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Pilates Workout Differences: Reformer and Mat

author image Meg Campbell
Based just outside Chicago, Meg Campbell has worked in the fitness industry since 1997. She’s been writing health-related articles since 2010, focusing primarily on diet and nutrition. Campbell divides her time between her hometown and Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Pilates Workout Differences: Reformer and Mat
Young people are exercising in a studio. Photo Credit 4774344sean/iStock/Getty Images

Joseph Pilates created and established his exercise methodology in the early 20th Century, and continued to develop it throughout his life. By the time he died at the age of 87, he had expanded his system to include more than 600 exercises for the mat and his various apparatuses, including the cadillac, magic circle, wunda chair, step barrel and universal reformer. While you can perform the same series of exercises on the reformer that you can on the mat, the workouts are notably different.

Pilates Method

Pilates originally named his exercise system “Contrology.” It’s founding principles include bodily awareness and control, concentration, precision of movement, flow, proper muscle recruitment, centering, pursuit of physical balance, correct breathing and efficiency. Pilates trains you to initiate movement from your body’s powerhouse, also known as your center or core. According to Pilates methodology, your powerhouse comprises more than just your superficial abdominal and lower back muscles; it also encompasses your deep transverse abdominal muscles, pelvic floor muscles and diaphragm. The guiding philosophy behind Pilates is that you must devote yourself to your whole being -- mind, body and spirit -- to attain good health.

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Mat Workout

Pilates mat work is the basis for the entire system of exercises. Mat workouts embrace flow more so than apparatus workouts, including those on the universal reformer. A well-trained mat instructor can design classes where movements and transitions flow from one to the next without hesitation. Because of this, mat work is more conducive to the development of cardiovascular endurance than apparatus work. On the mat, your body weight provides resistance against gravity, making the workout more challenging in many cases. You must be in full control of your body, rather than relying on the assistance or support of the springs and cables of an apparatus.

Reformer Workout

Joseph Pilates constructed the original reformer from a bed frame, mattress springs and ropes while living in a World War I internment camp. He called it the “bednasium” and used it to help immobilized soldiers strengthen their bodies. The modern reformer has retained the look of a narrow bed with a sliding platform, or carriage, made more or less resistant by adding or removing springs. A system of cords and pulleys provides another means of resistance. You can perform very basic to highly advanced movements in virtually any position on the reformer, with selected resistance. Certain stretches, such as those for the hip flexor, cannot be duplicated on the mat or any other apparatus. In addition, Pilates’ series of jumping exercises is exclusive to the reformer.

Getting Started

Some controversy exists among Pilates trainers as to which is more appropriate for beginners -- the mat or the reformer. Proponents of the mat argue that you can better understand how to control your muscles without additional resistance or assistance. The reformer, they argue, supports you and doesn’t facilitate a beginner’s need for understanding and development of proper muscle activation. Trainers who favor the reformer for beginners argue the exact same point, saying that the reformer does facilitate a better initial understanding and connection with the powerhouse muscles. The reformer also reduces the amount of physical stress experienced during the workout, making it more ideal than the mat for those with injuries or chronic imbalances.

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  • “Pilates”; Rael Isacowitz; 2006
  • "Ellie Herman's Pilates Reformer"; Ellie Herman; 2007
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