Does Bowflex Transcend its Unfortunate Infomercial Reputation?
Let’s be honest about an important point of consideration when talking about Bowflex- it’s hard to take infomercial products seriously. Most people naturally distrust any product that is primarily sold through these long-form commercial advertisements, writing them off as nothing more than gimmicky impulse buys designed for the quick sale. Yet despite their often-unsavory reputation, you need to always keep in mind a pair of points defining the world of rotisserie chicken makers and multi-purpose exercise machines:
These products sell by the truckload. It’s easy to take the cynical route and argue infomercial products only sell well because they are marketed in a cagey or manipulative manner. While it’s safe to speculate more than a few infomercial products have been purchased and then promptly forgotten about, it’s unfair to assume the general population is composed of so many suckers that a product will sell massive quantities without providing any tangible benefits.
Cagey or manipulative marketing doesn’t mean a product doesn’t work. At the end of the day every product’s manufacturer markets their goods in the manner they feel will move the most units. This is due to a combination of business concerns (wanting to make the most money possible) and personal belief (wanting to share their valuable product with as many people as possible). As distasteful or as classless as they might be, infomercials sell products better than many other marketing methods and are a natural choice for manufactures of compatible products.
As much as our internal biases may produce unfounded prejudices against any product hawked heavily on cable from 1am to 3am, these ultra-successful deserve honest consideration and evaluation.
The Bowflex is Smarter Than You Think it Is
Originating with a single device, the Bowflex product line has extended to a wide range of fitness devices and products. Despite the brand’s variety of exercise machine options, Bowflex remains best known for its flagship, namesake machine, a multi-function tower promising an entire gym’s worth of exercises in a single compact form. To understand the company at-large and the full range of products they offer, you need to understand the history of this single device.
Tessema Dosho Shifferaw, an engineering student studying in San Francisco in the 1980’s, developed the standard Bowflex machine by applying his well-developed understanding of mechanics. Shifferaw applied a very simple, proven mechanical principle to the dream-machine he developed, a machine he felt would provide the most efficient method for developing the human body in the simplest method possible- the principle of resistance.
To this day the world of exercise and physical training remains embroiled in a debate over what form of resistance produces the best results. The most visible facet of this debate rages between those who believe bodyweight resistance is superior to all others and those who believe loaded barbells produce the best resistance, but there are many other forms of resistance well stocked with their own advocates who will argue their superiority bitterly. No matter what side you listen to, you will find countless individuals and experts arguing their favored form of exercise and physical training will produce a superior form of resistance to all others.
As a trained engineer accustomed to exploring and working with the mathematical realities of resistance, Shifferaw saw through these ridiculous debates and knew, beyond all doubt and in a provable manner, that all forms of resistance produce the same reaction. Shifferaw knew resistance itself was neutral and did not take on special or unique qualities depending on what produced it. Using this clear understanding of the reality of resistance, Shifferaw designed the basic engineering innovation underlying the original Bowflex machine- Power Rod Technology.
What is Power Rod Technology?
Instead of using weights the Bowflex machine uses what it calls Power Rods. These rods are vertically aligned metal shafts of varying diameters located at the back of the machine. Before you begin to perform one of the machine’s exercises you need to first hook the machine’s cables to one of the power rods.
When you perform an exercise you essentially pull on the Power Rod you’ve hooked the machine onto. The thicker the rod, the more resistance it produces when you perform an exercise and pull at it. The rods are carefully calibrated to each produce a very specific amount of resistance. For example one rod produces the equivalent resistance of a 30lbs weight, another rod produces the equivalent resistance of a 50lbs weight, and so on.
Bowflex’s Power Rod Technology provides two major benefits over traditionally weighted machines.
1. Power Rod Technology is much more compact than traditional weights. One of the Bowflex machine’s biggest selling points is its space-saving nature. The Bowflex machine’s full set of Power Rods takes up less space than an equivalent machine’s full set of weights. The Bowflex is also cleverly designed and, within a single machine, can produce the same number exercises as a small gym’s worth of equipment. This is one of those boasts that sound like infomercial-hyperbole, but it’s true and can’t be discounted when considering the legitimacy of the Bowflex machine.
2. Power Rod Technology is safer than traditional weights, even weight machines. There is a single big reason why training with weight machines and Bowflex machines is safer than training with free weights. Weight machines and Bowflex machines limit your range of movement when exercising, which means you can’t perform exercises on these machines with poor form. Performing an exercise with poor form with free weights can lead to everything from pulling muscles to dropping the weight onto your body. Neither of these scenarios is possible with weight machines or Bowflex machines.
Bowflex machines are even safer than traditional weight machines because traditional weight machines still involve heavy iron plates being lifted that can fall and crush anything beneath them. If any part of your body gets caught beneath a falling weight stack you won’t like the result. With no weights being lifted, and with your body securely separated by the machine’s Power Rods at all times, Bowflex machines provide safety assurances even the best weight machines rarely offer.
While it may seem gimmicky at first, the Bowflex machine uses proven mathematical, scientific principles, and intelligent design to offer the same level of resistance as a suite of traditional weight machines in a single compact machine.
What’s the Difference Between Power Rod Technology and Spiraflex Technology?
If you’ve looked over the various machines Bowflex offers then you’ve no doubt realized only some of the company’s machines utilize its original Power Rod Technology, while the rest of their machines utilize what the company’s labeled Spiraflex Technology. Seeing this distinction, you’re probably wondering, “What is Spiraflex Technology, and how does it compare to Power Rod Technology?”
Simply put, Spiraflex Technology produces resistance by twisting compounds known as elastomers molded into simple shapes. These elastomers are basically resistance bands or large, specially designed rubber bands. By stretching these elastomers beyond their resting state you produce resistance, and when you release tension these bands return to their natural state. Spiraflex-outfitted Bowflex machines attach their cables and pulleys to elastomer bands, so each time you perform an exercise you twist these bands and produce a precisely calibrated level of resistance. The more Spiraflex bands you add to your machine, the greater the resistance you will experience for each exercise you perform.
The main benefit of Spirafle Technology over Power Rod Technology is simple- Spiraflex Technology produces a far more consistent level of resistance than Power Rod Technology. Power Rod Technology offers many benefits but one major problem- when you pull at a tension rod it will provide a greater level of resistance at the end of its stretch than at the beginning. This means a Power Rod designed to offer the equivalent of 50lbs of resistance will only produce a full 50lbs of resistance at the end of each repetition and will provide noticeably less resistance at the beginning of each rep.
This problem isn’t so severe as to discredit the standard Power Rod utilizing Bowflex, but it’s serious enough to mention.
Inconsistent resistance throughout a movement means different muscles, and different aspects of individual muscles, will receive less resistance throughout an exercise designed to develop those muscles and those muscle aspects evenly. The level of inconsistency found within a Power Rod utilizing Bowflex won’t produce particularly dangerous muscular imbalances, but it won’t provide the same level of precision as a Bowflex machine utilizing Spiraflex technology.
It’s worth noting that this increased level of consistency and precision comes at a price- Spiraflex utilizing Bowflex machines cost significantly more than Power Rod utilizing Bowflex machines.
In Depth With Power Rod and Spiraflex Utilizing Bowflex Machines
There are three different Bowflex home gym machines, two of which utilize Power Rod Technology and one of which utilizes Spiraflex Technology.
Bowflex Classic. This is the standard Bowflex machine, the home gym that most people think about when they think about the brand as a whole, and the original design created by Shifferaw. The Classic Bowflex provides everything you need to perform a range 30 different exercises selected to offer the ability to target every part of your body. These exercises are:
-The flat bench press, the decline bench press and the incline bench press for your chest.
-The seated shoulder raise, front shoulder raise, crossover seated rear deltoid row and scapular retraction for your shoulders.
-Narrow pulldowns, stiff-arm pulldowns, seated lat rows, reverse grip pulldown, and the seated low back extension for your back.
-Triceps pushdown, triceps extension, standing biceps curl and wrist curl for your arms.
-Leg extensions, calf raises, the seated hip abduction, the seated hip adduction, leg kickbacks and leg presses for your legs.
-Finally, seated abdominal crunches (with resistance) and trunk rotations for your abs.
-Additionally you’ll be able to perform aerobic rowing on the Bowflex Classic.
As you can see from the above list, you can perform all the standard exercises you’d expect from a standard training machine. Anyone who has any training experience also understands that, with a little ingenuity and the right understanding of leverage, it’s possible to perform more exercises on the Bowflex Classic than the machine is designed to offer.
The Bowflex Classic comes with up to 210lbs of total resistance and no option to upgrade. This sounds restrictive at first but 210lbs is ultimately all the resistance most people will need with this device. The majority of the Bowflex Classic’s exercises are isolation exercises, not compound exercises, and few people are able to perform isolation exercises with more than 210lbs of resistance.
Bowflex Xtreme 2 SE. The second Bowflex Home Gym is an upgrade of the original machine, utilizing the same basic design and philosophy but adding more options and greater functionality, making it the superior choice for advanced trainers and those requiring a greater challenge than the Classic provides.
There are a few clear upgrades offered by the Xtreme that the Classic does not offer.
First, the Xtreme’s design is more convenient than the Classic and lets you change exercises faster and easier, without shifting cables between movements. This upgrade basically allows you to perform circuit training on the Xtreme with greater effectiveness and control than you can on the Classic.
Second, the Xtreme offers a greater number of exercises you can perform natively on it, providing easy access to over 70 exercises compared with the Classic’s 30 standard movements. These exercises fall into the same categories as the Classic’s, the Xtreme simply offers more options for training each body part and greater precision for training different aspects of each body part.
Finally, the Xtreme provides the potential for greater resistance. While the Xtreme starts out with 210lbs of resistance, just like the Classic, you have the option of upgrading the machine’s Power Rod system to max out at either 310lbs or 410lbs of resistance. The Xtreme also offers additional options for upgrading the machine itself than the Classic. With the Classic you could only purchase optional attachments such as ropes and EZ bars to create variety in your pulldowns and extensions. With the Xtreme you can also purchase a preacher curl attachment and an improved abdominal-resistance attachment.
Bowflex Revolution. The only Bowflex product to utilize Spiraflex technology and the brand’s premier device, Bowflex states the Revolution offers “Over 100 exercises with up to 400 variations. Designed to work every major body zone, and support every workout routine, strength level and fitness goal.”
At its heart the Revolution isn’t too much different than the Classic and the Xtreme, it features a similar construction and an expanded range of exercises that target your muscular groups in the same basic manners. The two main selling points of the Revolution are the fact it utilizes Spiraflex Technology, and the fact it features greater native flexibility when it comes to adjusting the angle and leverage of each exercise to easily perform variations. You can modify exercises on the Classic and the Xtreme, but fine-tuning your workout is much easier on the Revolution. This means the biggest unique selling proposition surrounding the Revolution is uses Bowflex’s highly-consistent Spiraflex Technology to produce its resistance.
It’s worth noting the Revolution is only capable of producing up to 300lbs of resistance when fully upgraded.
So Which Bowflex is Right for Me?
Picking a Bowflex machine isn’t that difficult.
Whether you want to purchase the Revolution or not depends almost entirely on how much you want a smoother, more consistent level of resistance on each of your movements. The uneven level of resistance provided by Power Rod Technology is worth mentioning, but for the vast majority of consumers simply looking to get in shape (to increase their strength, to reduce their bodyfat and to improve their cardiovascular system) this inconsistent level of resistance just isn’t going to be a noteworthy problem.
You probably know if you want to buy the top-of-the-line Bowflex machine or not, and if you do then you should purchase the Revolution. It’s measurably superior to Bowflex’s other machines, but you need to ask yourself whether it’s $1,400 superior to the Xtreme and $2,350 superior to the Bowflex Classic.
Price is a vitally important consideration when it comes to the Bowflex line due to the wild differences in how much each machine costs. Here’s the breakdown:
- Bowflex Revolution: $2,999
- Bowflex Xtreme 2 SE: $1,599
- Bowflex Classic: $649
Most people will compare the price of each Bowflex machine and immediately decide they want to purchase the Bowflex Classic. And, for most people considering buying a Bowflex, the Classic will meet their needs. At the end of the day the Bowflex line was NOT developed to cater primarily to the hardcore exercise market- it was designed to provide a convenient and effective home gym solution for the average person looking to get in shape without investing a ton of time into their health and fitness. Even though Bowflex now offers two higher-end, more hardcore machines, that doesn’t change the fact the company’s base will find themselves well served by the machine that started it all, the Bowflex Classic.
If you want the best-of-the-best and have the money for it, purchase the Revolution. If you have greater fitness needs, both in terms of the resistance you’re able to work against and the variety of exercises you require, or if you are looking specifically for a circuit training machine, then purchase the Xtreme 2 SE.
But if you’re the average person who hasn’t taken much interest in your physical development then the Bowflex Classic will serve you just fine for quite some time.
Additional Bowflex Products Worth Considering
Bowflex has been an incredibly successful company. By combining effective, generally affordable products and a savvy marketing strategy, Bowflex has grown over the last 25 years into an organization moving millions and millions of dollars worth of product every single year. This growth has allowed Bowflex to expand its product line, both by offering a trio of home gym machines as well as a pair of additional, unique, cleverly designed products.
The TreadClimber. Introduced in 2004, the TreadClimber is essentially a combination stair-stepper and treadmill that produces greater resistance than either of those devices on their own. In fact Bowflex claims the TreadClimber burns 40% more calories than a stair stepper alone and 300% more calories than a traditional treadmill, when used for the same duration of time at the same speed. Additionally Bowflex claims the TreadClimber provides a lower-impact workout than either of those devices, producing less strain on your joints while using it, even if you workout on your TreadClimber with a greater level of intensity.
Are these claims grounded in reality, and is the TreadClimber a valid device? Or has Bowflex reached too far with their marketing for the TreadClimber?
Bowflex’s claim that using a TreadClimber is lower-impact than using either a stair stepper or a treadmill is based on the fact the TreadClimber utilizes the same fluid design and movement patterns of an elliptical machine. Elliptical machines have been demonstrated to produce very low impact on trainers utilizing them, so this claim checks out.
Bowflex’s claims the TreadClimber burns significantly more calories than any one device on its own is based on the fact the TreadClimber combines a treadmill, a stair stepper and an elliptical. Essentially, when you work out on the TreadClimber you will step on pedals with a treadmill’s moving belt, with the climbing motion of a stair stepper, and the fluidly shifting nature of an elliptical. This is a potent combination, and Bowflex backs up their calorie-burning claims with a scientific study conducted by the University of Michigan demonstrating how users on the TreadClimber burned an average of 612 calories during the same time as it took treadmill users to burn just 165.
Like the Bowflex machine, the TreadMaster appears to be another device that’s “too good to be true,” but which is grounded in intelligent design and a sound understanding of body mechanics.
Like with their namesake devices, Bowflex offers 3 different TreadClimber products. The first is the TC5, the most basic TreadClimber device retailing at $999. The second machine is the TC10, which offers increased digital functionality, such as the ability to program in weekly goals and to track your workout across 4 different screens. The third TreadClimber is the TC20, offering all the above plus even more tracking functionality (such as an integrated heart rate monitor), increased tread length and built-in challenge functions.
Also like with the Bowflex line of home gyms, most people will be served just fine by the standard TreadMaster devices, but the expanded tracking and functionality of the TC10 and TC20 will appeal to hardcore users who can afford them.
SelectTech Dumbbells. Bowflex’s SelectTech Dumbbells operate on the same basic guiding principle as their flagship machines- a fixation on minimizing the amount of space needed to utilize a full gym’s worth of equipment. The SelectTech Dumbbell set accomplishes this in a different manner than the Bowflex home gym, without utilizing Power Rod or Spiraflex Technology. Instead, SelectTech Dumbbells utilize a single handle with an adjustable number of weights you can attach to them.
SelectTech Dumbells come in two different variations, both of which come in a pair of devices. The SelectTech 552 Dumbbells let you set them anywhere between 5 to 52.5 pounds each. The SelectTech 1090 Dumbbells let you set them anywhere between 10 and 90 pounds each.
Now, neither set of SelectTech Dumbbells come cheap. The 552 set will cost you $399 for a pair, and the 1090 set will run you $599. Bowflex claims these sets will replace between 15 and 17 individual sets of dumbbells, making them cost effective, as well as space saving, if you were already considering purchasing a full range of individual dumbbells for you home gym. But while their adjustable nature is welcome, most people in the market for dumbbells are more likely to buy a single pair of non-adjustable iron dumbbells that they can effectively increase or decrease in weight by consciously working with the leverage of each of their movements.
Bowflex May Just Surprise You
Despite the reputation it’s developed due to our hard-wired prejudices against devices hawked on infomercials, the Bowflex line of products are all surprisingly sound, thoroughly effective, and totally legitimate pieces of technology worth considering if you’re in the market for what they have to offer. Bowflex home gym machines really do provide everything you need to get, and stay, in shape with one device. TreadClimber machines have been scientifically demonstrated to deliver on their claims of providing low-impact, high-calorie burning exercise. And even SelectTech Dumbbells provide an effective space-saving solution (though they don’t have the mass-market appeal as Bowflex’s first two companies).
The main factor that would prevent anyone interested in Bowflex products from making a purchase is each machine’s price. Even the least expensive Bowflex product isn’t cheap. But, if you have the money to spend, and if Bowflex products meet your needs, then this often misunderstood company’s machines deserve at least a second and third look.