Mat vs Reformer Pilates – 2021 Breakdown
Posted By: Pamela Toy
Pilates is becoming a mainstream form of exercise that is attractive to people of all ages ranging from senior citizens to professional athletes like Lebron James.
Developed and founded by Joseph Pilates, this form of exercise is intended to strengthen, tone, and stabilize your muscles. However, there are two forms to choose from – mat or reformer pilates, which makes it difficult to determine which is right for you.
In this post, we will break down the following:
- What are the differences between Reformer and Mat Pilates?
- How Mat Pilates works
- How Reformer Pilates works
- Which Option Should you Choose?
Let’s go ahead and jump in.
What are the differences between Reformer and Mat Pilates?
Working on a mat creates an environment where you can push through physical limitations without any outside help or equipment. This can improve your balance, stability and strengthen your core over time because you do not have any assistance whatsoever.
On other hand, the reformer can provide more assistance. Also, reformers have the added benefit of springs and pulleys to increase resistance significantly.
How Mat Pilates works
Credit: Very Well Fit
Mat work is the true foundation of Pilates. Initially consisting of 34 exercises, Pilates Mat work has expanded into endless variations as it grows more popular with each passing day.
Unlike the Reformer, it does not come with training wheels or support from resistance bands and springs.
The Mat work still has an emphasis on moving from the center of your core, mindful breathing, and spinal mobility—just like you would see throughout most traditional Pilates exercises.
Accessibility and convenience
Pilates Mat work is the most accessible form of Pilates, and it requires nothing but a soft surface and a mat.
While physically demanding, exercises are endlessly adaptable for all fitness levels and life stages; they can also be done at home or in health clubs.
The sooner you step onto a mat to work on your fitness, the better. It’s also familiar!
Most people have been on one before in either yoga or physical education class and as result don’t feel intimidated by it like they do with other new equipment such as reformers.
Mat Pilates Difficulty
Credit: Very Well Fit
For beginners, it can be more challenging than a Reformer because you use your body weight as resistance and don’t have foot bars, springs, or straps to push and pull against.
The Reformer has a unique and important function. It provides the user with feedback that helps them orient themselves in space, which is essential for balance, muscle coordination, and quality of movement.
This type of input also causes muscles to contract when they need it most, such as during physical challenges like weighted squats or pushups on the mat, because you feel resistance no matter where your body moves!
Mat Pilates offers much less support. There are props you can use like blocks to aid certain poses/exercises, however, compared to the reformer, there is much less assistance.
This can be much harder for injured people with a limited range of motion.
Mat Exercise Examples
Now you are probably thinking that Mat Pilates sounds interesting, but the points we made are lacking context…
Let’s dive into some Mat exercises to validate some of our points.
Here are the exercises we will discuss:
- The Pilates Hundred
- Scissor Kick
The Pilates Hundred
The Pilates Hundred is one of the most popular mat exercises. It’s an exercise where you are lying face up with both legs straight toward the ceiling with your head and shoulders off the mat.
The goal is to pump straight arms up and down for 100 counts. Movements are meant to be small.
There are some modifications you can make like keeping your knees bent in a tabletop position or keeping your head and shoulders on the mat. This is a phenomenal exercise for strengthening and stabilizing your core muscles.
The Teaser is a Classical Pilates exercise that is very similar to V-ups. You perform the exercise by lying face-up on your back with your knees bent into your chest.
The goal is to fully extend your legs 45 degrees and reach toward your feet with your hands. (Your Shoulders will and head will have to come off the mat, almost creating a V-shape with your body.)
This exercise is great for strengthening your core and leg muscles.
There are also a few modifications you can make, like keeping one leg on the mat at a time.
The plank is a really popular exercise in Pilates, Yoga, and many other fitness programs. It is an amazing exercise because it works your shoulders, core stabilization muscles and engages your legs all at the same time.
There are plenty of variations/modifications of the plank including kneeling, full planks, and other exercises that build off it.
These are just a couple of great Mat exercises you will likely encounter in your first class…
As you can see, there are ways to make modifications, but you are still forced to support some of your own weight without being able to effectively isolate any particular muscle group.
This can be a really great workout because it forces you to support yourself. On the other hand, if you are dealing with injuries or a limited range of motion, Mat Pilates can be very difficult.
Pros of Mat Pilates
- Very Accessible and affordable
- Can improve Balance and Core Stability quickly (no assist)
- Don’t need any equipment except a mat
- Lots of online resources
Cons of Mat Pilates
- Can be tougher for beginners
- Not accommodating to people with injuries (no assist)
- Resistance is limited
Where can I start my Mat Pilates Journey?
You can get started right away with a DVD or online pilates class at home. Many programs are designed by certified experts made easy for all fitness levels, so it’s never too late to take your first step!
If you are looking for a more formalized class, you should check to see if your local gym offers classes. Preferably, you can search for local studios in your area as most classes can range from 5 to 35 people.
How Reformer Pilates works
Credit: Net Doctor
If you’ve ever done Pilates on a mat or Reformer, then you know how challenging it can be to find the right level of resistance and tension.
The reformer is unique in that its sliding carriage allows for more controlled movements while still being able to regulate the amount of pressure one feels through their muscles.
Unlike on the Mat, Reformer Pilates is done on an elevated surface.
Depending upon what exercise you are doing; whether it be standing or lying down and balancing your feet in a certain position, there is much more stability provided than on a mat. For example, the foot bar can provide much assistance.
Accessibility and Convenience
Reformer Pilates is a lot less accessible than mat work. Unless you own a reformer, you would likely have to go to a studio to access one. Reformers are also fairly expensive and obviously can’t be taken on the road.
Reformer Pilates Difficulty
With the Reformer, people with a limited range of motion or injuries can do modified exercises safely.
The reformer’s many attachments expand upon Pilates on a mat and provide additional exercise options for those who are unable to fully participate in traditional workouts because they have limitations that prevent them from comfortably performing some moves like a bridge or child’s pose.
However, you can also increase the resistance with the springs. Unlike with mat pilates, you are not limited to only using your body weight, so you can make your workouts increasingly more difficult.
Using the pulleys also allows you to engage your upper body in more ways than traditional mat exercises.
Reformer Exercise Examples
We also decided to include a couple of Reformer exercises to reinforce our points.
Here are the exercises we will discuss:
- The Reformer Footwork
- Leg Circles
The Reformer Footwork
The Reformer Footwork is an exercise where you lie face up on the Reformer. Placing your toes on the footbar with your heels lifted and knees open you push off the footbar to straighten your legs.
This exercise is a great one for targeting your glutes, adductors, quads, and hamstrings. You can modify the difficulty by adding or removing springs.
Leg Circles are another great exercise to do on the reformer.
Lying face-up on the reformer, you will use the straps to create small outward circular movements with your legs. The goal is to extend your legs so they are 60 degrees with the platform.
This is a great exercise for improving both flexibility and strength at the same time. You can also modify the springs to increase or decrease overall difficulty.
Elephant on the Reformer is an exercise where you are standing with your heels up against the shoulder blocks.
Using the springs to create as much or as little resistance as you can handle, the goal of the exercise is to push away with your back arched and then push back in. The elephant requires you to squeeze your glutes and engage your abs at the same time.
This is great for targeting your core, glutes, calves, hamstring and quad muscles. Again, we can make the exercise more difficult by adding or removing springs.
These are some great reformer exercises. As you can see, the reformer allows you to work different muscle groups with added resistance.
Additionally, you are able to hit your muscle groups (particularly your legs) at different angles that are not possible on the mat.
For example, the Leg Circles workout not only improves your flexibility but also strengthens your legs at the same time. You can continue to add resistance making each exercise increasingly more difficult in ways you wouldn’t be able to with a mat workout.
On the contrary, a reformer can be used as a crutch because you don’t have to support your own bodyweight throughout many exercises.
Pros of Reformer Pilates
- Accommodating for people with injuries or limited range of motion
- Can increase resistance with springs and pulleys
- More individualized classes (due to size constraints)
- Lots of online resources
Cons of Reformer Pilates
- Must have access to a Reformer
- Reformers are very expensive
Where can I start my Reformer Pilates Journey?
Credit: Gone Adventuring
You can find DVDs, online classes, or pilates apps to follow along at home. However, the one caveat is that you would need to own or have access to a reformer. Since that isn’t an option for many, you can take an in-person class or a private class with a certified instructor at your local studio.
Which option should you choose?
Well… should you do Pilates on a mat or Reformer?
Looking at the two options, it’s clear they both have their pros and cons. The good news is that neither form of Pilates is “better” because it all comes down to a matter of preference/situation!
Do you have debilitating injuries that would prevent you from being able to hold certain poses without an assist?
Reformer Pilates is probably better for you.
Are you looking to increase your balance and stability while toning and strengthening your core?
Mat Pilates might be right up your alley!
However, if you have the resources and bandwidth, we highly recommend that you mix in both forms of pilates. Most advanced practitioners do mat and reformer workouts because there are added benefits to both.
Looking for in-person instruction?
If you are in the Philadelphia area, check out our studio or book an appointment (link below)!