The star at many clubs these days — next to personal training — is Pilates. But is Pilates' future bright enough and lasting enough for club owners to dedicate valuable real estate to a dedicated Pilates studio? Pilates enthusiasts say yes.

Pilates isn't a trend that will soon fade, says Elizabeth Larkam, director of the Pilates and Beyond program at Western Athletic Clubs. Having watched Pilates evolve since 1985, she has seen its influence in dance, exercise, sport sciences and physical therapy.

“It's my impression that Pilates will continue to evolve and serve different population niches so that some aspects of Pilates will continue to make significant contributions to fitness centers even though five years from now the types of Pilates programs in vogue may be different from what we see now,” says Larkam. The Pilates programs prevalent in fitness centers are much different from the form taught by originator Joseph Pilates.

The Pilates field attracts individuals with a good skill set and often a skill set outside of Pilates, such as physical therapists, trainers, massage therapists, chiropractors, says Larkam. Because of that, those practitioners can weave Pilates methods into their fields of expertise.

Part of Pilates popularity stems from its compatibility with the needs of the aging population. Its movements can be modified to create programs that are optimal for each individual, so that a person with decreased range of motion can continue exercising, Larkam says.

Several clubs, including Western Athletic Clubs, have watched the popularity of their mat classes grow into dedicated Pilates studios. Long before many clubs had begun implementing any Pilates program, Flatiron Club in Boulder, CO, converted a racquetball court into a Pilates studio.

Ten years ago, the club started with five Reformers. They introduced members into the program with introductory sessions and required that members take four private individual lessons before they could participate in the group program.

The club now has seven Reformers and seven wall units. Members still must complete at least four private sessions before joining group classes. The group studio classes are paid for using a punch card. Members and non-members can purchase a punch card with members paying a lower rate. The more punches an individual pays for on a card, the cheaper per class rate he or she receives.

Mat classes are held in a mixed-use space. The club converted two other racquetball courts into a big studio for yoga, NIA and Pilates classes.

Attendance at mat classes is steady, but demand for the apparatus class is better, says Michelle Perkins, director of Pilates program, Flatiron Club, Boulder, CO. Because the studio can hold up to seven individuals, there is a waiting list.

Larkam has seen the same increased interest in group apparatus classes at the San Francisco Bay Club and the other Western Athletic Clubs since the company began developing dedicated Pilates studios in its clubs three years ago. In the beginning, the company invested in five to 10 Allegro Reformers per club. When not in use, the Reformers were stacked on a wall, which made it possible to offer a Reformer class without having a dedicated Pilates studio.

However, the popularity of the program justified the building of a dedicated Pilates studio, says Larkam. Now, every Western Athletic Club facility has or is in the process of building a dedicated Pilates studio. The mat classes are held in mind/body studios that also host yoga other mind/body classes.

“Had we left it in a common area, it would have been just another program,” says Nestor Fernandez, regional manager of San Francisco Bay Club. “The fact that we've moved it has helped us grow and has made the program that much stronger.”

While a club can do well with a mat class, by not having a studio with the accompanying equipment, the club may be limiting its members.

“The mat classes without apparatus are comprised of limited services because mat exercises are, in some respects, the most difficult from which to benefit because there is no equipment to assist you to get into a position or hold a position,” says Larkam. For that reason, older adults involved in a post-rehab program who have more difficulty getting on to the floor or up from the floor may not be comfortable in a Pilates mat class. In addition, deconditioned individuals may not see the benefits from a mat class as quickly as they might from a studio class. That lack of positive reinforcement could cause deconditioned members to drop the mat classes.

In addition, the service of a Pilates studio has a great value, says Norris Tomlinson of Bally's Total Fitness. Bally's started its Pilates program in late 1999 to offer members classes that up to that point they only found in private studios at higher prices. Most of the Pilates studios at Bally's clubs are in a dedicated studio although in some instances they share the space with cycling or small group yoga or tai chi.

Of Bally's 420 clubs, 70 offer group Pilates, averaging about five to six instructors per club. Of the Bally's clubs, 150 clubs offer one-on-one Pilates. Personal trainers do most of the instruction at those facilities, Tomlinson says.

IN SEARCH OF EVERY INCH

Space constraints prevent some clubs from putting in a Pilates studio. Some of the Bally's Pilates studios include seven Allegros in 1,000 square feet, which Tomlinson says is enough space to move around and be comfortable.

New Bally's clubs are built with mind/body space to house Pilates Allegro machines and conduct Pilates classes. The company is seeking space to retrofit for Pilates space in its older clubs. Often, that space comes from underused areas of strength training, cycling or office space.

The challenge at the Western Athletic Club facilities has been to create the appropriate spaces for the programs.

“In each of our clubs, it's taken a coordinated effort between the management team — director of fitness, manager and the lead Pilates instructor — to identify what areas of the clubs could be used for the Pilates programs and what kind of build out, if any, is necessary to make the space optimal,” Larkam says.

Now that a number of the clubs have remodeled areas successfully, the company has a checklist to follow to ensure that the potential areas will satisfy the needs of a Pilates studio. The spaces need indirect lighting sources, preferably wall sconces and floor lamps to be less harsh on members' eyes when lying on their backs. The space must also have independent temperature control, Larkam says.

Club owners who can't afford to put in a studio can improve their Pilates mat offerings by incorporating a foam roller, Pilates resistance ring, rotator disks or core board into their mat classes.

“That apparatus within the context of a mat-based class can make the principals immediately accessible to a wider range of members,” says Larkam.

Tied into the square footage issue is cost. Starting up a Pilates studio can be expensive, particularly if a space must be restructured or added on. It also can be expensive because good equipment is expensive, and a club should invest in good equipment for safety purposes and because of the high usage, says Perkins.

“If you don't get good, solid equipment, then it is going to break down on you,” says Perkins. “The equipment that we bought 10 years ago is still going.”

Another issue is compensation for instructors. That was an area of concern for Larkam when starting up the Western Athletic Club program. She wanted to ensure that the Pilates studio and the personal trainer services did not compete in salary or members' time. For that reason, members pay the same rate per hour for a Pilates studio class as they do for a personal training session. The compensation rates are comparable for the personal trainers and the Pilates instructors.

That compensation package seems fair considering that in the three years since the Pilates studios took shape in the San Francisco Bay club, one of the Western Athletic Clubs, it brings in 18 percent of the revenue that the personal training program brings in.

“And our personal training department does some huge numbers,” says Fernandez.

Studio fees vary depending on geographic location and the expertise of the instructor but can range from $10 to $25 per class. Bally's charges $249 for 12 sessions of the studio classes, which averages about $20 per class.

In 2001 and 2002, Pilates brought in about $6 million (per year or two years combined) for Bally.

“It's more than paid for itself,” says Tomlinson.

The Pilates studio is an important part of the club for reasons beyond its financial numbers.

Fernandez credits the Pilates/yoga/mind body activities for repositioning the Bay Club. Because the club offers Pilates in a studio setting while other clubs in the area often do not, it sets the club apart, he says.

The Pilates program not only is a factor in attracting members, but it's also a member retention tool, says Larkam. Members with injuries that preclude them from participating in their regular tennis or squash games may elect to shift their exercise to a less weight bearing class, such as Pilates where they can work around their injuries. In the past, those members who may have refrained from exercise during recovery, may never return.

For Bally the Pilates classes have educated its membership base, causing yoga attendance and attendance at other mind/body classes to increase. The Flatirons Club has seen its other mind/body attendance numbers increase, too, says Perkins.

Beyond that, Perkins has found that the Pilates program is a way to get individuals to join the club. Non-members who take the Pilates program (about 20 percent of those participating in the Pilates program at Flatirons Club are non members) often convert to club members.

INSTRUCTORS WANTED

Much of the success of a Pilates program — mat or studio — stems from the Pilates instructors a club has on board.

“The instructors make or break the program,” Fernandez says.

A shortage of certified instructors prevents some clubs from dedicating a space for the program. Tomlinson doesn't see the shortage of certified instructors letting up because it requires an investment to be properly trained.

During the first year of developing the Pilates program at Western Athletic Clubs, Larkam found her focus to be on developing a team of instructors.

“It is a significant challenge in developing a truly excellent program to attract, develop and keep excellent instructors,” Larkam says.

Just because a group exercise instructor took a weekend Pilates course doesn't mean that instructor is qualified to teach a Pilates class. Plenty of Pilates instructor education programs exist, particularly since the lawsuit was settled over the Pilates trademark three years ago. However, the outcome of that lawsuit also caused a large number of weekend Pilates workshops to pop up, says Perkins.

“It gives the club owners no basis for determining who is a qualified instructor,” says Perkins. “If you have an instructor who is not teaching good integrity Pilates, your members aren't going to get the benefits and could get injured. It's an issue of liability.”

Perkins receives resumes from instructors looking to teach Pilates at her club. Many of them have taken a weekend training session. However, she says the club's members could probably teach the classes better than the applicants. When Perkins looks at a resume, she wants to know where the instructor received his or her training and certification. The certification should have required at least 800 hours of training on all the equipment, a requirement that takes about a year to complete, she says.

The shortage stems from the fact that although the Pilates method has been around for decades, the Pilates movement is still relatively young.

“So, for a general manager or club owner who is interested in starting a Pilates program, the challenge of finding a seasoned Pilates instructor who had a knowledge base that will present itself on a daily basis will take some searching and interviewing,” says Larkam.

Recently trained and certified Pilates instructors need places to gain experience, but club owners don't want them gaining that experience at the expense of their members. A Pilates instructor who came from a personal training background would have a better understanding of biomechanics than someone who was a secretary prior to training. In addition, an individual with a degree in kinesiology, sports medicine or biomechanics or training as a dancer or yoga instructor might be a better possibility than a former auto mechanic.

At the start of Flatiron Club's studio, Perkins and another certified instructor, Deidre Szarabajka-McElveen (the Pilates program director at the time), were the only two instructors.

“When we started 10 years ago, we were two of four certified instructors in our area,” says Perkins. To expand with the demand for classes, the two trained their own instructors and now have seven certified instructors and one apprentice.

Many of the instructors Perkins employs came from the club's members. Most had been taking Pilates for at least three years. Each instructor-in-training must team teach with the certified instructor for 50 hours. Then, he or she must perform assisted private lessons before teaching solo. All the instructors at Flatirons Club must become certified.

“The problem is to do a good certification program, you have to travel (to the training classes),” says Perkins. “It is a year commitment to train and travel.”

ADVICE

Despite any difficulties in getting a Pilates studio started, clubs with a vibrant personal training business and/or a vibrant yoga and mind/body business may want to consider investing in a Pilates studio. An industry consultant can let a club owner know if a Pilates studio would be a good addition for that club.

The best bet is to develop a plan of progression, says Tomlinson, perhaps starting with carving space for mat classes and then progressing to a space for a studio with Allegro Reformers.

“The best thing to do, especially if it is new, is to develop a pool of people you can pull from,” says Tomlinson. “If you start with a Pilates mat program, you have a pool of people who will move with you to the Allegro program.”

From there, it's a good bet the dedicated Pilates member will follow a Pilates program and studio to its next incarnation, whatever that someday will be.

HARD LUCK

In the Northeast, one might expect every Pilates program to be a success, but whether it was because the timing was off or because the location was off, the Romas, owners of WOW! Work Out World headquartered in Brick, N.J., have given up on the idea of a Pilates studio — at least for now.

WOW! started with Pilates mat classes. Attendance numbers grew. Some mat class participants were attending private Pilates studios for Allegro classes. Stephen S. Roma, chief operating WOW!zer at WOW!, saw that the private Pilates studios were doing well. Some of the mat class instructors expressed interest in becoming full-blown Reformer and Cadillac class instructors. So, the club took the next logical step by putting Reformers in the group fitness studios at three clubs, at one point building three dedicated Pilates studios with Reformers for private classes. But, the company has since closed the studios, converted the space and sold the Reformers. So, what went wrong?

A lot of it may have to do with timing — they tried this three years ago — but Roma also points to a lack of certified instructors in the Brick, N.J. area and the lengthy training required for a Pilates instructor to get certified.

“It was difficult to find instructors who were certified in our setting,” Roma says. “We asked ourselves, how do we get people who want to be a part of what we do on a larger scale and also teach Pilates?”

The club began sending its instructors and personal trainers to Pilates training, paying for the classes. Roma had hoped to take a group of three to four instructors and develop a curriculum where the club could certify its own instructors.

“That was our master plan to get enough people on our staff that we could be in control,” he says.

What Roma found was that while the instructors and personal trainers were interested in learning about Pilates, they weren't interested enough.

“Pilates was a unique entity,” he says. “Our personal trainers were feeling they had to commit so much time and energy and buy into this philosophy so deeply that they either had to do Pilates or personal training. They were doing personal training already.”

After that, the decision was easy. Roma looked at WOW!'s area of expertise and decided that the Reformer classes were a bit outside of that, so the clubs now just offer mat classes and Body Flow classes.

“It's a beast to dance with,” Roma says of Pilates studio classes. “Two things needed to be inline. You need to have a metropolitan area where you can pull from a large group of instructors…and you need to take control and certify your own instructors.”

Still, this experience doesn't mean Roma would never try a Pilates studio again. He says he believes in Pilates and members enjoy the mat classes. All he needs is someone to deliver to him a fool-proof program that would supply the clubs with the necessary education for its instructors in a packaged program that could move them up gradually until they are able to teach larger groups and wider ranges of movements.

Then, he might be willing to take that office-space-turned-Pilates-studio-turned-office-space back into a Pilates studio.

PILATES STUDIO EQUIPMENT

Elizabeth Larkam, director of Pilates and Beyond at the Western Athletic Clubs, suggests that a Pilates studio should have at the minimum the following equipment. However, she stresses that a club can add these pieces gradually. The equipment is listed in order of which should be implemented first in a studio.

  • Reformer — get one with 12-inch legs if the program will be an individual booking with a personal trainer. Otherwise, get a high-quality one with the ability to adjust to various body sizes.
  • Pilates chair with a split step — this is the best complement to the Reformer.
  • Trapeze table — a full-size unit, which allows more movements, or a wall unit, which allows fewer movements but requires less space.