IHRSA show proves product development, innovation alive and very well

Product innovation and excitement that new equipment and trends can stir helped keep the show floor at the annual IHRSA trade show March 28-31 a lively and bustling place to be. From early morning workouts to the last hour of the last day, exhibitors were kept busy with full aisles.
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Product innovation and excitement that new equipment and trends can stir helped keep the show floor at the annual IHRSA trade show March 28-31 a lively and bustling place to be. From early morning workouts to the last hour of the last day, exhibitors were kept busy with full aisles.

SNEWS® made its rounds and, of course, will never say we saw everything (no, no super-human reporters here) nor will we try to tell you about every last piece of steel, iron, plastic and electronic widget we did see. However, a few trends were clear:

Technology -- As SNEWS® forecast in a 2006 report, 2007 has indeed become the year of a rebirth in technological innovations and partnerships. Apple cracked deals with Star Trac, Life Fitness and Technogym for licensed arrangements that allowed the three to call their equipment "iPod-compatible" rather than just MP3 compatible and allowed the three to use the ubiquitous iPod 30-pin connector. Precor also had MP3 compatible equipment, but not iPod-specific (hey, it's in Microsoft's backyard, what do you expect?). Interesting was how each chose to implement the compatibility in such entirely different ways.

In other news, equipment with built-in entertainment screens, either embedded in the console or as a part of the console construction, is nearly a given, coming full-circle from the early 1990s when it was an after-thought, and an expensive one at that, with the hardware simply ahead of the software curve. Star Trac partnered with MYE Entertainment, becoming one of the last to get on that train as it reaches full speed. (Click here to see a March 30, 2007, SNEWS® story, "Star Trac partners with MYE Entertainment for distribution, product development.") Cybex too added built-in screens.

Don't neglect the weight stacks! -- Long an overlooked part of equipment, the deaf and dumb pin-selectorized weight stacks that haven't changed since the stone age … changed. Nautilus wow'd 'em when it introduced an entirely new way to change your choice in a selectorized piece, and Star Trac took on the Lock 'N Load flip-switch system. With the gates open, we bet the inventors' brains will start to whirl again.

Climbing to intensity -- A number of companies introduced machines that, as a collection, could mean the start of that long-sought "new thing," including Life Fitness, Matrix Fitness and Precor. In this case, it's all about a motion that allows individualization of the movement (see above) on one machine that incorporates a motion that replicates a climbing/hiking-like higher knee lift during at least one phase. For years, the Cybex Arc Trainer was really the only one of its kind. All of these are touted as having the ability to really get an intense but still non-impact workout. Look to the 2007 GearTrends® fitness magazine, out in July, for a close look at what these are, how they work and what they could mean.

Individuals rule -- With the addition of the technological features and compatibility, the doors are starting to open to truly allow users to individualize their workouts, programs and coaching choices. iPods and MP3s allow users to import motivational and coaching programs, as well as last week's TV shows or a new movie of their choice, or even another fitness DVD workout to get familiar with. It also gives program developers and coaches, with and without partnerships with the manufacturers, the opportunity to sell downloadable programs for running, walking, cycling and other workouts to be done on all kinds of equipment. Virtual trainers, as Life Fitness introduced on its new treadmills, will be the wave of the future. We'll bet a user will even be able to choose gender, how much they should say, what and how often. User control also extended to machines, not only in the above-mentioned types, but also for example with SportsArt's new elliptical that allows users to choose a stride length from 17 to 29.5 inches.

Interaction and games -- Not new, but finding more wind are the likes of Cateye's gaming bikes, Dance Dance Revolution, and the Motivatrix (looks odd in the way you dance and jump like a possessed person in front of a column and under a halo reminiscent of beam-me-up-Scottie, but not all bad in the coaching it supplies). Even Koko Fitness, seemingly just an on-screen coaching device for a strength workout, incorporates a playful and fun element but adds an instructor, leader or trainer entity. We believe it is the first application of cardio's ubiquitous "quick start" to strength training, which is a brilliant idea. We also noted something called LightSpace Play that had you jumping and jigging on a floor that lit up brightly to not get eliminated (think musical chairs). Of course, SportWall is still forefront in this realm, as is Trazer (distributed by Cybex), and Makoto is a piece not to be ignored.

Much of the above plays right into research that shows what people crave to get and stay with a fitness program is, yes, motivation. That includes knowing what to do and how to change it when you get bored. Having the ability for virtual trainers, downloadable programming and interactive games could be a harbinger of new growth in the numbers of consumers who get on the fitness bandwagon -- and stick with it. That, in turn, could mean more overall growth for the industry. None of that is a bad thing, SNEWS® dares to say.

Here are a few equipment highlights, which are in no way intended to be all-inclusive but rather should give a taste of what was at the show, what we felt was different, or what was being talked about:

Cardio Gym -- First introduced in the United States in August 2006 at the retail-focused Health & Fitness Business show in Denver, Cardio Gym is a nifty and compact gym that now has several versions. The self-generating commercial model unveiled with great aplomb at IHRSA does not fold up into a vertical space like the home model, but is a simple, low-profile unit with cables. In front is a recumbent bike that rotates on its base so a user can use the cables to work both the front and back of the body while also doing a cardio workout, or not. www.cardiogym.com

Hoist Fitness -- One of the truly innovative introductions at the show, Hoist's "Roc-it" line is the moniker that now covers all of its pieces that move (i.e. rock) in some way. The KL line (also known as the Kid's Line) was the first that used a technology where the motions pulled and lifted the user in different directions rather than leaving him or her stationary on a seat or bench. This full-sized CF line not only is fun, bringing involuntary smiles and giggles to a user, but it's "sexy," as one dealer put it. Everything is curved and begs for a hand run over the surface. The company says it took two years of R&D and it's been tested in select clubs for nearly 18 months. There are now 10 pieces with more to come. The tag line, "Feel the Ride," truly fits the experience and Hoist is calling the technology ROX for "Ride-oriented Xercise." www.hoistfitness.com

Life Fitness -- Another dynamic hit were the new iPod-compatible treadmills from Life (95ti or 95te) that are all about individualization and choice as well as user involvement. The hand-made prototypes at the show were busy items (list prices still TBD but likely upward of $7,000 and even perhaps touching $9,000). The built-in 15-inch touch screens or attachable TVs are vibrant, beautiful and easy-to-navigate, and the ability to choose a workout on a mountain, track or 5K course, all measured, leave the ability for the truly competitive or data-motivated to compare, log and compete. You can also use a USB port on the treads to download programs from any USB, such as a flash drive, that can be supplied to a user by a trainer. Once plugged in, the treadmill will simply take over and move through the workout for the user. Then you can download results into spreadsheets for analysis. And the so-called "virtual trainer" can coach and instruct, if desired, through your headphones. There's more, but bottom line is, this was the best and most seamless integration of the iPod at the show. The company also had its Summit Trainer, offering a true mountain-climbing workout, and its new "Hammer Vest" that allows a wearer to hook up him- or herself to the cables of a trainer and do all kinds of assisted exercises or other body-weight-controlled movements. www.lifefitness.com

Matrix Fitness -- Also on the "ascending" trend is the Ascent Trainer that is a sleek and comfortable iteration of the expanding category. The stride changes from a shorter and more-walking or step-like movement to more climbing-like movement with a higher knee lift. One of the narrowest gaps between feet at 3 ½ inches means it is also comfy for smaller people. Its incline elliptical feels very similar and, we are told by the company, is much like the Ascent Trainer (list $7,000) in movement with a few less features and variability and perhaps for the club with less money or space. Either way, these could be some of the best ascending pieces so far. www.matrixfitness.com

Nautilus -- Another huge hit on the floor that created show-long buzz was from the new Nautilus One selectorized pieces that took a 360-degree different look at how to "select" weights, leaving attendees peering, poking and prying at the mechanics. There is no stack, as we know it, but a series of plates lined up vertically side-by-side with a dial (like the one on the company's SelectTech dumbbells) so a user can simply dial in the weight desired. The mechanical part under the shroud -- called the "engine" by the company in its theatrical unveiling at 4 p.m. on the show's first day -- also has the ability to add-on smaller weight increments. All of the choices are simply grabbed by a hook and then lifted when the user pulls or presses (a bit like the crane that grabs toys out of a bin at arcades, but of course with less chance involved!). A translucent shroud hides the amount of weight being lifted so users are potentially intimidated by onlookers judging them. Click here to check it out.

New Leaf/Garmin -- Perhaps less showy but just as ground-breaking was the partnership unveiled by New Leaf with Garmin that allows users of Garmin's Forerunner 305, which measures heart rate, speed, distance and the like, to use the metabolic assessment from New Leaf to determine workout variables that can be downloaded to the 305 wrist computer. A user can then track his or her progress on the web, store workouts, share data and upload new profiles and programs. In the past, metabolic assessments were certainly used to setup training and workouts, but there was not a true link to what someone used to monitor themselves during the workout. In fact, when this one tracks and counts calories, fat and carbs used, it will be spot on with the user's own metabolism. www.newleaffitness.com

Precor -- The company's new AMT, or Adaptive Motion Trainer, also was an entirely new concept, with its army of pieces needing sign-ups on a waiting list to try. The Trainer (list, $8,000 without the entertainment option) indeed adapts from a null stride length (think stepper-like motion up and down) to a 27-inch sprint and anything in between. It takes some learning to figure out how to move from one to the other, some thought to stay in some of the modes of longer stride length, and use of the arms to keep the stride going (no slacking off there), but all-in-all it's an intriguing development and a big step forward in out-of-the-box engineering. Buzz on the floor always included the AMT too. www.precor.com

Star Trac -- We already mentioned its partnership with MYE, its iPod-compatible equipment, and its exclusive on the Lock 'N Load pinless selectorized system. The company also had first versions of its vertical/high-end home stuff in a back room that is still in prototype stage but looking good and aiming toward a late summer launch. If that wasn't enough (no wonder the booth was the biggest one at the show), Star Trac also showed its own line of free weights and plates, urethane-coated dumbbells and plates with the plates having sleek three to five grip holes, all intended to complete the company's journey in the last three years to a real one-stop shop. www.startrac.com

And if that isn't enough, click here to read "Getting Fabio'd at IHRSA" about THE Fabio's fab-ulous presence on the floor in the SNEWS® Forum section, The Herd.

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