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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Latest Exercise Craze: 'Electric Chair' and 'The Reformer'

BALTIMORE, Maryland -- The Reformer. The Electric Chair. The Barrel.

This isn't equipment found behind prison walls. It's the equipment used for the Pilates Method of Body Conditioning, which has become all the rage in New York and Los Angeles.

The Pilates Method is one of those "born-again'' exercise routines that has been around for decades and is suddenly enjoying a resurgence.

Pilates or Pilates-based exercises have been featured in magazines such as Fitness and Essence.

Now, there are even infomercials touting it. Credit its growing popularity to celebrities such as Vanessa Williams, Jodie Foster, Courtney Cox, Demi Moore and Jane Seymour, who are fans.

Pilates instructor Elizabeth Ahearn, of Maryland, has the lean, toned body of a dancer with enviably low body fat. Some bodybuilders have wrists thicker than her waistline.

A former New York resident, who has instructed Tim Burton, Marla Maples Trump and others whose good looks are a plus in their line of work, Ahearn says, "The Pilates Method balances, tones, shapes and strengthens the body.''

The exercises focus on using the abdominal muscles for up and down movements. For instance, stomach muscles propel the motion on forward and backward rolls. In another movement, the hands are hooked in the Reformer's straps and the legs are pointed up and out. You slide back and forth on the Reformer, which resembles a very narrow hospital bed with long, leather straps, concentrating, once again, on using the abdominals. There are a lot of stretching moves designed to promote a lean look.

The emphasis is not on a hard aerobic workout, but it can get the heart pumping once you get the moves down right and move quickly from one to the other.

"You do five to 10 repetitions of every exercise, but no more than 10,'' Ahearn says.

Pilates instructors also teach correct breathing and urge concentration on form for best results.

People have compared it to a combination of yoga and tai chi, Ahearn says.

Since Pilates has become so popular, there have been disputes over who "owns'' the Pilates name. There is now a "Pilates-based'' program run out of the Physicalmind Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Pilates gets its name from the man who invented it.

"Joseph Pilates was born in Germany in 1880. Pilates was sickly as a child with asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever,'' Ahearn explains.

He became interested in merging different exercise routines used in Western society and those used in Eastern society.

He used his engineering skills to come up with exercise apparatus that specifically dovetailed with his philosophy: improving alignment, stretching and strengthening muscles without putting a lot of stress on the lungs and the heart.

And so the Reformer and the Electric Chair, which looks similar to its namesake, were born, along with a few other pieces. Moves also are done on a mat on the floor.

Dancers, including choreographers George Balanchine and Martha Graham, were totally smitten with the Pilates Method, Ahearn says.

Pilates also used his equipment to help in the rehabilitation of athletes, dancers and others.

"It wasn't necessarily designed for dancers,'' says Ahearn, whose clients range from a musician to a flight attendant. She advises them to add some type of aerobic exercise, like walking, to their schedules for the best results.

"I think doing this two times a week is great. But I have clients who take it once a week,'' she says.