New fitness trends emerge all the time, each one seeking to revolutionize the industry to make fitness more fun, effective and attainable for more of the population. During the last few years, the increased popularity of functional fitness has led to new categories of strength-focused classes and equipment. But the evolution of cardio equipment has been limited to incorporating new technology and entertainment options rather than a widespread introduction of new modalities.

The 2012 Fitness Industry Trends Report from FISA, which looks at data from 2007 to 2011, confirms that the cardio category remains strong and is dominated by the treadmill and elliptical, which together account for more than 70 percent of all cardio sales. But it also shows a steady increase in overall cardio equipment sales to near pre-recession numbers. In fact, cardio sales are outpacing strength sales, indicating that clubs are expanding their cardio offering to complement the rise in small group training, functional strength training and other group exercise classes that have topped the trends lists for the past few years.

As traditional pieces such as treadmills and ellipticals continue to outnumber all other pieces on a cardio deck, the popularity of other traditional cardio equipment, such as steppers and upright bikes, declines, according to the report. So what is next? How can cardio sales continue to increase if the variety of pieces being placed in clubs is shrinking?

Time for Change

After many years in the market, we are seeing an increase in the proliferation of alternative motion and user-defined motion pieces. Each manufacturer has its own take on these new modalities, and they have varying degrees of user-defined motion. But they are answering a distinct need for new cardio options beyond a traditional fixed path. These pieces leverage the most beneficial elements of the treadmill and elliptical into a single piece of equipment. They pair the customization of a treadmill, where each user can determine their own stride length, speed and incline, with the low-to-no impact, comfortable and easy-to-use motion of an elliptical to form a whole new cardio option. Additionally, users get a more complete, total body workout in one cardio piece, maximizing results in less time.

Where It All Began

The rise in popularity of alternative motion and user-defined pieces makes sense. For years, the industry has emphasized user-defined strength training on cable-driven equipment or free weights to improve core strength. And recent trends, such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and CrossFit, have put a priority on maximizing effort to improve results. But this truly customizable, alternative experience has not existed for cardio, as we continue to rely on the singular, defined paths of ellipticals, bikes and steppers.

These new alternative motion cardio equipment options engage more muscle groups during a single cardio session, burn more calories in a shorter period of time and provide a more comfortable workout environment to train longer with less impact on joints than traditional cardio equipment.

Despite the potentially daunting look and foreign movements on these new pieces, they still deliver the familiar features of a traditional piece of cardio, helping users feel comfortable enough to approach the equipment, ensuring engagement and ease-of-use to get them started quickly.

Embracing the Evolution

Because these pieces have been around for a few years, manufacturers have had time to perfect the movement and reliability, indicating that they have the same potential staying power that the elliptical had when it broke onto the scene. So the question shifts from "if" to "how." Specifically, how does a club operator introduce the new cardio equipment without sacrificing precious cardio deck space?

The answer is simple: Let your members tell you.

These new pieces will not replace the traditional treadmill or elliptical any more than cable-driven strength will replace fixed-path selectorized equipment. They could, however, become among the most popular cardio training options, surpassing the upright bike and stepper, which are trending down in popularity. But you won't know until you offer your members these options.

The next time you need to trade out old or underutilized equipment, consider replacing them with an alternative motion or user-defined cardio option.

Doing so is a minimal risk to the club operator. In fact, it offers an opportunity to refresh a cardio deck with new options that fill some holes left by older equipment. Adding a few alternative motion pieces can help differentiate a club from the one down the street. And it offers personal trainers an opportunity to teach members how to use the new cardio to complement their private workouts.

Balance is the key. Start out small and your let members decide if they want options above and beyond a treadmill or bike. Just like a user-defined approach to strength, you might find that your members are seeking a more personalized approach to cardio training, too.

Content sponsored by Star Trac.

Dustin Grosz has 20 years of operations and general management experience in the fitness equipment industry. He currently is the president and COO at Star Trac, where he has led the turnaround of Star Trac during the past three years. Prior to Star Trac, Grosz was the president and CEO of StairMaster, transforming an underperforming product line into a profitable business in the first year of management.