Health & Fitness Business ’08: “A-Trainers” part of cardio’s shift to customized workouts

Although the cardio equipment category is the largest segment of the fitness industry, the hulking shadow of $4-per-gallon gasoline and the fears of the roller-coaster stock market dampened roll-outs of new equipment: The big news among most at the Health & Fitness Business Expo in Denver July 17–18 was simply that not much was new. While the mood was still upbeat and small additions to current equipment still was of interest, most brands were staying pat to cope with rising costs and stalled sales.
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Although the cardio equipment category is the largest segment of the fitness industry, the hulking shadow of $4-per-gallon gasoline and the fears of the roller-coaster stock market dampened roll-outs of new equipment: The big news among most at the Health & Fitness Business Expo in Denver July 17-18 was simply that not much was new. While the mood was still upbeat and small additions to current equipment still was of interest, most brands were staying pat to cope with rising costs and stalled sales.

"We are continuing our line,” said John Gibbs, president of Spirit Fitness, as an explanation that typified the tenor. “We want to help specialty retailers and we made a commitment to hold pricing. We are absorbing some costs but trying to stimulate retail traffic."

When it came to new cardio equipment, manufacturers were doing their best to mitigate what resembled the monsters of Greek mythology, Scylla and Charybdis. For fitness, the Scylla and Charybdis are rising commodity costs and wages on one side and a slumping U.S. economy on the other. The squeeze meant that most manufacturers were toeing the line, simply trying to keep costs down and weather the storm so that retailers could continue to move product.

Despite the lack of boothloads of updates in cardio, the show was not necessarily a blur of sameness or seen-that. In fact, the show marked the real arrival at retail of what verges on a new category of machine -- what we at SNEWS® in a story in our GearTrends® 2007 magazine call the A-Trainer: a hybrid piece that allows users to do a variety of movements that can feel like anything from hiking to climbing to stepping to moving on an elliptical (click here to see that story). FreeMotion and Symmetry released new pieces that break that mold of keeping a user locked into the elliptical and instead allow for varying stride lengths that work different muscle groups and offer more individualization and a more natural feel when it comes to the pace and feel of a workout. Likewise, we saw the introduction of a machine with what the company called a more natural elliptical orbit from Vision Fitness.

A few other companies that had introduced a piece, although retail-oriented, at the club-centric IHRSA show were now debuting to retail at this show: That included Star Trac (ST Fitness) with its eSpinner that allows users to create an at-home indoor cycle class with its fully interactive video display; Helix -- a totally new take on cardio by a totally new company; Volume Fitness with its “iFollow” feature; and Real Ryder and its bike that simulates over-ground movement. We also saw a new take on a seated elliptical from Octane Fitness also now come to the retail show. Click here to read about those in our March 2008 piece from IHRSA.

In addition, some trends continue to evolve: Innovations in electronics, iPod integration, and even video-game capability coming from many with dynamic, albeit high-end models, which were seen on pieces from LeMond, Life Fitness, ST Fitness and Trixter. The idea of integration or electronics on the machine that can be transferred to a home computer or some other digital space for analysis allows for brand messaging after the sale. Still, it seems to us that the concept is still somewhat fledgling: No cardio machine manufacturer has yet completely refined interactive digital options that continue to engage customers and continue to bring in revenue after the machine has left the retail sales floor. We at SNEWS see this continuing to evolve more strongly -- especially as brands partner with computer suppliers or heart-rate monitor manufacturers. We in fact suspect the surface has just been scratched as developments tap into more ways to fascinate consumers and draw them into fitness.

What manufacturers have picked up on is the idea that general market trends continue to push toward consumers creating and modifying their experience instead of simply accepting factory settings or a forced movement pattern. Customization was a buzzword we overheard at almost every booth. It ranged from users being able to program and save workouts on the console to iPod plug-ins, to more adjustability in seats, stride lengths and gaits. Within this “do it your way” trend, we would also lump the idea of equipment becoming more and more compact and adaptable: Smaller footprints with add-on ability to make it fit “your space” in the way you want.

Despite the economy, we also saw a few newcomers daring to enter the industry. And, finally, manufacturers responded to the difficulties of the market and the dire straits retailers find themselves in by focusing on new value products as well. While we heard stories of companies tearing up price sheets on the floor as their costs keep spiking, almost every manufacturer made some effort to provide machines that would still look attractive to customers despite the economy.

(Several weeks of show coverage began July 17 with our SNEWS® show HotSheet and has continued weekly since so don't miss any of the reports. We are covering, will cover, or have covered everything from general attendee information to stories about presentations and special events to product trends and equipment unveilings to broader industry and show issues -- and with the economy there are a few of those. 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 we were told it wasn’t new (we emphasize “new” in our show reports) or perhaps we were totally brain-dead and missed it -- anything's possible! But don't fret; there are more reports to come. If you do want to ask a question about coverage, drop us a note at snewsbox@snewsnet.com.)

Bodyguard

Bodyguard, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, let us in on the nitty gritty of how it is stabilizing prices for retailers: It offers discounts when retailers buy three machines, or a full pallet, since breaking up the pallet costs more. And the Canadian company has been a leader in digital customization for several years. Its X-card, which works like a hotel key card, can hold up to 60 workouts and retails for $50. Launched on its treadmills, it now is incorporated into other cardio equipment. Bodyguard also responded to the call for more comfort with the R6X -- a new recumbent with a super-plush, multi-adjustable seat. www.bodyguard.com

Diamondback

Diamondback, which has its eye on value, brought a pared-back line of products to the show that it hopes will help retailers through lean times when customers are looking at price tags. Treadmills are a thing of the past as the company focuses on bikes and elliptical. Take the 500Ef, for example: This small-profile (just 53 inches long), front-drive elliptical comes with a simple LCD and a 15-inch stride length that retails for a very sensible $699. That’s not to say Diamondback can’t hit the high-end either. The 1190Er, a rear-drive with a 21-inch stride length and Polar-compatible receivers, does geek features right and still retails at $2,199. Perhaps one of the best pieces of cardio equipment we saw for the money, the 500Ub is an upright trainer with a list of $499 with MP3 plug-in capability, heart-rate contact sensors, and a wide range of workout programs. www.diamondbackfitness.com

FreeMotion Fitness

FreeMotion made a big push into the category that we at SNEWS have dubbed “A-Trainers.” But the Utah-based company looked to its own name to brand the new breed of machines, dubbing its new category of adaptable stride ellipticals, “FreeMotion” machines. The top of the line was the FreeMotion f7.8, which offers a variable stride range that stretches from tight steps down to a big 44-inch, Nordic-style max. Add in iPod compatibility (which has become almost mandatory on high-end machines) and a “Stride Ladder” that helps users keep within pre-set stride patterns for a workout, and FreeMotion won our nod for one of the most innovative machines at the show. The full package retails at $4,999, but smaller, trimmed-down versions with a 35-inch max stride length run as low as $2,499. FreeMotion also caught our eye when it came to innovation in the treadmill category. Its new t7.4 treadmill is referred to as the “snowboard treadmill” and once we hopped on it we understood why: The deck features a composite wood-core construction, much like a snowboard, and it flexes under foot while providing support much like a snowboard when flexed into a turn. This downward give also reduces impact, a big benefit for those non-snowboarding boomers with aging joints. www.freemotionfitness.com

Kettler

“Most manufacturers are actually importers,” Kettler’s national sales manager Jim Hodge reminded us. He mentioned that while he walked us through Kettler’s new “Verso by Kettler” series of machines that the German company -- which makes a point of its European-made technology -- is manufacturing in Asia. The Verso machines feature Kettler’s German design but allow the company to take advantage of the value market. As for its standard line, Kettler is appealing to women with a focus on fresh, living room style and a predilection for white in its color waves. www.kettlerfitness.com

LeMond Fitness

Lemond was thinking comfort with its new Rev Master Pro, which retails at a reasonable $1,395. The bike’s stronger frame can accommodate users up to 350 pounds and features more fore-aft adjustability in the handlebars and softer levers that are easier to adjust. LeMond is also continuing to push the digital interactivity envelope with easy-to-download WKO Lite software that works in conjunction with a USB port its G-Force UT and allows a user to create a personal workout diary on a home computer. This information can be further analyzed to lose weight or improve performance and users can work with coaches. The most important thing LeMond did was make it easier for less tech-savvy users to access. www.lemondfitness.com

Life Fitness

Life Fitness continued to move along the customization and electronic interface features of its Platinum Club Series. Last year, the company’s new treadmills featured everything from iPod integration (but of course!) to a virtual on-screen workout landscape to the handy interface of a USB port to download workouts and analyze or share them on a computer at home. This show, that same technology is in the new Platinum Club Series bikes. www.lifefitness.com

LifeCore

Surprise, surprise, rowers are on an upswing in popularity, according to the folks at Life Core. Unlike water-based rowers (you know, the ones that look like they could do your wash), Life Core’s machines use an adjustable magnetic system, making it easier to pace and intensify a workout. The R99 retails at $999. www.lifecorefitness.com

Vision

Customization was the key word at Vision, which has expanded it mix-and-match console-and-machine schema from treadmills to include ellipticals. Customers can choose an elliptical from among the company’s entry-level X1500, with a 21-pound flywheel and 18-inch stride to the larger X6000, with its 21-pound flywheel and 19.75-inch stride, up to the top-of-the-line X6200, with a 24-pound flywheel and 19.75 inch stride. The customer then chooses a console ranging from a simple LCD version, a backlit LCD deluxe, or a premier with program quick keys. The big winner in this plan is the retailer who can minimize inventory and offer more options to customers. It’s also a solid draw for customers, again stepping to the trend of “have it your way.” The big innovation story here, however, was what the company calls its Suspension Elliptical Trainer. A type of incline A-trainer, though not as radical as some we saw at the show, the Suspension Trainer combats the possible ills of the standard elliptical orbit by auto-adjusting to provide a smooth, gentle, natural ellipsis. Called PerfectStride technology, it works by first ensuring that the footpads remain constant even as a user climbs the ellipsis. It also ensures proper alignment of the knee and hip and the stride adjusts as a user climbs. It’s a smart piece, designed and marketed to make the elliptical more user-friendly. www.visionfitness.com

>> Newcomers make waves

Randy Ross Stepper

It was hard to miss the Randy Ross Stepper, a hip-looking outdoor bike propelled by up-and-down steppter-like pedals. But why? The bike’s inventor Gary Silva explained that the same principle as an elliptical trainer is behind the bike, except that “instead of sitting in the gym, you get out and ride it around. It’s a functional trainer.” Ross, of old-standing brand Ross Bicycles, will use his family experience in the bike industry to market and promote the product to a younger street-wise demographic. Some fitness traditionalists may have turned up their noses but we think it’s important for the industry to be able to make inroads beyond the traditional boundaries of the industry to speak to younger demographics. Whether a stepper-powered bike is the answer remains to be seen. www.randyrossstepper.com

Real Ryder

A late add to the show and hidden in the back, Real Ryder may have been missed by a few at the HFB show. Another bike that is trying to bring an outdoor feel to indoor workouts, the Real Ryder bike has a stand that allows the user’s weight to make it tilt and lean for a real-road/real-trail feel. The founder, a long-time competitive road cyclist, was indeed looking for that feel when he trained indoors. The concept is intriguing but is still priced a bit higher than other indoor cycles at $2,000 list. www.realryder.com



Symmetry


Newcomer Symmetry made waves with an impressive A-trainer. The company dubs its HC 810 and HC 820 machines as HypoCyloidal trainers and they allow for a variation of elliptical shapes that range from XC ski to classic stepper. President Jim Carrier stressed the virtues of the machine for both rehab and training and, in fact, one of the machine’s incline workout programs is dubbed “Everest.” www.symmfit.com

Thorotread

One of a handful of innovative debuts we saw in treadmills, the Thorotread, by Joe Ellis with his company Fitness Tools, runs forward or reverse. Plus, with the belt in reverse mode (top speed in reverse is 3 mph), the front bar disengages and can be held onto a bit like a water-skier holds onto the bar. This offers dead-weight resistance that can be adjusted by the user from five to 30 pounds. In regular treadmill mode, it goes up to a 7-percent incline but also allows decline training to 8 percent. Truly, we’ll await consumer reaction. www.thorotread.com



>> IHRSA show debuts come to retail

Helix

In the search for other ways to move in training, Helix founder Lenny Snyderman came up with this patented piece. Lateral pedaling movements are a bit of a skating-motion that force the user to push off side-to-side. It uses perpetual motion pedals placed next to each other: Imagine an upright stationary bike with both pedals on one side of the bottom unit and the handlebars facing to the side. You stand on the pedals and rotate them one way or the other. Its list is $900. www.helixco.com

Octane

The repeat winner for best elliptical (and the 2008 "best supplier") in the SNEWS annual Fitness Retailer Survey, Octane brought some innovation buzz to the floor with the X-Ride -- a seated elliptical it had introduced at the IHRSA show as a prototype. It’s an attempt to bring comfort and a new range of motion to the elliptical game especially for the baby boomers, but applicable to any demographic. www.octanefitness.com

ST Fitness

The eSpinner, also shown by Star Trac at IHRSA, makes big strides when it came to taking advantage of interactive technology. This at-home spin bike features a full interactive, video display that re-creates a spin class at home. Plus, it sports iPod compatibility and tracks cadence, heart rate other vitals in order to coach users according to these indicators, and it offers a virtual instructor. Those who don’t want digital interactivity can just watch a movie on the screen. The downside is that rings in at $4,895. www.startracusa.com

Volume Fitness

Utah-based Volume Fitness offered an outstanding value in its 01i, a $349 upright trainer, Volume calls it an indoor bike that should resonate with consumers looking for value. The company’s calling card “iFollow” feature, which shows different arm movements for a user to follow during a workout, will be added soon. That feature is now on its elliptical and bikes. www.volumefitness.com

>> Prototypes finalized

SportsArtFitness

Looking back to the future, SportsArt brought 15 new prototypes to last year’s show that are now ready to go. The most impressive aspect of the range of solid innovative machines is the range of price options: Its recumbent XTrainers with independent arms now go as low as $2,099. SportsArt’s bikes capitalize on easy-to-use interactivity built into the console. www.sportsartfitness.com

Trixter/X-Bike

Trixter’s Xdream, which debuted as a prototype at last year’s show, is a full X-Bike -- a 14kg flywheel bike that also integrates upper body workouts through active handlebars that simulate mountain biking. But the “dream” part is a fully realized video game that puts the user smack in the middle of the action with an onscreen persona that senses the user’s movements. Now at market, the XDream learns and adapts to different riders. Of course, it ain’t cheap, retailing at $8,995. It is, however, a glimpse at future interactive possibilities that could make today’s consoles look like an Atari. www.xbiking.com

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 coverage on July 17 and we will continue to cover products, trends and issues in a variety of ongoing reports for the next few weeks.

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