The question of which is best Mat Pilates versus Reformer Pilates is a question I often get as an instructor. People want to know what is better to be efficient with their time and fitness goals. Now I can relate as I would like to know if the skills I am practicing and learning take me to where I want to go or give me a more significant carryover into other modalities and my overall active life. But let's clarify what mat Pilates and reformer Pilates are first.
What is Mat Pilates?
Mat Pilates is the foundation of the Pilates system of exercises. All equipment exercises have a root exercise in the Mat work. That is to say that Joseph Pilates built his system upon exercises that you can do anywhere and practice from beginner to advanced. You can practice any time of day and anywhere you want, which gives you more freedom and ability to incorporate it into your life without being limited by a Reformer class or private schedule. Or if you are taking a Reformer and equipment class, you can do a few mat work exercises as part of your warm-up, which is common in a Reformer class setting.
The Mat work in Pilates really emphasizes flow as you can easily move from one exercise to the next without having to change springs as the ease of movement can take over and become fluid. Each exercise you practice in the Mat Pilates repertoire is built on the six principles of Pilates as Joseph had intended in various planes of motion as well as orientations. This Mat work system is the hidden crown jewel of what Pilates really is demanding full body control as you practice it.
What is Reformer Pilates?
The Reformer is the most recognized piece of equipment in Pilates. It's incredibly versatile and works with spring tension, a moving bed, a box, straps, and a footbar. The amount of exercises is endless with the repertoire from Joseph Pilates and beyond. The Reformer work ranges from beginner to advanced and gives the student various ways to increase or decrease support depending on the orientation and the spring tension. The advantage of practicing alignment and progressions on the Reformer is that it takes the Mat work to the next level. The Reformer is by far the most user-friendly and seasoned student I teach. They have one in their home for their practice.
The style of class that a student takes is mainly broken down into levels from fundamental to advanced. The exercises chosen can be organized to create flow and precision from one exercise to the next. However, you will be changing your spring tension and adjusting your orientation throughout the workout.
Using spring tension allows us to increase or decrease the difficulty of each exercise. Some exercises on the Reformer are harder with less spring versus a heavier spring, so it's not as linear with resistance as other forms of exercise, like using free weights. The majority of work on the Reformer demands stability from your body and utilizes that more than anything as you progress in your level. Within the classes and private sessions, the instructor will give you a recommended spring to use per exercise for your level.
Mat or Reformer Pilates?
Now, having said that the Mat work in Pilates is the essence of what you will do on the Reformer. I feel it's essential that a student has experience in the Mat work before using the Reformer, as it will make more sense and give the student an understanding of body control before using the spring tension.
But choosing also depends on how much you want to invest in your Pilates experience. Private Reformer sessions are expensive, and often, students want group Reformer classes to lower the cost per session. The Mat work is far easier to start with as you can join a group class for far less per session and find many classes online. The mat work you can do daily and the equipment you have to schedule a private or group class. Access to a Reformer is often the issue, with the frequency of your practice taking a hit. I feel it's essential to use the Mat work as your foundation. You can practice anytime.