’Tis the season for reflection on the past and to forecast the coming year, and the fitness industry is no exception. In looking ahead to health club programming trends, several industry associations say small fitness equipment and accessories will play a key role.

Sales of fitness accessories in general are growing and are outpacing the growth of larger equipment like strength and cardio machines, according to the 2011 “Fitness Programs & Equipment Trends” report published by IDEA Health & Fitness Association earlier this year. Kathie Davis, the association’s executive director, says she expects that trend to continue. Accessories are relatively inexpensive, take up less space and offer versatility, making them an attractive way for a club to update its programming and keep members engaged.

“People really like the opportunity to have new ‘toys,’” Davis says. “As long as clubs can afford these new toys, I think we’ll see the market grow. They not only keep the classes interesting, they keep personal training interesting. That’s what clients are asking for—they need a change-up.”

Based on the trend report, which tracks the equipment and programming that health clubs have reported offering during the past 10 years, one of the biggest increases in the small equipment market has been in body-weight leverage equipment. From 2009 to 2010, the number of clubs that reported offering this type of equipment more than doubled from 25 percent to 57 percent. Davis says the growth is due largely to systems such as TRX, San Francisco, which she expects will continue to increase in popularity.

“I think that word of mouth is a big part of its growth. But I also think that it’s really good programming,” Davis says. “You put together good training [of licensed instructors], with good programming, with a tool—like suspension training—that gets real results, and you have a winner.”

TRX also made it onto the American Council on Exercise (ACE) list of fitness trends to watch in 2012.

Its portability and versatility make it an attractive training option, explains Jessica Matthews, ACE certification director and exercise scientist, adding that the programming can be adapted to suit a wide range of club members, from newbies to elite athletes

Another trend that both IDEA and ACE expect to see for years to come is balance training, which is fueling growth in balance accessories. These products have seen steady growth since IDEA began tracking them in 2004, with a 26 percent increase in the number of clubs that report using them in that eight-year period.

“Any sort of balance equipment is really big right now, whether it’s BOSU, or the disks, or wobble boards,” Davis says, adding that they are popular for two reasons: fun and function. “As the population is aging, I think that trainers and group ex instructors are realizing that balance is a huge issue.”

Matthews agrees, saying that balance training is no longer something that can be overlooked by the industry. She says that the products from BOSU, Canton, OH, will continue to be popular, but that it faces competition from the new Step360 balance trainer from SPRI, Libertyville, IL , which features a flat standing surface balanced on two separate air chambers, which make its height adjustable.

“It’s a little different, in terms of design, from the BOSU, but there are advantages to both of them,” Matthews says. “The flat top allows for a little bit more of a stable surface, so it’s great for jumping and landing activities.”

Balance training fits into the wider functional training category, which is also on the rise, bringing with it a resurgence of a range of familiar accessories, including kettle bells and medicine balls, as well as some newer interpretations, such as Kamagon Balls and SandBells.

Both products offer versatility for functional training workouts. Kamagon Balls, made by Kamagon Fitness, Tulsa, OK, are filled with water, so their weights can be adjusted for different users’ abilities. SandBells, produced by Hyper Wear, Austin, TX, are durable neoprene bags filled with sand. In addition to the traditional strength-building benefits, Matthews points out that the design of SandBells also can help improve grip strength—something that is especially vital for older users.

Matthews says the popularity of these products indicates that the industry is getting back to basics when it comes to training and focusing on the five primary movement patterns—push, pull, squats, lunges and rotations.

“We’ve really kind of moved away from that over the last 30 years or so, and moved into muscle isolation and targeting body parts,” Matthews says. “And while there’s still some validity to that, we’re now really looking at what the point of exercise is—it’s really to make us more functional, to enhance the way we go through our day-to-day activities and living, not just our time in the gym.”