Pacific Northwest | November 9, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineNovember 9, home
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Good Vibrations
A futuristic platform promises a step up in strength
The Power Plate purports to play on the body's natural reflexive responses, using vibration to stimulate and strengthen muscles as well as improve flexibility.
EARLY ONE MORNING, three days after a rugged game, University of Washington defensive lineman Donny Mateaki shuffled into the athletic department's sprawling weight room. Wearing baggy shorts, T-shirt and sandals, he gingerly stepped onto the 20-by-32-inch-base of a silver gizmo that looks like a futuristic weighing scale.

He pressed a couple buttons, sending the platform vibrating at 50 times a second. Strength coach Michelle Latimer helped him try various poses so the oscillations would help salve his sore thighs. "The players line up to use this," she told me.

The idea behind the gizmo, called the Power Plate, is to stimulate the body's natural reflexive response. Engaging muscles through hyper-contractions, say the makers, improves strength, flexibility and energy. Scientists of the former Soviet Union began developing the vibration strength field in the 1970s to train Olympic athletes. Later, they applied it to cosmonauts.

Vibration training is fairly widespread in Europe, but still developing in the U.S. The Huskies seem to be the only Washington users of the Power Plate machine, but 22 pro-sports teams, 12 university programs and some therapeutic and rehabilitative medicine settings are employing it. NASA's Johnson Space Center uses the device to help astronauts returning from space maintain bone density. The UW sports teams use the machine as a supplement — to limber up for a workout or to rehab injuries.

With the blessing of Steve Emtman, the former All-American lineman and now strength and conditioning coach, I was able to slip in there and test it on behalf of everyday people. I was a bit hesitant because, thanks to multiple sclerosis, my body is basically always vibrating. But I jumped on.

Despite the lowest setting of 30 impulses or vibrations a second, the first 30-second interval about rattled my teeth. I wasn't prepared for the powerful rumble that shook me from my heels to the hair on my head, but the turbulence was so fast and even that I soon got used to it.

Latimer said she had the same sort of reaction when she first tried it, but was amazed at how it helped her flexibility. I'm pretty flexible, but a brief blast on the machine made a remarkable difference. Before I stepped on the machine, I was touching my fingers to the floor while bending over. After a 30-second spin, I was easily plastering my palms to it and could have gone farther if the floor wasn't in the way.

I did a few other poses, always at the lowest level of shake and for only 30 seconds at a time. Once, I bent my knees, as if skiing, and held the handle. I did a few push-ups while my palms were resting on the platform. I laid my back on a mat and draped my calves on the machine's low platform and got a hyper-massage.

Oftentimes, trainers will apply pressure or maneuver the leg to fine-tune the effect. After a total of two jostling minutes on the machine, I felt energetic — ready to work out. I felt that way all day. Fatigue is a major problem for me, so I was excited by this. I also felt loose and relaxed.

It was the next day that brought the biggest surprise, though. My hamstrings were as sore as they had ever been. It seems that 30-second ski pose was sneakily intense. Below the platform is a mechanism that distributes vibrations through the body, accelerating and intensifying the contraction-relaxation muscular reflexes achieved by weightlifting. The Power Plate Co. says its device works muscles in a more complete manner, range and peak level.

A long-term study at Leuven University in Belgium, the results of which were recently published in the official journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, found that the Power Plate built the same level of strength as conventional weight training. The test subjects were 67 "untrained" women.

In fact, the vibration training has been extensively researched in Europe and appears to be safe, but it's not something a beginner should overuse or use without supervision. The company also boasts celebrity users, from Clint Eastwood to Jane Fonda to the king of Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, the price is still out of my league — $10,000. The company hopes to release a home version that may not be heavy-duty enough to withstand a bunch of football players but would, at roughly $2,000, be more affordable. The idea is to get the Power Plate ( into homes and businesses.

Is there a home market for a spendy machine in which a small blast of buzz three times a week goes a long way? I could use 30 seconds before my next staff meeting.

Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer.

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