Fitness Machines Worth Coming Home To

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside Magazine, February 1995

Fitness Machines Worth Coming Home To

Investing in club quality--without the club
By Bob Howells

Purchasing a bargain-basement home-fitness machine is usually a lesson in false economy: Cheap gym equipment seldom serves its ostensible purpose for more than a week or two before the workout experience becomes so unpleasant that the device is better employed as a repository for coats, hats, and scarves. You'd be better off investing in a closet organizer.

But upscale home-fitness equipment is industrial art worth using. Every component -- from the frame to the pulleys to the bearings -- is built to endure, and the moving parts feel nearly friction-free. You might have to pay more than you anticipated -- from $250 for a decent stepper to $2,700 for a decked-out home gym -- but a well-designed machine will beckon you back for more. Think of getting that at-the-club feeling without subjecting yourself to the fees and folderol.

In an ideal world you'd sink money into two machines -- a home gym for building strength and an aerobic machine for toning your ticker. It's more realistic, however, to decide which pursuit you can handle without a machine and then to put some time into trying out every appropriate option in your price range. If you don't like something after 15 minutes of testing in the store, you won't like it any better when you get it home.

While you're at it, think about intangibles. If you order from a late-night infomercial, you're likely to get a low-quality setup, and you're certain to get little guidance about assembly or operation once the big box arrives at your doorstep. Discount sporting-goods outlets aren't much better: Even if the store has some good machines, it's a crapshoot as to whether you'll find an employee who's knowledgeable about setting them up and using them. Instead, stick to a specialty fitness retailer, where you'll get well-founded opinions, good service, and delivery and assembly for a nominal fee.

After wading through a wide range of countless contraptions, I've come up with a comprehensive collection of the best home gyms, treadmills, stationary bikes, steppers, skiers, and rowers. And they were all readily available for test drives at specialty fitness stores near my southern California home.

Home Gyms
Don't ask how many; ask how easy: Even the flimsy home gyms can perform some 20 or 30 different exercises, but only the good ones require no complex rearrangements of cables and niggling adjustments between sets. Who wants to squander workout time dismantling a pec deck to do a bench press?

Good home gyms typically have three to six stations, each of which accommodates several different exercises: a press station, a pec deck (for chest-developing flies), a leg extension/leg curl station, a vertical knee-raise for dips, a high pulley for lat pulldowns, and a low pulley for curls, thigh pulls, and rowing exercises. More expensive machines add squat and/or leg-press stations. I strongly favor weight-stack resistance, modeled on the Universal gyms found in health clubs. A weight stack provides much smoother, more even resistance through the full range of motion than the shock absorbers, rubber straps, or brake-clutch mechanisms used in some home gyms. Weight stacks also let you easily track your progress. My favorite machines all have at least 150 pounds available, since anything less can be easily outgrown.

The Vectra On-Line 1270 ($2,700) has a graceful design and works even better than it looks. The engineers sweated a lot of the little touches that add up to biomechanical correctness: handles that are positioned just right, back exercises that offer full support. I particularly liked the leg extension station: The roller pads automatically adjust to the user, and a cam ensures even resistance throughout the exercise. The press station has four options -- chest, incline, decline, and shoulder presses. All this, and the Vectra takes up only a four-by-nine-foot space, standing six feet, eight inches high.

A brilliantly designed space-saver, the Hoist 880 ($1,900) occupies only 15 square feet of floor space and is one of the few machines that successfully consolidate a bunch of exercises into one station. Perhaps the highlight of the 15 or so options is a reversing pec deck (face out to work the pectorals, face in to work the deltoids). The contoured, high-density foam pads used throughout the Hoist are the best in the business.

Still, you can hold your outlay to about a grand and get a very good home gym. Around that price it's a toss-up between the Schwinn Personal Trainer 700 ($900) and the ParaBody 350 ($1,095). The Schwinn's footprint is only slightly larger than the Hoist's, and it has most of the usual stations, including a vertical knee-raise and -- where it's got one up on the Hoist -- a low pulley station. The Parabody lacks a vertical knee-raise, and its weight stack comes with 65 fewer pounds than the Schwinn's 220 pounds (more weight is an option), but it makes up for those minor shortcomings with a cam system for consistent resistance and a well-engineered pec deck.

Aerobic Machines
Every genre of aerobic machine has its fanatical adherents, but I'm told that treadmills and stationary bikes sell best because they have the most benevolent learning curves. For similar reasons steppers run a close third, while ski machines and rowers trail behind. But in exchange for a little more dedication the latter two offer the user superior full-body workouts. So be sure to match your level of devotion to a given machine's demands.

TREADMILLS. If a treadmill doesn't have a strong motor -- at least 1.5 continuous-duty horsepower -- you'll wear it out. A good motor also uses a microprocessor to maintain a steady clip, something a nonmotorized treadmill won't do, and has a maximum speed that exceeds your own. Regarding incline, the machine's ability to mimic a hill, get a lot of it. If the treadmill can simulate at least a 10 percent grade you should always be able to reach your target heart rate. Finally, many a treadmill maker is touting a flexible deck -- but it's no big deal. Any treadmill has more built-in resilience than asphalt, and some can have too much. Who wants to run on a trampoline?

The Landice 8700 Sprint ($2,300) doesn't have any fancy programs, but it's superbly smooth and quiet. It has a two-horsepower motor, beefy rollers, a strong aluminum frame, and will electrically elevate until you're huffing up a 15 percent incline. You can't get a better home treadmill. If you're willing to hand-crank the incline (it doesn't take much effort), the Aerobics Pacemaster SX-Pro ($1,495) is a good buy, what with its smooth two-horsepower engine. The best bargain on the market is Hebb Industries' Trimline 2200 ($900). The belt speed, which is controlled not digitally but by a rheostat, can be a little uneven under a heavy runner, but the 1.5-horsepower (continuous-duty) motor is strong, and the construction is excellent.

STATIONARY BIKES. Pedal a few stationary bikes and you'll quickly be able to distinguish between good and bad. The undesirables use grabby brake pads against a flywheel for resistance, making for a ride that's hard on the knees and forces you to overtax certain muscles in the quadriceps (while ignoring others) to keep things going. Good bikes offer much smoother electromagnetic braking, load up resistance without straining your joints, and distribute the workload evenly through the quads. You have a choice between upright and recumbent styles; recumbents are more expensive and take up more space, but they're easier on the keister and support the lower back.

My favorite stationary bike is the upright Schwinn Professional 130 ($850), because it positions me over the pedals for a natural pedal stroke and allows me to lean forward onto the handlebars and unweight my spine. The Schwinn also has very smooth electromagnetic resistance and a monitor with programmed workouts. Schwinn's Professional 230 ($900) is the recumbent equivalent. The Cateye EC 3600 ($1,650) recumbent trainer has electromagnetic resistance, a program that you can tailor to keep you in a targeted heart-rate zone, and a seat that can be adjusted up and down as well as fore and aft. That last feature lets you choose how recumbent you want to be -- higher to better isolate the quads and hamstrings, lower to work the legs more thoroughly.

Two other noteworthy stationary bikes sit at opposite ends of the spectrum: For some cyberfitness fun, there's the Life Fitness 3500X ($800), which interacts with a television and a Super Nintendo system (which you'll have to swipe from the kids). You pedal your way through any of eight different mountain-bike courses laden with pitfalls and nemeses. Those who aren't Nintendo-literate will repeatedly crash and lose until they develop the knack for steering and (yes!) punching out their opponents. Without the video fireworks the bike itself is still solid, with electromagnetic resistance and the usual programmability. As for the Bodyguard 955 ($350), it has evolved little in 25 years because it hasn't had to. The flywheel-style resistance is rudimentary but much smoother than anything else in this price range, and there's a basic odometer and rpm monitor. The construction is exceptionally sturdy.

STEPPERS. A couple of things to think about here: The sophisticated, computer-controlled resistance mechanisms are far superior to hydraulic shocks -- though the best hydraulics do provide a reasonably fluid feel at a more affordable price. Second, I prefer independent motion to the less expensive dependent (synchronized) motion steppers. The former feels natural and lets you go hard at the pedals; the latter makes you feel like the stepper is doing the workout for you.

The StairMaster 4000 PT ($2,195) has the familiar, progressive feel and multiprogram console of the company's ubiquitous club machines. Self-leveling pedals act independently and smoothly. The Bodyguard Quantum ($1,800) has electromagnetic resistance -- it's even quieter than the StairMaster and is also very smooth. I like its "heart" program: The speed adjusts automatically to keep you in a predetermined zone. A decent bare-bones stepper is the Tunturi Tri Stepper 500 ($250) -- a simple shock-resistance machine with wide, independent-action pedals. If you're inclined toward a machine with dependent stepping action, try the Precor 718e ($300). Its shocks are good (though a nuisance to adjust), and it has a rudimentary monitor that displays speed, total steps taken, and elapsed time.

SKIERS. If you can get the hang of a ski machine -- it can, upon initial use, drive capable athletes to doubt their ability to stride -- it may breed fanaticism: Skiers offer a very comprehensive workout. To get the best performance, look for skis that move smoothly, even under increased resistance. Independent motion of both the arms and legs best simulates the rhythm of the sport.

NordicTrack is the progenitor of the class and still makes the best skiers. The skis on the NordicTrack Pro ($600) move across their rollers quite fluidly, and the adjustable flywheel resistance is smooth. The front end elevates to simulate climbing, and a rope that works through a pulley (also adjustable) engages the hands and works the upper body. The Pro's solid-oak skis and base are handsome enough for the den. NordicTrack's Challenger is more spare-looking and lacks a monitor, but it offers the same smooth action for just $340. I also like Tunturi's XC 560 Ski Fit ($700). The electromagnetic flywheel is quiet, and the pneumatic poles do a good job of working the upper body.

ROWERS. You're not alone if you orphaned a rower years ago. The old two-handled, piston-resistance design felt more like a crude rowboat than a racing scull -- it was a strain on the lower back and shoulders. Today's rowers have a center-pull design that keeps your back straight. If you've never used a rower, consider yourself warned: The workout is so intense that you quickly go anaerobic. Long, fat-burning efforts will take time to work up to.

The ultimate rower is the Life Fitness Life-rower 9500 ($3,000), which features quiet magnetic resistance and a clever computerized monitor that pits you against animated opponents. While that's fun, the stalwart Concept II ($700) is all the rower you'll ever need. Its flywheel resistance has the fluid feel of a craft on the water, and its monitor reads out strokes per minute, total distance, elapsed time, and even power output per stroke. Just about the only thing you're left wanting is a coxswain to voice some encouragement.

Bob Howells, a frequent contributor to Outside's Review pages, wrote about last-minute holiday gifts in the January issue.

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