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The Constant Evolution of Fitness Equipment

Answering to a range of trends, from cardiovascular fitness and ergonomics to ever-increasing technology demands, equipment continually changes to meet market needs.

We know that ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Indian cultures practiced forms of body-weight and yoga-based exercises. The ancient Greeks developed among the first free weights, hand-held weights with a hole for gripping rather than a handle, called “halteres.”

As history goes, fitness and the tools we use to achieve it have been somewhat of a constant. What you’ll find below is by no means an exhaustive list of innovations, but some highlights designed to illustrate the ways fitness machines and tools have evolved over time.

Equipment & Machine Milestones

Equipment Life Fitness Axiom Biceps Curl column

Fitness machines and tools have evolved over time

Fast-forward to the mid-19th century, where William B. Curtis, known as “Father Bill” in the fitness world, is the manager of Hubert Ottignon's Metropolitan Gymnasium in Chicago. While there, he’s awarded a patent for the first flywheel-and-ratchet rowing machines in 1871. By the mid-20th century, hydraulic designed rowers were being mass manufactured by the Narragansett Machine Co. in Rhode Island.

Treadmills might be considered among the most popular pieces of cardio equipment, but when introduced in 1875, they were used for manufacturing. The first U.S. patent for a treadmill "training machine" was issued in 1913. The forerunner of today’s exercise treadmill was designed to diagnose heart and lung diseases, and was invented by Dr. Robert Bruce and Wayne Quinton at the University of Washington in 1952, who used the machine to perform stress tests.

The precursor to modern-day plate-loaded machines is the Smith machine, which was developed by the legendary Jack LaLanne, who created a sliding apparatus in his gym in the 1950s. Entrepreneur Rudy Smith then installed a modified model in a Vic Tanny’s gym he was managing at the time. By the end of the ‘50s, the Smith machine was being manufactured and sold more widely.

In 1989, Gary Jones, founder of Hammer Strength, took plate-loaded machines in a direction designed to simplify the biomechanics of lifting weights while matching machine movement to human motion.

"We were the first to apply, commercially, ergonomics and alignment of the joints’ motion to commercial products," he said. "An important part of innovation is gradual progress. The Wright brothers didn’t invent a 747—that came along a thousand ideas later. I worked as a firefighter, and they taught us that our job was to make things better for the people in need, right here, right now. We’ve taken that sense of urgency, and that sense of incremental improvement on a rapid pace to evolve and improve the product."

Stationary bikes date back to the end of the 18th century, featuring an ancestor called the Gymnasticon, a contraption that utilized flywheels connected to treadles. In 1968, inventor Keene P. Dimick created a technology breakthrough, the first electronic exercise bike, called the Lifecycle. In 1977, Augie Nieto incorporated the company as Lifecycle, Inc., which would become Life Fitness.

Equipment Life Fitness Original Life Cycle column

The original Lifecycle, the first electronic exercise bike.

“In 1977, the Lifecycle was approaching 10 years in the market, yet in its second evolution it was still very much a cutting-edge product that many clubs were just seeing for the first time,” he said. “I believe the Lifecycle launched the industry’s love affair with computer-controlled cardiovascular products that ultimately expanded what had been predominately a barbell and dumbbell gym business into what we know today to be an incredibly diverse fitness industry.”

In 1970, Arthur Jones introduced the Nautilus Blue Monster, a variable-resistance cable machine featuring nautilus-shell-shaped cams. His goal was to offer an alternative to free weights, so that bodybuilders and non-bodybuilders alike had an easier, safer weightlifting option.

There are a range of other firsts, such as resistance bands in the 1980s, the first stairclimber in the mid-’80s, and ellipticals in the ’90s. What these developments all have in common is that they were driven by a combination of innovation and exercisers’ desires to find new and different ways to work out.

“Finding and meeting unmet needs is what makes the equipment side of the industry grow,” Nieto said. “Product evolution is table stakes as it’s expected that everything improves over time. However, understanding ‘need’ and delivering solutions that are valued is how products can captivate the market.”

Strength Training Equipment Grows Up

Strength training and strength training equipment, in particular, have evolved greatly during the past 50 years.

“The main factor driving the growth of strength training over the years from being just ‘strongman’ training in the basement to becoming a critical component of everyone’s training regimen, is the increasing knowledge that a person’s strength is a fundamental pillar of overall health,” says John Lindemeier, product director at Life Fitness. “Our goal is to design strength training equipment that appeals to and meets the needs of this very broad demographic.”

In answering that growing need, he outlines some key strength trends that have spurred market and equipment development over the past 50 years.

  • 1970s—Nautilus establishes single-station, selectorized machines as a more convenient way to strength train, helping to expand the appeal of strength training to a broader audience.
  • 1980s—“This decade saw the emergence of numerous strength-specific brands with a focus on both selectorized and free-weight benches,” says Lindemeier. “Notably, in 1987, Life Fitness enters the strength market with the introduction of the first electronic strength resistance line, called Life Circuit.”
  • 1990s—Cybex comes to prominence based on its focus on biomechanics, ease of use, and user size adjustability. “You also see strength brands consolidating with cardio brands,” he adds. “At this point, Life Fitness enters the traditional strength business with the introduction with Life Fitness strength and the purchase of Hammer Strength.”
  • 2000s—Strength areas expand in size and diversity, adding emphasis on cable stations and plate-loaded machines. We begin to see an increased focus on aesthetics to lower the intimidation factor and attract more users to strength training.
  • 2010—Strength space and training options increase. “We see functional training spaces growing, with an emphasis on accessory training and a renewed focus on the roots of strength training with Olympic lifts on racks and free weights, especially dumbbells,” says Lindemeier.

The latest strength equipment from Life Fitness is the Axiom Series. It features 10 single-exercise and eight dual-exercise selectorized machines, one dual adjustable pulley, and 12 benches and racks.

Equipment Life Fitness Axiom Woman Leg Press column

The latest strength equipment from Life Fitness is the Axiom Series.

The line is highlighted by simple adjustments and intuitive biomechanics with natural movements. It also includes enhanced user features, like scannable QR/NFC codes that provide videos illustrating proper use of the product for those people who may not be familiar with strength training and a convenient tray to store a mobile phone, water bottle, or towel.

“On the design side,” he adds, ”the line has beautiful aesthetics, clean lines, and a low profile designed to improve the appearance of any facility and make it feel more open and inviting.”

Each new product Life Fitness develops, Lindemeier says, is an example of the company’s own evolution.

“With each new product, we benefit from all of our previous strength lines,” he asserts. “And our best guidance comes from listening to what our customers tell us about what they like and what they would like to see us improve on. What we heard prior to this most recent development is that biomechanics matter but that the user experience is equally important. From a product perspective, customers like the aesthetics and features of our Insignia Series and the simple, intuitive biomechanics of Hammer Strength Select. The Axiom Series is the culmination of that feedback.”

To learn more about Axiom and all of Life Fitness’s lines, visit their website.

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Jon Feld

Jon Feld is a contributor to IHRSA.org.