Pilates with feet in straps.

Which Pilates Method is Best, Mat or Reformer?

The first time in any fitness class can be a bit intimidating, but, for some, Pilates can appear to be complicated and overwhelming. This could be due to the Reformer and its straps and springs or the dozens of exercise names and terms of which you’ve never heard. Don’t let uncertainty keep you away from the Pilates experience—it offers so many benefits to your body no matter your fitness background or age. Pilates will improve your posture, help you focus on body alignment, and give you an amazing core workout.

Since Pilates mat workouts and Reformer workouts provide similar benefits, it’s no wonder newbies (and even regular Pilates students) are often confused about which form is best for their fitness goals and abilities.

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 buttocks. But you can accomplish that using either a mat, where your own body weight creates resistance, or a Reformer, where pulleys and springs create resistance. In fact, the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness published a 2016 study that confirmed eight weeks of Pilates classes improved abdominal endurance, flexibility, and balance.

Reformer Classes

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. Reformer equipment is built with a sliding carriage and adjustable springs to regulate tension and resistance. Cables, bars, straps, and pulleys allow exercises to be performed from a variety of positions, even standing. The resistance created by the pulley and spring system can provide a more challenging workout than mat classes. It may also produce visible results sooner: Arm, leg, and abdominal muscles can look 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 those with limited range of movement or injuries to safely complete modified exercises. The Reformer works to lengthen while strengthening the muscles, rather than building bulk, making it an effective, non-impact stretching and toning program safe for the joints.

“Pilates on a Reformer bed really helps target those smaller muscle groups, so you form long, lean, and toned muscles,” says Maureen Rose, STOTT PILATES certified instructor and owner of Bern Pilates. “Your workout can be designed to target a specific area or the entire body.”

Reformer Pilates is also great for rehabilitation purposes because the exercises can be done lying down. For example, someone who’s had knee surgery or a knee injury will be able to strengthen leg muscles through a larger range of motion using a lighter resistance than their own body weight—speeding up recovery through controlled movement. Someone with scoliosis may find it difficult to work on the mat, but they can increase their range of motion safely and effectively on the Reformer.

Mat Work

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. Exercises like the 100s where straight legs are lifted off the ground and the upper body curls off the floor for an arm-pumping series of inhales and exhales, warms your body and engages your core muscles. Other mat exercises, like the teaser or rolling like a ball, are practiced by beginners and devotees alike to work the entire body.

While doing Pilates on a mat instead of a reformer may not seem as fun or challenging, many students see improved strength, posture, agility, and flexibility—including toned muscles—in just a few weeks. Advanced mat classes will use your body for support meaning more attention and effort is required when working without the assistance or support of the Reformer. So, what does that mean? Mat classes offer a greater challenge for your core muscles.

The Verdict

Creator Joseph Pilates never intended for mat work or the Reformer to stand alone. His approach was integrative—combining mat and Reformer for the best overall program to provide the full benefits offered by Pilates. You really can’t go wrong no matter the method you choose, but keep in mind what you learn on one informs your body on the other. Challenge yourself to explore new exercises on the mat or try a Reformer class. You may just find it opens up your body in a whole new way.

Bern Pilates is a fully equipped STOTT PILATES Studio. We offer private, semi-private, and group Pilates sessions. The studio features state-of-the-art MERRITHEW equipment—reformers, cadillac, stability chairs and barrels—which allows our instructors to tailor a program that benefits individuals regardless of their activity level and fitness goals.

We welcome all fitness levels, from beginners to seasoned athletes and everyone in between. Our mission is to promote a strong mind and body connection all while developing long, lean muscles, core strength, cardiovascular endurance, and flexibility in a safe environment. Call (252) 514-4430 or visit us online at www.bernpilates.com for more information and class schedules.

(Sources: Pilates Method Alliance; MBG Collective; USA Today; Huffington Post; and Self Magazine.)