As the economic recession has caused many club operators to consider where to cut expenses, some have chosen to do so by lengthening their buying cycles on higher-expense cardio and strength equipment. The move to cut back in these areas coincides with growth in less capital-intensive group exercise and functional training. These factors are affecting the types of strength equipment that club operators are purchasing.

Five of the top 10 fastest-growing fitness activities in the United States include class-based fitness activities, according to the 2012 edition of “Tracking the Fitness Movement” by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (which is rebranding to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association). Specifically, these activities include yoga, high-impact aerobics, cardio kickboxing, group stationary cycling, and recumbent stationary cycling. In addition, boot-camp-style cross training has attracted 7.7 million participants, of which 2.9 million are core participants engaged in the activity at least 50 times per year.

“Small group training and personal training continue to become more popular options as additional revenue streams for many clubs,” says Anthony Wall, director of professional education at the American Council on Exercise, San Diego. “As such, the demand for more practical space is increasing. As the space becomes more available, clubs are more open to purchasing more of the ‘fun’ pieces of equipment that trainers and small group instructors like to use. Since much of this equipment is less familiar to the average user, it tends to get more use in ‘for fee’ sessions.”

Scott Baumann, general manager of Fitness Together Miami, a firm that provides one-on-one personal training, recognizes a change in the exercise venues of today’s club.

“For the past five to eight years, personal trainers and industry experts have been recognizing the limitations of machines and hypertrophy bodybuilding-style training and extolling the benefits of a more functional style of training, using more cables, bands, dumbbells and kettlebells,” he says. “This has led to more of an internal demand from personal trainers and staff to equip their clubs with more of this equipment and fewer machines.”

Another contributing factor to functional training’s popularity, Baumann says, has been the explosion of CrossFit gyms and the popularity of the CrossFit training methodology, which has led to high consumer demand for pull-up bars, kettlebells, Olympic barbells and plates and even more open space to perform the CrossFit-style workouts.

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That need for space has led traditional strength equipment vendors to be more conscious of their equipment’s footprints.

“In reference to the strength equipment purchasing side, manufacturers are always looking to reduce the overall footprint of their equipment in an effort to appeal to the ever-increasing spaceconscious buyer,” Wall says.

Despite this need for space, some manufacturers of traditional strength equipment are introducing functional training equipment that does not necessarily take up minimal space.

“When it comes to larger pieces of equipment over the last 12 to 18 months, we’ve seen more companies producing multi-system, multi-function stations that can accommodate a number of users at one time,” Wall says. “These systems can have boxing bags, cables, ropes, bands, suspension [systems] and other smaller pieces of equipment attached to them.”

One of those multi-function stations is Synrgy360, introduced this year by Life Fitness, Schiller Park, IL. Synrgy360 is a modular system on which personal trainers can run small group classes or do individual personal training using a focal point product that puts clients through several total-body, dynamic exercises, says Dan Wille, vice president of global marketing and product development for Life Fitness. The Synrgy360 typically covers a minimal live training area from 720 square feet to 802 square feet and accommodates up to 16 people at one time. It usually includes seven “wedges” connected to monkey bars that run down the center. Four of those wedges are customizable.

At a price range of $7,000 to $25,000, depending on the configuration, the Synrgy360 was not created to steal market share from the small accessory vendors but instead to offer a functional training space for personal trainers.

Functional equipment using cables also continues to be introduced by strength vendors. Technogym’s Kinesis equipment has been on the market for several years. Cybex International, Medway, MA, has its Bravo line of functional cable training equipment that uses progressive stabilization, a patent-pending technology that allows users to adjust for height and horizontal position.

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Paramount Fitness, Los Angeles, introduced its XFT-300 Extreme functional training product this spring, adding to its line of four other cable-based functional training products. FreeMotion Fitness, Logan, UT, also has introduced a suspension system that caters to the functional training trend.

“On the group fitness side, there continues to be more and more programs introduced that utilize equipment, and as clubs look to differentiate themselves, we see more purchases of equipment solely for use during the group exercise classes,” Wall says.

How to attract savvy members and retain existing ones drives the decisions about new products and programming ideas that help clubs stand out, according to Paul M. Juris, executive director of the Cybex Research Institute, Medway, MA.

“Therefore, keeping things fresh and current is a strategy for reaching business goals,” he says. “However, new does not always mean better and comes with a risk and play-out factor.”

Functional training may be a trend that is here to stay, but it does not mean an end to traditional selectorized and plate-loaded equipment.

“For most gyms, you still need a basic line of strength equipment, a free-weight area, a core training area and functional equipment that allows you to train in groups, offer athletic training and encourage people to train more dynamically,” says Michael Rattenni, CEO of Triumph Group Management and The EFT Group, consultants to the fitness industry.

Juris says that future capital outlays for health clubs will be channeled towards a smart mix of traditional machines and non-traditional training tools.

Adventure and variety will drive equipment selection in the future, says Marcus Brugger, owner of Movement Fitness, Gainesville, VA, and an expert on the website www.WeightTraining.com.

“People are becoming more adventurous,” Brugger says. “They want to be stimulated during their workouts. A number of members are joining gyms now not for the amount of cardio equipment but the variety of different types of workouts they can try. The new trend is shaping and changing what gyms must offer now to be successful.”