Maybe you’ve seen the infomercials, or somebody has offered you one (probably for free, to get it out of their garage, right?) Well, if you’ve spent any time in a professional studio, you’ll quickly discover the thing is junk. There are several variations on the folding reformer, but the main thing they have in common is their use of bungee cords instead of springs.
I got mine in the mid 1990’s. I believe the cost was around $500-600. While this is a fraction of the cost of a Gratz Reformer, it is still much more expensive than most home gym equipment, and over-priced for the quality you get. I priced several online (the internet was much more limited in those days) but found one at Sport Chalet, displayed to suggest that it included a stand. A stand for the folding reformer is rather rare; I think they were another $100, but they raised the bed of it so you weren’t right on the floor. Once I bought it, I discovered the stand wasn’t included. Of course there was no long box for it either. The manager said the reformer had been on display for nearly 10 years (doubtful) and I was the first person to indicate any interest in it.
First let’s look at the actual functionality of it. Because the shoulder rests are simply dowels with foam rubber around them, you can’t do the Snake/Twist on it because there’s nothing to wrap your weight bearing arm’s hand around. The padded dowels are also not secured to the carriage, so they can pull out of it. If you’re doing the method right, this shouldn’t pose much problem, but it’s not a good idea to try to grip them for leverage at any time.
Unless you buy the stand, you cannot do the Semi-circle on it either, because the bed is on the floor, and you can’t drop your butt into the frame. Similarly the tendon stretch is fairly impossible.
Now the matter of the bungee cords. Some people say they’re too strong; others say they’re too weak. Mine “tore out” after a year or two, and although they still stretched, they didn’t provide consistent resistance after that. The fastener for the cord is a sort of “plug” that drops into a slot near the footbar. Unfortunately, when I’d do the short or long spine, this “plug” on the unfastened “springs” (aka cords) would frequently jam under the carriage, preventing it from moving. Quite alarming when you’re inverted with tension on your spine! This is by far the most hazardous and truly dangerous issue of the design. It also frequently jammed when I was doing leg circles. I have somewhat long legs, I’ve been told, but certainly not enough to warrant these problems.
Pilates trainers are somewhat obsessed with finding the perfect springs, and with good reason. In many cases, the right springs will help you use muscles in your body that you didn’t know you had. In most cases, the springs make it easier to do exercises; that’s why the apparatus makes the method easier than the mat work. Kara Wiley had some vintage Reformer springs that actually slid out of the spring for the last inch; while it didn’t provide spring stretch for this small bit of movement, it caused you to use your powerhouse to initiate and control the movement of the carriage. Balanced body has instituted the use of 5 springs instead of Gratz’s 4, to give the owner more variety of spring resistance. But nobody in their right mind would ever consider using bungee cords.
Not only is it difficult to find equivalences for the number of springs on a “real” reformer, bungee cords often don’t have the resistance to facilitate exercises like the rowing series.
Now about the durability of this piece of junk. The first thing to wear out was the vinyl on the carriage. This began to peel and eventually the whole thing ripped off.
The footbar is wrapped in a tube of padded rubber. This split in the middle and the two pieces of it seem forever to be shifting up and down the metal bar. I believe I’ve had mine about 15 years, with light to moderate usage. The wheels under the carriage just cracked in half and it won’t roll up and down the frame anymore.
Obviously, space limitations as well as cost usually make keeping a professional reformer at home difficult or impossible. The lure of an affordable folding reformer is certainly strong, but unfortunately you will find this temporary solution to be snake oil. I’d suggest you save your money and buy a real one – used if need be.