H&F Biz show '05: Strength equipment has, yes, strong showing

Any fear about a lack of innovation or new products in the strength category was shown to be totally unfounded once the 2005 Health & Fitness Business Show got underway in Denver in August. From the littlest tweak that still made a difference to some of the biggest products on the floor, new strength products and innovations were to be seen down many aisles.
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Any fear about a lack of innovation or new products in the strength category was shown to be totally unfounded once the 2005 Health & Fitness Business Show got underway in Denver in August. From the littlest tweak that still made a difference to some of the biggest products on the floor, new strength products and innovations were to be seen down many aisles.

What was even more apparent is that what has been perhaps perceived by some as a faddy influx in functional strength products was not and is not. From veterans such as Fitness EM, TuffStuff, Vectra and Vision Fitness to newcomers like Advanced Fitness Technologies and Inspire, the home gym category has been overtaken by cables, rotating arms, sliding benches and multiple handle attachments. Could it be that the standard fixed-arm home gyms are already old-fashioned?

“In a couple of years, we may not even need traditional stacks; everything is going to be functional,” one retailer went so far as to tell SNEWS® while he perused equipment on the floor of the Aug. 25-27 show.

Making traditional home gym structures antique may still be a little ways down the road since the learning curve for functional and free-cable systems is still big. The education and information needed to help consumers understand and know how to use these pieces is the next hurdle for both suppliers and retailers to leap. Still, it does seem that the functional category has strong enough legs eventually to make it into the home from the health clubs in a stronger way.

While home gyms—functional or not—still garner the majority of attention from the media and the industry companies such as Body-Solid and Hoist, companies offering free weights and benches such as USA/Troy, York, TKO, Hampton and many others are still bulking up. Multi-weight dumbbells from Stamina, Pro-Bell and Powerblock (Nautilus wasn't at the show) still attract attention as a mini-category of their own, while one newcomer, KettleStack, offers a variation on the growing hardcore Kettlebell phenomenon.

If you made it to the show, you may not have made it to every booth or seen every new piece with all there was to soak in -- or you may have not simply been able to wade through knee-deep crowds at some strength suppliers such as Lamar Health Fitness & Sport and Vectra. So whether you were at the show or not, SNEWS® is here to point out some highlights. While not an all-inclusive list (hey, we only have so much bandwidth), here are some of the products and companies – in alphabetical order -- that created a buzz on the floor and to our eyes:

(Several weeks of show coverage began Aug. 29, so don't miss out. Look for more in coming weeks as SNEWS® continues the best and most detailed show coverage -- you won't find more complete or more accurate reports anywhere else. To come are reports on cardiovascular equipment, accessories, yoga/Pilates, the GearTrends® Forum and panel discussion, and other news and entertaining bits heard around the floor.)

Advanced Fitness Technology -- With a hefty $11,000 price tag, the I-Form Personal Trainer may scare off some. But for those without fear, I-Form is a light-commercial, high-end functional trainer with an integrated computer. The computer shows two-angle videos of proper exercise form, creates routines and tracks progress. Beyond the computer, the rather large unit allows for a plethora of functional exercises from multiple angles and also includes a leg press that allows for more than 500 pounds or resistance.

Batca Fitness Systems -- With three new vertical/commercial lines debuting at the show, this relatively quiet company made some big noise in Denver. The company's S Series consists of 12 single station units with 11 gauge frames, contoured seats, gas-assisted seating and counterbalanced exercise arms. For more space-conscious facilities, the C series features 10 combination units such as a chest press/pec fly, standing curl/tricep extension and mid row/lat pull. The company also added to its X Series of multi-station gyms with a two-, three-, and four-stack unit now rounding out the line.

Biotron -- While there are some drawbacks nay-sayers add when it comes to hydraulic equipment, Curves has shown that a company can make a profit with it. Well, the Biotron 2000 may take it to the next level. With multiple, functional exercise options such as chest presses, preacher curls, squats and more, and easily adjustable resistance, the company believes its product may convert some of those that have pooh-poohed hydraulics.

Body-Solid -- The company had a solid (yes, the pun was intended…ouch) showing in Denver—although it might want to try better names for the products. Its new folding flat/incline /decline bench, the PFID125W (see what we meant about the product names?) comes out of the box fully assembled and, with a retail price of $99, seems to scream "easy add-on sale." The company also had two new home gym add-ons including the adjustable cable column (GCA, suggested retail, $500), which features two pulleys and attaches to several of the company's home gyms allowing dealers the chance to offer a functional training aspect to more traditional gyms. The company has also reduced its power racks SKUs from three to one, the GPR378, what it called a “heavier rack” with a retail for $500.

Bodycraft -- Call it "The Jones, not just another Smith part deux" as co-owner Alan Gore showed us the final version of a new machine he said he believes will replace current Smith machines – and from what we saw, we don't disagree. Priced at a suggested retail of $2,000 for the light commercial version and $2,600 for the commercial version, The Jones machine puts the weight rack and adjustable safety spotter system onto horizontal bars on either side of the cage, meaning the bar and rack can slide forward or backward within the framework of the cage. No more endlessly repositioning a bench to get the bar in the right spot. Lifts now allow for user-defined, natural and unlimited movement, according to Gore. A pop-pin locks the rack into place for traditional Smith exercises.

Continuing Fitness -- Targeting the growing over-65 crowd, the three-year old Continuing Fitness company is taking the chair fitness phenomenon to the next level – reaching out to retailers for the first time. The Resistance Chair (suggested retail, $230) offers users a full-body workout from a safe, comfortable seated position in what amounts to a plastic folding chair. Additional features include the Resistance Anchor Cable system which provides a wide range of upper and lower body exercises without the use of heavy weights; the detachable Health Step, which provides added stability for seated strength exercises and attaches to the back of the chair for step exercises; Balance Bar Handles, which provide balance support for leg exercises while standing behind the chair; and Non-Skid Floor Protectors that grip the floor for extra stability and safety. You may laugh at its simplicity, but this is a piece that could sell to the correct demographic – and we aren't talking muscleheads, but the ever-growing senior population. Heck, someone in a wheelchair could even transfer to the seat to use the pulley and rubber-resistance system too.

Fitcore -- With its aptly named Titan (although behemoth might be even more fitting), Fitcore made quite an impression in its U.S. debut. Carrying a $4,000 retail, the all-in-one gym features several features making it as versatile as it is large. The unit comes standard with push/pull handles, preacher curl attachment, comfort-pad squat attachments, and more. The unit can also handle several options including cable-cross, dumbbell spotters, heavy bag, leg extension and more. At the core of the Titan is its Smith hybrid technology, which is a patent-pending carriage system with an opening in the middle of the bar, allowing users a fuller range of motion and easier access to the unit.

Fitness EM -- With the launch of its new Empower fitness equipment line, Fitness EM continues its concentration on the women's segment started with its Danskin license several years ago (You may know it as Danskin Fitness or even as Savage Fitness). The "empower" line consists of four benches/home gyms and two dumbbell sets. The line is led by the em40 (retail, $400), which utilizes a patented cradle holding the empower dumbbells to provide up to 100 pounds of resistance. Designed specifically with women and the specialty market in mind, the em40 also has a functional cable component and comes with a DVD featuring exercises. The company does pretty cool stuff that again doesn't try to cater to the over-catered-to enthusiast, but rather to the women who wants light toning and strengthening and may be intimidated by hugo-mondo pieces.

Hampton Fitness -- The strength company, still basking in the successful launch of its comfy and colorful Jelly Bells earlier this year, was touting a new six-pair rack for the gel grip dumbbells – the grips are very cool, very comfortable, and very colorful! What's not to like? The company also highlighted its Satellite series of dumbbells featuring Gel-Grip urethane handles and customizable end-caps. The company has had so much success with its urethane-handled dumbbells it has added the grips to many of its barbells and all of its machine attachments.

Health in Motion/Inspire -- While it may have been the lumberjack-sturdy swings (made with home gym-type adjustability and treadmill-gauge tubing) and colorful teeter-totter in the booth that first attracted the eye of many buyers, the realization that there was some genuine fitness equipment geared toward specialty retail in the booth kept the crowds around. Made up of ex-Pacific Fitness vets and founders, Inspire (the home gym segment of the company) had prototypes of its three M-Series home gyms on hand (retails, $1,400 to $2,600). Like all its gyms, the entry level M1 features a fabric shroud and orthopedic pads in four standard colors that pop in and out, making them highly customizable to people's tastes. While the M1 is a standard home gym, the M2 features both fixed range of motion and cable motion, adding a functional training aspect to the gym. The M3 gym offers even more functionality and also features a commercial ab crunch.

Hoist Fitness -- While it didn't add to its home gyms, which were launched about two years ago, Hoist has been very busy with its free-weight line adding 30 pieces (yes, really) in the last six months. Leading the way at the show and joining its popular HF 142 is the new HF 141 bench. The easy-folding bench also doubles as a sit-up bench and, like the 142, folds flat for storage. It also comes in a POP, stacking box allowing it to be more of a cash-and-carry product. The company also showed a new Vertical Knee Raise. While not an uncommon piece of equipment by any stretch, the new Hoist model features a removable back that locks into a low position and allows it to double as an ab-crunch bench. Other features to many of the updated (although not new) Hoist products are the end of plastic end caps, the loss of which, the company said, led to the most calls to customer service, plus safety spotters that lock into place on benches.

Kettlestack -- Kettlebells are all the rage with the hardcore, cutting-edge and functional training crowd, and Kettlestack is trying to bring Kettlebell training to the masses with its adjustable kettlebells. The Kettlestack Adjustable Kettlebell (retail, $55) features heavy Duty ABS plastic grip (approximately 1-3/8-inch diameter) with spring steel band, custom hex axle, hex Allen wrench, heavy duty grade 8 hardware allowing it to easily adjust to any weight utilizing standard or Olympic plate combinations.

Lamar Health, Fitness & Sport -- Even relative newbie (as a company at least) Lamar went straight to a functional trainer with its intro of gym units. The Vertical Functional Trainer (list, $2,200) has one of the smallest footprints around as well as the patented "Lock n' Load" stack system so far used exclusively by Lamar (instead of pins, you'll find lightswitch-like toggles to adjust and lock a weight choice). In addition, the company introduced a leg press that has a less-intimidated walk-through system (retail, $1,500).

Muscle Dynamics -- With a small sampling of the 33 new machines in its Dynamax Pro line of light institutional equipment, Muscle Dynamics may have packed the biggest bang for its buck in its rather modest booth. Highlighted in the booth by its double ab crunch, the line of plate-loaded equipment retails from $1,600 to $2,000, which the company said fills a niche in the vertical market and is the direction the company is going

Powertec -- Looking to grow outside of its retail-only roots, Powertec fitness introduced its Turbo line of leverage equipment. The company had tried to expand its business through cable units and other avenues, but it has decided to take what it does best, leverage, and build its name in the commercial realm. The 12-piece line -- made up of 10 single-station and two multi-station units – features 11-gauge steel and full commercial specs.

Torsoplex – A newbie at the show and in a rather back-alley position that was easily missed, Torsoplex's Larry Martel nevertheless was smiling. Already he had spoken to Target, the Discovery Channel and QVC at the show about his ab-crunch bench that had a flexible spine that allowed assisted obliques while also offering a back support. Listing at $400, Torsoplex seemed a bit pricy for only doing abs but Martel pointed out it can assist in 18 different torso exercises and "you'll never get bored." Could be a winner based on society's obsession with abs.

Troy/USA -- To help hold its wildly successful VTX dumbbells -- so much so the company is adding a factory in China expressly to produce the line, it said – Troy/USA introduced its three-tier dumbbell rack. The rack made of 2-x-3 tubing holds a 5 to 75 pound run.

TuffStuff -- To prevent access from prying eyes and cameras intent on copying its new features, TuffStuff got tough and tucked itself away for the first time in a closed booth with round-the-clock (at least during show hours) security. Inside were TuffStuff's eight new gyms that created a huge buzz all over the floor. Retailers kept telling us how impressive the line was and that "the company was back on track with the home market." The six-piece line is named the AXT-1 through AXT-5 with another piece, a functional trainer, named the AFT-1. The AFT-1 is replacing the Odyssey 5 in TuffStuff's line. TuffStuff designers worked overtime to create a line that is both visually appealing (oval tubing and a choice of three color options for the tuck-and-roll upholstery) and easy to use. Gas-assisted seat adjustments, a flip-switch to allow press arms to be raised or lowered while the user is seated, and a single point adjustment for articulated adjustable pulley arms, meaning the user doesn't have to move from one side of the gym to the other just to complete an adjustment. Though finally pricing was not set by Sept. 6, 2005, the company told us the gyms would range in price from about $2,200 to $2,700, depending on the features offered. Additionally, the company was showcasing the MaxuVibe, a vibration trainer with a tilting platform and dampened vibration, which the company says eliminates some of the brain- and eyeball-shaking other vibrating plate machines are known for.

Ultimate Dumbbell Fitness -- A bench is a bench, right? Well, maybe not, at least when you compare the Ultimate Dumbbell bench with traditional Olympic benches on the market. At first glance there is little special to these benches; they certainly aren't the prettiest benches on the market and, in fact, they are a little dull. But when it comes to functionality and safety in dumbbell training, however, they stand out. With two home units, which hold 35-pound and 65-pound dumbbells, respectively, and two commercial units, which hold 80- and 120-pound dumbbells respectively, the benches allow lifters to eliminate the need to jerk dumbbells into starting positions. (Of course, this is your seriously lifting crowd the company is catering to with these.) According to the company, this eliminates need for spotters, reduces injury and lessens wear and tear on floors from dropped dumbbells.

Vectra Fitness -- Not to be left behind in the rush to functional training and cable-centric machings, Vectra Fitness decided to get into the functional act with its first entry into the category. Boasting a high and wide swiveling pulley system and one low pulley, the VFT 100 (projected retail, $2,500) offers 23 high-to-low settings. With a yet undetermined release date during the holiday season, Vectra said it expects to build on the “palpable buzz” at the booth – Heck, we could hardly elbow our way in to see the thing. The company also introduced its new commercial gym VX Series (projected retails, $2,900 to $10,500). With what Vectra called “interchangeable machine commonality,” retailers will be able to stock and warehouse components that can be built into various pieces off of the same frame.

Vision Fitness -- Taking up about 25 square feet, the ST200 Functional Trainer (retail, $1,700) attempts to take the complexity out of the functional training category – and is Vision's re-entry into the strength category it first took a gander out about three years ago but never took to retail. The company's first strength unit features co-molded handles, a patent-pending seat that swings out of the way (really a cool feature that offers flexibility to users), angled uprights and instructional exercise cards that show start and finish positions and also allow tracking of progress. We liked the company's attempt to offer some kind of education and guidance to users, which is what the category needs to grow. Additionally, Vision offers a leg press attachment, the ST250 (retail, $650), which features a swivel plate and six range of motion positions.

York Barbell Co. -- Showing that you can teach an old dog new tricks—or at least it can learn to gussy-up an old standard -- the main focus at this strength legend's booth was the launch of its ISO-Grip plate (retail, $1 per pound). The steel composite plate features several grip holes (the company has applied for a patent), wider hub, and is 360-degrees pinch free. York also launched a new loin of attachments that feature polyurethane handles along with ergonomic ends and scoring for the grips adding increased comfort and durability, according to the company.

But wait… there is more coming from SNEWS® out of the show: Next week, look for our report on cardiovascular equipment and in the next two weeks we'll cover accessories, yoga/Pilates, exergaming and a few other surprises.

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