Strength category shows growth at HF Biz show

Although still significantly smaller than the cardiovascular equipment category, strength equipment is gaining attention and life, as proved by exhibitors at the Health & Fitness Business Expo in Denver Aug. 7-9. Not only do formerly cardio-exclusive suppliers want in -- with many diving into vertical equipment and the ever-multiplying home gym arena -- but suddenly a new category has been created, one SNEWS has decided could be called "Multi-Weight Dumbbell Systems."
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Although still significantly smaller than the cardiovascular equipment category, strength equipment is gaining attention and life, as proved by exhibitors at the Health & Fitness Business Expo in Denver Aug. 7-9. Not only do formerly cardio-exclusive suppliers want in -- with many diving into vertical equipment and the ever-multiplying home gym arena -- but suddenly a new category has been created, one SNEWS has decided could be called "Multi-Weight Dumbbell Systems."

A new category emerges
The multi-weight system category was created many years ago with PowerBlock, expanded with ProBell (which doesn't have much of a specialty presence anymore), and last year was joined by Hoist with its Quick-Change system, which won The Super Show 2003 Product of the Year award. Earlier this month at the HF Biz show, two other companies joined the ranks -- Nautilus with one of the super coolest products of the entire show, and newcomer TurboFit with a savvy lower-cost line -- with long-timer PowerBlock expanding its offerings. (We also have insider information that others are developing product in this area too, so stay tuned.)

What is the category we are calling multi-weight dumbbell systems? Basically different methods of replacing the traditional need for a large rack of various size dumbbells with two handles that can morph into those different weights -- either by flicking levers, rotating dials, matching colors, or mixing and matching thin plates. Nope, can't call it selectorized since they all aren't (notably, Hoist's system). For the consumer, these systems mean a superior space-saving alternative -- the equivalent of the entire dumbbell rack in the space taken by two dumbbells on a stand. For the retailer, that means a better chance of an additional sale for someone already buying a cardio piece who may be worried about space, or a way to get someone into a moderately priced strength-training system without the space-hogging need of an entire rack or home gym. We also think some of the systems could be especially appealing to women, not only because of their size but because they are in most cases less intimidating and more aesthetic than big hulking weights and some overpowering home gyms (and we all know that women have much of the buying voice for the home consumer). Look for details about each company's product in its listing below.

Aesthetics, curves and colors emphasized
Other than multi-weight systems, home gyms were the talk o' the hall with an emphasis on finalized prototypes seen before and redesigns with a softer look, color and shape. Still, a few companies had new product such as Body-Solid's line of gyms and Vectra's aptly nicknamed "inside-out" corner gym that honestly takes a fresh, bold look at how to configure a gym. Hoist also created some buzz with a new three-way Olympic bench as well as with the private pre-show unveiling of its new home gym line. We wish we could tell you more but that's all so hush-hush and, it seems, a matter of national security with all the secrecy.

In other strength news, Impex bowed out of the show because we've been told it has decided to make sporting goods its emphasis and will turn its attention to The Super Show in January. And York Barbell/Andy Fitness didn't show, which the company didn't share with organizers, who had to call York the day before the show when the company's crates were no-shows.

One-stop-shop trend continues
In addition, the trend of everybody wanting to be everything continues as more companies known as strength add CV to their lines, and more companies known as CV specialists take their own whack at strength product. And more companies also seem to be putting more of an emphasis on one-touch, one-squeeze, one-handed, one-something adjustments on seats, bars and arms. We like this user-friendly approach to adjustment -- of note, a really easy-to-use squeeze handle by Bodycraft in that company's new price-conscious gyms introduced in Denver. Vision also showed three strength pieces with a couple of great features, but there was no hype, so did you miss 'em?

Let's take a brief look at who had what in the strength category (in alphabetical order) at the show:

Bodycraft -- After first shocking Carla Sandemente, marketing director at Total Fitness in South Windsor, Conn., with its $500 cash raffle prize on the first day, the Ohio company went on to introduce several new price-point-oriented home gyms, including a plate-loaded model with an amazing $499 suggested retail price for the base unit (although add-ons could take it to $899). The gym's cable arms are patent-pending. We really liked the handle on its new stack gym that allows users, with a squeeze on what resembles a bike brake lever, to adjust the cable arms' positioning. Consumers should like this, too. Although still without name, we opted for Squeeze 'n Go. The company retains its solid price-value orientation, and is also experimenting with some colors (gray and matte) that are veering from its traditional shiny white. Great move.

Body-Solid -- Showing off two reworks of current product and three new gyms, Body-Solid's huge booth (also filled with its Endurance line of cardio equipment) was always bustling. We particularly liked the EXM 3700, which is a tweak of the 3000. It has (yes, indeed) a more aesthetic design (a softer colors and lines thing that's easy on the eyes) with easier-to-use features including a pneumatic seat for better seat-height adjustment and curved leg pads around ankle areas. We also really liked the heft of the PowerLift gym, a patent-pending free-weight leverage gym (suggested retail, base unit, $1,295) that practically moves the entire gym into your home in a smaller footprint and is built like a tank to boot. The company is seeking to "give people a home health club experience," says Sales Manager Todd Keller.

Chameleon -- Still plugging away after winning the 2001 Sports Product of the Year award at The Super Show, Chameleon founder Marco Rexach never rests. He has been tweaking and manufacturing his corner gym, finalizing strength, stability and function, and finally getting the treadmill features he wants. Base unit is $6,500 but adding a multipurpose bench ($765), leg extension/curl ($365), leg press/rowing ($895) and treadmill ($1,200) can up the price. Still, it's a beauty for urban areas with tight spaces or even personal trainers (at home or in clubs) because of the way it slides into a corner and closes up behind an attractive mirrored door. We actually hung and swayed on the pull-up handles and couldn't get the unit to budge, so readjust your biases.

Hampton Fitness -- Always offering sleek product and one of the first to consider the growing women's market, Hampton still scores big in the design arena with the company's new features that are a part of its Ultra-Bell (www.ultra-bell.com), suggested retail $750. Even the stand is classy, with eye-pleasing curves and angles, forming a rack for chrome and rubber dumbbells that almost makes it seem as if the dumbbells are floating in the air. That woman buyer will gravitate toward this as proved by several women we spoke to who told us they really appreciated the rack design as it means easy lifting and no pinched fingers. Each dumbbell, like others Hampton has done, is a bright polished chrome, rimmed in rubber to protect floors and other surfaces, and featuring a rubberized grip that is extremely comfortable. The company also continues with its marvelous Flip-Grip plates that don't have holes but finger grips for easier gripping.

Hoist -- One buzz of the show was Hoist's new Three-Way Olympic Bench (CF 2179 for you number geeks) -- a rather simple bench that, yes, moves with a one-touch adjustment to flat, incline or decline -- or a range of a minus 15-degree to 30-degree slant. The best thing about it was its truly smooth one-handed adjustment that allows adjustment forward and backward to allow exercises that don't require the barbell to be out of its way. It also comes with plenty of pegs for weight storage on the rack. Another ergonomic hit were the rotating handles on the company's new mid-row machine, once again allowing users to get a more comfortable fit and safer use. As with other equipment seen at the show, there definitely is a blurring of the lines between what is home equipment and what is light commercial equipment since this piece could truly go both ways.

Ivanko -- The colored plates the company introduced last year are extremely popular, Chet Groskreutz told us, and continue to gain strength as more health clubs turn to bright colors in plates to brighten up traditionally rather boring-looking weight rooms. New this year, the company is increasing the diameter of the grips for its dumbbells, eliminating the 27 mm and offering only 30 mm and 35 mm. The company says its research has shown the larger diameter provides as secure a grip, while eliminating the tendency to tighten up too much on the grip causing hand fatigue. Also new for the company this year is a line of A-Frame shaped dumbbell racks. But, to be honest, while they are aesthetically pleasing, we question the function: It's far more difficult to remove and replace dumbbells (the heaviest ones are on the bottom and the width of the A causes issues), which surprised us since Ivanko can typically be counted on to deliver well-thought-out design.

Keys -- A wander through the Keys booth shows the company's gyms and strength pieces are gaining some real heft and stability. Not only that, the company's been busy -- showing a whopping total of 42 pieces of strength equipment, including four new home gyms. One that caught our eyes was the home-use, one-stack Cable Gym (list $1,299, available Sept. 15.) Multiple holes (every few inches) on two pulley arms mean lots of exercises from overhead presses to glute extensions. It also has a dual pivoting pulley system for a more user-defined path and range of motion to jump into the trend to supply more functional workouts.

Muscle Dynamics -- We'd love to tell you more about this company but no one was to be found in the booth when we swung by mid-day on the last day of the show. We even waited 20 minutes.

Nautilus Group -- Nautilus showed up with an item that became THE buzz of the show -- the SelectTech selectorized weights we mentioned earlier that are now part of the burgeoning Multi-Weight Dumbbell System category. Absolutely awesome in the way they have been thought out (and it took the company 18 months to develop them to its satisfaction), the weights adjust in 2.5-pound increments with a click of a rotary dial on the ends until reaching 25 pounds. Then they adjust by five pounds per easy click to a max of 52.5. No mess, no fuss, no moving of plates or bars (list $299). The stand (list $129) is also incredibly well-thought-out with a V-shape that allows a user to step between the weights for increased ease and safety in use. Other features: A user can bias weight to one side for specific training, say for rehab or balancing; the stand has a "seatbelt" to keep the weights in place (think RVs or military); the handles lock into the base and can't be lifted unless a dial is fully clicked into place; and a user can't change the selected weight once the weight is out of the base. Mark Krull is the patent-holder (as well as the holder of the patents behind newcomer company TurboFit), but Nautilus engineers tweaked and designed until they came up with the final product (and have their own patents pending on parts of it, such as the locking mechanism). The product will ship in late October and is guaranteed to be a hit. Although somewhat overshadowed (the crowds were all around the SelectTech prototype), the Nautilus Steel line of selectorized club-duty stations were also introduced.

Newton (Bodyguard) -- Mike Cochrane, head of sales for the Canada-based company, is completely pumped about Bodyguard's newest acquisition -- Newton Strength Systems (www.newtonstrength.com). Purchased for an undisclosed sum on Feb. 1, 2003, from founder Claude Beachamp (who created the company in 1996), Cochrane told SNEWS that Newton fills a strength element the company needed to fully serve the company's vertical retailers. Newton differs from most other light commercial machines by eschewing cams, cables or pulleys -- relying on its patented "direct drive" system of directly connecting the stack by levers, which the company says is safer. Newton offers a lifetime warranty on the frame and a 10-year warranty on all moving parts. Initially, Newton is offering 12 single-station machines, and Beachamp tells SNEWS that he's working on a home gym or two that should be introduced by year's end. Newton will be packaged to vertical markets with the CV, but the company says it "wouldn't force strength down any customer's throat."

PowerBlock -- The originator of the Multi-Weight Dumbbell System category, PowerBlock isn't sitting on its hands. It pushed the envelope one step further by adding a patent-pending barbell system (seen as a prototype at the show but slated to be ready in 30 to 60 days) in which a user can click in the company's SportBlocks. Empty, the bar (suggested retail $199) with its little "cages" for the blocks at each end weighs in at 35 pounds, fully loaded it then can weigh 125 pounds. Since the SportBlock (suggested retail $119) can weigh 3 to 21 pounds each in three-pound increments, apply that to add-on changes to the bar's base 35 pounds. A superior idea, the barbell system may still see a few tweaks, but Jay Vollmer tells us he was taking orders and it should be shipping in August.

Powertec -- This was one busy company showing a wide array of new plate-loaded pieces, all as sturdy and price-conscious as its others. The new ones include a leg extension (list $299), mini-crunch (list $199), vertical gym (retail $499), and a cable-cross (retail $499). All use the leverage technology the company is known for, and all still fit right into the segment of being a "best buy" for consumers taking a step into strength from specialty to big box. Powertec is sticking to its basic blacks and yellows, which certainly help it stand out in a crowded room.

ProSpot -- A huge buzz on the show's first day was the highly secretive, highly touted "big unveiling" of something new from ProSpot slated for the second day. Unfortunately, the company didn't live up to the pre-show hype, partly because the announcer didn't do much to whip up any enthusiasm. Observers told us they were pretty "underwhelmed" with the P600-CT. A small group had gathered around for the Houdini-like uncovering of the large piece (lasting about six minutes), but they couldn't hear descriptions and announcements so interest wandered quickly. Anyway, the machine was pretty much an adjustable cable crossover with two independent side stacks and one back stack, plus the ProSpot barbell in front for weight plates. The "Grab and Go" bar could be used with the selectorized stack or free weights, although it was unclear about the differentiation of the uses. The bar could also be used for thrusting, athletic-type, propulsive movements, as well as those pushing away from you. Available first part of 2004, but no idea what the price is, as this seemed to be another secret. No fliers or promo materials were found to describe the features and benefits. That's a blows-it. Gosh, if the company had just touted a few advantages we could have gotten excited about this; we really wanted to, considering how well-thought-of the company is.

Evo by Smooth Fitness -- President Joe Alter excitedly bounced from cardio to strength, describing features to show attendees with contagious enthusiasm. New in the Evo home gym line is the redone selectorized Tahoe Smith system, available Oct. 1, that has dropped from $2,500 to $2,000. Alter calls it the marriage-saver because of the features that allow it to be positioned as needed for the room. It has a pile of features (including flat/incline/decline bench on wheels, lat pull, pec dec option, preacher curl attachment, and a 200-pound stack).

True Fitness -- A year ago the company showed its home gym prototypes in its first foray away from CV; this year, all five gyms were at the show in full glory (two have been out since last fall and another three will be available in about 30 days). If a consumer is looking for the heft portrayed by large gyms, these are the ones. Forget sleek and lean, these gyms (made in China) are monsters with 2-x-4 tubing that at least adds a rounded line. Retails are from $1,600 to $4,900. They have what the company calls converging "iso-lateral" technology for functional strength training, which is funny because "iso-lateral" is a trademarked Hammer Strength name. But we guess no one cares since True has been using the term for months now. The press arm with this technology, which offers a nicely adjustable movement for different sizes and biomechanics, is patent pending and on all the strength products. Two cool consumer features are, one, how the leg press folds up and locks and, two, how the press can change sides -- both for more options in placing the gym in a home. Did we say they are big?

TurboFit -- Partners in this new company are Dale Henn (formerly of ProBell) and Mark Krull (the inventor and patent holder not only for this selectorized dumbbell technology but also for Nautilus' system). Get the picture? We're going to tell you more in a separate story later, but the prototypes shown in a separate room at the show didn't have the right colors and looked sort of "sporting-goods-y" because of the mix of greens, blues, purples and the like. Nevertheless, the line includes selectorized product that will hit lower prices, from $119 for just the dumbbells to a model for $139 to the higher-end $299. Perhaps not as smooth and trick as the Nautilus system (what do you expect with the price difference?), the design should work fine and, heck, why shouldn't someone seeking lower prices get a selectorized system?

Universal Gym Equipment -- Yes, this is the same company that started the multi-gym category 45 years ago -- sort of. The original company went bankrupt and FF Acquisition Corp. acquired it in 1999. FF Acquisition also owns Flexible Flyer (the original sled many of us remember) and Yerf-Dog Go Karts and ATVs. Company CEO and President Alex Garcia Jr. told SNEWS the company waited until this year to introduce the new line because it wanted to be sure it had everything perfectly in order, from clean designs, pleasing colors, and innovative features such as the Natural Motion handles designed to prevent joint stress in the bench, shoulder or military press position. Garcia tells us that Universal will only sell to specialty fitness dealers and that the company believes so strongly in the quality of its products it offering a lifetime warranty on all the Power Pak exercise stations. We're glad to see Universal back and it's too bad it took this long. Universal could have nearly the same name recognition as Nautilus if it hadn't been allowed to fade.

Vectra -- The company's newest addition to its patented On-Line (no cable change) systems, the 1400, is an incredibly sleek, low-profile design that can do nearly everything (OK, OK, it can't wash the dishes). Dubbed the "inside-out" home gym, it's shaped something like a U, fitting into a corner and allowing users to walk between the U's lines into the middle of the gym to do some exercises. We don't remember other gyms that have done anything like this; most are main units with various components sort of radiating out in some way. This design means the corner gym is space-thriftier than others. It, of course, still maintains the classic Vectra look and style and has some smooth one-touch adjustments. Press arms can be used to do everything from shrugs to dips to squats. The designer says there are 25 basic exercises you can do on it, not counting all the variations as well as a user's creativity. The retail price will be somewhere between $2,500 to $2,700. You didn't see this? No wonder. It was tucked behind the counter in a corner -- likely to keep odd passers-by from just stealing a look.

Vision Fitness -- Former champion weight-lifter (and all-around nice guy) Doug Kortemeyer was hired by Vision less than a year ago to work on its strength product, so far geared toward the light commercial market. At the 2002 HF Biz show, Vision showed several prototypes, which have now been tweaked substantially partly thanks to Kortemeyer's input. The ST1, ST2 and ST3 (three more are already in design) were on the floor: ST1 (list $1,900) is an upper back and arm machine that could actually be an upper-body-oriented home gym. ST2 is a leg extension/curl (list $1,600). ST3 is a leg press (list $1,800) that will still get a bit of tweaking for best extension of the leg for all heights. We really liked the look -- designed to blend with the company's CV equipment so a center could have a blended look. But the patent-pending top plate selector system also caught our eye: A fingertip lever on the top plate allows a user to add 5, 10 or 15 pounds to any weight selected down the stack with a mere finger flick. One other way-new trick feature (also patent pending) on the leg press will actually challenge a user's proprioceptive responses. Turn a lever, and the foot plate goes a tad wobbly, like a bit of a balance board, forcing a user to energize all those small muscles around the foot and lower leg for an extra challenge when pressing. No, you won't fall off (it's only a 6 percent wobble), but you get the challenge to your lower-leg muscles.

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