Suspension training staying the course: Trends and products

Bred from the military and spun off into infomercial territory, suspension-training products have been around for nearly a decade but their popularity seems to have taken a jump and is tip-toeing into retail. SNEWS looks at why the products may prove to have staying power in the larger arena of functional fitness.
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This fitness fad seems to be hanging around.

When bodyweight and suspension training became hot (again) a decade ago, people may have wondered whether the new lines of simple-looking straps were just another late-night infomercial craze.

After all, why would consumers pay up to $200 – or more – for straps with handles when they could either craft the gear themselves or just get by without them? And why would specialty retailers sell them when they could be making higher margin on higher-priced home gyms?

Nevertheless, products like the TRX Suspension Trainer, Lifeline’s Jungle Gym XT, GoFit’s Gravity Bar and others have proven resiliency – enough that other brands want into the market of both equipment and programs. They’re tapping into the larger movement of full full-body, functional exercises. Plus, a just-recovering economy, coupled with the desire to get back to basics, hasn’t hurt.

“The greater trend is the minimalist trend that you see out there,” GoFit President Richard Davis said. “It’s a few basic pieces of equipment and your body, and you get after it.”

An economical exercise

Bodyweight/suspension training isn’t anything new. It’s rooted from push-ups and pull-ups and other basic exercises while supported or hanging at various angles so a user takes advantage of his or her own bodyweight as the natural resistance force.

Proponents, both in this generation and in those past, say it’s the most effective way to exercise – working the full-body core with more natural everyday movements, rather that guided and aided movements of a machine with weights and bars or cables. And it’s economical – no gym or gear is required – and the force is fully adjustable for any level by adjusting your body into different positions.

Some speculate that the downturn in the economy is a large driving force in the return to the discipline. Still, “fitness enthusiasts love their gear,” said Kevin Dorsey, marketing manger for Lifeline USA (www.lifelineusa.com), which makes the Jungle Gym XT suspension bodyweight trainer (see left). Just like a fashionable piece of sweat-wicking apparel, one doesn’t need it to exercise – but it helps, he said. And research has shown that a beginner too may find the motivation in some piece of gear – a push to stay with a program, or even grow the program eventually to include pricier equipment.

Then there’s the savings compared to spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on a home gym. The three-digit price tag on the most common bodyweight / suspension trainers is reasonable, Dorsey added. Lifeline’s is a $100. An incentive for beginners but also an attraction for dedicated exercisers.

Keeping it simple

Lifeline USA introduced its first Jungle Gym in 2003 – a single strap with handles at each end that could be wrapped around a stable object and then used to push and pull oneself with bodyweight / suspension training exercises.

The latest evolution is the Jungle Gym XT, which debuted in October 2010, and stems from its predecessor. The product now features two separate 8-foot straps to allow for a wider separation at the source and more adjustment of the forces on the body during workout. The Jungle Gym XT also has new easy-to-clean handles and integrated foot cradles, which are easy to slip in and out of to switch exercises on the fly.

Manufacturers like Lifeline USA or Fitness Anywhere, which makes the TRX – the product that may have helped raise current awareness of the method with its TV ads – say the products have outlived the fad status. How? They’ve kept it simple – focusing on the benefits and the workout discipline, rather than the product.

“If you look at the trend in fitness infomercials, it used to be about the magic elixir – ‘sit here and do a couple of twists, and you’ll have a great body,’” Lifeline USA vice president of sales and marketing Rick Pawlak told SNEWS. “That isn’t what we’re about.…”

Getting gyms, trainers involved

Health clubs, gyms and trainers – just like retailers perhaps – were surely skeptical of the bodyweight/suspension training products at first. Here was something that promoted getting out the gym – workout anywhere, at home, outside, in your hotel room.

But manufacturers soon realized they needed support from their fitness brethren in clubs and training.

“It’s just not about the gear,” Fitness Anywhere Marketing Manager Sarah Benner told SNEWS. “People have to understand suspension training and how to use the TRX (see right). We can do that through DVDs or online, but we also need trainers and gyms to help us.”

SuspensionTRX.jpg

The company (www.fitnessanywhere.com) has conducted more than 900 professional education courses, often at gyms, to train trainers on the TRX.

“You have to train other people to train, or else this isn’t sustainable,” Brenner said. The company also continues to educate at home – recently debuting TRX TV, a set of 12 free streaming videos available each month online featuring TRX tips, exercises and sequences, for consumers. In addition, it’s offering expanded pay-to-download, 30-minute online videos each month.

Officials with Fitness Anywhere and Lifeline USA said their goal is to create a community surrounding the exercise similar to that of yoga or Pilates. And the word-of-mouth buzz and interest created by clubs and trainers works to spill over into retail as consumers want the same training in their homes.

Staking a claim

Like any trend that is heating up, more products and brands are bound to pop up. For example, Icon Health & FItness will introduce its "rip:60" suspension system at the IHRSA show in San Francisco March 17. Go to its website (www.rip60.com) and note the site's tag: "Better than TRX and P90x." Even it, though, is just over the $100 hurdle at $120 MSRP. So, in general, although less expensive than a home gym, the $100-$200-plus price on a system of straps just leaves the door open for others to say ‘I can do it cheaper.’

“If you don’t have competition, you’re doing something wrong,” TRX’s Benner said. “Everyone has different ideas and a different take.”

GoFit (www.gofit.net) sells its Gravitybar suspended body-weight product (see left) for $60 – straps and handles that come with a bar that can be mounted to an open doorway.

“It gives you a platform to use it in your house and you’re not encumbered by a closed door,” Davis said.

Fitness Anywhere sued GoFit in 2009 – not for the product, but for GoFit’s previous wording describing its product. Fitness Anywhere claimed the company used the terms “suspension training” and “make your body your machine”– phrases Fitness Anywhere had trademarked for fitness equipment and educational services.

GoFit changed its wording and the case ended up being settled out of court and dismissed in 2010.

Not to miss an opportunity, some home gym makers also are catching on to the trend by adding the option to lock their cables on gyms to make them viable as suspension training pieces.

Vectra Fitness (www.vectrafitness.com) branded the option as “Body ResiStability,” which is now available on three of its newer functional gym models – the VX-FT single stack, the VX-FT double stack and the VFT-100 – at no extra cost. And users can lock the main bar on BodyCraft’s new Jones Platinum gym for bodyweight training exercises. (Click here to see a Jan. 24, 2011, SNEWS story on home gyms gaining even more multi-function.)



Filtering to retail


While commercial gyms and trainers have already jumped aboard the bodyweight/suspension training trend, the products are noticeably absent from many fitness specialty retail shops around the country.

Part of that is because major brands, like TRX, are sold direct to consumer, minus a couple of authorized dealers. And there are no immediate plans to go to retail, company officials said.

But since many fitness workouts, equipment and trends start in clubs and drift into stores, some manufactures see opportunity for retail.

Lifeline plans to debut Jungle Gym XT in stores like Sports Authority this May, Dorsey said, but in the meantime – as it works on creating some retail packaging – the company is conducting limited retail runs in about 30 Play It Again Sports stores with no packaging.

“It was designed to be an institutional product, but we’re looking at retail,” he said.

The GoFit Gravitybar is geared for the home consumer, and Davis said part of his company’s goal is to convince retailers the value of carrying the product.

“As manufacturers, we’re looking to guide retailers. This is what we see as the newest and biggest trend that they should get behind. You see minimalist training affecting all aspects of the fitness industry, like barefoot running in footwear. It’s what’s hot now.”

Another newcomer to bodyweight/suspension trend is CrossCore (www.crosscore-usa.com), which recently debuted its War Machine (see right) and announced a deal to retail it through TuffStuff Fitness Equipment.The product distinguishes itself with a swiveling pulley at the suspension point of the straps, which can be locked for a stabilized workout or unlocked to allow more movement of the strap where it meets the handle.

No matter how you hang it, swivel it, lock it or video it, supporters say suspension training is likely here to stay, both as a stand-alone piece, as a beginner step into fitness, or as a supplement for more advanced exercisers.

“This is a workout,” Pawlak of Lifeline USA said, “rooted in functional training.”

-- David Clucas

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