Mat Pilates vs Reformer: What’s the Difference?

Many newcomers wonder if they should be rolling out a mat to do their Pilates, or strapping into a reformer — the equipment developed by Pilates creator Joseph Pilates. So what’s the difference between mat Pilates and reformer Pilates?  There are actually several.

Working against resistance is essential to the 500 classical Pilates exercises, which are designed to train the body’s “powerhouse” — the abdomen, lower back, hips and glutes. You can accomplish this in Pilates by using either a mat, where your own body weight creates resistance, or a reformer, where pulleys and springs create resistance.

Since Pilates mat workouts and Pilates reformer workouts provide similar benefits, it’s no wonder that there is some confusion about which form to pursue, depending on your current goals and abilities. Here’s a breakdown of the two types of classes to help you make an informed decision.

Mat Pilates

Many Pilates experts recommend mat classes as the best bet for beginners. Mat work can be a great starting point because of its emphasis on learning how to control your muscles and get in tune with your body. While doing Pilates on a mat instead of a reformer may not seem as fun or challenging, many students see results — improved strength, posture, agility and flexibility, as well as toned muscles — within a few months from once-a-week Pilates mat session. Advanced mat classes will use your body for support the entire time so more attention and effort is required when you are working without the assistance or support of the Reformer, resulting in a greater challenge for your core muscles.

Reformer Pilates

The Reformer will ‘reform’ your life. When celebs say they “do Pilates” they are usually talking about the Reformer. To some, reformer equipment might resemble a torture apparatus, built with a sliding carriage and adjustable springs to regulate tension and resistance. Cables, bars, straps, and pulleys allow exercises to be done from a variety of positions, even standing. The resistance created by the pulley and spring system can provide a more challenging strength and endurance workout than mat classes. It may also produce visible results sooner — arm, leg and abdominal muscles can look more firm and defined within a dozen or so regular sessions. The reformer’s many attachments increase the range of modifications that can be made to the exercises, and allow additional exercises beyond what can be done on a mat. This capability, combined with the support afforded by the resistance the machine provides, allows people with limited range of movement or injuries to safely do modified exercises. The reformer works to lengthen whilst strengthening the muscles rather than building bulk. It therefore makes for an effective, non impact stretching and toning program that is safe for the joints and favored by Physiotherapists and Osteopaths.

The Truth

Joseph Pilates never intended either Matwork or Reformer to stand alone. His approach was integrative, combining mat and reformer for the best all around program, providing the full benefits that Pilates can offer. So in the end, you can’t go wrong whichever you choose, but keep in mind, what you learn on one informs your body on the other.  You’ll build newer connections faster and deeper if you do both. So challenge yourself to explore new exercises on the mat, or try a reformer class.  You may just find that it opens up your body in a new way and helps you to go deeper into the work. Good luck!