Club Industry show '03: Product highlights

Although as we said last week the Club Industry show may not have been riddled with new products around every corner, it nevertheless had its share of new and unusual offerings from traditional strength and cardio to less traditional Pilates and core training to a few "just for fun" or slightly wacky items too.
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Although as we said last week the Club Industry show may not have been riddled with new products around every corner, it nevertheless had its share of new and unusual offerings from traditional strength and cardio to less traditional Pilates and core training to a few "just for fun" or slightly wacky items too.

Sure, companies are still interested in and introducing or redesigning ellipticals, treadmills, Smith systems and the other large pieces of iron and steel -- no mistake there -- but it seemed the real theme of the show was the mid-range equipment and stuff for other workouts, like Pilates, yoga, core training and balance, with a bit of a resurgence in indoor biking and stationary bikes.

Without even beginning to suggest we saw it all or are presenting them all, SNEWS staffers on the scene bring you a few highlights, in no particular order, from all corners:

Pilates/Core/Balance
Not surprisingly, Pilates, balance and core equipment booths had consistent traffic, from folks squeezing into the postage stamp Fitter International booth way in the back of the show floor to try their skills on wobble boards and balance disks to women being guided into various poses on Pilates Reformer units in Balanced Body and Stott booths. You had to be especially aggressive to elbow your way into Fitness Quest, distributors of the increasingly popular BOSU Balance Trainer, the versatile blue dome that looks like a stability ball cut in half that SNEWS reviewed a few months ago.

Life Fitness, which has distributed Peak PilateSystem units since last March, had representatives from this group demonstrating the new foldable Deluxe and Reformer models, which they said were much easier to store than a competitor's stackable Reformer. The Deluxe, with a patent-pending design, is the only portable that includes the Reformer, Cadillac and Mat in one machine; and apparently both units accommodate all body types up to 300 pounds. We didn't test that benefit…but the foldable aspect seems like a great addition that could make Pilates more feasible for some clubs.

The Gravity System from efi Sports Medicine, which was introduced at the IHRSA show, seemed to be gaining more traction and more attention. Does it look like a Total Gym with its adjustable-height sliding board and pulley system? Well, Sherlock, yes, since it's from the company that introduced the Total Gym waaaay back in 1974 (before we at SNEWS were out of the crib… Believe that and we have an island you can buy…). Of course, it was exclusive to the medical industry then and didn't enter fitness via infomercials and retail until the mid- to late-90s via licensing deals by CEO and creator Tom Campanero. Two years ago, he decided it had a place in the clubs and the company has been working on the product and program since then. No, it's not called a Total Gym since that conjures up images of TV and less-than-club-quality construction. This is a solid unit with solid programming that can be used in a multitude of ways, including Pilates, rehab, personal training, group strength. "It's not just a piece of hardware," Campanero told SNEWS. "It's an overall program." What you wanna bet there will be knock-offs by the IHRSA 2004 show? Our money is on it.

In other core business (read that as you please), we saw the CorBench, introduced at the show by Core Strength, a new one-product company that says its ab-crunch machine truly works the "core abs" (whatever those are) because it pivots during the crunch at the lumbar area and not in the upper back area. The oblique exercise we tried seemed reasonable but the regular crunch seemed as if it would target hip flexors. But we haven't done muscle testing, and neither has the company so it's all words at this point. Then there was an entire lime green booth (made us hungry for margaritas) by MedX with its "Core Spinal Fitness System" that included five machines (Torso Rotation, Super Stretch, 4-Way Neck, Ab Isolator and Lumbar Strength). Certainly MedX has a good name, but the booth was pretty empty. Maybe the lime green was too '60s.

Group Exercise
Of course, since group exercise remains solidly popular, companies still scramble to find more ways to get folks sweating together -- even if that's only at the shows. Of course, fewer and fewer folks are populating these classes during show hours, as we noted in our story last week. Our tip: If you can't get a group there, then don't do it or shorten it down so you can get some to partake. It's too depressing to passers-by to see a teacher artificially trying to excite one student.

The Ramp, which SNEWS reported on after the IHRSA show this year, drew steady attention, with creator Gin Miller (the legendary inventor of step training) front and center in the booth showing aerobics aficionados various ways to lunge off this multi-colored, inclined platform to work the glutes and hamstrings in classes called Ramping. It sure seems awfully similar to step-training -- with a different slant (oh, that's bad) -- but the company insists the ability to push off makes it different.

True continued promoting its True Stretch semi-cage-like device with 15-minute sessions throughout the show led by Katherine Roberts, the creator of Yoga for Golfers. It actually was one of the few group classes that seemed to be nearly full every time we walked by. A great concept, too. We saw one a week earlier at a club in Vail, Colo., but it was unfortunately sitting in a far lonely corner. New this year for the company (or so it said) was the BLAST! (Buttocks, Legs, Arms, Shoulders in less Time) treadmill workout, which TRUE bills as total-body -- combining changes in incline and pace with various arm movements. While this didn't look much different to us than Star Trac's Trekking program a few years back (or its own treadmill classes of the last couple of years even), enthusiastic participants pumped and yipped -- making us wonder how many were actually just hired help when you looked closely at the emphasis on youth and true workout clothing.

FreeMotion Fitness enticed a few to try the functional group strength classes on its Cable Column it developed a few years ago -- not as many as we think should try the concept since it's very solid. Because Free Motion now is a distributor of German-made Tomahawk Indoor Cycling bikes in North America (see Sept. 12 SNEWS story), these bikes and classes took center stage in the large open booth. But with this deal closing only about a month before the show, the bikes looked a bit crammed into the booth. We didn't see lots of riders when we wandered by -- that was the story of most group exercise, as we've said -- but there were plenty of friendly Tomahawk instructors helping anyone who stopped or glanced at the bikes. 

As SNEWS reported recently, group cycling has continued to attract interest. Keiser still was rolling with an instructor and a live drummer for its, but again, it only seemed like one or two folks were pedaling along throughout the classes. And all four of Schwinn's indoor group exercise bikes -- Pro, IC Elite, Evolution and Evolution SR -- got facelifts, sporting new handlebars and seat adjustments with numbers so users can more easily identify their positions.

But the real group cycling buzz was at Matrix with its new Trixter X-bikes, designed with a unique burnt orange color and handlebars that rock back-and-forth to imitate an outdoor mountain biking feel, and featuring hip, cool, bandana-wearing, world-champion-cyclist Missy Giove leading classes. In fact, Scott Sechrest, Matrix's vice president of marketing, told SNEWS during the show that the company had received "significant commitments for the bikes from almost every major player." We first raved about the Trixter X-bike when it was introduced as a little independent at IHRSA in March, and we will continue to rave about the bikes, the feel, and the experience that truly does give you an outdoor-mountain-biking-experience, indoors. No, it may not be right for all participants (I wouldn't put my mother on one, I don't think), but it will be right for most.

Technology/Electronics
On the technology/entertainment front, the biggest splash came from Life Fitness, which showcased its integrated LCD console and add-on LCD entertainment system that you use with standard audio headphones. We thought that these were really cool -- you can custom select live TV programming on your own personal 12.1-inch viewing area that the company says is ergonomically designed to reduce glare. By choosing TV programming, you don't necessarily have to lose your workout data like time, speed and calories, as the program console is part of the touchscreen controls in the integrated version -- very much like Technogym's that were introduced at IHRSA in March. Also included is a handy option to hide the time display, so users who typically block this feedback by draping their towel over the console (we don't get this, but whatever…) can enjoy the TV programs. The integrated LCD version adds a hefty $1,500 to the price of Life Fitness' commercial cardio equipment; the add-on system, which can be retrofit on existing machines, costs $1,200.

BroadcastVision demonstrated Orbit, a new controller and receiver entertainment product with a futuristic circular design that gives exercisers new, previously unavailable features such as direct channel access, channel scan, previous channel, multiple sound equalization settings and picture-in-picture features. And its competitor CardioVision showed off its Personal Viewing Screens (starting at $1,200) that can be attached or placed on a stand in front of a piece's console. To its credit, CardioVision didn't try to re-create the wheel, but rather partnered with Sharp Electronics.

It's hard to imagine putting indoor rowing machines under "technology," but here goes. Concept2, which owns the market however small it is with its solid machines, introduced its first new rower in a decade that has less to do with machinery than technology (and aesthetics). The new very sleek rower looks less intimidating than the classic model, slimmer and more friendly. It also has a portable electronic log card with a tiny 2k memory chip so you can log your workout and take it with you, record records, then re-use the design on other machines, in other places, at other times. Plus, the screen itself shows more data and is more readable. Oh, and the unit is in shades of subtle blues with a great-feeling ergonomic handle. The rower remains a superb deal for home or club for a list of $850.

Polar, the heart-rate monitor company, introduced the new F1 monitor (retail $50-$60) that will replace the introductory A1 model. Finally, a Polar monitor that offers someone who's not into the geek factor a sleek and nicely curved monitor! The company also introduced its BodyAge System that is basically a computerized fitness-testing station for clubs that assesses a clients "real age" compared to his or hers chronological age based on lifestyle, fitness and nutrition factors. We tried it (moaning how our sit-and-reach flexibility test would be horrid after two days walking around the show) and found it reasonable but as with many such systems very black-and-white in its measurements. Eating any salt was bad and dropped a few years from your life, for example, as did not throwing anything but whole wheat into the garbage can. Nevertheless, it's a starting point and a nice benie for a customer to say, hey, this machine says I'm 31 when I'm really 38.

Strength
Lots of companies predictably showed redesigned strength pieces, admitting that softer lines and rounded tubing were still in continued demand as aesthetics play an increasingly important role in fitness centers. Look to Life Fitness and Nautilus and of course one of the leaders in the aesthetics department, Matrix Fitness. Flex Fitness completely redesigned its selectorized line, sporting cool new frosted translucent shrouds, as well as its plate-loaded Leverage line, which now comes as bolt-together with standard frames that allow clubs to easily convert one machine to another by ordering corresponding components.

"Functional" cable and pulley selectorized machines have become standard fare, and Body Masters displayed prototypes of its new Functional Circuit Series, which are eight modular units that essentially combine various single stations from the company's Circuit Master line to provide space-efficient upper and lower body machines. The equipment can be configured to offer two to five stations, and final products should be available within 90 days, although the company declined to talk about prices.

Technogym, returning to Club Industry after a four-year absence, was touting its Radiant functional training gym, which has several weight stacks and an expandable design that apparently can accommodate up to seven users for group training, although we couldn't figure out how you could get this many folks on the machine at once (without bumper guards). The aesthetically appealing Radiant comes with a 15-degree incline bench that can be folded up for standing exercises, and optional accessories like stability balls and balance boards increase exercise choices. The company also offers an extensive software program with the gym, which includes instructions and visual demonstrations of functional evaluations, various exercises, and sports-specific, Pilates and core dynamic stabilization movements. According to product and trade Marketing Director Tony Majakas, "If we innovate, we have to educate." Yes, but the Italian company needs to understand the U.S. market won't fall for all those pretty pictures of flowers and trees alone. Some of its marketing leaves us scratching our heads -- and we heard a lot of buzz on the floor about what the heck did all that mean over in that Technogym booth?

A new piece, perhaps embodying simplicity at its finest, was the Bodywedge21, which is basically just a ramp-shaped foam mat that functions as an incline or decline bench for 21 strength-training exercises using dumbbells, elastic tubing or body weight. What's handy is that all 21 exercises are illustrated right on the mat in the order of a circuit -- including decline abdominal crunches, decline push-ups, incline chest flies and supine pelvic tilts. It even shows standing lunges on the pad, which can provide a big balance challenge, as well as deep knee bends down to where the exerciser's glutes touch the high end of the pad. While we liked the downright comfy Bodywedge 21, which is distributed by SPRI with custom-made attachable elastic tubing -- a great concept for home use too -- we're a tad doubtful that clubs will fork over the $99 list price for a hunk of foam, although this may be a handy piece for a personal training studio, too.

Nautilus had so much new stuff, we didn't know where to start: The entire Nitro line, introduced in 1999, is being redesigned and is becoming Nitro Plus with 18 pieces to come (six now). Basically, it's the same line with a great new look and a few tweaks in usability, such as accessory and bottle racks. Nitro won't go away until there is no demand, we're told. Also being completed is the Steel line aimed at light-commercial uses with 13 pieces. It emphasizes a compact footprint for better space use and a low-profile design so as not to overpower smaller spaces in vertical markets.

TuffStuff, the mostly home strength company, making a stab at commercial, had a PowerSpot Dumbbell Machine that was so well-engineered it was almost over-engineered. A great concept, really, since you don't always have a spotter handy for bicep presses or curls, the counter-balance was smoothly done. Our only question was whether a club would want to spend $2,800 and take up a 52-by-68-inch space with such a piece that was more than 7 feet high. The market will decide.

Cardio
SportsArt installed matching consoles on all its Club Series commercial cardio products so that all include the Cardio Advisor system that features multiple windows that constantly display different heart rate targets: 65 percent, midrange (72.5 percent), 80 percent and actual. Other new offerings are various heart rate and interval programs, a Quick Start button, programming changes on the fly, and larger dot matrix LED displays. SportsArt also formally introduced its complete light institutional line, which includes treadmills, ellipticals and bikes that have a six-hour daily warranty and are appropriate for vertical markets and club specialty areas, such as women's only or personal training. With this equipment and a recently beefed up commercial sales staff, SportsArt appears intent on boosting its market share in the club and vertical sides of the business.

VersaClimber showed off its 108CM climbing product that puts a whole new face on upright climbing. This gadget TALKS to users. Climb aboard and you hear, "I'm going to help you learn how to climb…. Let's get ready for an exhilarating total-body workout." Well, now… I'm in!

TuffStuff also had two treadmills -- made by Korean company Kae Sun -- tucked away in the middle of its booth -- but they were such late additions, staff couldn't really tell SNEWS much about them. One even had a honkin' 6 HP motor. (We queried about overkill since plugs can't generate that much and we were told the company wanted to have the biggest motor on the market. They win. Neener, neener.)

Ellipticals weren't the talk of the show for one of the first times, but Nautilus introduced a StairMaster-branded club elliptical that seemed a bit normal … until you analyzed your gait on it. It should have been the talk of the show. It nearly exactly simulates a heel-toe walking (or jogging) motion that neither tips you forward in a running-like feel or makes you reach for upper-body handles. We really love the articulated foot pedals that track the natural movement of the foot through the entire gait cycle. This will ship in November, about the same time as the new StairMaster ClubTrack treadmills. These have the same easily accessible control panel on the front rail as the home models did that were introduced in Denver at the Health & Fitness Expo.

FreeMotion Fitness didn't stop at the group exercise category. It also introduced an upright bike with 20 different resistance levels that come with or without a personal console for entertainment. It will be introducing/redesigning more bikes too. "Everybody wants them," said a spokesman. It also showed off a concept elliptical that has a rocket-like look (Space Control to Major Tom….but maybe we're dating ourselves) that is expected to get to the market in first quarter 2004.

We never thought we'd say recumbent step-like equipment was a trend, but lo' and behold…. In the market owned by NuStep since, oh, a couple of decades, there are now competitors: Magnum introduced a recumbent stepper (no upper body) and SciFit introduced a recumbent stepper with upper body. Also of note was one of our favorites at the show -- a recumbent elliptical by Biodex in the Medical Fitness Association area that has the smoothest feel, but a company spokesman said it's not set up to sell to clubs and won't -- other than in onesies and twosies. Too bad.

Food/Nutrition
Natch, the requisite supplement, drink, potion and snake oil companies set up shop with girls in glitter, skimp and silicon, with promises of fat-burning, energy mysticism, and other voodoo. Give us a break. We also discovered that smoothie company Maui Wowie is the Hawaiian nickname for marijuana. Call us dumb or call us slow, but what kind of message is that? Moving on…

Just for Fun
Amidst the masses of curved steel and high-tech electronics on the trade show floor, SNEWS was somewhat surprised to find an old-fashioned board game tucked away in a back corner booth. A late addition, "No Sweat: The Original Fitness Board Game," promotes physical fitness to ages 8 and up, and players initially earn money for various body parts "won" based on die combinations they roll. Once they have all their body parts (so to speak) and a full wallet (imaginary, of course), they must work their way around a track, competing for the Gold Medal. Along the way, they have to exercise with jumping jacks, crunches and pushups. No really. Drop for 10 and all that. Being lazy or overweight results in penalties like having to pay cash to the hospital. Inventor Daniel Thompson developed the game to help pull sedentary, obese kids away from the TV, computer and video games, and get them having fun exercising instead. Interestingly, Thompson works as a chaplain at the Sacramento County Juvenile Probation Department, and when we asked him where he got the idea for the game, he simply pointed up, in a pretty clear reference to the man upstairs…way upstairs. The game is sold for $30 at a few toy retailers in the Sacramento area and at www.playNOSWEAT.com. We'll whip up a full story on it soon, and we promise a review too.

Gerstung, the name in sprung wood floors, had a new little gadget it called the "Jog 'n Shape," which is a bit reminiscent of the '60s by name. Although skeptical, we even found the Crunch Fitness promotional man-in-bunny-suit hopping on one. In fact, it was kind of addictive as we stood on one to talk to the Gerstung staff, we found ourselves kind of slowly bouncing. It's not just a step or a jog pad, but both. Retail: $79.

The Big "Huh?"
We unfortunately have a few of these. The Corepole tried to lure passers-by to its maypole dance with the line "step out of the box and into the circle." First "huh?" imagine a maypole with rubber resistance tubing attached to it all around. Participants hold onto one, which can be placed at different heights, and skip, lunge, walk or jog around the pole as a group. Hm, what if a tube breaks when you're squatting backward away from the pole. Do you end up in outer space? What if that one person who is in EVERY class who ALWAYS goes right when everybody goes left shows up for this wing-ding? OUCH!! www.corepole.com.

The Hydrorider from Italy is an indoor cycling bike … no, wait, rewind … a pool cycling bike. Yes, really. Get the "huh?" over now. But, we asked, cycling is already non-impact, why do you need to pedal in water? Of course, we understand the different resistance you'd have, and a video showed people kinda paddling with one hand as they kept pedaling for workout variance. But where do you put all those bikes when they aren't in use? And how the heckola do you get them in and out of the pool? Huh?

CardioBells said they were the "only class you'll ever need." Hm, we supposed if you're Ironwoman or Ironman. These are like the kettle bells of yore -- sort of round things with U-shaped handles attached on top that you lift and heave. The lowest weight is 20 pounds. Given that, I'm not sure I'd want to try nor would I encourage a yoga triangle pose with a bell held by the hand high overhead as you leaned downward to touch your toe (actually pictured in the brochure). OK, for some people, but not for the masses. www.cardiobells.com.

We love garage entrepreneurs. Really, we do. Without those tinkering sorts we would never have some of the products we do (think elliptical). But, the Power Press from Concepts 2000 should have probably stayed in the garage as one man's toy and dream. He meant well, but it's definitely not ready for prime time…. Imagine your Olympic barbell station. Now, glue a small rear-view mirror to the back of one of the stands so when you're lying down you can look up into it and see your toes. With us? Now, beside each of the stands at your chest height is a hydraulic lift that is operated by a foot control at your toes. Still there? Here's how it goes: Get stuck in a lift when you're by yourself, look up into the mirror, spot the foot pedal, put your toe on it to run the hydraulic stands at your sides, then put the bar down on them -- hoping of course they are at the right height so you don't strangle yourself. Then push the foot pedal again to lift the bar up to where you can replace the loaded bar on the stands. Whew. Want a look to be sure we didn't make this up? Go to www.concepts2000inc.com. That's our last "huh?" For this round.

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