Mat Pilates vs. Equipment Pilates

mat pilates, mat pilates vs. exercise pilates

What's better for you: mat Pilates or equipment Pilates?

I get asked this question a lot when potential clients call my Pilates studio: what's the difference between mat Pilates and equipment Pilates?  There are actually several.

Mat Pilates is More Core Work

I should start off by saying that if you're asking yourself "What is Pilates?" then read my linked article first. When you exercise using mat Pilates, you are primarily focusing on your core. Yes, your arms and legs will definitely get a workout, but the majority of the time you'll be focusing on your abs. If your primary focus is to whittle your waist, then start with the mat. The other thing to know is that mat work is a smaller part of the entire Pilates repertoire.  Using just your body and no props, there are about 50 or so exercises. It's a great, fast-paced workout and you'll definitely be challenged, but if you go to a mat class regularly, you'll start to experience a lot of moves again and again and this might become boring to you. That said, if your instructor is into props such as a fitness circle, therabands, or small hand weights, these can double or triple the diversity of moves for a mat class.

Equipment Pilates is More Specific

There are over 250 moves you can do on a Pilates Reformer and that's before you start getting into props or some of the newer moves that have been developed over the past few years (the choreography has really exploded in Pilates). This means equipment classes provide about five times the number of exercises as a traditional mat Pilates class. The Reformer is considered the workhorse piece of equipment in Pilates, and if I could only own one piece of exercise equipment, this would be the one I'd choose. Pilates instructors can work with anyone on a Reformer, from a recent car accident victim to a professional athlete. The exercises range from rehab focused and therapeutic to absolutely sweat-dripping, butt-kicking hard!

Mat Pilates has Great Flow

I find that mat Pilates has a better flow to it. I think this is because there are less exercises to choose from, and you transition from move to move smoothly with minimal breaks. Because I know the choreography so well, I can zone out as I focus on my body and I leave a session feeling incredibly relaxed and lengthened. Then I wake up the next day and my abs remind me of the workout they got the day before! Equipment Pilates tends to be taught in "blocks" of exercises. I'll teach a series of four to six ab exercises, then a block of four to eight arm exercises, then switch over to eight to twelve leg exercises ... you get the idea. Constantly switching up these blocks will keep clients challenged, their bodies guessing at what's coming next, and their muscles building strength at a quick clip. All my clients appreciate when they can slide on their skinny jeans without even having to suck anything in!

Do You Need to Do Mat Pilates First?

Joe Pilates believed that you needed to learn the mat repertoire before you could go on the equipment. His thought process was people should learn proper form first and then be introduced to the equipment. I have to say I disagree with him. I think this mindset presumes two things: that the client is too stupid to learn good form on equipment (this is ridiculous), and that using the equipment is somehow detrimental to form. I think having the ability to position a client in a certain way on the equipment helps them learn the form more quickly. There are tricks I can use on a Reformer or the Cadillac that I don't have access to on a mat, and trust me, I use them all the time. If you have any questions about mat vs. equipment Pilates, please leave them in the comments below and I'll be happy to answer them.  Have you tried one or both types of Pilates?  What did you find worked best for your body?  I'd love to hear about your experiences.  And, yep, I've got a Pilates DVD that I'd love for you to check out. Cheers, Lisa

About Lisa Johnson

Lisa Johnson here. I've been a personal trainer since 1997, a Pilates instructor since 1998 and the owner of Modern Pilates since 1999. I'm hoping to give you some good ideas to get or stay in shape with a healthy dose of humor and reality. Thanks for joining me.

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14 Responses to Mat Pilates vs. Equipment Pilates

  1. sarah December 18, 2012 at 10:25 am #

    Thanks Lisa. I like reading your insights/blogs. I think it is fair to state that when you describe the equipment pilates, it is as “modern or contemporary” pilates and not classical. Classical pilates is not taught in blocks as you describe but in a specific order and flow to the workout for specific purposes (similar to mat). I definitely agree that there are positives & negatives to doing (& teaching) open-chain (mat) versus closed-chain (reformer) but the method & thought behind both types of workouts were originally developed to follow a specific order & flow. Just depends on what school of thought you study. :)

  2. Lisa Johnson December 18, 2012 at 1:27 pm #

    Hi Sarah,

    Here’s what I’ve seen from even classical trainers. Most of them teach in blocks once they’ve been a few years out from their training schools. They’ll split it up this way … a block of mat exercises, then a block of reformer exercises, then maybe some tower stuff. I am not a fan of the classical repertoire for two reasons … 1. It’s imprint only and I think that structurally doesn’t make sense. Why train the spine in only one position when it has the mobility to be in many positions? and 2. I think teaching order over and over again is doing a disservice to the client. They are going to hit training plateaus and won’t be challenged as much muscularly as they otherwise could. I honestly believe that if Joe Pilates had access to the research we had today that he would have adapted his repertoire accordingly. I just don’t know why teaching the client the same thing over and over again is worthwhile.

    I’m assuming that you’re classically trained and I’m sure you vehemently disagree with me. I’d love to ask a rather blunt question … how does teaching order to the same person every session help them MORE than physically challenging them with a varied repertoire? Looking forward to your answer.


  3. Lisa Johnson December 18, 2012 at 1:31 pm #

    I’d also like to add that Joe Pilates taught very varied exercises to different people. He taught Romana one way and he taught Ron Fletcher another, they didn’t do the same “order” I think it is Romana’s heritage that she taught her order as *the* order and I think that is maybe a little bit inaccurate. Joe did what we all do as instructors, he taught the person in front of him and gave his clients what they each needed … I don’t think he was as cookie cutter as we all think, otherwise why would have have a 500 exercise repertoire. That never made sense to me either.

  4. TraceyJoy December 18, 2012 at 3:15 pm #

    I’m a mat class girl. The equipment has always scared me, looks like devices of torture. It’s a mental block. The chair, the barrel, arc, cadillac aye yigh yigh! I bought a reformer from one of the home shopping channels and I could not use it properly. I was sliding all over the place, I could not control of my body movements and it hurt. They made it seem so effortlessly yet I got that hunk of machine home could not get the straps even. Horrible. I put it on the tree belt for trash pick up and before I got back into the house good I heard a horn blow someone had scooped it up and put it in their truck. I was glad someone could use it. I’ve never tried equipment again. I’ve been dabbling with the idea of doing personal training on equipment I won’t buy home versions ever again. Like you said mat class can get redundant. I know where my instructor is going before she is there. My body isn’t melting and sculpting the way I want it to so maybe if use the equipment I may get better results. IDK just my thinking. Excellent summary of the pilates methods Lisa. I enjoyed the it.

  5. Lisa Johnson December 18, 2012 at 3:22 pm #

    Hi Tracey, it definitely doesn’t have to be either or … both approaches offer something great and I’m sorry the equipment intimidate you! If we lived closer I totally would have had you on a reformer by now. :-) They’re actually very, very fun. The equipment can be more gentle or more strenuous than a mat class, it’s completely up to your instructor to make the adjustment you need to feel comfortable. :-)

  6. Benjamin Degenhardt Pilates December 22, 2012 at 11:33 am #

    I have to respectfully disagree. You are making statements that show a lack of knowledge of the original work and understanding Pilates in general, which is a problem I see with a lot of “modern” Pilates teachers.
    First of all, in an exercise regimen that keeps the spine moving constantly, how can there be talk of an imprint, or neutral spine for that matter? The entire method revolves around moving the spine, and in the moments it doesn’t move it gets stabilized in its most effective state of support, depending on the person. This is the rule in any true Pilates-lineage, and I studied with teachers from all of the lineages known. Also, precise orders actually existed for Mat and Reformer, and they were the same for everyone, whether you were Romana or Ron. But, that doesn’t mean you’d do the same exact session every single time. If that’s what you have seen from classical teachers, then they were simply bad teachers, period. Repetition is key to motor learning, and variety is key to strength building and transference – both are inherent in the original work.
    Historically, the programming of a session involved a portion on the Mat and Reformer (leaving out only the exercises inappropriate for your body) to warm up and assess what is needed. Then you move on to the fine-tuning apparatus like Cadillac, Chairs, and Barrels to work on specifics, i.e. strength conditioning of a certain body part or movement pattern, correcting alignment, relieving tightnesses, etc. There’s a lot of logic behind the original work, also from a standpoint of modern science. The more I learn from modern masters and exercise scientists, the more I see Joe was right on track with his work. I don’t think that everything needs to be done the way he did, of course, but it’s about time an effort is made to understand what Pilates actually is, as opposed to keep making assumptions or “improving” upon something that is not even fully understood.

  7. Lisa Johnson December 23, 2012 at 10:23 am #


    First of all, let me say that I was writing this post geared towards the average person trying to decide what type of Pilates experience to have. If I had written this for Pilates instructors I would have worded things a bit differently … but I stand by what I said. I respectfully disagree with you.

    For imprint I am referring to when clients are supine, the classical method keeps them in imprint at all times. Of course dynamic movement of the spine will happen through a range of exercises. I was taught and firmly agree with using all available options of spine position. Neutral when the client has enough strength, imprint if they don’t, dynamic range of motion where appropriate and extension needs to be part of every session (if client appropriate) because we sit hunched so much of the day I believe we all need to open up those spines when we have the chance to do so safely.

    I understand and agree with you that repetition allows the body to grow strong and comfortable but only up to a point, after that adding variety to the workout will keep the client engaged, their strength improving, etc. Do the current training schools go a little nutty with variations? Emphatically yes. Honestly I think they’re mostly just coming up with props and rather lame choreography simply to force us to fork over our continuing education credit dollars every year.

    That said I’ve hired quite a few classically trained instructors over the years and what I’ve seen among them generally is inflexibility towards their clients. The general attitude of “here’s the bar, figure out how to meet it,” is frequently taught. Exactly what you said above. How is that what’s best for the client?

    Moira Stott was originally Romana trained, after having issues from a neck injury she worked with her friend (who happened to be an excellent physical therapist) and with her chiropractor to come up with modifications so that clients could progress through the repertoire at the strength levels they were at.

    She also researched the whole neutral vs. imprint thing and decided mixing both in, where appropriate for the client, was the way to go. At the end of the day the “modern” approach was to weave in a more rehabilitative approach into the knowledge base that was already there. How is that to the detriment of the client? There are other, newer approaches, that are neutral only which I think is equally short-sighted.

    I used Moira as an example but you could pick and choose from across the spectrum of instructors and training schools out there. I’m thinking specifically of Brent Anderson and Polestar and Rael Isacowitz of BASI Pilates.

    You say teaching in blocks is wrong, however, I refer you back to the mat work. The client progresses from some ab work into some extension work into some legs, with some breaks for stretching, etc. From a clients point of view that is a “block” of exercises, a series of 4 to 10 moves and then progressing to a different body part. Are the clients using more body parts than their aware of? Absolutely! That’s part of the charm of Pilates, you’re sneaking in stuff without the client even realizing it. Again, remember I’m writing from the point of view of a prospective devotee, not an instructor.

    You mention the chair, barrels, Cadillac etc. should only be used for fine tuning after the mat/Reformer work is perfected. Why? If I have a client with a neck injury and I need to support them while their doing arm work, why wouldn’t I use the Cadillac if I had it available to me? On the Cadillac I have more control over how I can support their neck with props and I have more control over the angle of force so I can adjust to the needs of their neck (and likely their shoulders). If I have a client with a tight upper back why wouldn’t I use the gentle slope of the arc barrel where I could support their spine in extension and gently encourage them out of their hunch?

    Maybe it’s because Boston is so close to New York and the New York trained instructors were here first and likely felt “invaded” by the new training schools coming in. I can certainly understand it from their point of view … but from what I’ve experienced, the classic teachers seem to ingrain a snobbery into their trainees. That their way is the best way and everyone else is wrong. It’s a shame there is so much close-mindedness. Perhaps in other parts of the country there is more discourse. There is plenty to criticize about some aspects of “modern” Pilates but there is plenty to praise as well. I was taught to look at the client and give them what they need first … ego had nothing to do with it. I respect you Benjamin and envy your ability to travel the world and train with all the lineages (as you say) but that doesn’t mean I’m stuck in backwater Boston learning nothing … be careful how you word your responses.

    Most importantly, I’ve found that in the nearly 15 years of experience I have working with my clients, learning from how their bodies move has been the best training method possible.


  8. Benjamin Degenhardt Pilates December 23, 2012 at 7:48 pm #

    Hi Lisa – thanks for your response! This is probably a better conversation to be had in real life :) But I just wanted to let you know that I completely agree with what you said about close-mindedness between the different schools, and I wish there would be more of an open dialogue. I loved the way you described your studio to me, “The Switzerland of Pilates”, and wish the entire industry could be more integrated. However, the snobbery exists in ALL corners of the Pilates world. I agree, there is no “always imprint”, and there is no “always neutral” either. In my experience any good Pilates training school, whether classical or contemporary, teaches that. Any school that uses the word “always” misses the point of Pilates, and it’s a shame that there seem to be so many teachers that teach by the book, and not by the rules of the body. Just to be clear: I am not pro-classical or anti-modern. Like you, I believe in “what works for the client”.
    But I do feel a lot of the original intent of the work is getting lost, and there are many misunderstandings about the historical work. And that, I believe, is partly because people talk about Joe making assumptions rather than researching. Little is known for sure, but what I know for sure I will share, and that was the point I was making. I don’t disagree with your view or mean to “attack”, and apologize to you and your FB support if you took offense in my comment. Also, I repeat that I don’t think everything needs to be done Joe-fashion; but if one talks about him, they should know the facts.
    I didn’t realize this was written for non-instructors, I ended up reading it when you posted it on FB asking instructors to chime in – so I did! That said, a point I forgot to make in my initial comment: you don’t have to disagree with Joe in the last paragraph of the article! He did put you on the equipment right away, as the apparatus was actually designed to get you strong enough to do the Mat work properly – not the other way around. The Mat was home work, time at the original studio was mainly spent on the apparatus.

    Happy Holidays if I don’t hear from you!

  9. Lisa Johnson December 23, 2012 at 8:40 pm #

    I was definitely taught from some classical trainers that it was mat first then equipment, I’ve even seen websites that say that … but it makes sense to me that he would do that. I know there’s not a lot known about his opinions but to me Joe was such an innovator. What he did was just amazing and so against the thinking of the day and he didn’t care, he just did it anyway.

    He seemed to like to create things, new moves, new pieces of equipment (the chair for instance later in his career) so it just doesn’t feel right to me that he would be locked into his own system. I would think he’d keep tinkering with it and adjusting it as he learned more.

    No, no one told me that, that’s just my gut feeling … cheers and happy holidays to you too.


  10. Pilates Exercises August 10, 2013 at 12:38 pm #

    Hi your post is very informative i like it

  11. rudy gizzi December 3, 2014 at 4:28 pm #

    Saw this and realized it was posted awhile back ago. I guess i’m one of those “classical” purists. I think there is just too much assuming about what a client knows and doesn’t know or should be taught or not taught.
    One of the simplest reasons clients are taught mat first because mat work IS pilates……….apparatus were created later to provide more intense work on core development so that a client could go back and do the mat work even better than before.
    I study continuously with Jay Grimes and he said the reason Joe didn’t focus on “us” learning anatomy was because Joe knew that and it was important for us to teach.

    I’m told by Jay that most teachers talk to much………Jay emphasizes tremendously that Joe wanted us to “move” and that was more important that “I should start then with equipment or mat work, etc”. “the body knows how to eventually correct itself and that the most important thing a client can get from us is basically when that light bulb in their head goes off because they’ve discovered something on their own.

    Sad to say, Pilates has to be repetitious…….people nowadays are to antsy and want changes to quick. Learning Pilates is like learning a language, you have to constantly do the routine over and over. Jay used to say something which is funny, “it took you 45 years(or less or more)to screw up your body, it’s going to take just as long to correct it.

    Don’t worry about breaking things up so much or what is so right or wrong. Get your client to MOVE.

  12. Alison August 31, 2015 at 7:48 am #

    Hello Lisa,

    I have been doing pilates mat exercises for five years plus strength training and yoga.
    Not used a reformer but would like to move on to this piece of equipment.
    I tend to agree with Joe Pilates that good form is necessary before moving onto the reformer.
    The reason being that Joe worked on trained dancers who had been injured but would have had good form from their training. Didn’t he develop the reformer for rehabilitation? Hence, he recognised that a non injured person with no experience of form would not necessarily benefit
    in the same way on the reformer. They may have restricted joint mobility, soft tissue/muscle tension, or simply lack the neuromuscular coordination potentially leading to injury. Mat exercises are relatively safe and develop form, flexibility, muscle power etc.

  13. Lisa Johnson September 13, 2015 at 8:07 am #

    Hi Alison,

    I think you’re looking from a very short-sighted point of view you’re assuming that 1) people are too dumb to figure out how to move with proper instruction on a piece of equipment despite the injury and 2) the instructor doesn’t know when it’s best to choose a particular exercise on a particular piece of equipment and 3) I don’t train with just the reformer, but with the Cadillac as well which can be incredibly supportive for people with injuries and which I use all the time. Springs can provide resistance, but they can also provide support. An injury might be in one area of the body, but the client can be free of pain and restricted movement elsewhere. It’s short-sighted to throw out all equipment, especially when about 90% of the Pilates repertoire is on the equipment. That just doesn’t make sense. You cling to “tradition” and the “the way it was always done” or you can help your client with all the modern tools and knowledge we have now. What would you prefer I do? Frankly, Joe was such an innovator I think if he had lived to see what Pilates is now, he would have embraced and worked with the changes. I think he would have loved it.


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