Health & Fitness Business '07: Beauty and function can partner in strength training

It's not fair that we're often judged by the way we look, but hey that's life. And strength equipment manufacturers realize that consumers often buy products based on their appearance as well as the way they work -- especially considering the continued influence of women and families on purchases. SNEWS® has rounded up some bits of information about a few products in strength-traing and home gym categories we noted that stood out to us at the HFB show.
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It's not fair that we're often judged by the way we look, but hey that's life. And strength equipment manufacturers realize that consumers often buy products based on their appearance as well as the way they work -- especially considering the continued influence of women and families on purchases. Thus, we continue to see facelifts applied to strength equipment to smooth out the sharp edges and stark color to attract those who value fashion as much as function. Just consider how TuffStuff continues to overhaul its machines to include round and oval tubing. And its new AXT-2i home gym sports a powder-coated finish of -- we quote the product release -- "Ebony Chrome accented with Platinum Sparkle." Man, that sounds fancy. You want me to strength-train with that or admire it from afar?

The focus on aesthetics was one of a few notable trends we saw this year. Others included an increased emphasis on vertical-applicable products that could cross over into high-end home (just like in cardio -- click here to see that show report Aug. 20, 2007.). Plus, more and more suppliers are recognizing the importance of cable/functional training as well as the need to fit more strength-training ability neatly into smaller spaces. We also liked that more companies added the ability to hand-hold newbie strength-trainers with more and better-done how-to at the fingertips, more safety measures and generally more intuitive products. Bringing in the new is, of course, vital to the industry's continued growth and vitality. The addition of technology -- also more and better -- also helps newbies but also keeps enthusiasts coming back for more.

But, like we said at the start, none of that means squat if the home gym is homely.

Below, SNEWS® has rounded up some bits of information about a few products in the trend categories we noted that stood out to us. No, we couldn't name everything we saw and some companies may have crossed over between categories but only were named once.

Several weeks of show coverage began Aug. 2, so don't miss any of the reports, podcasts or the two SNEWS® live daily HotSheet newsletters -- all available in archives (if you have a paid, full-access subscription and not a free limited access one). We are covering, will cover, or have covered everything from general attendee information to education reviews to equipment category reports. As always, SNEWS® gives you the best and most accurate and detailed show coverage anywhere. If your product or company wasn't mentioned here, that's either because it didn't strike our team as new or different, or perhaps we were totally brain-dead and missed it -- anything's possible! But don't fret: Coming still in the next few weeks are articles and more SNEWS® Live podcasts on strength, cardio, education. So stay tuned, this is just the beginning.

Looks could kill

Bodycraft
, a company that only last year hired a true designer and hasn't been known for its aesthetics, this year had form, not just its trademark solid function, in mind when it produced the GX and GXP, two new home gyms for brick-and-mortar dealers. Made with smaller aluminum tubing, the machines appear less chunky that those with square tubing. Plus, the GXP (MSRP $2,000) has translucent panels available in gray, red or white, allowing customers to match it to their tastes. We thought the most clever product in the Bodycraft booth was the Jones machine (MSRP $2,499) that is now outfitted with a bar that has U-joints on each end that enable the bar to float to a certain extent to emulate more closely the feel and reaction needs of lifting an Olympic bar while maintaining the safety and security of a Smith-type machine.

Lamar Fitness has put significant energy into producing products that will not only attract women but also suit their needs. The new Smith SS 545 machine (MSRP $3,200) has a bench bar with a counterweight, so the bar itself weighs only 10 pounds, making it easier for women to lift it. But even more noticeable was the company's new Beya Body by Lamar line, which SNEWS® thought were some of the most attractive on the show floor. The leg curl, lat pulldown and chest press machines we saw had angled, acrylic shrouds frosted with soft shades of blue, and nearly all of the tubing was rounded to soften the overall appearance. The machines (MSRP $1,500 each) are also made to be more convenient, featuring the flip-switch levers on the stacks that Lamar debuted in partnership with Mark Nalley a couple of years ago. A component nature means any of the pieces can be added to the main piece with the stack.

A nine-piece home gym line from Vision Fitness is also designed to appear less industrial. Realizing that vertical markets provide an opportunity for growth, Vision is offering these types of customers the new ST line, which includes a nice assortment of products, from a functional trainer to a biceps/triceps station. While examining the multi-lat machine (MSRP $1,200), we noted that the pulleys are enclosed in a sleek metal shroud, and the top of the main tower is angled for a bit of architectural appeal. Beyond the design elements, there are some helpful added details, such as instructional placards on each machine to demonstrate exercises and identify the muscles worked with each.

Going vertical

Quantum Fitness
, only a couple of years ago entering the retail market, says that fitness dealers are calling for more products to suit the vertical markets, so it has responded with the new Phantom line (MSRP $3,400 to $6,300), which includes 20 single machines and combination machines. Like many of the new strength product displayed at the show, the leg extension machine occupies a relatively small footprint, and certain aesthetic touches target those who need to maximize light in a crowded space. For example, frosted plastic shrouds on the outside of the weight stack provide some privacy, yet they allow some light to pass through so a workout room can retain a sense of openness. We also liked the Phantom's new belt drive system, which feels smooth thanks to its wide belts that are reinforced with Kevlar to make them durable.

More functional trainers

As we reported last year, it's clear that functional machines with arms that are widely adjustable and cables that can be used in multitudes of ways are starting to eclipse fixed-arm, traditional home gyms. The grand-daddy of such functional trainers, FreeMotion Fitness, in its debut in the retail arena, has introduced a home-friendly version of its popular Dual Cable Cross (MSRP $3,200). Its independent arms rotate into nine horizontal settings and 12 vertical settings so a person can work from a seemingly endless number of angles. Its dual stacks each have 75 pounds of weights. Based on the company's commercial Dual Cable Cross, it's plenty rugged and made with 11- and 7-gauge steel.

Two independent arms on Vectra's VX-FT Functional Trainer (MSRP $3,400-$3,700) can be adjusted for height and width by moving simple levers. Add it all up, and you can set 250 different positions per arm. Because there are so many adjustments available, the machine has position indicators so you can make the arms mirror each other without having to eyeball them and you can move them in any direction with one touch, rather than having to push various levers. With lots of cable travel, its a great option for people who want to work on swinging motions for golf, baseball and tennis, as well as any athletic drills such as bounding.

Some people simply don't want to choose between a traditional home gym and a functional trainer, and Inspire's new M4 (MSRP $4,000) combines both in one truly impressive machine. Most notable is the fact that each exercise can be set for either fixed or isolateral motions, including the leg extension components. The split lat arms have a wide rage of adjustability and transform the machine into a functional trainer. (The bench is on a swivel and rotates out of the way for functional training or to allow space for a stability ball or other accessory.) Also, on one side are two independent pulleys that can be adjusted high, low or in between for curls or functional training. As for aesthetics, Inspire, one of the forerunners of real aesthetics in strength gear, still offers its shrouds with custom colors, now also for the M4.

We continue to be impressed with how much stuff Torque Fitness, in its debut on the show floor and just entering its second year in business, can pack into a corner. Its TQ3 machine (MSRP $2,200) combines a gym's worth of traditional strength equipment and pulleys for functional training in a package that folds up and stores away neatly. The machine has some nice touches, like the flip-up footplate that serves as a platform for seated rows. But a primary selling point is that people who don't want an exposed machine sitting in a room -- whether it be for safety or aesthetic reasons -- can shut the thing away into a sleek metal cabinet. The metal cabinets look good enough … for metal, but they do scream industrial (a.k.a. "bachelor"). It would be nice to see the company offer cabinets with a wider variety of material, textures and colors. And don't you wanna bet that's on the horizon, too.

Something for beginners

Body-Solid
's new Fusion 600 gym (MSRP $2,000) looks like a good option not only for enthusiasts, but also for people new to using a home gym. For example, its press arms move at an optimum angle to assist a person who hasn't mastered proper technique. Also, a weight-assisted dip and pull-up station is available to help people new to these exercises. The Fusion 600 is also versatile because its many attachments, such as the multi-hip station, allow a person to do 60 exercises, the most that Body-Solid has offered in a home gym collection. And for customers who want minimum hassle in setting up their new gym, the new BSG10 (MSRP $800) comes 90 percent assembled in one box, and there are only nine bolts to secure during set-up.

Life Fitness launched the spectacular G7 adjustable pulley home gym (MSRP $3,300 with bench) that's intended to help people formulate workout routines. At the center of the G7 is a kiosk that holds a booklet with instructions on performing 60 exercises for the upper body, lower body and core. The booklet's spiral-bound and laminated pages can be rearranged so a person can assemble a custom workout routine, and this eliminates the trouble of flipping through the book looking for the next desired exercise. We were told that additional pages will be available on the Life Fitness website, so when people register the machine they can download the pages and add them to the booklet (although they would be a bit flimsy to hold up, wouldn't they?). In addition, there are dry-erase log pages to record reps as you progress. The company also updated its tiny-footprint G5 gym. Now that audio and video are gaining popularity in all types of fitness equipment, you can expect Life Fitness to take its workout instruction to another high-tech level in the future.

Plugging into the future

For a look at the future of strength equipment, we ducked behind the curtain enclosing the Omni booth. The company's new iTrainer (MSRP $2,000) integrates an MP3 dock into a functional training machine (The company called it an iPod dock, but when queried said it did not have a license with Apple to call it that). Once a person places his or her MP3 into the dock, he or she can work out while watching and listening to podcasts of Clark Bartram demonstrating exercises -- sort of like having a personal trainer in the home. Bartram showed us a well-produced and easy-to-follow podcast that included about 35 exercises. And he told us that the plan is to create a wide variety of additional podcasts that a person could download and add to a workout regimen. The system strikes us as a helpful instructional tool, and the sound and images can make exercise more engaging.

ProSpot Fitness is also exploring the technological future by including audio and video capabilities in its new Fusion gyms, which definitely pushed the aesthetics of gyms to another level -- and beyond. Execs used words like "cool" and "hip" -- not usually what you hear describing gyms! The HG6 includes a flat-panel TV, which could be used to play instructional DVDs or connect to a person's TV cable system for other entertainment. The idea makes sense for ProSpot, considering that its gyms already require electric power to enable its patented spotting technology. For an added bit of flair, the gym has thin strips of electric blue accent lights on each side. Yes, if you don't want to see pulsing lights at night you can turn them off. But it doesn't come cheap: Fully loaded with entertainment, the system has a list price of $4,600. Combining the lights and video, ProSpot gyms have an eye-catching arcade quality that definitely sets them apart in a crowd, yet haven't lost functionality.

Also of note…

The idea of saving space continues to be a mantra among manufacturers, with Avanti Fitness' CardioGym still on the forefront (although the Australian-based company didn't have any new products this time around). BH Fitness launched two new home gyms, the Nevada Pro and Global Gym, designed to occupy smaller spaces, and each has a seat that folds up. The more spacious of the two, the Global Gym (MSRP $1,200), measures 68.5 inches x 78.75 inches x 83.5 inches and includes a leg press and dip station.

Fitness Quest displayed its new Bio Force home gym (MSRP $1,000), which has been sold on TV and has been in about 25 retail stores for four months. The most notable aspect of the machine is the nitrogen-filled piston that provides up to 220 pounds of resistance. When we asked if the piston ever wears out, company representatives said it was extremely resilient, carries a six-year warranty, and can be replaced easily. In the future, the company will roll out a version of the Bio Force with less weight for women, as well as one with a bench.

PowerBlock, which gave birth to the multi-weight dumbbell category in the '90s, has for the first time significantly redesigned its products. Three new dumbbells in the new SportBlock line now cover a greater range of weights, from 24 pounds to 90 pounds (MSRP $130-$500), plus they have more color with handles in gray, blue or white. At first glance, you'll notice that the dumbbells now are more rounded, but look closely and you'll see that the wrist supports are recessed to eliminate the old perception that space was tight between the weight plates. Dial locks have also been recessed to streamline the dumbbells and prevent the locks from hitting something and being damaged. The PowerBlock line includes the new U 90 (MSRP $800-$900), a 90-pound set that we were told is the first urethane-coated, multi-weight dumbbell. Yeah, that's a hefty price tag, but the U 90 has significant new technology in which the selector pins and weight plates are built to flex if they smack the ground, making them more resistant to damage.

Powertec has a new line of single-station machines that are based on the company's Turbo line, but less expensive, retailing from $400-$500. We're told that the arm curl and pec fly devices will likely be most popular.

Valor Athletics made its debut at the show displaying a broad line of old-school, durable strength equipment with everything from Olympic benches to a seated rowing bench, to a Smith machine -- and just about anything else you'd need to outfit a gym. Nothing too fancy here -- black-and-white machines of square tubing constructed to survive a head-on collision with a tank. Company President Jim Vanderbeek, who spent years working for big box retailers Champs Sports and Sports Authority, said he's focused on delivering quality products at a good value with exceptional customer service -- that's a good place to start.

Remember, if your product or company wasn't mentioned here, that's either because it didn't strike our team as new or different, or perhaps we were totally brain-dead and missed it. SNEWS® started detailed show reports on Aug. 2 and we will continue to cover categories in separate reports ongoing for the next few weeks. Among them are, of course, the strength and cardio equipment reports, as well as others on education, fun and all that other stuff at the show.

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