What ended up being its finale show, the 2014 Health & Fitness Business Expo, Sept. 11-12, was filled with new tech, cardio innovations and avenues for a comeback in strength.

Two days in Las Vegas brought back plenty of news.

Do you have an app for that?
No question that the top trend of the show continued to be the fitness industry’s foray into the tech world with numerous new apps, consoles and online educational programming.

On the hardware front, most brands are settling on perfecting the “handshake” between users’ smartphones and tablets with Bluetooth or new near field communication (NFC) technology, which the new Apple iPhone 6 and Watch will work with.

The idea is to increasingly let consumers use their own smart devices that can work with the equipment through a brand or third-party app to display, track and organize workout data. A simple console is still needed, manufacturers said — not all consumers have the tech at hand and some want to just push a button and go — but the key is to focus on the communication not the console.

“Let’s face it, the minute you come out with a new console, it’s outdated,” said BH North America Sales Manager Dan Foust. “As long as you have a basic console and the handshake down, customers can update their phones and tablets as they wish and we can update the apps. We’re not trying to be who we aren’t. We need to focus on the fitness.”

To that end, more fitness brands see their greatest potential in using the latest technology to improve fitness education and programming — areas of their expertise.

BH, for example, is working with Pear Sports (in addition to its partnership with Pafers) to bring recorded fitness training workouts to its users through its app and iConcept platforms. About 60 to 70 sessions will come free with the app, while others will cost anywhere from 99 cents to $50 to download.

All the fitness data in the world may be great to look at, manufacturers said, but the next challenge is getting the stats to actually produce real-world results. Education and programming will be key.

Cardio innovations
On the equipment front, the biggest buzz came from the Octane booth and it’s new Zero Runner (MSRP $3,299). SNEWS brought you the first look at the zero-impact run trainer in April, and got to test out the equipment at the show.

HFB2014_OctaneZeroRunner1

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As many show goers put it: “It’s a lot like learning how to ride a bike.”

“There’s a few minutes of uncertainty for a lifetime of freedom,” said Tim Porth, executive vice president of product development and marketing at Octane. From our initial tests, it takes a moment to trust the machine to let you run with more of a natural stride and kick, but once you get it, it stays with you.

“This isn’t meant to replace running,” said Octane Marketing Manager Tina Nibbe, “it’s meant to supplement it.” So far, the most excited users have been runners who are coming off an injury, or those training for a marathon, she said. A key feature is an accompanying app that analyzes one’s stride to try and perfect a more fluid running motion and work the right muscles.

The Zero Runner is part of a greater push by Octane to tap a more sophisticated fitness customer, “who’s thinking miles instead calories, and pace instead weight loss,” Porth said. “Runners are a different beast than exercisers, and there are a lot of segments within the category from your couch-to-5Kers to your ultramarathoners.”

The running field also includes a lot more women than the traditional fitness crowd, something evident at the Octane space at HFB, which showed greatest gender diversity of any booth on the show floor.

In other cardio news, the general sentiment among among brands and retailers was that elliptical sales were beginning to peak, while treadmills are making a bit of a comeback, although it’s not as though they ever really went out of style. With the latter, we saw efforts to make more affordable treadmills with larger footprints — 22-inch wide platforms were popular — better cushion/stiffness options and also some nice storable pieces.

BH’s new S3Ti Treadmill (MSRP $1,599) comes in with a running surface at 22 inches wide by 55 inches long and new inverted cone-shaped cushioning system. Typically, the amount of cushion is determined by the thickness of the rubber durometers that sit on the underside of the treadmill, BH’s Foust said. But because everyone is a different size and weight, what may seem stiff to some is too bouncy for others. The inverted cone shape (think of an upside-down ice-cream cone), with varying thickness of rubber compensates for the differences. It allows lightweight runners to feel the cushion at the top skinny part of the cone and more heavyset runners to compress that top part and reach the stability of the thinker part below.

HFB2014_BHFitness_S3TiTreadmill

At 3G Cardio, we admired the 80i Fold Flat Treadmill (MSRP $2,099), which easily folds flat to the ground to roll under a bed, but boasts a 3-horsepower motor and a 58-inch length running surface (18.5 inches width) to allow for full strides — something hard to find on a highly storable model. On the higher end, 3G brought its new, light commercial Elite Runner Treadmill (MSRP $3,999) with a 4-horsepower motor and a 22-inch-width-by-62-inch-length running surface.

3GCardio_80i-animate

 

3GCardio_EliteRunner

We told you last year that BodyCraft was going to get into treadmills and, the brand came to the show with three new models (MSRPs $1,699-$2,599). The goal, sticking to the brand’s mantra, was to make heavy-duty pieces that run quiet and aren’t overloaded with distractions, said President Alan Gore. Fitness Masters, which has seen success with its line of kids’ bikes and ellipticals debuted a kids’ treadmill (MSRP $1,599).

The treadmill desk trend still seems to be going strong, and HFB newcomer Fitneff drew steady interest for its WalkTop Treadmill Desk (MSRP $439), which is attachable to pretty much any treadmill’s handrails. The product weighs in at less than 20 pounds, comes pre-assembled and is adjustable in width, height and tilt for just the right ergonomics. The Canadian company sees a market in the active living and fitness efficiency space, said Laurel Walzak, Fitneff’s senior vice president and director of sales. More products along these lines are in the works.

HFB2014_FitneffWalktopDesk

Thanks to CrossFit, rower sales continue rise in the cardio category with brands trying to stake their claim in the market dominated by Concept2. Stamina’s new DT Pro Rower (MSRP $1,200) stood out, offering both air and magnetic resistance in one model. With air, the harder the user pulls, the more resistance, while magnetic allows he or she to set the specific resistance. Interestingly enough, rowers, while hot, seems to be the one place we didn’t see a surge in tech, consoles and apps. While it may be that part of the attractiveness of rowing is its simplicity, we expect the tech trend to hit this category soon.

Strength’s comeback avenue
Cardio has dominated the headlines, and to a large degree sales, in the fitness category of late, but there are signs that the strength category can make a comeback in the next few years.

CrossFit and other programming such as P90X has helped with the rebound, albeit with different equipment at lower price points. No matter the workout, it’s the programming, community and education that’s driving the resurgence, said Scott McDonald, CEO at Body-Solid.

“We’re seeing more (institutional) customers from personal training studios,” he said. “As long as you have that professional personal trainer, you can take out those guided movements and the home gym. Even if you don’t have a trainer, there are thousands of instructional videos online.”

If the industry were to count up the total strength sales figures, CrossFit, online sales and all, McDonald surmises that the numbers would show strength doing better than cardio. Brands like Body Solid are beefing up with rigs that are adaptable and expandable to any size studio and its workout station needs. There’s also opportunity in the bumper plate category — to make more indestructible products as these workouts tend to have users dropping the plates a lot, he said.

Functional machine strength training also sees avenues for strength growth, proving to be an effective middle ground — allowing freedom of movement, but in a safer manner, a growing concern for some in the CrossFit world, said Bill Miller at Vectra.

“The physical therapists are loving CrossFit because of the injury fallout,” he said.

Vectra sees the move toward more aggressive and high intensity interval trainings, and therefore the need and end-result of making its equipment quickly adjustable and adaptable to variety of exercise, Miller said.

On the home gym front, both Hoist Fitness and Inspire Fitness acknowledged the need to make the machines more attractive to the female eye. Not only to attract a growing niche of female athletes interested in strength, but because of the woman’s increasing influence over household purchases, officials said.

Hoist’s Mi6 Functional Trainer (MSRP $3,499) went through two years of development, resulting in a machine with smooth lines and all the bolts, cables and grease hidden away. The vertical columns that do all the hiding also swivel, allowing for a variety of angles for the workouts. At Inspire, the M1 Home Gym (MSRP $1,795) is a hybrid between a functional trainer and a traditional sit-down home gym. It’s smaller and visually different with a curved construction, as opposed to hard angles. The M1 feature slow, medium and high stations with swivel handles for workouts in any direction.

We, of course, can’t cover everything from HFB in one story, so stay tuned to SNEWS for more coverage throughout the next month of new fitness products and trends we encountered at the show.

— David Clucas