Tough New Workout Gear That Goes Easy on the Joints

9.12.10

Every week, Greg Berman squeezes in a total-body workout at home. He doesn't lift barbells and there's no room in his 1,000-square foot condo for a treadmill.

Instead, Mr. Berman steps onto his San Francisco deck and straps into something called the TRX Suspension Trainer, a 1.8-pound piece of equipment that at $189.95 fits in a shoebox and leverages his body weight to perform resistance training. "Every time I've lifted free-weights, I've always found a way to pull a muscle," says 35-year-old Mr. Berman. "There's something about using my own weight that's more natural, which appeals to me."

More people are saying good-bye to the sprawling, machine-laden gym and looking for equipment designed to give low-impact workouts and then tuck neatly in a closet, suitcase or back of an SUV. For some buyers, the appeal is about space-saving. For others, in particular the roughly 76 million baby boomers in the U.S., it's about minding aching knees, backs and joints, often battered from decades of high-intensity cardio workouts and weight-lifting.

"A part of me died not being able to get out on the street," says 57-year-old Linda Copp, a former marathoner who ran 75 miles weekly until she tore her knee joint's cartilage. She bought a $2,199 Elliptigo—a new portable outdoor bike that's part elliptical trainer, part bicycle. The bike's pedals move in a forward motion emulating a runner's stride, without the same pounding impact. While the Elliptigo "kicks my butt," she feels like she's running again. "And nothing hurts."

Elliptigo is the brainchild of former Ironman triathlete Bryan Pate, who lost his ability to run after multiple hip and knee injuries. Indoor elliptical trainers felt too confining, he says, so he convinced Brent Teal, a former colleague, mechanical engineer and endurance athlete, to build a prototype for an outdoor elliptical model.

One design challenge was lengthening Elliptigo's stride to simulate running while keeping the bike light and maneuverable. Also tricky: getting new users to trust the design. "You are positioned the same as if you're standing fully upright on a bike," Mr. Pate says. "That can be a little nerve-wracking at first."

The greatest surge in fitness equipment has been with devices that cost less than $200.

"Everyone loves the idea of having a home gym," says Adam Campbell, author of "The Men's Health Big Book of Exercises." But, he says, "It seems like the trend now is to go with less."

For instance, personal trainer Valerie Waters, who buffs up celebrity bodies, including those of actors Jennifer Garner ("Alias") and Rachel Nichols ("G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra"), designed her $29.99 Valslide product to be a total-body workout option that can slip in a handbag. Users place hands and feet on two sliding discs to perform exercises, such as squats, planks and leg curls.

Ms. Nichols says she used Valslide with weights to add 15 pounds of muscle for her "G.I. Joe" role and takes a pair to the movie set. "Pro athletes use them, but they are not intimidating and people like my mom can use them, too."

Professional gyms also are beating the low-impact drum. Equinox Holdings Inc. and Crunch LLC teach with the TRX suspension trainer, developed by a former Navy Seal. Crunch runs a "Boing With Kangoo" class, where users channel their inner Avatar by strapping on springy boots to hop on a cushion of air. Equinox has "Whipped," where attendees wave long, 40-pound ropes in a squat position to steel their cores.

"One of the worst things in group fitness and aerobics was we told people 'longer, harder, more, more, more,'" says Donna Cyrus, Crunch's senior vice president of programming. "Now we're trying to help undo it."

For those working out at home, there's some risk of bad form or injury without supervision, even with low-impact exercises. Before trying it at home, Mr. Berman of San Francisco took classes to get comfortable with the TRX straps, which attach to an anchor point, such as a door or ceiling.

Such concerns are driving design changes. Take the kettlebell, a small popular weight that can be swung by its handle to burn fat and build strength—but can cause wrist and elbow injuries if misused. One manufacturer, GoFit LLC, plans to introduce a contoured version this fall to reduce strain.

And Perfect Fitness this year rolled out a $99 mat dubbed the "Perfect Situp." It supports the neck, aligns hips and "clicks" when a sit-up is performed right. "If we just came out with bunch of DVDs, very few people would do it," says Perfect Fitness CEO Alden Mills.

Interest in the new gear is strong. Sales of Valslide are 20% ahead of last year, the company says. Fitness Anywhere Inc., which makes the TRX, projects $30 million in revenue this year, up from $6.7 million in 2008. That's attracted new investors such as Drew Brees, quarterback for the New Orleans Saints.

"Balance, core strength and joint integrity are so important," says Mr. Brees who first trained with TRX after a career-threatening shoulder injury.

Increasingly, product makers rely on the Internet to motivate home users—and goose sales. In homage to her celebrity clients, Ms. Waters of Valslide runs a "Red Carpet Ready" club; users shell out $27 a month to access a private website where they post videos and pictures and get bonus workouts. Club member Mary Bess Dalton of Fort Worth, Texas, says she's since dropped two dress sizes and shed 16 pounds on the program. "And I've never been a gym person."

Then there's Power 90 Extreme—dubbed "P90X"—an intensive three-month DVD workout (sometimes using resistance bands, chin-up bar and other small equipment) and nutrition plan that's sold 2.5 million units since its 2005 launch.

It's caught fire on Twitter with nods from actors Ashton Kutcher and his wife Demi Moore. Wrote Ms. Moore, the ripped star of "G.I. Jane" last year: "I have only done the yoga DVD of the P90X so far and that kicked my a—! The husband is banging it out everyday though! I need to motivate!"