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Good Vibrations: The Power Plate Institute gets your brain humming

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In a sleek modern storefront on West Armitage, Coldplay and The Wallflowers play softly as fitness enthusiasts of all ages and sizes vibrate slowly on machines designed for cosmonauts. The Power Plate Institute is the only facility of its kind in America. Six days a week, at half-hour intervals, the Institute offers training sessions on its four Power Plates, each of which resembles a kind of generalized exercise machine without the moving parts. Posters on the wall proclaim dramatically, “It’s not a miracle. What it does for you is.”

As I enter, a middle-aged woman named Beth Slavitt is just finishing up the intermediate/advanced program, “Power Sculpt.” “I love it,” she says. “I’m getting a better workout than when I worked out for longer.” Slavitt has been exercising on Power Plates for more than a year, and has recommended it to friends.

At noon, the beginners’ session (“Power Zone”) starts, intended for customers like myself who do not habitually vibrate while exercising. Veteran personal trainer Felicia Holman holds our hands through a series of stretches using the machines. While we hold each stretch, the Power Plate vibrates thirty times per second for thirty seconds, for accelerations of over two g. In between, we rest and stay hydrated. Before we move past the stretches, Felicia demonstrates the power of the machine by cranking it up to its maximum of fifty Hz and increasing the amplitude of the vibrations. Despite the enthusiastic claims of the press clippings scattered around the Institute, merely standing on the Plate, even at these extreme settings, is not enough to make you break a sweat. It is, however, enough to discombobulate you and make you feel like your brain is humming.

Next we move on to actual exercises on the Plate, such as lunges and push-ups. The vibrations don’t seem to make them much harder, but I am assured that they are intensifying my muscle contractions. During the stretching period that begins the workout and the massage period that ends it, the vibrations are helping to relax my muscles, I am told.

Power Plate International, whose U.S. branch is based in suburban Northbrook, was founded in the Netherlands in 1999 to market machines using the “whole body vibration” technique developed by Soviet scientist Vladimir Nazarov, according to company manager Ed Marut. The technique was originally meant to prevent cosmonauts’ muscles from atrophying while in space. Thus far Power Plates have yet to take off here as they have overseas, where Paris has hundreds of Power Plate centers and Madonna paid £7,000 for a machine of her own. “We’re hoping we can get that same success to America,” Marut says, and it looks promising. Power Plates are used by organizations such as Northwestern University, the Chicago Bears and the Accelerated Rehabilitation Center in Streeterville, where physical therapist Lisa Jurski says she uses the machines with about ninety percent of her clients. Far from Nazarov’s homeland, more and more Americans are vibrating their way to fitness. (Sam Feldman)

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