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Fitness on the Move

Equipment Evolves With Programming Innovation

By Rick Dandes

Technological advances, combined with a greater understanding of the science of exercising, is exerting a strong influence on how people work out and the equipment they use to achieve their goals.

"Core cardio products such as treadmills and ellipticals are as hot as ever around the globe," said Kelli Mocherman, senior marketing coordinator with a manufacturer of fitness equipment based in Woodinville, Wash. "What we see changing is the way exercisers are using the equipment. Gone are the days of hitting the Quick Start key and pedaling without purpose for 30 minutes."

Exercisers are looking for more dynamic and adaptive equipment, Mocherman contends. They are looking for machines that adjust to them and provide more workout options and variety. Workout programs have become more adaptive and personalized, allowing exercisers to tailor workouts for their specific goals.

Cardio workouts are still the most used and popular form of exercise, said Erin O'Brien, senior marketing manager of a Vancouver, Wash.-based equipment manufacturer. Meanwhile, "facilities are split on high-tech entertainment features vs. basic simple displays, and all are looking for quality product that will hold up under heavy use at an economical price."

Technological advances, combined with a greater understanding of the science of exercising, is exerting a strong influence on how people work out and the equipment they use to achieve their goals.

Traditional cardio equipment, including treadmills, stationary bikes and elliptical trainers, is still the most used equipment, according to O'Brien, but group cycles and stair mills seem to be growing in popularity. In addition to the cardio area, the trend seems to be heading toward more functional training and free weight items such as half racks, platforms and suspension rigs.

High-tech isn't as important as durability and reliability, O'Brien said. Many facilities are looking for additional revenue space and might offer functional training, group cycling with power, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and modular suspension systems.

Everything Old Is New Again, With a Twist

Millennials make up a growing percentage of users at fitness facilities, "and they don't necessarily want to be tied down to one specific concept, philosophy or way of training," said Tony Maloney, trainer and fitness center manager at the National Institute for Fitness and Sport, Indianapolis.

"Millennials want different things all the time," Maloney said. "And they want to be able to drop in and out of a routine whenever they want to. So a regular, or traditional, gym membership doesn't necessarily work for those people. Because fun and adventure—that is what they want to see in their fitness programs."

Everybody else, he said, "people in their 30s to 60s in our National Institute facility still want a show; that is, they want fun and they want an experience, but they are a little more tied down to routine. They prefer to know who their trainer is going to be, and what the workout is going to be like. They like knowing what to expect every time they work out. But they still want that experience, and want to be entertained as well as having the workout. Overall, when it comes to fitness, you'll see that's why the big adventure runs like your Spartan races are still doing well. It's mainly that: an adventure, fun, and it's usually in a group setting."

Most people want to be in group, Maloney said. "You don't get many solos anymore, even those people who free-lift weights. That person still wants to be either with a workout buddy or in a setting where they are sharing each other's successes, and ideas on how to lift. Across the board, most people want to be working out with other people."

There is really not much deviance from that group-workout mentality based on age or how people are training, Maloney said. "They usually want to be with somebody. Let's take someone who works out to improve their strength. Someone who just wants to get stronger. They will use barbells and free weights. Power lifting is trending these days after falling off in popularity a little bit. Now it's back. It's a popular way to train."

People working out in groups has also become a profitable business model, said Matthew Januszek co-founder of an international fitness company, with a U.S. office in West Chester, Ohio, that among other things, provides fitness facility design and marketing.

"There is a move by facilities to get more people within a smaller space in order to make their financials work," he said. "So with that, workouts tend to be shorter. That makes sense because people have less time in their day—a 30-minute workout is more appealing to club-goers than an hour or 90-minute workout for most people these days."

For recreation facilities re-inventing their offerings, frame-based functional training is popular today, added Michelle Moore, a public relations specialist for Januszek's company. "And that is so for numerous reasons: maximizing usability of floor space, training that mimics the movements of everyday life, which is easy to program and allows for small group dynamic training."

HIIT Still Popular

Olympic lifting is trending, Maloney said. "It's crazy and through-the-roof popular. Crazy to the extent where we had to change our entire facility's landscape to accommodate all the people who wanted to be in that area. To provide platforms for Olympic lifting and power lifting, we have an Olympic power lifting event that brings people to our facility from all over the state of Indiana. And we're not even a sanctioned meet. On that end you'll see your free weight plates, basic steel weights, dumbbells and kettlebells."

Why is Olympic lifting so popular? Maloney believes it's due to the resurgence in interest around CrossFit training. CrossFit games are big on TV, you can find programs anywhere online, and a lot of the programs are highlighted around Olympic lifting. "So it's made young females, and anywhere up to older males and females, want to be able to power their workout," Maloney said. "And all the while they're taking pictures and putting them on Snapchat or Instagram. Social media is helping to drive this interest."

Meanwhile, HIIT continues trend up, and usually requires many different pieces of equipment, such as battling ropes, sandbags, barbells, ankle weights, rowing machines, elliptical trainers, sleds and more.

Although traditional cardio is still the most popular form of exercise, suspension systems or modular rigs have become very popular for both large and small facilities. Modular designs allow packages for both large and small areas. Along with this is group HIIT training including: group hand cranking, cycling, air bikes, CrossFit type exercise, including repetitions on a suspension rig, and Ninja Warrior-type training.

"We have seen a big uptick in facilities asking us for functional training tools like kettlebells, slam balls, wall balls, heavy ropes, and plyo boxes," said Ryan Damon, vice president of global sales for a San Francisco manufacturer of fitness equipment. "The demand from the marketplace is ultimately what drove us to start making these products ourselves. That said, the biggest change that we've seen over the past five years revolves around the increased demand for education and programming assistance. Without the knowledge of how to use and best adapt each tool to a specific user's need, the tool is pretty useless. So, as exciting as it is to see so many new products hit the market, we think that education is will always be the most cutting-edge 'product' that differentiates one brand from the next."

'Smarter' Workouts

The continued migration toward networked touchscreen consoles has become a staple in modern fitness facilities, Mocherman said. "Today's consoles provide exercisers with a far more personalized workout and entertainment experience, while giving the operator better tools to communicate with their members and better data to manage their fleet of equipment."

Damon agrees: "Equipment is getting smarter every year with the addition of upgraded touch screens with built-in artificial intelligence, which not only recognizes users but also stores biometric data and syncs to wearables and other consumer apps. This personalization and biometric feedback is a nice thing to have for members and facilities, but it's not all that useful unless you know what to do with it.

"I think the companies that are going to win biggest are the ones that learn how to leverage the data to drive better, more personalized, relevant and engaging experiences for individual members," Damon added.

The other trend Damon noted is in the notion of using your own bodyweight to create a human-powered machine vs. a motor-driven machine.

The other big shift in gyms is seen in strength training (outside of functional training zones) and the advent of "CrossFit-style" zones. The surge of platforms and general power lifting type activities has continued to grow over the past 12 to 18 months.

While Damon has seen growth in human-powered treadmills and bikes, Olympic platforms and more, he cautions that not everyone finds success with this equipment. "I think the operators who are most successful with new and innovative equipment are the ones that are using it in programs and classes in smart ways," he said. "Fusion programming is big right now. Whether it's dance Pilates, cardio boxing, TRX yoga or simple mixed-modality programming, operators are trying to find creative ways to win over prospective members and 'out-do' studios with experiences that go way beyond the 'aerobics' of yesteryear."

The operators that offer programs built on strong educational foundations with systems that allow operators to plug in new coaches as needed will likely be the most successful in the end, Damon said.

Relevance and Innovation

Functional training is certainly at the top of everyone's list of what will be hot in fitness facilities in the next decade, Mocherman said. Her company has a product that provides a scalable platform from which to build a small group or one-on-one personal training. "Operators want to provide new and relevant training tools, but are fearful of being saddled with obsolete equipment as trends rapidly change," Mocherman said.

Equipment is just one part of the equation, however. As equipment progresses, the education and training provided to staff must also advance. Operators need to make sure that they have invested in training for their staff and have partnered with suppliers that can provide more than just equipment.

Most cardio equipment will increasingly link to wearables, Maloney predicted. There will also be links to apps on smartphones. "Most of the time, all you have to do is step on a machine, wave your watch in front of it and it pulls all your profile, and saves your workout so you can look at it online. I think heart-rate training is big and here to stay. Although it's been around for a long time, it's now even more popular when synced with wearables."

Heart-rate monitors have gotten better and smaller and easier to use. Maloney explained the idea of heart-rate training, "You train in that orange heart-rate zone, and that is as high as you can go before you get into the red. Heart-rate monitors and big TV screens are used to keep you in the orange and not the red zone. That adds another level to the idea of group training; you can all train and help and see each other, motivating each other to work harder and do better."

Besides wearables, Maloney likes old-school iron, kettlebells and things that don't necessarily depend on electronics. "Our idea at the Institute is that principles don't change, variables and messages do. The same equipment, the same ideas, just used in a different fashion."

Some people will always stick with the more traditional treadmills, Maloney said. "It's a way to get the heart rate going. As far as training goes, we use treadmills for some sprint work and tempo work. That is the one nice thing—you can set a good tempo, a consistent tempo, whereas if you are on a track you slow down or speed up. Ellipticals still have their place, if that's your thing and you need your 30 minutes of exercise. At least you're moving. Are there better ways of training or working out? I think so. But if that is what gets you moving, fantastic. Do that. Get on a treadmill, an elliptical, a recumbent bike, whatever. As long as you're moving."

Old ideas packaged in a new way is a likely scenario for the future, Januszek said. "There is not a huge amount that is really new, like catcher barrels and some form of suspension training. Gymnastic rings have been around forever, so it is a matter of how you package them. As a company, we look at movements like squats and dead lifts as important to fitness programs. This is my issue: What you need to do is look at the person who is working out and ask what that the person needs and what is the most effective way of reaching that goal. Package things differently, whether in a class or programming, or whether the equipment is made to look different. Sleds on a track with ropes can be exciting, pushing and pulling. It's all in how you package it."

All this is well and good, Januszek noted as a parting suggestion. But in the final analysis, there needs to be a shift in the way businesses look at equipment. "The latest equipment is a means to an end," he said. "What you need to do is look at the people in your facility and say, 'What is the best way to serve those members?' In some cases, it might not be the latest and greatest thing. But if you get that environment right, if you get the right trainer with the right knowledge and education, and make the experience look great, then you'll get people to come to your facility, they will get the results they want, and they will come back."



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