Pilates equipment manufacturers try to improve on the concept without completely breaking with tradition.

Joseph Pilates, the man who developed a primitive yet precise method of exercise in the early 1900s that would eventually change the way human beings stretch their bodies and their minds, considered at least one of his original pieces of equipment to be an "idiotic invention." At least so says Ken Endelman, founder and president of Balanced Body, one of the Pilates industry's three major manufacturers.

After all, Endelman reasons, the apparatus known as the Reformer -- a bed-like contraption that allows users to exercise horizontally, aligning the body and relieving joint stress -- was initially built four feet off the ground with resistance provided by a weight stack instead of springs, which limited the very movements Pilates exercises were designed to encourage. Early versions of the Reformer worked legs and abdominals but very few upper-body components, and there was little room for body-size adjustments.

Today's Reformers have undergone some improvements. Springs replaced weight stacks, for example. But for the most part - and certainly more so than practically any other modern piece of cardio or strength equipment -- Reformers actually look quite similar to their early counterparts, lending enduring credibility to Joseph Pilates' concept of physical and mental conditioning. "I don't think there is a completely new piece of Pilates equipment," says Julie Lobdell, president and CEO of manufacturer Peak Pilates. "It's all reinventions of the original design."

By all accounts, Pilates (who died in 1967 at the age of 87) was a very serious man. Born in Germany in 1880, he suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever that weakened his muscles. Determined to overcome his frailties, Pilates studied yoga, martial arts, Zen meditation, and Greek and Roman exercises, and he eventually became a boxer and a gymnast. At the outbreak of World War I, Pilates was living in England when he was captured and placed under internment with other German nationals. While in captivity, he used mats to teach fellow camp members the exercises he had developed after 20 years of self-study. Originally called "contrology," this practice eventually assumed the name of the man who invented it. Joseph Pilates' experiences led him to the United States in 1923, where he began to further develop new equipment and teach his methods, primarily in New York City.

Pilates equipment continued to evolve, especially between 1923 and 1950, but it wasn't until the 1990s that the method began attracting serious interest outside the world of dance. Predictably, litigation ensued, culminating with U.S. District Court Judge Miriam Cedarbaum's 2000 ruling that the term "Pilates" could not be trademarked. Hence, the Pilates method became a generic term, just like yoga and karate. The court's 93-page opinion invalidated trademarks for Pilates exercise equipment and services filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office by Sean Gallagher, owner of The Pilates Studio in Manhattan. An aggressive campaign by Gallagher had previously blocked many clubs from using the term, but the court ruled that trademarks could not protect exercise methods.

Gallagher later made a similar failed attempt to trademark the phrase "Pilates studio" -- a move the Pilates Method Alliance, a Miami-based nonprofit organization founded in 2000 to promote Pilates and certification guidelines, viewed as being akin to trademarking the phrase "weight room." It's fair to say that the modern Pilates era essentially began with Cedarbaum's ruling five years ago.

Facility operators' newfound freedom led to a slew of teacher-certification courses. Most early courses required several hundred hours of study (up to 950) in what Endelman refers to as a "classical apprenticeship system." But with more health clubs and other facilities looking for certified instructors, manufacturers and other businesses developed considerably shorter classes. Equipment manufacturer Stott Pilates, for example, promotes Stott Education (which includes programs that allow on-site training at any given facility), while Balanced Body teams with instruction certification provider Polestar Education. Among the other training programs available are ones offered by The Physicalmind Institute, The Pilates Coach and PowerHouse Pilates. Each program is administered a little differently, and all claim to offer the best training -- leaving facility operators who hire Pilates instructors both confused and leery. Add to that mix Internet courses that require only six hours of study, and the confusion escalates.

In May, the PMA -- which estimates that only about one-quarter of the 13,000 or so Pilates instructors in the United States are properly trained -- launched the first national Pilates certification exam that measures a Pilates instructor's competency. Instructors carrying the PMA's Pilates Certified Mark must have completed at least 200 hours of lecture, self-study, apprenticeship and assistant teaching hours prior to taking the PMA exam, administered nationwide through (of all places) Comp USA stores. "We want to be a public information source, so people don't get hurt, which has been happening," says Kevin Bowen, co-founder and executive director of the PMA.

Back and shoulder injuries are among the most prevalent in Pilates, and the inverted nature of the exercises -- ones in which an individual's back supports the majority of his or her body weight -- makes people with osteoporosis and other special needs particularly vulnerable. Bowen says he's even heard stories of older adults experiencing spinal stress fractures because of improper use of Pilates equipment.

"Pilates is very much a knowledge-based method of exercise," says Lindsay Merrithew, president and CEO of Stott Pilates. "The equipment and the education go hand in hand, because without the knowledge, the equipment really is not very beneficial."

Just as Pilates equipment and training go hand in hand, so too do equipment and programming. With Pilates, it's better to start with only a small amount of equipment, manufacturers say, and let member needs drive a program's development. "I don't advise anybody to go out and just plop 20 Reformers in a room and go for the big classes," Lobdell says. "The cool thing about Pilates is that it's a quality experience, and you want to keep it that way." That's why most facilities begin a Pilates program slowly, with mats -- and sometimes a few Reformers -- in a group-exercise room with less than 10 participants. But because many people perceive Pilates as an activity involving apparatuses, "you're going to get your biggest bang for the buck and build your program the fastest with equipment," Endelman says. Experts recommend placing only four to six Reformers in a group-exercise class both because of space limitations and to create an intimate environment that enhances the experience.

Even with six Reformers, which may cost in the neighborhood of $15,000, space in a typical group-exercise room can be tight. That's why Balanced Body debuted the stackable Allegro Reformer in 1995. Stott Pilates later followed suit with its Rack & Roll stackable Reformer, and Peak Pilates introduced a foldable Reformer.

"The Allegro said to clubs, `Hey, you can now have Pilates and you don't need to dedicate floor space,' " says Peak's Lobdell, adding that the newfound accessibility "also created a bit of mayhem, because Pilates was so not understood by the fitness community."

"It was a challenge for us at the beginning," Endelman agrees. "We'd be at trade shows in the early '90s, sitting in a 10-by-10-foot booth with one Reformer trying to talk to people about Pilates, and they would scratch their heads. They knew about Pilates but they wondered how they would get instructors trained and where they would get the space for the equipment. Those were big problems, and that's why we came up with the Allegro. People wanted something that was storable. It was pretty clear. They were saying, `We like this thing but where are we going to put it?' We walked away with our marching orders."

If some facility operators were scratching their heads, still more "weren't even paying attention," says Stott's Merrithew. And the ones who were paying attention, he notes, often rushed to implement some sort of Pilates program without fully possessing the knowledge required to make it successful. "There have been stories of people buying a lot of equipment that just gathered dust," Merrithew says.

The majority of facilities that try Pilates do so because of member demand, however, so most programs are destined to succeed. "People have been trained now to pay for things at clubs, and that has really helped Pilates become successful," Endelman says. Fee-based personal-training programs and tanning sessions have helped create what Merrithew calls the "boutiquing of fitness," and thus paved the way for Pilates.

That may explain why facilities with members who are serious about Pilates are converting underutilized spaces into Pilates studios. Requiring no more than 500 square feet, these dedicated areas (many in old 600-square-foot racquetball courts) allow room for some of the more advanced pieces of equipment in addition to Reformers -- such as a Cadillac, barrels and chairs -- that would require significant storage space in a group-exercise environment. Some facilities even hold group classes in a studio at the same time as individual instruction. "To get your members really interested, you've got to give them a space that they know belongs to them," Merrithew says.

"There is a real mind-body component to Pilates," Endelman adds. "When done right, it requires a lot of concentration, a lot of focus and a lot of control. And in certain atmospheres, it's just hard to get to that place. So some studios spend money trying to create a really warm, holistic, nurturing atmosphere."

They do so via indirect lighting, enhanced acoustics, water fountains, wood and fabric accents, mood music and even glass. In fact, the 1,500-square-foot Pilates studio on the second floor of the Almaden Valley Athletic Club in San Jose, Calif., is all glass. Inside, the studio houses six Reformers, one Cadillac, three chairs, some barrels and other smaller accessories - all of which can be seen from the fitness center below. The studio allowed AVAC's Pilates instructors to move out of a group-exercise area into a room of their own. "By sharing a group-exercise room, we really didn't have the prime hours to offer Pilates," says Joe Shank, the club's owner, who opened the studio in January 2004 at a cost of $150,000, plus almost $30,000 worth of equipment. "A dedicated space maximizes our return on investment for construction and equipment."

Shank never expected to dedicate so much space to Pilates when he began offering the activity in January 2002 to fill downtime on weekdays. But the fact that he and many other facility operators are opening studios proves that Pilates has moved past the fad stage.

"When I started this business 10 years ago, I thought Pilates was underexposed," says Lobdell, who notes that most countries outside of America have barely advanced beyond a mat-based form of Pilates -- if they've even gotten that far. "But I will be honest and say that I never dreamed that it would become as popular as it has. I think that as more time goes by, facility operators will see Pilates as being part of their business for a long time. The equipment is expensive, but so is other fitness equipment. And those pieces need to be upgraded every few years if a club is trying to stay competitive. In a way, Pilates equipment is the least changeable. You buy it, and it can last a long time." That said, at least one manufacturer, Stott, is in the process of evaluating designs for four new pieces of what it calls a "new generation" of Pilates equipment. Merrithew won't offer many details, but he expects to roll out the new products sometime next year.

The engineering of any new piece of Pilates equipment is likely to take into consideration such demographic groups as the obese, men and young people. Already, manufacturers make Reformers that are wider and longer for football and basketball players -- and that can also accommodate significantly overweight people. Research and development departments are exploring the capabilities of their machines to withstand specific movements executed by overweight individuals, which could assist in the development of more-innovative equipment for obese people.

"The beauty of Pilates is that you don't have to be thin to do it, and it teaches you to move your body better," Bowen says. "In so doing, you have more flexibility and more intrinsic ability, and you'll be able to then proceed to do other things better -- like walking and running."

The mere fact that football and basketball players are now openly embracing Pilates could go a long way toward introducing the activity to more men. Some Pilates observers estimate that up to 90 percent of all participants are female, in large part because of the activity's roots in the dance world. "If Mr. Pilates knew that people thought this was just for women, he'd flip," Bowen says.

The industry is looking for more endorsements from professional athletes - Major League Baseball pitcher Curt Schilling, the NBA's Jason Kidd, NFL offensive lineman Ruben Brown and golfer Tiger Woods all reportedly do Pilates -- while also trying to market the activity using "normal-looking guys," Endelman says. The typical male who does Pilates is between the ages of 30 and 50, he adds, and uses Pilates as sort of a sport-specific training ground to help improve his performance in some other activity. (By contrast, the majority of women do Pilates to help themselves look and feel better.)

"I see a lot of strength and conditioning coaches looking at Pilates as a real alternative," Merrithew says. "It's not going to displace other forms of exercise entirely, but why should it? It's a complement to existing exercise, and it works."

One by-product of Pilates' popularity with elite athletes is its potential appeal to young people. In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the magnet school Dillard Center for the Arts boasts a Pilates studio, and members of the Pilates Method Alliance introduced mat-based Pilates to a second-grade class at a Los Angeles public school this fall. It's a pre-pilot program that the alliance hopes to eventually roll out for elementary, middle and high school students in schools where physical-education programs have been reduced or eliminated. Mats are an ideal purchase to make with grant money, and Bowen says the PMA is striving to form national partnerships and raise funds to promote school programs.

"One of Mr. Pilates' wishes was that children do Pilates as a way to teach them about their body," Bowen says. "He was adamant in his belief that the American public was very out of shape -- and he was saying this 50 years ago."

Although Pilates equipment will no doubt continue to become smoother, quieter and more versatile, "it's pretty hard to say that it will be radically different," Endelman admits. "The thing about Pilates is that it's actually very simple, and it's that simplicity that makes it work so well. It's going to be hard to take the principles that Pilates is based on and create a new machine. I think there are always going to be Reformers, Cadillacs, barrels and chairs, because when you think about it, they reflect the way people function in their daily lives. All of those pieces of equipment reproduce functional movements of human beings."

"As wonderful as the history of Pilates is, Pilates does have to move further into the 21st century," counters Merrithew, suggesting that the ability to calibrate resistance on Pilates equipment, for example, would be beneficial to both users and instructors. He also likes the idea of a trade association that, as the Pilates business expands, would oversee manufacturers. "Growth is critical. We're not going to change the equipment to the extent that it will be unrecognizable. But I think it's important to evolve as an industry."