From Muscle to Movement

Top Trends in Fitness Equipment

By Deborah L. Vence

In the 1960s, treadmills became popular for use in gyms and in homes, while the 1990s saw the birth of the elliptical machine, giving exercisers a cardiovascular workout, but with low impact. Since that time, more impressive features, such as heart rate monitors, touch screens and speed adjustments, have been added to fitness machines, giving exercise enthusiasts an even better way to get in shape and reach their goals.

Over the years, fitness equipment has changed in that users expect it to include entertainment, technology enablement and a customized experience, according to Matt Hacker, chief sales officer for a St. Louis-based fitness equipment manufacturer.

"Fitness equipment itself has provided new modalities of movement to allow the user to flex areas of focus and provide differing workouts," he said.

The Latest and Greatest

Trends in the industry essentially are moving from traditional machine-based training "to more whole-body functional movement and recovery-while-you-exercise type of programming," noted Jacob Guajardo, sales representative and head of the facility design department for a West Warwick, R.I.-based fitness equipment manufacturer.

Functional training involves training movements, not just muscles. Traditional strength training includes doing bicep curls. "Functional movement includes a kettle bell swing, [and the] bicep happens to be part of it. But it's part of total body," he said, adding that one of the godfathers of functional training is Michael Boyle, who is considered one of the foremost experts in strength and conditioning.

Among some other trends in fitness equipment, networked fitness and functional products and programs are two of the bigger trends right now that are growing globally.

"The products that are most successful have been the ones backed with programs and education to ensure the highest member and staff engagement," said Adam Hubbard, director of product management for a cardio equipment manufacturer based in Woodinville, Wash.

"With boutique gyms leading the transformation of the fitness industry, we see gyms of all sizes interested in outfitting their space with equipment that facilitates group training. This includes rowers, cycling bikes and equipment that accommodates small group training," said Anthony Morelli, senior product manager for a Rosemont, Ill.-based company that specializes in fitness solutions, and offers a wide range of cardio, strength and group training products in the fitness industry.

In addition, fitness equipment that allows users to achieve high intensity or interval training is another trend.

"The equipment needs to allow for user personalization, identification and customization," Hacker said. "Engagement with personal trainers and technology will continue to grow through the space."

From Cardio to Group Training

Variety and personalization are overarching themes emerging in the market.

"Exercisers are continuing to train in increasingly different ways. Exercisers are better informed and are more willing to try new and different training methods," Hubbard said. "Facility operators must provide equipment and programs that are flexible and adaptive to meeting the evolving needs of their members."

From Guajardo's perspective, he said he sees blending of facilities.

"We can't just trust and put cardio in a room and have people use them. They need to flow within the facility and blend with the facility," he said. "And that goes from the first talk with the contractor.

"Talk with the architect and talk with the client. What kind of programming will they have?" he said.

In addition, you have to consider the type of flooring you need. Rubber flooring, for instance, has to be put in properly and have racks anchored to the floor correctly.

"From a design standpoint, [you have to] start at the very beginning. You have to ask, 'What type of programming are you going to be doing?'" Guajardo said.

He cited an example of a physical therapy clinic, a hybrid facility that involves having one revenue stream feeding into another revenue stream. The therapy is feeding a sports performance facility. The idea is, "We are going to focus on sports performance, but from a level of rehabilitation," he said.

When it comes to cardio equipment itself, "We still sell traditional ellipticals, lateral trainers—you name it. But our main focus is how to integrate cardio products within the metabolic circuit," Guajardo said.

"And, you have companies that have gone from supplying strength products to a functional training/metabolic treadmill, (which is different from a standard treadmill)," he added.

Morelli said that "As we see the active aging population rise, there's a higher need to furnish gyms with equipment that is assessable and practical for a different profile of exerciser."

For instance, Morelli's company has an equipment brand that focuses on functional fitness, a combination of strength training and other movements that help to improve balance, coordination and endurance.

"We also continue to see a rise in group training," he said.

"Last, strength training is no longer just for the body builders. Exercisers of all levels of fitness have incorporated the weight room into their workout routines. Gyms are now outfitting their weight room with a range of equipment to facilitate everything from beginners to those training with the popular Olympic lifts," he added.

Hacker said other trends include interval training and users demanding the ability to mix both cardio and strength into the same exercise program.

Also, "Technology tracking and program suggestions continue to evolve," he said.

How Has Equipment Changed?

Advancements in fitness equipment center on versatility.

"From the exerciser's standpoint, the equipment choices are more versatile and adaptive to accommodate different training methods and individual fitness levels. Customers are expecting more personalized products in everything they buy and use; fitness equipment is no exception," Hubbard said.

"There is a greater attention to detail with modern fitness equipment. Gone is the clumsy and utilitarian equipment from the '90s. In its place are more modern designs with greater fit and finish, ease of use," he said.

Also, technology has been a significant factor in how people work out and how they use machines.

"Cardio machines, for instance, are now outfitted with heart rate monitors, preset interval workouts and interactive consoles," Morelli said. "[The interactive consoles] connect with personal fitness apps and wearables, have customizable screens, and can include a multitude of entertainment options, including streaming video."

From a facility operator standpoint, solutions that include a proactive remote monitoring service that analyzes equipment diagnostics in real time can help discover and notify gym owners of any maintenance issues. "Facility operators can then act quickly to fix any down machines and ensure that their gyms are running smoothly," Morelli said.

"The technology advances have allowed gyms and their exercisers to become more connected with their workouts and machines," he said. "The benefit is that exercisers experience a better, customized workout, and facility operators are able to prevent and identify issues with equipment."

What Do Customers Want?

Facility operators want equipment they can rely on. "Product reliability is at the top of every operator's list. It goes beyond making equipment that simply doesn't break. Operators want equipment that looks good for the period of time they are going to own it," Hubbard said. "They don't want equipment that looks good on the tradeshow floor, but begins to squeak and rattle after the first year of use."

Hubbard's company focuses on keeping designs simple with fewer moving parts and more proven materials and technology.

"Operators want products that are thoughtfully designed for not just their members, but also their service technicians and cleaning crews," he said.

Actual users of the fitness equipment want it to be reliable and to function in a simple way to achieve their goals.

"Beyond that, they want engagement with the machine. Lastly, they want to achieve the same results in a shorter period of time," Hacker said.

The user experience, Morelli said, is a significant factor in customer satisfaction. "It's important to know your customer base, and what will benefit their workout routines the most," he said.

However, there are key factors that Morelli said should be considered when outfitting a facility. They include:

  • "Ease of use and comfort: Equipment should be easy to use. Inexperienced exercisers and professional athletes alike want to be able to approach a piece of equipment and learn how to properly perform the exercise intended." Equipment also should provide a comfortable user experience. And, when designed properly, equipment should move with an exerciser's natural body movement.
  • "Customization: With the technology advancements that have been made in the fitness industry, exercisers now expect customization and the ability to personalize their fitness equipment. This includes everything from connecting to wearables and fitness apps, interactive courses on consoles, and enabling connections to live stream music and other entertainment, such as Netflix."
  • "Accessibility: For the active aging demographic or exercisers recovering from injury, equipment should be accessible for everyone. This means having equipment on hand that lets exercises be independent and features that let individuals with limitations still complete an efficient workout."

Similarly, Guajardo said customers want equipment that is easy to use and tech ready. "They want it to fit to their space" and do more than just one thing. "They want more bang for their buck," he said.

Maintenance Best Practices

Maintaining fitness equipment begins by purchasing equipment from a trusted supplier that can provide parts and trained technicians to support your facility.

"Having a preventive maintenance plan is essential. This should be written down with the exact process and service frequency," Hubbard said.

"Too many operators rely instead on a reactionary approach to fixing problems as they arise. In addition, keeping equipment clean is critical for customer satisfaction and equipment longevity," he said.

This involves more than just a simple wipe-down by staff or members.

"From the technology front, we are seeing operators take advantage of service analytics in cloud-based solutions with their networked equipment," Hubbard said. "Recently, [our company] has had the most success with our status light directly on the equipment," he said, adding that "it allows operators to simply look down the row of equipment and know instantly if any product is in need of service."

Hacker suggested some best practices include "Setting up a scheduled routine based on manufacturer recommendations and usage. Allow for rotation of equipment."

It's normal for certain areas of a gym to see more traffic than others. To ensure machines aren't being overused while some are left untouched, facility managers can rotate equipment on a periodic basis, ensuring less wear and tear on select machines, Morelli explained, adding that his company offers solutions that help facilities accomplish this by monitoring individual machines.

Less Is More

When it comes to fitness itself, a growing trend is exercising in less time, with high intensity interval training (HIIT) becoming a popular workout to accomplish this.

"Exercisers looking for a quick session can get in an effective workout in around 30 minutes," Morelli said.

And, with its rise in popularity, manufacturers are offering fitness equipment that can be used for HIIT.

For example, Morelli's company has a group training system that offers several configuration choices and accessory options. "These systems, used for small group or solo training, let exercisers accomplish a variety of workout goals through rotating stations, such as cable motion, boxing space and rebounders," he said.

Other machines, such as step machines, rowers and other cardio machines also can be used for HIIT, helping exercisers to get in and out of the gym in a shorter period of time, but still see the results of an effective workout.

"Equipment certainly plays a role in this, and it will be increasingly important that the equipment and programming be seamlessly integrated," Hubbard said.

His company recently partnered with another fitness company that designs and delivers health and performance game plans that guide athletes, the military and innovative companies. The companies want to develop a personalized training system that delivers programs customized for each exerciser right on the product console.

"These programs are designed to maximize workout efficiency and effectiveness," he said.

Hacker agreed that high intensity training is the new trend.

"Fitness equipment must continue to provide users with accurate data of achieved results," he said. "Equipment pieces can continue to evolve to focus on this goal of users."

For instance, two of his company's products, a lateral trainer and an incline trainer, both provide solutions for high intensity training.

"The [lateral trainer] provides greater muscle activation over a traditional elliptical, while the [incline trainer] allows a user to work at a significant incline, up to 30 percent. Equipment will need to be adaptable to engage both strength and cardio into a routine," Hacker said.

Guajardo agreed that exercisers are trying to do more in less time. "That's the movement," he said. "You get smarter coaches within smarter spaces."



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