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Pilates strength and flexibility training has been around for many years, but appears to be enjoying its golden period right now. Veteran Pilates schools are being joined by dozens of new private institutions. Pilates classes are readily available in gyms that quickly geared up to meet the demand. Make no mistake, the terms that accompany Pilates training may sound New Age, but Pilates is not new at all.

What is the reason for the enormous popularity of Pilates? Fitness professionals say that neon lights, an aggressive mall-like atmosphere, and aerobic training scare many would-be exercisers away from gyms. Pilates classes, on the other hand, provide a fitness alternative in a relaxed environment that combines meditative breathing and, sometimes, pleasant music.

The training method was developed 70 years ago by Joseph Pilates, when he was searching for a quick way to rehabilitate injured dancers. He combined ancient Greek and Roman fitness methods with elements from dance and swimming to create a unique system that repairs weaknesses and restores balance.

The combination of emotional and physical harmony with an emphasis on breathing is reminiscent of another ancient technique - yoga. However, experts claim that these techniques are essentially different - not only because in yoga, as opposed to Pilates, one holds a given position for a length of time.

Orly Oren, director of the school for Pilates trainers at the Dror Raz Israel Pilates Center, also notes the marked differences between Pilates and regular fitness training at a gym. Oren explains that Pilates works on the small, stabilizing muscles that hold a joint in place over time, while exercise in the gym focuses on development of the large muscles required for movement. Training of these large muscles provides a pumped-up, muscular appearance.

Fitness at any age

Pilates is a training method that suits any age, gender or level of fitness. An equal number of men and women train at the Dror Raz Center, for example. However, women at the center train an average of four sessions per week, while men typically train once or twice each week.

Pilates is often divided into two types of training - floor work, called "Matwork" in Pilates, and work with equipment. The first form resembles other types of fitness classes that focus on stability and stretching without the use of expensive equipment. Fitness experts claim that the relatively minimal cost of floor work classes causes many venues to offer unprofessional training with insufficiently prepared trainers. Several experts claimed, off the record, that Pilates Matwork with no use of equipment is not really Pilates.

Yet Dalia Shemesh, a graduate of the Stott Pilates School in London, disagrees. She claims that improved health is achieved more quickly and lasts longer after Pilates Matwork. "The instruments are technical tools to pull the body into activity while, in Matwork, you learn what is right for you from your body," she says.

This is why Shemesh recommends a full year of Pilates Matwork before adding equipment to the training regimen.

But the consensus among the majority of Pilates trainers is that special Pilates equipment like the Cadillac, the Reformer, the Armchair, the Wunda Chair and others are vital for strengthening various parts of the body even in the earliest days of training. The equipment is based on spring resistance at different weight levels. Exercises are performed while lying or sitting on the equipment. The support provided by the equipment helps to prevent pain caused by the stretching of muscles. Experts note that it is important that trainers tailor the strength of the spring resistance and the exercises to the needs of the individual participant.

Now that every toning class is called a "Pilates lesson" and every gym portends to offer such a class, it is important to create some order in the field. Dalia Mantver, who many consider to be a fitness pioneer in Israel, is adamant. "Everyone wants to copy the success," she says. "But every toning class is not Pilates."

For example, she describes the "Power Pilates" classes offered in many gyms. These classes make use of the name, she claims, but bear no resemblance to Pilates. "There are many good training methods, but someone who claims to do Pilates should be sure that is what they are doing."

In addition to the false use of the term, senior fitness experts are up in arms over charlatans who claim to train Pilates teachers, and unprofessional gyms that allow an inordinate number of participants into a class.

Most real Pilates teachers in Israel have a background in physiotherapy or an academic education at the Wingate Institute. In addition, they require specific training in the technique. Such training in Israel is available at the Dror Raz Center and at Dalia Mantver's school. Teacher training at Mantver's school, for example, includes theoretical and practical classes with an obligatory internship and exams at the end of the 10-month course. Recognized schools abroad include those established by the method's founder, Joseph Pilates, in New York and in Canada.

Acceptable training for Pilates Matwork trainers according to the PMA, the central American organization in the field, requires at least 140 hours of education. Pilates equipment trainers must attend 420 hours of class to fulfill these requirements. Problems in the field caused by inadequately prepared trainers arise from the popularity of the method and the profitable opportunities it provides. There is almost no need to repeat that teachers who did not receive specific training in the method may, at best, lead a class in a mode of exercise that is not Pilates. In worse cases, they may cause physical damage to class members.

Another important consideration is the number of participants in a class. The importance of having an experienced trainer who matches the exercises to the needs of individual participants has already been emphasized. But even the most experienced trainer will have trouble doing so in an unreasonably crowded class. Therefore, it is important to limit class size to no more than five participants per trainer.

How much does it cost?

The choice of a location in which to exercise first requires an investigation of the level of training of the teachers. It is recommended that one not rely merely on the word of the management of a facility. Ask to see certification documents. Other questions should provide information about the number of participants in a class, and the variety of equipment available. After this simple investigation, one should tour the facility and get a feeling for the general atmosphere. An atmosphere that is appropriate to the personality of the participant encourages consistent training. Many facilities offer a free trial class where one can get a real impression of the site and the trainers.

The following is some information regarding Pilates training throughout Israel:

The Dror Raz Israel Pilates Center chain: Equipment and Matwork. There are 10-25 work stations (equipment) depending on the size of the branch. A Matwork class includes up to eight students. The number of students in an equipment class - up to three for beginners, up to five for intermediate and advanced students. The teachers are all graduates of a course in Pilates Matwork and equipment that includes at least 420 hours of study, and have all passed an exam and an internship. They have at least four years of experience in the field, and professional experience as physiotherapists or movement instructors.

Price: Matwork - NIS 35 per class, equipment - NIS 50-57, private lessons - NIS 165-195. There are seven branches in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Ramat Hasharon and Hod Hasharon.

Dalia Mantver Pilates Institute chain: Equipment Pilates according to the Dalia Mantver system, personal lessons in a group setting; 14 work stations; 12-14 students per group with two trainers. Instructors have a background in physical education and are trained in the Alexander Method, Feldenkraiz, yoga or dance. Most of the trainers have been working for the chain for more than seven years.

Price: NIS 60 per hour of training. Happy Hour for NIS 50. A quick toning program costs NIS 55 per hour - four sessions a week. Eight branches in Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan, Yehud, Ya'arot Hacarmel, Gan Shmuel and Jerusalem.

Roni Peri Pilates Studio: Matwork and equipment. Four work stations. Up to seven students per group. The studio has been operating for 18 years. The sole instructor and owner is a Wingate graduate, a toning, fitness, and stability expert with special experience treating back, neck and joint pain. Price for a ticket card for 10 sessions - NIS 600. One branch in Tel Aviv.

D_A: Matwork and equipment. Eight work stations. Up to eight students per group with two trainers. The instructors are graduates of the Dalia Mantver and Dror Raz schools. They receive further instruction on site from excellent trainers.

Price: Between NIS 48-62 per lesson depending on the number of lessons in a program. Happy Hour at NIS 390 for eight lessons. The studio is in Ramat Gan.

Studio Sigal: Matwork with giant balls. One work station. Between 2-9 students per group. The owner and sole instructor is a Wingate graduate and a graduate of the Joseph Pilates schools in New York and Canada.

Price: NIS 190 per month, two sessions per week. The studio is located in Haifa.