Feature Article - March 2004
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Innovative Exercising

What’s hot and what’s not in the health-club industry

By Kyle Ryan

Pilates & core training: the dangers of popularity

Even having "certified" instructors, though, may not be enough when it comes to what's popular, especially with Pilates and core training. Pilates, when practiced on its specialized machines, requires one-on-one supervision from a trained instructor, as using the machines incorrectly can be dangerous. With mat Pilates, the potential for danger decreases, but people can still hurt themselves.

Until 2000, the Pilates Method was a protected trademark, which helped keep instruction more regimented.

"As soon as that trademark got lifted, it got watered down to the point where anyone can get a one-day seminar and become a Pilates teacher," Holland says.

As clubs rush to offer Pilates, they might not train instructors properly.

"There are many individuals who are offering and teaching these types of classes and activities that may not have the proper training and background to do so safely," Bryant says. "The problem isn't with the disciplines of yoga and Pilates. It's who you get as an instructor."

To discourage that, Bryant recommends visiting the Web site of the Pilates Method Alliance, a nonprofit group that offers instructor guidelines (www.pilatesmethodalliance.org). In addition to adequate training, Bryant suggests that instructors know the fitness and injury history of each participant in a class.

Core training, that is, the strengthening of the body's "core" muscles (abdominals, lower back), has also become increasingly popular over the past few years. While Pilates works the core muscles as well, separate core training involves stability boards, specialized inflatable gym balls and other balancing equipment. Core training has become especially relevant for our increasingly sedentary society, which needs help with abdominal and back muscles that become weakened from sitting for long periods of time.

"It's one of those things where the concept is good, but the way it's employed is problematic," Bryant says. "There's a tendency for people to take things to an extreme and not employ the principles of progression. They'll have trainees trying advanced moves."

That, of course, can lead to injury. A previously sedentary person shouldn't just jump into core training or Pilates, according to Holland.

"Don't get me wrong," he says. "All of these disciplines, whether they be core training or Pilates, they're tremendously important. But in a society where we need to walk before we run, I think things like these are implemented too early."

The next big thing(s)

Just as there are Pilates studios, places where the sole focus is the Pilates method, other types of clubs are becoming focused on a certain niche. That trend is perhaps best exemplified by what is now the world's largest fitness franchise: Curves. The women-only health clubs cater to a previously inactive, often overweight women who are just starting to exercise.

You won't find any of the frills of Crunch or Life Time Fitness at Curves. The clubs have only one workout: 30 minutes of circuit training. Women exercise on a set of machines and do basic cardio exercises (running in place, jumping jacks) in between to keep their heart rates up. A prerecorded message tells them when to move to the next station. There may not be any showers, massages or juice bars, but there's nothing to intimidate, either—a critical aspect to getting sedentary women active.

Curves' simple, effective and schedule-friendly workout has been replicated at other health clubs. In January, health-club chain 24 Hour Fitness introduced the "Xpress Zone," a 30-minute circuit program similar to one used at Curves. Participants move from station to station in predetermined order and finish with a simple cardio workout (riding a stationary bike, running on a treadmill or using a stair-climber). As participants' fitness levels improve, they can make their workouts more intense or move on to other equipment at the club.

Such circuit training provides exercise for the entire body, but more and more people want workouts that address specific parts of the body. For example, the "Pain in the Butt Workout" at Bally Total Fitness is a 30-minute group-exercise class that focuses on working your rear. Bally isn't alone; classes focusing on buttocks, abdominals, legs and thighs are springing up everywhere.

People concerned with their behinds might also want to check out Ramping, introduced last year by Gin Miller, inventor of step aerobics. Nicknamed "Cardio for the Butt" by Miller, the workout uses an inclined, semicircular 22-inch by 42-inch ramp. This ramp is color-coded in three sections so that exercisers easily can follow instructors without needing to look at them constantly.

Ramping essentially involves rocking on and off the incline—not stepping on platform like in step aerobics—so it's low-impact and easier for overweight people to try. Miller also uses this ramp for push-ups and lunge-type exercises.