The Reformer. The aspects of timing, pace, tactile feedback and difficulty level are beginning to take shape. Joe designed The Reformer exercises to build on the objectives of complexity and difficulty in level of practice. Additionally, he created a tiered - multilevel program of exercises from beginning to advanced on The Reformer. See below for the full list of exercises in the order that they should be performed. Also, the fixed order of the list can be adjusted for the novice beginner practitioner to an advanced student. For examples of the adjustment of exercises to fit the practitioner's level of practice, please visit the following website: - an excellent resource for practitioners.

The ability to evaluate a client in the anti-gravity plane, on The Reformer, is a valuable tool for both physical therapists and Pilates teachers. In the anti-gravity plane, I can "see" the excessive spirals and injuries in my patients. It also helps to "see" and correct compensation patterns that are detrimental to a patient's rehabilitation. Additionally, through repetition, The Reformer assists in re-aligning the legs and correcting body alignment, beginning at the foot and moving up and through the knee joints and into the pelvis. Once the alignment is repatterning, the subtle changes begin to take effect through and on the spinal vertebra and in turn those changes begin to change shoulder mechanics as well as TMJ mechanics. And, traditional rehabilitation must contend with gravity which continues to work in opposition to correcting biomechanical efficiency in movement execution and exploration. And, conventionally, physical therapy focuses ONLY on a joint or the injury. It is not part of the equation to treat and see the patient as a whole being and to help them regain their full health. It IS about "the injury" - NOT the patient.

The Reformer exercises are the SAME exercises in any gym. They JUST have different names. Movement is movement, and again, our elbows and knees only bend in one direction. If they bend in the opposite direction, an orthopedist is imminent ( ).

Gym name: Pilates name:

1) squats footwork

2) chest flies hug-a-tree

3) diagonals sword

4) prone extension swan - cat - backbend - pull straps & "T"

5) leg in cable strap feet in the straps

6) posterior tilt bottom lift - pelvic lift

7) calf raises tendon stretch

8) forward flexion - sit-ups roll over - coordination - hundreds

9)............etc......etc............etc..... etc........etc.........etc.......

It is a misconception that Pilates is an "enigma" - "something like" yoga. This IS not the case. Pilates (Contrology) is a systematic method of sound biomechanical principles. What sets our world of movement apart from the traditional world of exercise and therapy is Joe's intuitive knowledge that exercise was critical to good health and his creative out-of-the-box thinking on how to move and on what type of equipment to move on.

As a Pilates-based physical therapist, the ability to help my clients re-pattern movement in the anti-gravity plane is indescribable. And, the ability to select from any one of the many pieces of his apparatuses affords me endless possibilities to choose how to teach and treat patients to recover efficient neuromuscular movement and to be able to assist my patients to achieve increased strength and endurance, and to find ease in moving again.

Dr. Erica Nelson, PT-DPT, MSSM, BSc, MLD

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