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There's a routine to outfitting a gym

Choosing the right equipment often means scouting trade shows and testing the gear for safety and ease of use. Then there's the 'crave' factor.

October 21, 2002|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

Before a gym member lays one sweaty hand on a piece of equipment, someone else has taken it for a few test spins, checked under the hood and kicked the tires.

At the Sports Club/LA, an uber-gym with 130 cardiovascular and 50 weight machines in 100,000 square feet of space, April Morgan finds and tests the latest fitness equipment, from sophisticated step trainers to basic dumbbells. While she relies on a team of technicians, fitness trainers and mechanics to help make the final stay-or-go decision, she first explores industry trade shows with colleagues, peruses fitness magazines and stays in touch with manufacturers to keep current on innovations in the field.

What Morgan, vice president of sports and fitness, seeks in any piece of equipment can be boiled down to a few obvious key factors -- function, safety, ease of use and comfort -- and some un-obvious ones such as aesthetics, special features and what she calls the "crave" factor -- "Would I crave doing this? I feel like I'm an average member," says Morgan, "so would I want to do this three to five times a week?"

Elliptical trainers are a case in point. These cardiovascular machines, which debuted about five years ago, do what they promise -- make the exerciser work up a sweat -- by moving foot pedals in an elliptical rotation. There is little risk of injury, movements are not awkward, newer designs are sleekly modern with fairly idiot-proof programming, and some can be tilted up and down to work different leg muscle groups. All those combine to make elliptical trainers some of the most popular pieces in any gym.

While there hasn't been much innovation in free weights, Morgan says that even small improvements can make a big difference. A company called Iron Grip added oval cutout handles to their weight plates (used on barbells), making them easier to pick up. They also coated some with urethane to cut down on scuffing and clanging.

The International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Assn.'s annual early spring trade show is where 46-year-old Morgan, the club's fitness education manager and a staff mechanic spend several days scouring booths for new equipment, improved versions of old equipment, software programs and tools to aid in stretching, flexibility and balance.

"We just start on one end and go through," says Morgan, who dresses in workout clothes so she can jump on equipment along the way. "We're just looking for anything new or different, but if we're opening a new club or starting a new program, we'll look for things specifically for that." This year, for instance, she and her colleagues searched for posture-evaluating software programs to help trainers better analyze their clients' posture.

Morgan, who has a bachelor's degree in commercial recreation, will take up to 20 minutes trying out a piece of equipment to see if all factors are in place. Her colleagues also weigh in: "Our chief engineer asks a lot of questions," she says, "from how safe the machine is to what kind of motor it has and even what kind of screws it uses."

If a piece passes that first stage, it's shipped to the Sports Club corporate offices for more evaluation. "We basically do an autopsy on the machine," she says. "Someone takes it apart and does a thorough inspection to see how it's built, if it's high quality, and if it's going to last."

After making it though that step, the machine is given the acid test--some 30 fitness trainers try it out. They're encouraged to write comments, pro and con. But Morgan says once a piece of equipment gets to this stage, reactions are rarely mixed: "By the time we look at it at the trade show and have it sent here, we have a pretty good sense of what will work and what won't. We really screen them."

About four to 10 pieces are chosen from a single convention, and those might be supplemented throughout the year with equipment sent by manufacturers or found in trade publications. A single cardiovascular machine can cost $7,000.

Morgan tries to separate trendy equipment and exercise programs from those with staying power. Slide Reebok, for instance, where participants wear special booties and slide across a special mat, was touted as the next new thing in many clubs several years ago, only to fizzle out soon after.

But Morgan does have high hopes for a new product that takes off on the popularity of cardio boxing classes -- punching bags on a track system that allows them to be easily pulled out for classes, replacing cumbersome and heavy free-standing bags. Morgan is also high on a new cardiovascular machine that she calls a hybrid of an elliptical trainer and a step climber.

Then there's the stuff that just makes her wonder what the inventor was thinking. "I saw this one posture analysis system that scans the person and provides a printout that shows everything" -- every lump, bump and bulge. Says Morgan, "I think it would make them think about something other than their posture."

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