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The difference between Reformer and Mat Pilates.

Which method is best for you?

Pilates is known for improving core strength, flexibility, mobility, balance and muscle tone and is a fabulous way to rehab an injury or work around a long term condition. Dr's also now recommend Pilates for many aliments and injuries as it is a safe way of building overall strength.

One of the most common questions I'm asked is "what is the difference between Mat and Reformer" and as both Mat and Reformer provide similar benefits it is often confused about which is right for you. Both are beneficial to building up your core strength and toning your muscles.

Both teach you to initiate the movements from your body’s powerhouse (your core) and quickly translate into benefits across your day-to-day activities. In a nut shell while you can perform the same series of exercises on the reformer that you can on the mat, the workouts are vastly different. Mat Pilates is using your body weight, while the Reformer adds resistance to the Pilates exercises using the springs on the machine building strength faster. Pilates mat work is probably still more well known than Reformer and many people are still not aware of the Reformer and Pilates Large Equipment. Mat work uses bodyweight rather than relying on the assistance or support of the springs and cables of an apparatus so can sometimes be less controlled as you don't have that support of the machine keeping you aligned.


Pilates Teacher Bunny with the Magic Circle
Pilates Teacher Bunny with the Magic Circle

Mat Pilates On the mat, your body weight provides resistance against gravity, making the workout more challenging to control and activate the correct muscles. You are in full control of your body and the body weight gives you the ability to load using limbs as your weights. Mat work is a great option for all levels because of its emphasis on learning how to control your muscles during exercises. While doing Pilates on a mat may not seem as exciting or challenging as the Reformer, clients see results (improved strength, posture, agility, flexibility, toned muscles) within 6-10 sessions. As long as the class level is correct for your ability and level then mat Pilates is a great option and usually more widely available than Reformer.


APPI Reformer Teacher Bunny on the Pilates Reformer
APPI Reformer Teacher Bunny on the Pilates Reformer

Reformer Pilates The Pilates reformer originally designed by Joseph Pilates from a hospital bed in World War 1 is a traditional piece of Pilates equipment. Not many people know what a Reformer is and are quite scared of the reformer when they first see it as it looks quite intimidating. After just one or two workouts on a reformer you realise it is the most versatile and effective piece of exercise equipment ever made… and it’s great fun! It can be used for rehab clients and also for athletes - both working to the required level.


The Reformer has a sliding carriage (which we call a bed), two ropes, straps and pulleys, the resistance is made harder or easier by adding or removing different combinations of springs. It has a removable box that is lifted on and off to sit on, lie on, lean against and also is used on the floor too. The Reformer acts as a support system for the body by helping assist the limbs holding you in good alignment. It shows up and corrects imbalances very quickly. The spring tension/resistance is used at varying levels to make the exercise heavy or stabilising, thus working on different muscle groups and always centring from the core muscles. This means that the intensity can be varied considerably from one person to the next, making it an incredibly versatile piece of equipment to use for every goal and age range. The clever way the Reformer is designed allows people of all levels (including those with conditions or injuries) to safely exercise. Due to the resistance created by the pulley and spring system of the Reformer the same exercises are greatly increased compared to Mat, leading to visible results sooner. The Reformer takes a mat exercise and gives you the option of performing it in different body positions, from your back, side, laying on your front, being seated and also on your feet or knees for balance. Exercises can be performed at a very basic or very high level and a good teacher will plan the session just for your requirements. Reformer Pilates is great for rehab purposes too as it allows you to exercise in a laying down without the body weight bearing through their legs. For example if a client has had knee or hip surgery, working laying down enables them to strengthen the muscles of the legs and hips safely, speeding up recovery through controlled movement creating just the right amount of load. Reformer is a great for strength, posture, flexibility, balance and endurance training and can be designed to target one specific area, stabilising muscle groups, or as a whole body workout.


Reformer Pilates is often used on a 121 basis for rehabilitation and Reformer Pilates is for anyone, any age and any needs!


So which one, Mat or Reformer?


Availability / time / price / venue are all aspects to consider. Mat classes are usually more widely available than Reformer.


Both will teach you how to effectively use your core, building strength overall which will quickly translate to benefits in your day-to-day activities or sports. While targeting specific muscle groups is possible on the mat, it is much more easy to cheat on the mat compared to the Reformer. The Reformer is also more ideal than the mat for those with injuries as it is so supportive. There is a big misconception that Reformer Pilates is harder than Mat Pilates, when either can be both gentle or fierce.


What is critical is that you research your teacher and discuss your requirements before you make a choice. Often availability, venue and times can lead you to one path until something is suitable for you. Always discuss injuries and goals so you can be advised the best option for you.


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