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Download the Pilates Article PDFIs Your Pilates Instructor a Health Hazard?
By Sally Beatty as published in Wall Street Journal, 2005

Popular Exercise Method Lacks Trained Teachers; The Risks of the ‘Swan Dive’

Pilates, the popular form of resistance training, is facing a problem: The number of people singing up for classes is outstripping the pool of people qualified to teach them. Because a number of Pilates exercises engage the neck and spine, the quality of the instruction is more critical than with many other forms of exercise.

While some Pilates instructor-accreditation organizations require months of training, other hand out licenses in as short as a weekend. Pilates isn't the only fitness business wrestling with whether standards are too lax. Personal trainers and yoga instructors have also been the subject of complaints by clients who have sustained injuries. (For a look at the pros and cons of some popular fitness routines, see page D4.)

Aging fitness enthusiasts - from professional golfers to suburban housewives - have embraced Pilates, a form of resistance training that strengthens muscles and reduces tightness through precise, demanding exercises and movements performed on mats and elaborate pieces of equipment.

Fueled in part by a reputation for easing lower back pain, Pilates has become one of the fastest growing fitness activities in the country, especially among again Baby Boomers worn out by years of running and tennis. Some 9.5 million people participated in Pilates in 2003, the latest year for which figures are available, up from 2.4 million in 2001, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

But a growing chorus of Pilates instructors and gym owners say the industry is growing in some unsafe directions. Kevin Bowen, chief executive officer of the Pilates Method Alliance, a nonprofit group of instructors, equipment makers and studios, argues that only about one-quarter to one-third of the Pilates instructors have been properly trained. Lindsay Merrithew, president of STOTT PILATES, a big maker of Pilates equipment, which also runs a teaching training program, claims the figure may be even lower.

Some so-called classical Pilates moves, such as the “rollover,” can cause neck injuries when done incorrectly, says Michele R. Scharff-Olson, a physiologist and director of research in the human-performance laboratory of Auburn University in Montgomery, Ala. Other classic Pilates moves can strain the back. The “swan dive,” for example, involves arching the body in to a bow and rocking on your belly with your arms and legs outstretched about six inches off the floor.

“there are some technique issues that can get you into trouble,” says William O. Roberts, president of the American College of Sports Medicine.

Proponents of classic Pilates who believe that the fitness discipline is falling prey to marketing gimmicks also point to some newfangled classes. To burn more calories, for example, some gyms promote “cardio” Pilates, which calls for performing certain moves very quickly multiple times. But Pilates, as developed between 1912 and 1926 by German boxer and gymnast Joseph Pilates, involves a series of controlled movements executed slowly with very few repetitions.

Another more recent invention is “aqua” Pilates, which makes moves easier to execute. But doing Pilates in a pool violates the basic principal of the discipline: using gravity to work muscles.

Meanwhile, Pilates videotapes have become a big hit. “There are a lot of subtleties involved in Pilates, such as maintaining control and alignment of your body,” says Ken Endelman, president and chief executive of Balanced Body Inc., a Pilates equipment maker in Sacramento, Calif. “It’s hard to look at a TV while you are doing Pilates exercises.”

As Pilates has taken off, the ranks of instructors have swelled - to more than 15,000 from around 200 in 1991, according to the PMA.

The PMA recommends that Pilates instructors be trained to teach exercises on both a mat and equipment, and log more than 450 hours of training. Power Pilates in New York, which includes a network of Pilates studios and a large teacher-training program, offers certification that costs $3,750 and requires about 600 hours of training. It also offers beginner mat certification courses for $450, involving 16 hours of training, plus attendance at 10 to 15 Pilates mat classes.

Other training programs often have far less stringent requirements. SCW Fitness Education Inc. in Evanston, Ill., offer one- and two-day, 14-hour certification for personal trainers or group fitness instructors for $299. Prospective teachers must pass a written exam and demonstrate that they cant each the exercises safely. Of the more than 10,000 certifications SCW issued last year, about 2,000 were for Pilates Instructors, it says.

The PMA is working with the National Organization for Competency Assurance, which accredits people in fields ranging from acupuncture to financial planning, to design the first national accreditation test for Pilates instructors administered by a third party. The test will be rolled out in May, he PMA says.

Both SCW and the National Exercise Trainers Association defend their approach, saying more-rigorous programs are too costly and time-consuming for many trainers. “it might not be a pure, unadulterated program,” says Sara Kooperman, chief executive of SCW, but “we need to draw more people into the feel.”

This debate comes as the Pilates industry is growing robustly, even outside the US, from South Korea to Spain. Pilates has also become a potent marketing tool, used to sell everything from vitamins to clothes. Puma recently introduced a Pilates shoe (although most purists prefer bare feet or, for hygiene reasons, socks).

Once confined to a small clutch of specialized studios, Pilates classes have since spilled into suburban gyms and fitness centers across the country. Last year, 63% of gyms offer Pilates classes, up from 19% in 1999, according to Kathie Davis, executive director of the IDEA Health & Fitness Association, a for-profit group for fitness professionals based in San Diego, Calif.

The market for commercial Pilates equipment has more than quadrupled since 1999, hitting an estimated $28 to $30 million in 2004 from around $6.5 million in 1999, according to Balanced Body, a leading Pilates-equipment maker.

Unlike weight machines, which focus movement on one or two muscle groups, Pilates involves different parts of the body all moving at once. Exercises performed on Pilates equipment can also be daunting. More than 75 different exercises, for example, can be done on the Pilates “reformer,” a sliding table with pulleys that attach to the arms and legs.

Some seasoned Pilates teachers say novices should begin by using Pilates equipment, rather than mat exercises. And they say it is better to learn Pilates one-on-one or in small groups. To broaden Pilates appeal, though, many gyms emphasize large group instruction done on mats. “The apparatus can be intimidating,” says Cheryl Mueller Jones, vice president of programs and services at Town Sports International, which operates the New York Sports Clubs.