How to choose a sport-specific machine for automatic fitness

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, January 1998

The Streamlined Home Gym
How to choose a sport-specific machine for automatic fitness
By Patrick Leyland


If your enthusiasm for fitness clubs ranks right up there with your lust for a dental cleaning — which incidentally is now recommended every three months — your winter workout options may be few. But now that you know how to properly use health-club-style fitness equipment (see Bodywork), your next step might be to build a home gym. That doesn't have to mean adding another wing to the house if you follow this little nugget of seemingly blasphemous advice: Forget cross-training.

That's right. Because aside from a recent long-term study at the University of Florida, which showed that cross-training at high intensity often causes injuries, there's the matter of practicality. If you ignore your trainer's pleas to constantly mix it up, you can do with a lot less equipment. The key is to choose a cardiovascular machine that replicates the biomechanics of your favorite sport and make it the cornerstone of a streamlined home gym. And if you're going to invest several thousand dollars, it's wise to get top-quality equipment: stationary bikes with smooth drive trains, treadmills that go at least ten mph, stair climbers with independent pedals, skiing machines that incline, and rowers that make you feel like you're sculling on the Charles.

With a little ingenuity, you can supplement your newly prized aerobic beauty with a set of dumbbells for strength training and a few other small items that together will fairly well replace a Universal Gym — and save space and money in the process. In the end, your streamlined gym will fit neatly in any corner of the house, and it will last for years to come.


When it comes to pedaling in place, look for smooth-stroking machines that allow you to gradually vary the resistance, which gives the sensation and benefit of riding up real hills. The options extend well beyond standard bikes found at the club, and the best choice depends on why you're logging miles on a stationary bike in the first place.

People who simply prefer to take their aerobic exercise sitting down on a bicycle seat will gravitate toward the stalwart Lifecycle 5500 HR

Cyclops Fluid+ Trainer
($1,499) from Life Fitness. Essentially the seven-year-old 5500 souped up with a heart-rate monitor, the 5500 HR still outperforms many slicker models. A chain-driven alternator means you don't have to plug the thing in. While not exactly sleek, it gets the job done: Extended handlebars allow you to pop out of the saddle and pedal standing up — important both for relief and to work slightly different muscles. And about that saddle: The Lifecycle 5500 HR comes with the usual wide, squarish seat that seems de rigueur on such machines, but happily, you can install a real bike saddle in its place — a feature not to be underestimated. In addition to heart rate, the electronic console displays distance traveled, elapsed time, calories burned, rpm, and effort level.

If you suffer back pain or simply want a more comfortable way to cycle, try the Schwinn Airdyne Backdraft ($799). This recumbent — you sit in a padded chair and pedal with your legs in front of you — uses a large fan for its brand of resistance. Twist a nifty shifter on the handlebar to make it harder (and louder). The display panel beams up readouts of time, distance, calories, and even watts, handy for some highly sophisticated regimens.

For a workout that more closely replicates the feel of riding your bike, you might just ride it inside. Like many such bike stands, the CycleOps Fluid+ Trainer ($290) renders any steed shod with smooth tires a stationary machine. The difference here is a thoughtful bit of technology: Instead of whirring noisily in the open air of your living room, the resistance fan is encased in a drum filled with silicon, which also results in thigh-burningly realistic resistance. Combine its five settings with all the gears on your bike, and you can select up to 120 levels of resistance, but there's no electronic feedback. For that, try CycleOps' brainy eTrainer ($1,099), which uses the Fluid+ Trainer stand and adds an electromagnetic brake, heart-rate monitor, and handlebar-mounted console. The software allows you to record your efforts on an actual ride and then put yourself through the same workout at home.


Landice 8700 Programmable
At first glance, a treadmill seems rather basic — a plasticky moving sidewalk hooked to a glorified calculator. But to find one that will provide a respectable workout sans injury, you'll need a checklist. In addition to inspecting the general quality of the deck, belts, and rollers — the elements of shock absorption and stability — consider four features: speed, incline, adjustability, and power. The best models can zip along at ten mph or more, which equates to a six-minute-mile pace — sufficiently fast for most of us. Incline gives your treadmill a way of making your run more rigorous. For both of these variables, you want the ability to adjust them without dismounting and interrupting your workout. Last, check beneath the hood: A motor that generates at least 1.5 continuous-duty horsepower makes for a quieter, longer-lasting machine. It's the difference between a run-of-the-mill mill and a mill you'll want to run on.

The best treadmill on the market below $2,000 is the Precor 9.2s ($1,899). The reason? Like all Precor treadmills, the 9.2s uses a microprocessor that adjusts the speed of the belt upon each stride (called integrated foot-plant technology), preventing that herky-jerky sensation typical of less powerful or sophisticated machines. It features a maximum 10 percent incline and a continuous-duty 1.5-horsepower motor, as well as a cushiony deck.

If you want a little more performance and happen to have another $900 to drop, the Landice 8700 Programmable ($2,795) will suit the most intense of runners. The deck inclines to an interval-emulating 15 percent, and the speedometer goes to 12 mph. You'll be able to keep going at this hard-charging pace for 6,000 hours, because the deck flops over once one side is worn out. The combination of the three-horsepower continuous-duty motor and the reinforced aluminum frame would allow Goliath himself — or anyone weighing up to 400 pounds — to run indoors without fear of buckling this machine.

Stair Climbers

The first rule of buying a stair climber: No matter how inexpensively enticing it looks at the garage sale, pass up the dependent-pedal variety, which pushes one foot up as you depress the other pedal. Independent climbers — similar to those escalator varieties that aren't available for home — force you to do the work, making you lift each leg and step up so you don't sink to the bottom. Chain- or cable-driven resistance machines run infinitely smoother than the alternative hydraulic versions.

Climb on the StairMaster 4400 PT ($2,295), cue up "Gonna Fly Now," and you'll know how Rocky Balboa felt atop those steps. A patented chain-driven resistance system that keeps pedal speed even throughout the stroke

StairMaster 4400 PT
lets you find a seamless rhythm, as if you're ascending the real thing. After years of watching people stepping incorrectly, StairMaster trotted out this model with no side rails, so you can't lean on anything. As for the electronics, you can choose seven programs on the 4400 PT, and it will inform you of how many calories you've burned, how many flights of stairs you've climbed, and if you care to count, how many miles you've traveled.

If you simply can't do without the handrails, try the Tectrix CardioTouch 2000 ($3,095). A cable-driven machine, the Tectrix runs quieter than the StairMaster. Protruding below the electronic console is something unusual: a T-bar with proprietary rubber hand grips for reading your heart rate. Thanks to quicker and more sensitive sensor technology, gripping the bar while you're stepping along produces an EKG-accurate reading that you can use to program workouts within target heart-rate zones. And the CardioTouch 2000 is built to keep up with the most demanding of stair climbers, with a top pace of 200 feet per minute — more than any other home unit.

NordicTrack StepStretch
To stretch your calves, ankles, and hamstrings after a particularly long turn on the climber, try the StepStretch from NordicTrack ($30), which resembles a half-moon-shaped teeter-totter for your foot. Place your heel in a groove with the forefoot angling slightly up toward your shin, and you can rock your heel down for a great stretch.

Skiing Machines

NordicTrack remains the best maker of cross-country ski trainers at any price. The new MedalistPlus ($900) one-ups the familiar Classic with refinements like fatter skis and a lower stance, which enhance overall stability — crucial, considering how awkward it is to learn any ski machine. Now

Tri-Level Wobble Board
you get a flywheel for upper-body resistance, and you can even ski uphill, though you have to hop off to raise the slant. The programmable computer has all the goodies, including a heart-rate monitor, and the unit features steel and cherry wood construction.

If your snow-sport interests run toward alpine adventures, whether skiing or snowboarding, no aerobic machine will do the job. The Tri-Level Wobble Board ($59) from Fitter International, however, is a low-tech toy that'll improve your balance. You stand on a saucer-shaped board that rotates and wobbles atop a dome of polyurethane anchored to the center of the board.


Why fool with perfection? With its weighted flywheel, which emulates the momentum-stifling effect of water on the hull, the Concept II Indoor Rower ($725) does an admirable job of giving you a real-world workout. Sliding back and forth on the stainless-steel and aluminum H-beam, you can vary the resistance by adjusting the air-flow in and out of the fan housing. For an extra $100 you can add a heart-rate monitor to enhance the built-in feedback, such as strokes per minute.

Where To Find It
Concept II, 800-245-5676; CycleOps, 212-924-6724; Fitter International Inc., 800-348-8371; Landice, 800-526-3423; Life Fitness, 800-877-3867; NordicTrack, 800-445-2606; Precor, 800-477-3267; Schwinn, 800-724-9466; StairMaster, 800-666-9936; Tectrix, 800-767-8082; Tunturi, 800-827-8717

Photographs by Michael Llewellyn; Clay Ellis

Copyright 1998, Outside magazine

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