Is Pilates Reformer Harder Than Pilates Mat?!

Posted on Sep 20, 2021

Is Pilates Reformer Harder Than Pilates Mat?!

Planning to attend your first Reformer Pilates class can be quite daunting. The machine doesn’t look like common fitness equipment. It has a moving carriage, straps attached to it, and uses springs as resistance. The moves you see on social media make you think that the Reformer exercises are only meant for advanced practitioners. And you may think that Pilates mat is your only option as a first-timer.

There are exercises on the Pilates Reformer that are easier than Pilates mat, and there are also more challenging exercises. The Reformer machine is designed so that the springs can either assist or challenge the actual movement. 

Let me explain how the Reformer machine makes the exercises easier or harder than mat Pilates.

Pilates Mat and Reformer Comparison

Pilates MatPilates Reformer
Movement ComplexityLess complex as you only have your body to deal withMore complex as it involves the equipment set up
ConvenienceYou can do it anywhereYou need a Pilates Studio to practice or buy your Reformer machine
VarietyLimited varietyMore variety
AssistanceYou have to rely on your own strengthThe straps, the foot bar, and other parts of the machine can give you assistance to your exercises
Feedback and awarenessNo feedback except the floor and matThe setup of the Reformer is a good added feedback to increase your awareness with you the exercises.
Range of motionLimited range depending on your mobilityWider range because of the straps and elevated platform
StabilityVery stableHarder when the carriage has very low spring support
ResistanceDepends on your body weightIt can be controlled by adjusting the springs
Easier to mountHarder for older people and those with back and knee injuries.Easier to mount
Intensity range from 1 to 10 (1 = easiest and 10 = hardest)Between 3 to 8 intensityFrom 1 to 10 intensity

What is a Pilates Reformer?

Let me describe to you briefly what a Pilates Reformer is before we go on with the topic. This machine has the size smaller than a single bed with half of its length is covered by a moving carriage that can move horizontally. The springs are attached from the front of the frame to the front of the carriage, making it return to the front all the time.

The back of the carriage has a headrest that can be raised up and down, and it has a pair of shoulder pads. The carriage is connected to the back of the frame by a pair of straps looped in a pulley system. You can do a lot of things on the Reformer. Here is an article I wrote about the different positions you can be in on the machine.

What is Pilates Mat?

Pilates mat exercises are movements on the mat to work your whole body without using any equipment. Originally, there is a 34 exercise list that was written by Joseph Pilates in the early 1900s for the purpose of giving us a daily routine to move better as we age. It is very effective to strengthen your core, improve your flexibility and work on your breathing.

What makes the Pilates Mat harder than the Reformer exercises?

Relies on your relative strength to weight ratio

When doing the Pilates mat exercise, you will solely rely on your strength to move in certain positions when doing the exercises. That means if you carry extra kilos in your weight, it can be more challenging than someone lighter. 

For example, doing bodyweight squats or heel raises can be more challenging if you are heavier. If you compare these with the same exercise done on the Reformer, the intensity can be adjusted by having lower or higher spring resistance.

Harder when you lack the flexibility

There are exercises on the Pilates mat that can be harder to hold if you lack flexibility. A good example of these are exercises that require you to hold either one or two legs up in the air like single-leg circles and double leg raises. When you do these movements on the Pilates Reformer, the exercises will be a lot easier. The straps will help you carry your legs, and will assist you to move your legs in different patterns that would be otherwise impossible or very challenging to do if you do it on the exercise mat.

What makes the Reformer exercises easier than Pilates Mat?

An elevated platform is easier to mount on

Aside from the adjustability of the springs and the assistance of the straps that the Pilates Reformer can do for your exercises, it is also easier to go onto the machine than on the floor. This is especially true if you have lower back pain or knee injury, as it will be challenging for you to go up and down from the floor. 

Easier to establish alignment

The Pilates Reformer will also help you do your movement in better alignment. The straps, shoulder pads, and foot bar can give you feedback on making your movement more symmetrical. Thus, it is easier to do it correctly than doing it on the mat, where you have to rely fully on your awareness in space as you work through the exercises.

This is why Pilates Reformer is popular in Rehabilitation clinics.

If you want to try some exercises on the Reformer that you can do without the machine, I wrote an article about 12 Pilates Reformer exercises that you can do at home.

What makes the Reformer harder than Mat exercises?

More Resistance from springs

On the other hand, the Reformer machine can also be used to make the exercise more challenging. A simple way to make the exercise harder is to add more spring resistance. This will be true to arm exercises that will be significantly harder when you use heavier or more springs.

Unstable platform

The moving carriage will make the exercise more unstable; thus, it will require more strength, balance, and concentration to do it. These exercises are best done when you have more experience with the machine.

A bigger range of movement

Because of the setup of the Reformer exercises, you will be able to go bigger with your movement than what you can do on the mat. The elevated platform will allow you to move further down than where you are mounted and the moving carriage will get you into stretch positions that are very awkward to do on the mat. This makes the Reformer exercises more intense.

More movement complexity plus the features of the equipment

The Reformer exercises are also more complex in general. So a total beginner will have a hard time in terms of learning the exercises and at the same time getting to know the machine. 

There are hundreds of Reformer exercises for you to learn, so it is harder to master them all compared to the original 34 mat sequence.

Conclusion

In summary, the Pilates mat exercises can be harder to start with regards to intensity, but it is simpler to learn as there are not as many variations compared to the Reformer exercises.

The Reformer exercises, on the other hand, can be a lot easier to start with but it is a little more complicated to learn as you have to learn to set up the machine. This will require you to have a guidance of a teacher to start with.

At the same time, Reformer exercises can be a lot more advance than the mat exercises.

About Michel Velasco

Michel is a licensed Physical Therapist, a seasoned cyclist, an avid wall climber, a classical guitar teacher, a martial arts enthusiast, and an impassioned carpenter. He teaches Pilates, Calisthenics, and Handstands–injecting his values of patience, discipline, and hard work into every class.