Reformer Pilates versus Mat Pilates

Reformer pilates or mat pilates….eh? Most people reading this might not even know what I am talking about when I say reformer pilates. Or did you know there was even a difference between doing pilates on a mat versus a reformer. Pilates is often compared to yoga as fluid exercise done with breathing on a mat. But this isn’t how Joseph Pilates, the founder of the method, started his clients off.

Pilates originated on the machines

Joseph Pilates started the method when working with soldiers who were wounded in the war. As a nurse, he would attach pulleys and bands to the soldiers’ beds to try to increase their movement and help with rehabilitation. Later these beds were modelled into modern large apparatus called the Cadillac, Reformer and Stability chair. He believed that people should not get in the habit of sitting all day long in the days of the industrial revolution and promoted a lot of fitness in the workplace.

Today these machines line bespoke Pilates studios as a way for the public to keep fit, toned and sculpted in a low impact environment.

Gaining flexibility and improving posture are still at the heart of the method and as a beginner the reformer can be the best place for someone to start Pilates.

The downside to mat Pilates:

1. Many of the movements in the classic method are based in flexion which is a curved spine.

For many individuals, especially those with osteoporosis or disc injury these movements are contraindicated. In large classes where a majority of the moves are done in flexion, like the 100s and rolling like a ball, there is a high risk of spinal fractures and injury for those that are already vulnerable. There is a lower proportion of rotation and extension moves in the classic matwork which would support a more healthy spine.

2. Many of the moves are done on the floor.

Pilates is often suggested for the active aged population of whom many struggle to get down and up off the floor. There is not a lot of functional carry over from the mat work to activities of daily living.

3. There is a lot of challenge in the mat Pilates exercises.

With having to lift the legs in the air while lying on your back, flexing the spine like in a sit up and supporting your own body weight on the wrists. This is all fine for those who are already fit and without injury but when people are being referred post injury to do mat Pilates this is where some problems can occur.

Weak core muscles make it harder for the legs to be lifted in the air resulting in the back muscles taking over. Lifting the head up in sit up style movements can lead to neck discomfort if not supported properly. Many moves if the core muscles are not already strong can lead to tight hip flexors and over dominant back muscles.

Why Reformer Pilates can be a more suitable place to begin:

1. The beds are higher up off the floor and can support more functional movements

Although many mat classes have an emphasis on standing movements, on the reformer we lie down, sit, kneel and stand in various planes of movement to support a full range of movement potential. Reformers are easier to get on and off for a more aged individual who may have more joint tightness.

2. The movements are more bone healthy.

Using the resistance from the springs and pulleys you can tone and strengthen your muscles to support your bones. We work in a low impact environment and promote weight bearing activities.

3. The movements start supporting the pelvis and spine with the assistance of the springs and progress to more challenging moves.

The reformer and Cadillac should be the starting point for many beginners, alongside some of the basic pre-mat exercises. Then the more skilled Pilates individual can progress to the more challenging mat exercises.

At our studio we offer a range of mat, reformer and equipment classes so we give the best of all worlds.

Our Gentle program is done on our large high beds for the active aged, to promote bone healthy exercise. These classes are suitable for those with osteoporosis, disc injuries, post op injuries and promote a more neutral spine and better stability.

Our beginner reformer classes are fun and supportive ways to start an exercise routine and by building better flexibility and posture they offer a great foundation for other forms of exercise. The reformer builds awareness and co-ordination that can translate to better performance in sport and fitness classes.

Our intermediate/advanced Pilates classes use a combination of reformer and classic mat exercises where the individual has developed the appropriate amount of core control.

Start pilates the right way with our Full Body MOT sessions or Beginner Pilates courses.


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ladies standing on reformer beds