Rose O'Rourke, a Pilates instructor with flowing brown hair and a ramrod posture, is used to getting sweaty. What she isn't used to is getting greasy.

Yet on a recent morning, O'Rourke faced about 15 men in the junkyard of Ace Auto Parts in St. Paul. Old cars were stacked high, waiting to be stripped of usable parts.

"Take a deep inhale through the nose," she ordered. "Inhale ... 2, 3, 4, 5. ... Exhale ... 2, 3, 4, 5."

Welcome to the latest twist in workplace fitness: Pilates, junkyard style.

In recent years, some large employers have added on-site fitness centers and exercise classes in a bid to keep employees healthy and out of the doctor's office. But the perk is much less common at small businesses, although the need may be just as great. Since May, the employees of Ace Auto Parts have attended weekly Pilates classes. Specifically, the guys who dismantle the cars are required to participate. Ace's owners hope the exercises will help strengthen backs and shoulders and improve balance in ways that will ultimately reduce their workers' compensation bills.

Although they were surprised to hear about the new change to their work routine, the dismantlers, as they are called, seem to be giving the workouts an honest effort.

"They're a tremendous group of guys," said O'Rourke, as she strides between rows of huffing men on mats. They're also, she admits, "an unusual demographic of participants."

Many small businesses simply don't have the money to pay instructors or the physical space to hold the classes.

And whether such efforts actually save money for an employer is debatable. "In the short term, they probably don't," said Dave Delahanty, a benefits consultant with Towers Watson in Minneapolis. "In the long term, if you have a low-turnover workforce, they might."

Pilates is a system of core-strengthening exercises that has become a staple at health clubs worldwide. At Ace, the idea for the classes came from owners Barb and Marcus Weyandt. Pilates and dieting had helped Barb Weyandt drop 65 pounds and six clothing sizes in the past three to four years.

The Weyandts wondered if the workout might also benefit their auto dismantlers. They work with their arms overhead for much of the day, pulling apart the insides of cars suspended above them.

"We've had a few back injuries and work restrictions and time off work," Barb Weyandt said.

Hoping for savings

The company pays $100,000 in workers' compensation each year for 33 employees. "We thought, 'Let's try and nip this in the bud in a positive way,' " Weyandt said.

Instructors at the Weyandts' gym, the SweatShop Health Club in St. Paul, devised a half-hour program for the auto dismantlers that focused on their backs and shoulders and wouldn't require more than a few simple props. The auto shop pays $95 per session.

So each week, the men gather in the Rice Street junkyard to do exercises more commonly associated with lithe, affluent women. The Weyandts make it a point to join in the class. "We are not asking them to do anything we aren't willing to do ourselves," Barb Weyandt said.

The men -- ages 24 to 52 -- wear their work clothes, grease-stained gray short-sleeved shirts and jeans. Some wear steel-tipped boots.

O'Rourke calls out directions. The men stretch, strain and twist under the open sky, using sticks and foam noodles as props. No baby blue yoga mats for these guys; they work out on old carpet torn out of cars.

As they bend and hold various positions, bellies flop over waistbands and underwear pops into view.

"Look at your form," O'Rourke coos admiringly, to no one in particular. "It's beautiful."

Then, sharper: "Keep that butt down!"

Mixed opinions

Delahanty said the Ace approach sends just the right message. "Other small businesses could really learn a lot of lessons from this company: Pilates is a great fix for this group, they're starting people off gently and sending the message that the owners really care about them."

Not every dismantler is a Pilates convert.

Edgar Galvan, 36, said he does the class because he's required to, but the exercises don't do much for him.

"Honestly?" he confessed. "I don't like doing them. [The class] is worthless for me."

But Tim Jacobson, 22, thinks the exercises are helping. "Different muscles feel more loose," he said. And Blake Reed, 24, thinks his balance has improved.

While the reviews are mixed, the classes certainly have everyone talking about fitness. Ace's other employees are now asking if they can join, too.

Chen May Yee • 612-673-7434