Machine helps shake up daily exercise routine

Vibrating Power Plate may buff up body with muscle workout

Health and Fitness

September 08, 2006|By Janet Cromley | Janet Cromley,Los Angeles Times

In the pantheon of wacky fitness contraptions, the Power Plate deserves a place of honor. The pulsating, vibrating exercise machine promises to jiggle even the semi-indolent into shape without so much as a lunge or squat.

In the four years since its introduction in the United States, the device has struck a responsive chord among slackers and elite athletes alike. Madonna reportedly used it to whip her 48-year-old body into its current Mighty Mouse condition. A gaggle of other celebrities and models - such as Sean "Diddy" Combs and Heidi Klum - unofficially have been linked to it.

An increasing number of gyms and trainers report using them: More than 20,000 of the machines have been sold worldwide since 2002. Other types of vibrating exercise equipment are also on the market, such as the Wave and the Soloflex Whole Body Vibration platform.

Vibration research and technology isn't new. For more than four decades, scientists have been exploring the effects of whole-body vibration on various groups, including astronauts and transportation workers.

Within the medical community, there's growing acceptance of various types of vibration machines for the treatment of cerebral palsy, osteoporosis, chronic pain, back injuries, kidney stones and more.

But manufacturers of the Power Plate and other vibrating exercise devices say their machines can also buff up the body. Just standing on the machine can tone muscle and increase flexibility, they say - music to any slacker's ears.

The Power Plate is based on the premise that when the body senses instability (in this case a vibration) the muscles involuntarily contract to compensate. The result, in theory, is improved muscle strength and performance.

It is not an entirely nutty idea.

"Conceptually, it has merit," says Cedric Bryant, chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise.

The problem, he says, is there isn't sufficient high-quality scientific research to support the theory.

Dr. Aurelia Nattiv, a professor of sports medicine and team physician at the University of California, Los Angeles, agrees that more research is needed.

"We have data," she says, "but the results are inconsistent, and most of the studies have looked at one specific area, like knee extensor strength and jump height. And even the results on those tests have been mixed."

In addition, experts say, there are a number of important unknowns.

"We don't know what the optimal training protocol would be in terms of frequency and duration and what types of exercises and positions are most effective," Bryant says. And, he adds, there also isn't a lot of literature on groups for which the device might be contraindicated. "Those types of questions haven't been addressed sufficiently in my mind," he says.

Of particular concern, says Philip Clifford, professor of physiology at the Medical College of Wisconsin, are animal studies - undertaken, in part, to study the consequences of operating jackhammers - that have linked vibration to circulatory problems.

Michael Gorsen, 63, is a die-hard fan of the Power Plate and says he doesn't need any more evidence from science.

A lifelong runner, Gorsen started using the machine to get relief from neck and arm pain six weeks ago. But he thinks the vibrations have improved his muscle tone and flexibility, too.

"I do everything that I would do in a normal workout on the floor - push-ups and squats," Gorsen says. "But I get better results with the machine. I do it using my body weight and isometrics."

The machines are especially popular with professional athletes, particularly football players.

Gene Miranda, football operations manager for the L.A. Avengers arena football team, says the team has had the machine for about three years, and a number of the players use it regularly and like it. Some have requested that the team take the machine on the road.

Some scientists, meanwhile, think the machine's greatest potential isn't in toning athletes, but in helping build bone and muscle in a much larger population: the elderly and people who can't exercise in traditional ways. "The bone benefits are established," says UCLA's Nattiv.

Despite its growing presence in gyms, no one is suggesting the machine can, or should, replace regular exercise.

Even those who use the machine regularly, Gorsen says, still have to break a sweat to stay fit. "You can't be a slug," he says.

Janet Cromley writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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