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What is the Difference Between Mat Pilates and Pilates Using Equipment?

Updated: Jun 9, 2020

By: Dr. Bill Gabriel, PT, DPT, OCS


Pilates WAS a person. Joseph Pilates to be exact. And the system of exercise that bears his name, was created by him. The basic difference between Mat Pilates and Equipment Pilates is simple. ’Mat Pilates’ is Joseph Pilates’ system of exercise, expressed as apparatus-free movements, or calisthenics. ‘Equipment Pilates’ is that same system, expressed with apparatus-supported movements. With ‘apparatus-supported’ meaning, in the presence of equipment large enough and sufficiently appointed to alter exercise leverage and loading significantly.

An even easier way to look at the latter is through the following analogy: if Mat exercises are like running, Equipment exercises are like using an Elliptical trainer. Each builds the same essential movement patterns, but one is independent, and the other is assisted. This analogy was especially true when Joseph Pilates first offered his system to the public. At that time, he was dealing with ill patients in a hospital setting. For these people, an exercise involving independent bodily support was not realistic. As such, Equipment exercises were started as the bridge to accessing self-supported exercise. That said, Equipment exercise has become more autonomous in the modern era. In many cases, analogous Mat and Equipment movements are now more challenging to execute on the Equipment than the Mat.

On a deeper level, Mat and Equipment Pilates are defined by Joseph Pilates’ development as a child and geopolitical circumstances he lived in as an adult. First of all, Pilates suffered from Asthma, Rickets, and Rheumatic Fever as a child. Because of this, his journey to physical mastery involved moving from a place of physical disability to one of physical fitness. In starting from ‘less than normal’, Pilates was given a deep experience of how small movements are assembled into complex ones. This made him uniquely equipped to imagine incremental exercise-solutions to complex movement problems.

That skillset, combined with the outbreak of WWI, gave birth to the first Pilates Equipment. As a German national living in England, WWI forced Joseph Pilates into an internment camp. This is where he did the work with the hospitalized clients I alluded to previously. Their infirmity inspired him to fashion machines out of the materials around him. Initial designs centered around a bedframe’s support and incorporated various spring attachments and levers. The well-known Reformer and Cadillac machines came directly from this concept.

When he immigrated to the United States, life in New York city further differentiated Mat and Equipment exercise. Pilates’ primary clientele became theatrical and Ballet dancers. Because their activity is done with the hips in external rotation, much Equipment exercise is done in external rotation to this day. Mat exercise, however, is not, probably because it was the more established, ‘orthodox’ practice of Pilates prior to landing in NYC.

Later equipment such as the Wunda Chair, and Armchair, erred toward a ‘less is more’ approach. Their size was influenced by the circumstance in New York city. Here real estate came at a premium, so the less space equipment consumed affected its marketability. These pieces offered a smaller surface area and more succinct rigging.

Today Pilates is practiced on the Mat and on approximately 8 different machines —the Reformer, Cadillac, Wunda Chair, Arm Chair, Ladder Barrel, Spine Corrector, Step Barrel, Avalon Chair. This would seem to present a bewildering number of options were it not for the order imposed by the Pilates Method. This system organizes all the exercises into categories of movement. Every exercise in a given category has common traits, while at the same time filling a unique step along the continuum to mastery. Joseph Pilates designed the exercise such that upon completion of the highest level within a category one has achieved mastery of that category’s movement challenge. In Pilates, mastery of all the movement challenges results in competence and well-being in all of life’s activities of daily living. Mat exercises and Equipment exercises both progress clients toward this end-point, but Mat exercises more often occupy the last, most difficult step.

References: > >Body Arts and Sciences Manual on Pilates Exercise Blocks >“Pilates’ Return to Life Through Contrology Published in 1945 as: Return to Life Through Contrology by Joseph H. Pilates and William John Miller” Apple Books. id461265577

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