Koko Smartrainer: Possibly the first "quick start" of strength training

In Japanese, Koko means "one on one" -- an apropos name for the newest automated personal strength training machine that for a big piece of steel and plastic comes off as cuddly as its name sounds.
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In Japanese, Koko means "one on one" -- an apropos name for the newest automated personal strength training machine that for a big piece of steel and plastic comes off as cuddly as its name sounds.

The Koko Smartrainer, an all-in-one strength-training machine equipped with a computer monitor that serves as the trainer, is being marketed as time-saving and intuitive for any level, size or ability. Once you take a seat, the machine and the computer program guide users through a personal workout with easily understood pictures and graphics, making them feel nurtured as you sit in the one seat to complete your entire workout. In fact, Koko "listens" to a user's workout, co-founder Mary Obana told SNEWS®, so it knows what the person did, can do or should do.

"Think of this as a dialogue," she said. "Koko is all about making strength-training simple. It's for people who want to check fitness off the list and get on with their life."

SNEWS® thinks it could be the first "quick start" for strength training since there are no pins and levers to fiddle with. Just hit start and do what your friend Koko says. When the workout is completed, results are stored on something called a "Koko Key," which is basically a USB stick. Put it in the Koko Trainer next time at the gym and it picks up where you left off for your next workout.

The idea for this year-old device -- now only in a large commercial version, but stay tuned -- is the brainchild of co-founder Obana who was looking for a way, with her business partner Michael Lannon, to accommodate the baby boomers who are fully aware of the benefits of strength training but are looking for a quick workout that doesn't require a tremendous financial investment or time commitment.

Obana and Lannon asked the question, "What happens when baby boomers age?" They interviewed 1,000 people from their 20s to 60s over a year and found that people recognized the benefits of strength training but thought of it as inconvenient and "a pain in the butt," she told SNEWS®. Their goals used to revolve around looking good, but now boomers' goals are all about functionality and keeping the lifestyle they enjoy. Strength training, for this generation of active adults, she said, is a means to an end.

They then partnered with Kim Blair, founding director of MIT's Center for Sports Innovation, to help them find a less intimidating training system that did more than all the other machines that basically were still the same as they were decades ago. The Koko program tracks the user's workout and provides results. Data stored on the Key, once downloaded at a station, can be retrieved for reporting either there or on the Internet by the user where he or she can plot and track progress. Because the user information is tracked, Obana says the company has also been able to quantify results and have found that the average person gains 25 percent in strength after 24 sessions.

"People love when the cardio machine tells them how many calories they burn," said Obana. In fact, those who are used to cardio machine controls shouldn't find this much different.

Don't think they don't have a sense of humor with Koko: Occasionally Michael Wood, Koko chief fitness officer (a.k.a trainer and coach), appears on the screen. Koko even whistles and sings happy birthday when it is a user's birthday.

Only on the market for a year, it has been a highly controlled and limited launch to make sure everything went as planned. It was unveiled officially at the 2007 IHRSA show in late March.

"This is the last industry that's been so ineffective at giving feedback. People are used to having all that, and they want it in their fitness," said Obana. "In five years, the industry will be different. Technology will have penetrated the industry."

It's a no-brainer to think this piece would solve the dilemma of home gym users who don't know what to do. Obana says they've had orders from individuals for their homes, and the company is considering a retail version of Koko. Said Obana, "It's a natural extension of what we're doing."

SNEWS® View: We saw a video about the Koko Trainer for the first time in October 2006 and were highly impressed with what seemed like the possibilities. After trying it personally at the IHRSA show, we're convinced it has a big future, especially if it can indeed move into the retail market too. Of course, even at $10,000 for the commercial version, we'll bet it will end up in a lot of home exercise rooms in the meantime.

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