Accessories have long enlivened group exercise classes and programs, adding versatility, an outlet for creativity and a change of pace. However, these “toys,” as many group exercise directors call it, can be tricky to invest in.

The fundamental challenge for group exercise directors and club owners is that accessories tend to wax and wane in their popularity from year to year, and their longevity has as much to do with quality as overall-and-lasting appeal. Dumbbells, balance boards, steps, rebounders, stability balls — the want/must-have list goes on and on. With so many options and so many up-and-coming trends, it's no surprise that purchasing these playthings can turn into quite the guessing game.

Margy Wirtz, group exercise coordinator of The Rush 24/7, an expanding regional chain of high-energy clubs in the Knoxville, TN, area, considers herself lucky. She is always encouraging management to invest in new equipment, and so far they've been receptive. So much so that she's been able to schedule a number of classes based on specific pieces of equipment: Max Muscle is a barbell weights class consisting of four-minute work segments for each major muscle group; C2, which stands for Cardio Combat, combines short, high-intensity segments of different types of cardio using numerous accessories including the step, core board, Bosu and medicine ball; and Ballistic Sculpt uses the stability ball for total-body muscle work.

“We pride ourselves — and, as instructors, enjoy the fact — that The Rush has bought equipment,” Wirtz says. “We have lots of gadgets or toys as we call them, and we love it.”

She remembers when the group exercise program for one of The Rush clubs was working from a temporary facility outfitted with no equipment.

“It was challenging,” Wirtz says. “We could do boxing and calisthenics, but it was hard to keep it interesting. When you have toys, you can do more.”

Like many clubs, accessories are a part of almost each and every class at The Rush, whether it's performing crunches on a stability ball at the end of class or using the step for lunges in a boot camp format. In fact, members have come to expect “toys,” and instructors can use them to improve a member's experience in classes.

Great Expectations

So, with members' expectations, what are the must-haves for clubs today?

According to the 2005 Trendwatch Survey by the IDEA Health and Fitness Association, resistance bands or tubing and barbells and dumbbells are the most popular pieces of equipment (89 percent of respondents have them) with stability balls closely behind at 76 percent. Clubs must also be outfitted with adjustable step platforms, and mats and props for yoga, Pilates and other mind/body disciplines that are increasing in popularity, says Karla Overturf, fitness specialist and personal trainer at the Canyon Ranch Health Resort in Tucson, AZ, and chair of IDEA's Group Fitness Committee.

“Certainly, a traditional hi-low impact class or a dance-based exercise class has no need for equipment,” Overturf says. “But, class formats like group strength training, boot camp and core conditioning are much more effective when they utilize weights, tubing, jump ropes, stability balls, agility ladders, etc.”

At Saint Francis Health System's Health Zone, a medically based fitness facility in Tulsa, OK, instructors use an array of accessories in its 100 classes a week. The most popular offering is Body Flex, an hour-long barbell class that uses a three-pound bar and adjustable weights for a complete strength-training workout.

“Everyone is interested in something new and something different,” says Bryan Dowler, operations supervisor of the Health Zone.

Sarah Lurie, owner of Iron Core, finds this to be true, too. At her San Diego kettlebell gym, no two classes are the same, and her 65 clients love the variety, she says. Because most of her clients have never picked up a kettlebell before, Lurie starts them with a complimentary session to see if it's a good fit for them. Classes are designed to be dynamic, and clients use their entire body to get heart rates up.

“People want to do the stuff they did in high school — ropes, the whole boot camp thing,” she says.

However, sometimes seemingly “old” accessories can still hold major staying power — especially when they are multifaceted. Take the step for instance. While some experts say step is on the way out, many members are still packing aerobic rooms for these classes. In fact, because of its continued popularity, the Health Zone reached out to its older members by creating a low-intensity step class and bringing a tried-and-true format to a new population. It doesn't hurt either that steps are used in a number of other formats (boot camps, strength training, etc.) making them essential for group fitness.

Decision Time

Not all accessories are a shoe-in though. At the Health Zone, Bosu, a 45-minute class that improves balance, muscular strength and cardiovascular endurance by putting participants on the bosu, hasn't taken off like Dowler expected it would. And, The Rush invested in a popular type of balance board, only to receive little interest.

The classic example of a once “hot” accessory gone “cold” is the slide. Once pumped up as the next big thing, most slides are now collecting dust.

“I tried to incorporate slides in a sports conditioning class recently,” Overturf recounts. “Most of my participants asked if they could skip that station.”

Wirtz says the slide was a great workout tool, but wasn't practical for a class due to its high intensity. She keeps this example in mind when buying new accessories.

“I'm kind of a conservative and looking for long-term impact on our program,” Wirtz says. “I'm frugal for the company.”

Lurie recommends fitness directors personally test accessory workouts to make sure they are fun and effective. There's also no reason you have to start out with an accessory for each person, she says.

“You can get one or two kettlebells for example, and then incorporate that into your class and see how they take to it,” she says.

Quality is another issue to consider when deciding what accessories to buy. Poor workmanship can lead to some serious safety concerns: poorly made tubing can put an eye out, weak stability balls can pop when people sit on them and lesser quality group cycling bikes can have their chain broken when participants stand up and pedal. Make sure your instructors are properly trained on accessories, too. Misuse can lead to other safety issues.

“Injuries can occur when an exercise is done incorrectly, or a piece of equipment is used in a way it was not designed to be used,” says Overturf. “For instance, standing on a flat side of the bosu is possible, but not recommended.”

Overturf encourages manufacturers to make accessory trainings affordable or included with the purchase of equipment, for instance on a DVD. To ensure safety, The Rush has an in-house training program, and Wirtz requires instructors not only have a national certification, but also be cleared before trying out a new accessory in class.

“Clubs shouldn't invest in equipment if they don't have a trainer who knows how to use it,” Lurie says. “I always recommend an instructor who has certifications.”

With trained instructors and high-quality accessories geared towards the needs and desires of your specific population at your fitness facility, your group exercise program is sure to be safe, fun and a great workout — no matter which toys you decide to play with.

Accessories Manufacturers

Balazs Boxing, www.blazsboxing.com

Body Bar Systems, www.bodybars.com

Bosu, www.bosu.com

Corepole Inc., www.corepole.com

Dosho Design Inc., www.dosho.com

Dyna-Flex, www.dynaflex.com

Efi Sports Medicine, www.efisportsmedicine.com

Fitness First, www.fitness1st.com

Fitness Quest, wwwfitnessquest.com

Gerstung, www.gerstung.com

Gym Source, www.gymsource.com

Hampton Fitness, www.hamptonfit.com

Iron Grip Barbell Co., www.irongrip.com

International Sports Conditioning Association, www.ekickboxing.com

Perform Better, www.performbetter.com

Power Systems Inc., www.power-systems.com

Sportsmith, www.sportsmith.net

SPRI Products, www.spriproducts.com

Xvest, www.thexvest.com

Questions to Ask When Buying

  • How much does this cost versus how much are we going to use it?

  • Can this equipment be used in a variety of classes, or is its function limited to one specialty class?

  • Is there another product that will give us the same result for less money?

  • Is the product professional looking?

  • Will it hold up under heavy use?

Keeping It in the Closet

Having a large number of accessories in your group exercise room is great, but where the heck do you put them all? Some clubs are lucky enough to have entire closets set aside for storage; others invest in racks, locks, trees, containers and other storing devices. However, if budgets are low, some old-school creativity can do the trick. Stability ball racks can be built out of PVC piping, lockers can be relocated from the changing room to the studio for small equipment, utility hooks can be used to hang tubing and jump ropes, and large storage bins can hold everything from yoga mats to dumbbells. Storage not only helps with organization, but lockable closets, bins and racks also can keep equipment from “walking” (or in a stability ball's case, “rolling”) out of your facility's doors.