This week in our Ask A Teacher Series, the lovely and brilliant Danielle Dodham- Wright gives us a thorough look at the differences between the reformer and mat pilates.
Danielle is Toronto-based Pilates instructor, certified by internationally recognized organizations, Body Harmonics and STOTT Pilates.
Her passion for anatomy and over 15 years in dance merge in classes that are both laser-focused in their precision and a celebration of movement. With humor and care, she weaves biomechanics into her natural aptitude for imagery to guide her clients towards discovering the potential in their bodies. A lifelong learner, Danielle has taken workshops with industry leaders Thomas Myers and Eric Franklin and is currently working towards her Biomechanics Specialist certification at Body Harmonics. Her clients span over 6 decades; she has experience working with scoliosis, osteoporosis, pre and post natal and young dancers and knee replacements.
Question: What’s the difference between the type of workout I get from a pilates mat and a pilates reformer workout?
All pilates classes – whether on the mat or reformer – have the same underlying goal: to create strong, balanced bodies that move freely and efficiently. They just use different tools to get you there. Here are a few things to consider when deciding between the two.
Weighted springs that you push against are one of the reformer’s calling cards; that kind of load is ideal for building muscle, increasing bone density and elevating your heart rate in a workout. Keep in mind though, that heavier doesn’t always mean harder. Higher loads can shut down essential local muscles (deep stabilizers) that respond to instability and low weights. And if – as it should be - a goal is to move better, too much weight can fire the wrong muscles in faulty patterns in lieu of good biomechanics. Also some exercises are harder on the mat without springs, than on the machine with. Minus spring support to “split the work”, you have to resist gravity and your body weight solo.
On the mat, there’s not much to tell you where you are in space; in fact, “getting” the nuances of matwork requires great proprioception (body awareness). On the other end of the spectrum, the reformer has specific places for the feet, shoulders, hands and head; it gives you a physical framework for your practice. Not only that, but the “push-pull” of springs can help guide newbies into unfamiliar positions and understand how muscles should be working. For example, concepts like “elastic recoil” in muscles are much easier to feel and understand with springs.
One of the pillars of pilates is concentration; changing the way our neurons and muscles fire together requires that we pay attention to our bodies. Add a reformer and your attentions is split. Someone who has already made their connections won’t be fazed by having to manage a machine, but earlier on in the stages of your practice the reformer can draw focus in the wrong way.
Core vs. Limbs
Expect to move your spine and pelvis (the axial skeleton) similarly in both mat and reformer, but know that your arms and legs (the appendicular skeleton) may be worked differently. Matwork tends to emphasize stabilizing the peripheral joints (think of how your arm works to hold you in a side bridge) vs. reformer work, which more often mobilizes them (think of lifting your arm up against weights). As a general rule, your arms and legs will get a little more attention and work on the reformer.
Both mat and machines classes exist for a reason(s). Keep in mind that it’s how you practice, not what you practice on. Whichever helps you delve deeper into the universe of your body is fantastic. And once you’ve experimented with the two, why not move on to the cadillac, the barrel, the chair… the possibilities are endless!