H&F Biz show '04 -- Strength still going strong

While strength remains the smaller brother of cardio, don't try to kick sand in its face as the category is on the move and getting larger. Just take a look at the ever-expanding number of plates, weight stacks, cables, pulleys and gyms scattered across the Health & Fitness Business show floor in Denver Aug. 19-21 and you'll have all the evidence you need.
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While strength remains the smaller brother of cardio, don't try to kick sand in its face as the category is on the move and getting larger. Just take a look at the ever-expanding number of plates, weight stacks, cables, pulleys and gyms scattered across the Health & Fitness Business show floor in Denver Aug. 19-21 and you'll have all the evidence you need.

But it's getting harder and harder to classify a company as "strength" or as "cardio," since the dividing line between them continues to blurr. That's because more and more formerly "strength" companies have now opted to introduce cardio products to their line as well. It appears to us as if being only a strength equipment company isn't good enough anymore. Or maybe it's just not as profitable.

With the price of steel dramatically increasing over the last year or two – and what's a home gym except big masses of steel stuck together? – some strength companies have realized thinner margins as they attempt to control cost escalation. At the same time, it is no secret that electronic component prices continue to fall. What's a cardio product made of? Certainly not as much steel, more plastics and all those lower-priced electronics. Naturally, cardio has become one attractive way to enjoy better profit margins.

In addition, multi-weight dumbbell systems were everywhere and the category – variable weights in one set of dumbbells -- could not be ignored. That trend began last year, which is when SNEWS® dubbed it "multi-weight dumbbell systems." If it was going to be a category, it certainly needed one name! Adjustable dumbbell iterations were popping up in exhibitor booths like dandelions on a newly mowed lawn. While some of those we saw were certainly nicely executed design concepts, and one in particular, Hoist's Rocketlok was worthy of a standing ovation (we gave Nautilus' SelectTech the Standing O last year upon its intro), others were, well, to put it bluntly, products in search of a good idea or simply at-first-glance visual knockoffs of existing products.

One promised new offering in that category, DoshBells by Dosho Shifferaw, was missing in action from this year's show, despite our pre-show coverage in the GearTrends 2004 Fitness magazine that had some retailers coming to the GearTrends® booth asking about the product and Dosho. Why wasn't it there? Simply because Dosho told us he wasn't satisfied with the product quite yet and didn't want to bring out something half-baked.

Aesthetics, convenience continue to take center stage
We continue to be impressed with the attention to detail so many companies are now paying to aesthetics, ergonomics, and customer ease-of-use. To that we say, thank goodness, and it's about time. Of course the full shrouds over cables and pulleys have become a less expensive addition on mid-line pieces, partly because they usually aren't steel. But it's also an acknowledgement that full shrouds over the inner workings just make gyms look better. Or perhaps it is an acknowledgement that little features like gas-assisted seat lifts make adjusting seats in gyms more convenient. And even handles that just fit in the hand make a user say, "Ahhhhh, I'll take it."

Even color continues to garner more attention. While we doubt a $9,650 gym is going to burn up the tape on cash registers, the customizable version of the Tuff Stuff Apollo 5 gym, designed by Lyon Alizna, Tuff Stuff's commercial sales director, stopped passers-by in their tracks. High-end novelty to be sure, but one that can be personalized like a car and we know some consumers will be all over that one. It begins with a multi-hue, two-tone metallic paint job that changes color subtly with light changes. We walked circles around it trying to figure out what color it really was. Simulated leather seats that can be embroidered with the customer's name, chrome weight stacks, magnetic pins, highlighted pop pins and polished aluminum end caps add details that left retailers and other exhibitors alike wandering back and forth in front of the Tuff Stuff booth going glassy-eyed. Alizna told SNEWS® that from the time an order is placed for a custom gym, it is only one to two weeks before that gym will be delivered to the dealer.

Fringe going for encores
Sure, folks stared and a few even giggled, but for Bruce Hymanson, owner of Bodyblade, who was at his first Health & Fitness Business show, and David Varner, president of Power Max Fitness, also at his first show, getting the retailers to try would be making them believe.

Hymanson held court waving his Bodyblades up and down, back and forth, enticing others to grab one and give it a whirl. We did, along with a few other skeptical retailers and have to admit, after a few minutes of waving a 5-foot long blade up and down, we were feeling the muscle burn quite intensely. We watched a few other buff dudes pretend as if it would be a joke, then cry "Uncle." Hymanson keeps the product close so the use and design doesn't get bastardized. Designed for core strength training and rehabilitation, Bodyblades are indeed worth more than just a cursory glance --
www.bodyblades.com.

For his part, Varner had a less daunting task since his Power Max Fitness device, the Xfactor ($649), is designed and marketed to golfers to strengthen and stretch the body's core resulting in longer, more powerful drives. The gizmo looks like a medieval torture device, but it was designed by Varner so his then-10th-grade daughter could muster up sufficient strength to make the boy's varsity golf team. She did, and, in her senior year, is now out-driving the boys (to that we say, neener neener). www.powermaxfitness.com

Now, on with the shoe… err... show. Below you'll find highlights from the strength category. But you'll have to start with the Aug. 23 News Digest to read all of our show stories (so far, we've written five: overall news and numbers, accessories, stretch/balance, games and interactive fitness fun, plus this strength piece). Next week we still have cardio coming, and a look at miscellaneous stuff that doesn't fit elsewhere, and then the following week a summary of all the workshops. We got it all here, we are the most thorough, and we do it best. Stick with us.

And now a brief, but by no-means complete look, at who had what in the strength-training category we thought worthy of a mention (in alphabetical order):

BodyCraft -- When co-owner Alan Gore pitched us on the company's new Smith machine by saying it was named, "The Jones, not just another Smith," we knew immediately some fresh energy had been injected into the whole Smith mania. Love the attitude and smiles. The company was also turning heads with solid product too, including the new K1 Strength Training System gym ($1,700) with a 200-pound weight stack that Gore told us is designed to cater to the free weight convert who still desires user-defined movement. Patent-pending adjustable cable arms allow the user to mimic a wide array of dumbbell exercises and are well-suited for sports specific training as well as rehab.

Bodyguard Fitness -- While the company didn't have too much to talk about in terms of new strength product it did have a new name to discuss. Six to eights weeks before the show, Mike Cochrane and team determined that the strength company they purchased last year, Newton, had great product but no name recognition. So, the line was rebranded as "Bodyguard Strength Systems." The result is that sales have jumped with requests coming in more frequently than before for bids simply because folks recognize the name.

Body-Solid -- By the looks of it, there is not much the company is NOT doing these days, including lowering prices and bucking the price-increase trend. From licensing Olympic weight plate designs from Iron Grip Barbell to its new PowerLIFT freeweight system, to its commercial-quality home gym systems, Body-Solid is a company that is working hard to blend style with function. The new G5S ($1,500) underscores that focus with club-quality features like water bottle and towel holders (OK, small but they count and they can sell product), gas-assisted seat adjustments, compact design and self-aligning leg extension cuffs. Explaining the significant line expansion, national sales manager Todd Keller told us that the company is committed to making sure that its own store's needs are met in terms of complete product offerings and merchandising collateral and, in turn, those products are offered to the company's many retailers. Like many other companies, Body-Solid is toying with its own multi-weight system dumbbell --Smartblock is the name for now. But it's not ready for market.

Dynamax Pro by Muscle Dynamics -- They were lost in the middle of a sea of iron and steel, an island with precious little signage to the point many retailers walked on by. However, our eye was sufficiently caught by sales manager Greg Doxakis that we wandered in to discover that this was the commercial company's first show selling its new light commercial brand, Dynamax Pro. The line was clean, solid, durable and reasonably priced. Doxakis told us Muscle Dynamics decided to expand because of "market demand from a significant number of schools and private sector companies and organizations that cannot afford the high-end commercial."

Hoist Fitness -- Rocketlok multiweight set for ($380) is certainly one of our hot picks of the show because of its unique package and ease with which one can add or remove weights to a dumbbell handle. Packaged with 100 pounds of weights, two dumbbell handles, a stand and a barbell, the system packs value and space-saving convenience into an ensemble that will quite likely rocket out of retailer doors and into consumer homes. But the wows from us don't stop there. The HF 142 5-position fold-up bench for $200 is remarkable too as it not only folds flat for storage, but adjusts quickly and easily into five different angles from decline to varying inclines.

Nautilus -- Nautilus has made a conscious decision to leverage the strength of the company's Bowflex brand in all aspects of its product line, and the addition of Bowflex strength is no exception. New for Nautilus under the Bowflex brand are four strength cages featuring an Olympic bench ($350), half cage ($450), full cage ($700) and a Smith machine ($700). The designs are simple, clean and attractive with safety features like adjustable spotters that are nearly impossible to remove -- a very good thing. We're told a Bowflex branded SelectTech dumbbell is coming soon as well, joining the Nautilus SelectTech duo, which includes a new model with weight selection from 2.5 pounds to 20 pounds targeted at women. There's also a pretty cool-looking new home gym in the works, but we can't really talk about it under penalty of being beaten with a SelectTech of the company's choice if we do.

PowerBlock -- The company was being decidedly coy about its new product – a cable home gym system that utilizes a set of PowerBlock multiweight dumbbells for the weight. OK, it sat there for all to use and see, but ask for name and price and games start. Using time-tested groveling, pleading and Chinese water torture techniques, we found out the price would be somewhere under $1,200 and that the name might be CrossTrainer. Or not. Stay tuned on that front. Either way, it represents a natural evolution of a product providing consumers who own PowerBlocks a means to add a home gym system that utilizes a minimum amount of space and interfaces nicely with a set of PowerBlocks for versatility.

ProSpot Fitness – The new P-600 home gym system with the company's patented Grab & Go spotting technology combines free weights with a new dual-feature cable crossover system. It really was quite remarkable to be able to grasp the barbell, raise it one inch to release it, and then begin a free weight workout. Simply opening both hands releases the grip and locks the barbell into place. We also found the P-400 dumbbell home gym with Grab & Go technology quite cool -- nothing like taking your dumbbell set to the max knowing you can let go of the grip and have them lock into place at anytime.

Powertec Fitness -- New for the company is the QuickFit 3-piece leverage system ($800) that features one chin/dip set, one squat set, and one crunch set. The company says it is being targeted to Baby-Boomers who crave a total body workout but only are able to give 15 minutes twice a week.

Quantum -- Offering a slightly different twist on the multi-weight dumbbell theme, Quantum has introduced the Turbo Bell 560 ($400, with stand). With an adjustable stand that moves from a closed leg position for storage and space-saving to an open V-shape for use, the dumbbell system utilizes switches that can be flipped forward or backward to select weights from 5 to 60 pounds. The company also offers a smaller version of the Turbo Bell designed more for women with a rolling stand and a weight selection from 3 to 24 pounds. Weight selection increases or decreases in 1.5 pound increments.

Vectra -- While the company had nothing we would call brand-spanking new at the show -- at least nothing we are allowed to talk about -- Vectra has continued to effectively expand and update its home gyms with its patented online no-cable-change system that drew praises from the retailers filling the largest booth the company has ever had.

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