Mat Pilates vs. Reformer Pilates: Which One Is Better?

Both types of Pilates strengthen your core and improve posture — but is one superior? Here's what experts say about the benefits of mat vs. reformer Pilates.

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If you're looking for a new low-impact workout to add to your routine — one that will strengthen your core and build your muscular endurance, all without your feet ever leaving the ground — Pilates just might be the answer. Invented by Joseph Hubertus Pilates in the 1920s, Pilates workouts use specific exercises to stretch, strengthen, and balance the body, paired with focused breaths to emphasize having control over each movement. Think of it as yoga's slightly more strength-focused cousin.

But while any Pilates workout will center around these core principles, there are a few different ways to achieve the strengthened muscles and increased flexibility that are hallmarks of the workout style: mat Pilates and reformer Pilates. Here, experts explain the difference between mat Pilates and reformer Pilates, as well as the benefits of each, so that you can decide which type of Pilates is best for you.

What Is Mat Pilates?

Mat Pilates is the OG Pilates and is most similar to what Joseph Pilates conceptualized more than a hundred years ago. All you need for mat Pilates is — you guessed it — a mat, although other equipment (such as a ring or ball) can be optional.

"[Mat Pilates] strengthens, lengthens, and tones the body while promoting flexibility and is done on the mat without the use of equipment," explains Jada-Rae Poku, N.P.C.P., an instructor for Club Pilates. The focus is on small, controlled movements, and a major portion of the class is devoted to strengthening your core muscles — both front and back. Here's more about the benefits of mat Pilates.

Builds Pilates Techniques and Form Skills

One of the main benefits of mat Pilates is that it builds a foundation of knowledge for future workouts — both Pilates and non-Pilates. "Mat work is the basis of the entire Pilates exercise system," says Triana Brown, head of talent and product development at Solidcore. In a mat Pilates class, you'll learn the fundamentals of Pilates movements and techniques, such as a neutral spine, an engaged core, and intentional breathwork. By practicing these Pilates basics on the mat, you'll be able to apply them to your other workouts as well (think: remembering to hold a neutral spine during a deadlift or use a strong exhale to power through a push-up). Plus, if you do eventually decide to try a reformer Pilates class, you'll have the know-how to execute the movements safely and effectively.

Improves Posture

Since so much of a Pilates class is devoted to strengthening the core (with exercises such as planks, hollow body holds, and teasers, which involve alternating between a V-sit and a full-body extension), it's no surprise that a mat Pilates devotee might find themselves standing up a little straighter. In fact, one study found that participants who did a one-hour mat Pilates workout twice a week for 12 weeks had improved upper spine and core posture.

"[Pilates] is getting you to connect to the back line [aka posterior chain], so you stand better and are just more aware of your posture," Amy Jordan, creator and CEO of WundaBar Pilates, previously told Shape. In addition to increasing that mind-body connection, mat Pilates also works your transverse abdominis, a deep core muscle that stabilizes your lower back and keeps you upright. So if you find yourself slouching at your desk, a Pilates routine might help address that slump.

Promotes Flexibility

If one of your major fitness goals is finding the flexibility to touch your toes, Pilates can help. "Mat Pilates, when practiced regularly, promotes flexibility as muscles are constantly lengthened," explains Poku. One study found that participants who did an hour of mat Pilates twice a week for 12 weeks saw significant increases in hamstring flexibility. Another study found that those who did a one-hour Pilates workout weekly for six months were able to shorten their fingertip-to-floor distance (i.e., the gap between your fingers and the floor in a forward fold) by 4.3 centimeters on average.

Teaches Breath Control

Trust, your breath will be top of mind in every mat Pilates workout you do — and not necessarily because you'll be gasping for air. Instead, a major benefit of mat Pilates is that it harnesses inhales and exhales to create a more powerful mind-body connection. Your instructor will guide you through moments when you should breathe in and out, using that intentional breathwork to increase the effectiveness of your movements. For example, you'll inhale as you lengthen your muscles during an eccentric movement, and you'll exhale as you contract the muscles to get as much power as possible.

The breathwork of Pilates has mental health benefits as well, notes Poku. That's because focusing on your breath has been shown to increase positive temperament and help treat anxiety and depression. A weekly mat Pilates class could pull double duty in improving your physical and mental health.

What Is Reformer Pilates?

Reformer Pilates is a low-impact, full-body workout that incorporates controlled movements and the use of breath on a reformer machine to target specific muscle groups, says Brown. "It's a more modern form of Pilates," she notes. "It's still using slow and controlled movements, but it also uses strategic programming that's more aligned with strength training." Or put another way, your reformer Pilates class is more likely to have dedicated segments for specific muscle groups (such as your obliques or your inner thighs), similar to what you'd do in a traditional strength training program.

ICDYK, the Pilates reformer is a machine that consists of a sliding platform (or carriage), a platform at either hand, handlebars on the platforms, straps to allow moves such as biceps curls, and springs, which make the resistance of the machine lighter or heavier. Some reformers are also outfitted with extra loops for glute work or handles to make certain moves (such as shoulder presses or rows) more comfortable.

Offers Full-Body Strength Training

While mat Pilates offers low-intensity strength training, the reformer (and its springs) provide more of a targeted, high-intensity training experience. "The reformer has a variety of exercises that can cater to the entire body," explains Brown. "It can target your push muscles in your chest and triceps, and you can be more strategic when you’re focusing on the lower body."

Plus, the reformer has its signature springs that add varying levels of resistance to each and every move. While mat Pilates relies mostly on bodyweight exercises, the ability to add weight to reformer Pilates gives it the benefit of increasing muscular strength and endurance, says Brown (and FYI, here's the difference between the two). "That can be more impactful in training because you can withstand tension for a longer period of time." Remember, during resistance training, your muscles endure small muscle tears, which your body then repairs — a process that leads to muscle growth, as Shape previously reported. So TL;DR: Strength training with a Pilates reformer can lead to major gains.

Improves Balance and Coordination

The sliding carriage on the Pilates reformer adds the element of instability to your workouts. Your muscles have to be fully engaged and controlled in order to move the platform steadily or keep it in the same place. And of course, you'll have to call on your balance skills to avoid wobbling when you get into certain movements, such as reverse lunges with one foot on the platform and one foot on the sliding carriage. "You're working on a moving machine, which will heighten your balance and coordination," adds Brown.

Decreases Risk of Injury

Unlike high-impact workouts, in which your feet leave the floor for plyometric movements, both mat and reformer Pilates keep both feet firmly on the ground for a decreased risk of injury. However, the springs on a reformer machine play double duty: Not only to they add resistance to mimic dumbbells or barbells, but they can also keep the platform from moving too much. "Springs can add an element of support, so it can help create stability during specific exercises," says Brown. For example, if you're recovering from a knee injury, you can create more stability for the knee joint using springs; that way, you can target the hamstring without risking injury.

Offers Greater Variety of Exercises

With all the attachments and tools on the reformer (think: platforms, handlebars, straps, and handles), it's no wonder that a major benefit of reformer Pilates is the amazing variety of exercises you can tackle. "[The attachments] create a larger catalog of exercises, which allows tension to be targeted in different muscle groups and create a more rounded workout," explains Brown. With mat Pilates, on the other hand, you're more limited in terms of what exercises you can do and what body parts you can target. For example, you can add a mermaid oblique crunch or an overhead triceps extension to your workout using a reformer, but you're not able to do those as bodyweight Pilates exercises. The versatility of the reformer allows you to be more strategic in focusing on certain muscle groups, and the addition of resistance springs makes it easy to level up your workouts once you're ready.

How to Choose Between Mat Pilates vs. Reformer Pilates

While both types of Pilates offer a low-impact method of resistance training, one method might be better suited to your goals. Here's how to decide between mat Pilates vs. reformer Pilates.

Mat Pilates vs. Reformer Pilates: For Beginners

No doubt about it: Anyone brand new to Pilates should attend several mat Pilates sessions to understand the fundamental movement and techniques of the workout. In mat Pilates classes, you'll get a firm grasp on the basic Pilates exercises, such as glute bridges, isometric lunges, and "the hundred," a classic Pilates core move that combines a hollow body hold and small arm pulses. Once you feel confident in your Pilates foundation on the mat, you can take it to the reformer.

Mat Pilates vs. Reformer Pilates: For Strength Training

If you want a workout that will most closely resemble a traditional, weight-bearing strength workout, book a reformer Pilates class. A reformer Pilates class can offer the resistance and progressive overload that you'd find in a structured strength-training program, and in it, you'll work to muscle fatigue. "We can always challenge clients to add a higher resistance to get more muscle stimulus," adds Brown. Plus, the reformer can be the basis for a whole catalog of full-body exercises, some of which you simply wouldn't be able to do on a mat (think an elevator lunge or a carriage kick).

Mat Pilates vs. Reformer Pilates: For Improved Body Awareness

Once again, reformer Pilates takes the win here. "If your goals are to build body awareness, the reformer is the way to go," says Brown. "You have to work harder to control your movements on the moving platform." That said, because the mind-body connection is a core principle of all Pilates, you can still enjoy improved proprioception (aka your body's awareness of where you are in space) as a benefit of mat Pilates.

Mat Pilates vs. Reformer Pilates: For Injury Recovery

Short answer: It depends. Long answer: Deciding between mat Pilates vs. reformer Pilates when recovering from injuries depends on your specific type of injury and your unique fitness levels. For example, someone who frequently deals with low back pain would be a good candidate for mat Pilates, since the low-impact workout builds core strength (which can help prevent low back pain) without the risk of adding resistance.

However, if you're used to high-intensity workouts and a muscle pull is keeping you from your normal routine, reformer Pilates might scratch that itch. You'll be able to maintain (and maybe even increase) muscle strength during your time on the injured list, and you might even be able to address muscle imbalances that can prevent future injuries from occurring. In either case, you'll need to check with your doctor for a medical sign-off before trying a new workout, and you should also ask the instructor for modifications to meet you where you're at that day.

While beginners may benefit more from mat Pilates and strength-training devotees might gravitate toward the reformer, both types of Pilates are a valuable part of your workout routine. "The Pilates method includes many different modifications and variations that make it accessible to everyone," says Poku. "No matter where you are in your fitness journey, even if at the start line, Pilates is great to add to your regimen!"

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