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You Asked, We Answered: The Difference Between Mat And Reformer Pilates

More specifically, we turn to Director of SmartFit Pilates, Li Jun Pek to break it down for us.

Image courtesy of Li Jun Pek/SmartFit Pilates

If you’ve been meaning to take up Pilates and debating whether to start with Matwork or Reformer (the equipment developed by Pilates creator Joseph Pilates, often referred to as a "torture device" by the uninitiated), keep reading.

What's the difference?

The answer might seem obvious at first, as the name of each reflects the equipment that is used. Matwork in its original form only requires a simple soft mat on the floor to perform exercises on, whereas Reformer Pilates is done on a carriage bed that moves via a spring and pulley system, with a footbar and straps to push or pull against.

I find it interesting to think of Matwork as Joseph Pilates' eldest child and Reformer Pilates as a younger offspring. 34 mat exercises were the original foundation of the exercise system named Contrology, that we now know as Pilates.

Matwork is seen as a dependable staple in gyms and studios all over the world - but maybe because it's so accessible, is also viewed as more basic and unexciting. Meanwhile Reformer feels more trendy and sexy – with advanced exercises heightening the thrill as they are performed elevated above the ground, often with multiple moving parts.

Does one have more benefits than the other?

They share many similarities in DNA, being built on the Pilates principles of Breathing, Centering, Concentration, Control, Flow and Precision. Both will help you to improve muscular strength, especially the core, correct posture, alleviate aches and pains as well as build balance and stability.

However, in Joseph Pilates' own words, “Of course you can exercise without machines. But it’s not as efficient – would take longer. With them, three or four hours work a week is enough.”

Which of the two is more challenging?

It's ironic that people think the Reformer is physically harder since Joseph Pilates named the apparatus The Universal Reformer – because it was meant for everyone, especially those who need rehabilitation!

Romana Kryzanowska, one of Joseph Pilates' original students, had noted that if "you can do the mat work perfectly, you don't need the apparatus. But people love toys."

The truth is that very few people can actually do mat exercises properly.

Mat Pilates is actually a lot more challenging than Reformer Pilates because you have to be able to bear your own body weight, which isn't easy for those who are injured, overweight, elderly, or even just less than fit.

Pilates on on the mat

The original Matwork focusses predominantly on the core, with few exercises that directly strengthen your limbs – the main arm-strengthening exercise is the push-up. In recent times, the repertoire has increased to include exercises with more of a focus on limbs such as squats and lunges. Props such as the magic circle, resistance band, roller and ball have also been added to both facilitate exercises (for example the ball can be used as support in core exercises) as well as increase the challenge by adding an additional element of instability, such as doing a plank with feet resting on the roller.

A big plus point for mat Pilates though is the accessibility. If you take a mat Pilates once or twice a week, you can practice the moves at home in between sessions. Most people don't have that luxury for reformer which means you don't get to practice as much, which is why it's also nice to combine mat and Reformer Pilates so you can keep up your movement practice at home, on holiday, during Circuit Breaker...

Pilates on the Reformer

The Reformer's versatile resistance via the footbar, straps or platform makes movement more efficient in multiple ways. Firstly, resistance accelerates neuromuscular learning so your body picks up movement patterns more quickly. Secondly, there are often two exercises hidden in every one – there is the exertion to push against the load one way, and the effort to resist against it coming back – which works to lengthen inner muscles. Thirdly, resistance also provides constant tactile feedback on the user's movements.

Even a basic warm-up like footwork will quickly reflect the level of control over one's movements – can you manage to push out fully without jerking? Can you control the carriage back in without a bang? This will keep you alert and focused on the exercise as there's really no room for your mind to wander!

I have to admit that I'm a big fan of the Reformer for its versatility and ability to isolate and target very specific muscles. Besides loving toys, I personally have a bad wrist and couldn't do push-ups so Matwork wasn't helping me strengthen my arms in the way I wanted. On the Reformer, I have an array of exercises to target my pectoral muscles, deltoids, triceps, biceps, lats – all without stressing my wrists or putting a strain or any other part of my body. This applies to any other focus area someone might have.

Should newbies start with Matwork or Reformer first?

Taking a few mat classes will be beneficial in laying down the movement foundation for Pilates. A first-timer would need to learn certain fundamentals such as breathwork, core activation, neutral spine, pelvis stability, all of which are easier to pick up when there are no moving parts but their own body.

While the reformer isn't necessarily more physically tiring, it can be more challenging mentally, as people new to it often comment that they are 'focussing on five different things at once'.

At the same time, I have observed our instructors integrating matwork into our Reformer Fundamentals class. They might kick-start the class with fundamental breathing and core exercises on the mat before teaching related reformer movements. A new move might also be practised first on the mat before resistance is introduced with the apparatus. So for anyone keen on the reformer, I wouldn't say they must start with a mat class go forth and reform yourself!

SmartFit Pilates is a boutique Pilates studio located in Tanglin, Singapore, offering Stott Pilates and functional fitness classes. Heads up! Try your first private session with them for just $65 (usual $130). Get in touch with them here.