Author: Rebecca Friedlander
Pilates attracts everyone from grandmas to executives with its promise of core strength, flexibility, and lean muscle tone. But as Pilates transforms from a professional dancer's secret to a mainstream workout, many newcomers wonder if they should be rolling out a mat to do their Pilates, or strapping into a Reformer — the equipment developed by Pilates creator Joseph Pilates.
Since Pilates mat workouts and Pilates Reformer workouts provide similar benefits, it’s no wonder that newbies (as well as regular Pilates devotees) are often confused about which form is right for their current goals and abilities. Here’s a breakdown of the two types of classes to help you decide.
Working against resistance is essential to the 500 classical Pilates exercises, which are designed to train the body’s “powerhouse” — the abdomen, lower back, hips, and buttocks. But you can accomplish that in Pilates using either a mat, where your own body weight creates resistance, or a Reformer, where pulleys and springs create resistance.
Several products mimic the resistance action of a Reformer using lightweight resistance bands joined in an X design, so you can add the benefits of using a Reformer to your Pilates workout anywhere, no bulky equipment required. This is a convenient option when traveling and gives anyone who lives in a small space a practical alternative to buying a Reformer, without going to a Pilates studio.
Pilates mat work is often done in live classes, which are much easier to find than Reformer sessions. Even gyms without full Pilates studios often offer mat classes, usually at no additional fee for members.
Many Pilates experts recommend mat classes as the best bet for beginners. Average students typically add Reformer work after three months of once-a-week mat classes.
Dennis Clark, instructor and owner of Body Language Pilates and Yoga Studio in Florence, Italy, insists that new clients acquire a foundation on the mat before launching into apparatus work. “The body can get very confused with controlling the effect of an external challenge source and learn to rely on big global muscles or small over-tasked ones to practice a reformer exercise and miss the target,” she says.
Mari Winsor, founder of Winsor Pilates, agrees. “Mat work is a great option for beginners because of its emphasis on learning how to control your muscles during exercises,” she says. “The work is too specific to be done in a group Reformer class. You need to be watched like hawk in the beginning.”
While doing Pilates on a mat instead of a Reformer may not seem as fun or challenging, many students see results — improved strength, posture, agility and flexibility, as well as toned muscles — within a few months from once-a-week Pilates mat sessions.
Three years ago, active 77-year-old Peter Press wanted to improve his strength. “My son was getting too far ahead of me when we skied, so I knew I needed to do something,” he says. Press chose a Pilates mat class because he “isn’t good about doing anything on his own.” He wanted a live class because it would offer instruction and guidance each time.
Press credits his three-days-a-week mat classes with giving him a stronger core and improved leg flexibility. He says he’s now hitting golf balls straighter and longer, playing longer matches on the tennis court and keeping up with his 33-year-old son on the slopes.
Winsor suggests an advanced mat class for students seeking a challenge beyond intermediate mat and Reformer work. “Advanced mat classes are the hardest because you’re using your body all the time. The Reformer isn’t assisting or supporting you,” she says.
Pilates mat class size can range from three to 30-plus, so newcomers should look for smaller sessions to receive personalized instruction. Mat classes follow a set but flowing choreography and may emphasize standing, one-leg exercises that strengthen the powerhouse and hip muscles, increase spine and hip flexibility, and improve balance.
You can also do Pilates mat work at home with a Pilates DVD and a Pilates mat. Many experts suggest you take a few live classes before beginning a practice at home, but with a high-quality DVD choreographed and led by a certified, well-known Pilates expert, you can start in the privacy of your own home with no worries. Try Mari Winsor Pilates DVDs from Gaiam, and get a Pilates mat that’s a quarter inch thick — twice as thick as a yoga mat — to cushion pressure points during Pilates moves like the 100 and the teaser.
To some, Reformer equipment might resemble a torture apparatus, looking like a single bed frame but with a sliding carriage and adjustable springs to regulate tension and resistance. Cables, bars, straps, and pulleys allow exercises to be done from a variety of positions, even standing.
Because this contraption can look daunting, many students start with a few months of private sessions before moving on to group classes. In many facilities, completing a series of private Reformer sessions is required before participating in group classes.
The resistance created by the pulley and spring system can provide a more challenging strength and endurance workout than mat classes. It may also produce visible results sooner — arm, leg, and abdominal muscles can look more firm and defined within a dozen or so regular sessions.
Hour-long private sessions average between $60 and $90, but group classes will only set you back $30 to $45. You can also save $5 to $30 on private sessions by buying a multi-session package or pairing with a buddy for “duets.” Some facilities also offer a discount for seniors.
These days you can also buy an affordable Pilates Reformer for home use; look for models that come with Pilates Reformer instruction DVDs led by certified Pilates instructors.
The Reformer’s many attachments increase the range of modifications that can be made to the exercises, and allow additional exercises beyond what can be done on a mat. This capability, combined with the support afforded by the resistance the machine provides, allows people with limited range of movement or injuries to safely do modified exercises.
Competitive runner and cyclist Val Shockley discovered this when ordered to avoid weight-bearing exercise for 12 weeks after foot surgery. Despite her “big, heavy, pink cast,” Shockley was able to begin Reformer work. Once healed and back to running, she continued her Pilates practice to keep formerly common complaints such as pulled groin, back, and leg muscles to a minimum.
Still can’t decide between mat or Reformer work? Winsor says there’s no need to agonize over the decision — most people can reap similar benefits from either approach. “Both forms will teach you how to use your powerhouse, make performing daily activities and sports easier, and tone your body along the way,” she says.
Winsor and many other experts agree that the deciding factor should be finding appropriate instruction. “The best class for a beginner is a beginner class,” says Clark.
Winsor advises beginners to check for certified instruction. “Pilates isn’t trademarked, so it’s up to the consumer to check a teacher’s references, certifications, and experience,” she says. “Taking a mat or Reformer class from an uncertified instructor is about as helpful as running around the block six times. As with many workout methods, to get the most out of it, find a certified instructor.”