A big year for new product at IHRSA show amps up the buzz

After a couple of slow years with less-than-positive economic times putting a damper on product roll-outs, this year's new equipment and gear unveiled at the recent IHRSA club show seemed to make a statement about industry optimism.
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After a couple of slow years with less-than-positive economic times putting a damper on product roll-outs, this year's new equipment and gear unveiled at the recent IHRSA club show seemed to make a statement about industry optimism.

If nothing else, all the new WOW stuff to check out certainly kept attendees busy since it was about more than just new colors and refreshes, but about truly new and innovative product to try. Not to say that a few product facelifts didn't add to the fervor at the March 21-23 show in Las Vegas. In fact, for the first time in several years, SNEWS® actually heard a buzz about a number of pieces, with people saying, "Have you seen X product?" or "What do think of that new product Y?"

All that optimism about an industry upturn likely helped lead the show to a walloping increase in numbers, as reported March 27. (Click here for that story covering overall show impressions and numbers, "IHRSA show rocks Las Vegas with new stuff and big numbers.")

"Our customers are feeling very positive and optimistic," said Nathan Pyles, CEO of Matrix Fitness. "It's a healthy industry at the moment."

In this case, "healthy" means the time and the energy for conceiving, developing and marketing new products and equipment too.

Of course, the search is still on (when will it not be?) for that Next New Thing. Candidates from Cybex (Arc Trainer), SportsArt (Xtrainer) and Nautilus (TreadClimber) have taken their places among equipment pieces, but none of those have risen to the status of an industry-changing category as the LifeCycle, StairClimber or elliptical (first by Precor) did. Matrix Fitness introduced its Hybrid Cycle, which is a bit like a cross between an upright and a recumbent bike, and has been offered as a New Thing. We're not sure it's that ground-breaking, albeit nice. The True Fitness Strider center-drive elliptical is just that -- an elliptical with the drive in a different place; again, nifty, but not category-creating. Technogym's North American launch of its Cardio Wave -- launched in Europe nearly a year ago -- is another deviation of the elliptical-stepper-climber kinda motion, but we'll lay money it too won't create an industry-wide drive to come up with similar pieces and motions.

What was a harbinger of a coming new era was the launch of Podfitness by Rich Boggs in conjunction with Power Music, as well as True Fitness' Mye entertainment control system. We'll discuss the Mye below, but be forewarned that both at the commercial and retail level, take-along and plug-in technology for music, entertainment and workouts will be and could be the Next New Thing to sweep across all brands.

A category we won't discuss in detail but want to mention is the continuation of the interest in vibration, with Power-Plate still leading the charge after its first appearance in 2003 at the IHRSA show. Others that chimed in weren't to be found this year, including VibroGym and VibroFlex, although VersaClimber still showed its climber with vibration attached (with signage about Russian scientists' conclusions, as if that was all you needed to be convinced) and FitVibe from Germany showed its wares.

Let's take a look at a few companies and what they had on the floor. Remember, we aren't going to mention everybody because we don't have that much room and, heck, we can't be everywhere at once. If the company is here, it's because we thought what it had or what it was doing was worth a few words and it caught our eye for some reason. If a company is not here, it either was more bark than bite, maybe had neither bark nor bite, didn't have anything particularly new or smashing, or we were just plain brain-dead or blind and missed it. Of course, in some cases, we have done or will be doing separate stories too.

BOSU – If you've ever argued with a stability ball to stay in place, then you'll like the BOSU DSL Trainer. On first glance, it's just a ball, but no, no, it's got material inside (company's fancy name is "Dynamic Stabilizing Load" material) that helps it stay put once it's been put somewhere, including in seemingly precarious angles like on a BOSU (half-ball) trainer. It still requires active participation from core muscles, but eliminates the battle with the ball. (Retail, $60, including air pump and DVD)

Cybex – A huge booth showcased the upgrades to its Eagle line and a full VR3 strength line. But interesting was Cybex's apparent commitment to active entertainment with a strategic alliance with the Kilowatt PowerGrid and Sportwall added to its existing Trazer partnership. That creates a family of exercise-inducing, video-oriented games that can sell well to community centers, schools and other recreational facilities. The cordless Arc Trainer was shown in a private room, so personnel could spend time with customers to refine it even more before its final release.

Fitter First – No, the show wasn't only about big stuff. Fitter had a simple mat -- both a long runner-like version and a small, square version -- called its Cobblestone Walkway. Indeed, it's like a mat, but one that has a bunch of odd-shaped cobblestones glued to it. (In this case, of course, lightweight plastic ones). Research that Fitter touted said that using it can lower blood pressure, as well as, of course, massage feet. There was a constant line ready to walk on it (walkway, $40; mat, $18).

Isobar/TruForm Fitness – For once, not only a new product from a one-man show, but one that didn't look like the guy just got there from his garage. Rather, Jeff Jenneve, president, founder, product developer, marketing whiz and, likely, chief dishwasher, had slick brochures and nice-looking booth signage. The Isobar is a bar -- an Olympic bar and a cable pull-down attachment -- that has sliding grips attached to it so a user's hands and arms can move naturally through a full range of motion during a movement. In a way, they move more like dumbbells on a bar. Jenneve was stoked after being approached by more than dozen distributors from outside North America. The Isobars aren't cheap, though, since there is a serious mechanism inside to control the sliding motion -- $700 for the light bar (10 kilograms) and $1,300 for the regular bar at 20 kilograms. Jenneve stressed to think of the bars as less of an attachment as a piece of equipment. www.truform.com

FreeMotion Fitness – A feature that helped FreeMotion set apart its treadmills was its new DRVS model (Direct Rear Velocity System) that took the rear motor of its incline hiker and put it on a full treadmill (list, $7,000) Although a pretty huge step up onto the machine, the drive, the company said, puts less strain on the AC motor, generates less heat, is easy to work on and offers the user a little bit of give from a freer-floating front.

Hoist Fitness – Already shipping since January but unveiled officially at the show, the PTS Series is a whole family of cages that fit compactly together and offer the ability to do anything you can imagine with cages or pulleys. We expect between personal trainer gyms and even retail, this piece (list, $3,700 without the $850 lat pull) will be quite a hit since it can create a full gym even for the most serious lifter in a small footprint. Not leaving users in the lurch, the unit also comes with a 57-page guide to exercises.

Life Fitness – The biggest story in the front-row Life Fitness booth was its 12-piece Circuit Series line made for express-type workout centers. Think simple, low-profile and no adjustments. Also, the company re-introduced its older model elliptical with a shorter stride (18 inches) that has a bit more incline and the company said is preferred by smaller users because it takes less inertia to get it going. Several treadmills also have a new "activity zone" on the front, center of the front rail that includes all the most-used buttons, including stop, incline and speed (walk, 2 mph; jog, 4 mph; and run, 6 mph).

Matrix Fitness – One of the real innovations at the show, although first introduced late last year, is the Hybrid Bike that is a cross between a recumbent and a cross-trainer, i.e. a higher seat than a recumbent but lower than an upright, and with a backrest and arm rests like recumbents have and a full-walk-through design. It's an intriguing blend that we think will find certain markets and that demographics are attracted to. For one thing, the bigger angle (45 degrees vs. about 10-15 on regular recumbents) mean it's less confining and allows more room for bellies and legs on both overweight individuals and pregnant women.

Nautilus – Bikes were the story at Nautilus -- if you could see beyond the army of TreadClimbers -- with the company rolling out its first commercial bike trainers using what it called "Schwinn Technology." After studying more than a 100 different people, Nautilus devised what it thinks is the best angle to fit more users, more comfortably by putting the seat on 45-degree track so it lowers when getting closer to the console and lifts higher when it's farther away. The bikes will be available in the fall.

Panasonic Core Trainer – Think of this item as a saddle on a post that also rocks and moves side-to-side and forward-and-back. Straddling it and forcing yourself to stay upright and on the saddle is said to challenge core muscles. Already it is used in more than a 100 clubs in Japan since being introduced four years ago. The Fitness Innovations company that is a part of the Panasonic family introduced it at the show and has research to back up its effectiveness, it said. Well, OK, this wasn't really a total intro since it tested the waters at the Health & Fitness Business show in Denver using the name "Equus," which they now admit was not a good name. It raised visions of horses and that just wasn't good. At $2,000, it could be reasonable enough for some clubs to try for some programming, but North American IS a different market than Japan, where they often like a more passive fitness.

Paramount – An entire lineup (shown in its first new booth in a very long time) from Paramount included 10 new pieces with 18 more to come in its new SP line (standing for style and performance) that incorporates a sleeker look with what the company said was its reputation for strong performance. This replaces the AP line. It's a lower-profile line, per the industry trend, with clean and rounded shrouds.

Precor – No new equipment at Precor didn't mean there wasn't anything to look at. In fact, the Precor booth was one of the most constantly packed areas at the show as well as at the early morning workouts. All across the line, new consoles totally integrated the Cardio Theater system with controls on the console and not tacked on somewhere, with the ability to take the screens on or off as needed without a lot of falderal. The consoles were also clean and much easier to control. We like the "+/-" feature that allowed users mid-workout to simply add or subtract minutes from their workout time and still get a summary for the entire time completed. Also, slightly "domed" switches had a slight clicking feel to them, much like those on new cell phones, so users really knows they have accomplished the change desired. Without delineating all the detail, suffice it to say that Precor has now, finally and totally incorporated all the features of Precor, Cardio Theater and ClubCom into one package.

Star Trac – Anther happening booth, Star Trac had its new line of Human Sport cable stations (click here to see our March 24, 2006, SNEWS® story, "Star Trac adds second strength line with Italy's functional HumanSport trainers."), but added to that with a full-line (31 pieces) of compact, space-efficient, selectorized pieces called Instinct. But if you were at the show and didn't see them, it's because they were in a second, walled booth space at the back of the floor. They are all the same size with the same basic look, and the line also includes benches, racks and other strength needs. We think it offers the compactness and simplicity of some circuits at express-type clubs but adds the benefits of adjustability.

Technogym – The spotlight here was on its North American intro of the Cardio Wave that simulates something like a skating motion and, per Technogym material, is all about shaping the tush. Let us quote for a moment: "To make them the best, roundest and most bootylicious they can be takes just one machine and a lot of fun. Wave. It's the wonder bra for the derrier that makes backin it up a higher endeavour." OK, whatever. The machines were packed since they were something a bit different, although not for Europe (click here to see Aug. 29, 2005, SNEWS® story, "'New thing' introduced by Technogym in Europe."). We can't vouch for the Wonder Bra analogy. We did however find that if you weren't coordinated enough or didn't have the resistance up high enough (the pedals are independent), you felt like a rather dorky ice skater who couldn't stay upright. But once you got the rhythm, all went smoother.

True Fitness – Another happening place with two pieces that had something going on: The Strider TS1 is a center-drive elliptical that is nearly 2 feet shorter than others but still has a 21-inch stride. (If you saw Keys' centerG, it's from the same patent, but True has the commercial license.) We liked the feel and the options available since you could actually stand on the side runner and use one leg if you want or emphasis one leg more than the other like on a bike. For clubs, we're talking space efficiency at a list of $6,000. Verrrry nice. The second piece didn't seem to get as much attention, but we think could change the way both companies and users think and prompt others to hop on the bandwagon: The MYE entertainment system costs only about $60 each and is a small unit that either acts independently like an MP3 personal player OR plugs into a small control panel/docking port on the True equipment that allows someone to bring his or her own music (without endangering loss or damage to a much more expensive iPod unit) and control the panel with his or her pre-programmed choices, as well as tap into in-club systems. True has a five-year exclusive from the company on distribution. This is a no-brainer for gym-goers.

Now, we couldn't let a show pass without at least one addition to our "not ready for prime time" file: The Jivago thingamabob waaaaaay over in aisle 100 made our list this time. It looked like a horse, head and all, and was just as big. No, really. Where's the ladder? Go to the website printed in the show information (www.jivagoinc.com) and all you see are a bunch of perfumes. Huh??? The poor girl sitting on top of this horse-like thing when we walked past looked pretty bored. It definitely wasn't ready for prime time.

And one of the best thing on the floor? The Sport Bean sample bags being passed out at the Jelly Belly booth. These jelly beans came in four flavors, and had electrolytes added to them for use during workouts. They were in high demand among show-goers because they tasted good and were easy to pop in the mouth. But they also produced smiles all around. We give a big thumbs-up to the Jelly Belly folks.

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