Working out with a personal trainer for two years taught Steven Chotin that he would never have an Olympics-caliber body but could have an Olympics-class home gym. Five years ago the 49-year-old Chotin, president of The Chotin Group Corporation, a Colorado-based financial services company, decided it was time to move his three-piece minigym out of the basement and into the future. He broke ground and built an airy, 1,000-square-foot addition to his 8,000-square-foot home in Cherry Hills Village, a suburb of Denver. Gleaming chrome, sun-drenched floor space, stagelike lighting, and studio-quality sound set the scene for 15 different fitness machines and club-quality equipment pieces. A big-screen television, steamroom, sauna, tanning bed, and firmly padded massage table rounded it all off. "Making it fun is the only thing that gets you to work out," says Chotin, who now goes to the gym, on average, five days a week.
Just as baby boomers with discretionary income spurred home office and home theater trends in the late 1980s, this aging, gadget-hungry, affluent population, which views exercise as medicine, time as precious, and sweat as a virtue, has caused an upswing in home gym construction in the late 1990s. Inspired by our Surgeon General's confirmation that 30 minutes or more of moderate physical activity at least four times a week will reduce one's risk of diabetes, colon cancer, hypertension, and coronary heart disease, this group helped push U.S. home fitness equipment sales in 1996 alone to an estimated $4.8 billion. As a result, manufacturers, realizing that there are now approximately 15 million Americans ages 50 to 54, have adapted exercise machines to older bones, joints, and eyes, adding softer decks to treadmills and larger, simpler digital readouts on LED displays. In this era of personal computers and personal trainers, we are no longer talking about bikes and barbells in the basement; we are talking about personal health clubs.
Healthy by Design
The first things you notice about a well-designed home gym aren't the machines but the space between them and the light; there is plenty of both. According to the design pros, the majority of all home gyms—which typically cost at least $15,000 but can go to $50,000 and up—are cramped, regimented, and stuffy, even those with mirrored walls, which make a room look larger. The reason is that most home gym owners rely on health club layouts or hotel fitness rooms as guides. But these layouts, designed for a 2,000- to 4,000-square-foot space with commercial-height ceilings, rarely translate successfully to a 600-square-foot home recreation room. With careful planning, however, you can achieve the high-tech, health club aesthetic in your own house. The key is to keep the following five design guidelines, suggested by home gym experts, in mind:
• Plan floor space not just for the machines you want now but for those you'll want in the future. "There's always a new piece of equipment that a client sees in a club, or tries out in a spa, and simply must have," says Dan Allen, of Allen + Killcoyne Architects in Manhattan, which has designed 40 home and small gyms in the United States. Hence, he says, floor plans they draw for clients include "open space" for future acquisitions.
• Think actual space, not just "footprint. "Many exercise machines appear smaller at health clubs than they really are because the overall space is large. In addition to checking the stated "footprint" or floor coverage of a specific machine, figure in the actual space the equipment requires while in use.
• Focus on air flow, not air-conditioning. Air exchange becomes more important as you begin to use the gym more frequently, or as the number of people using it at the same time increases. But you do not necessarily need cold air vented into a workout space. Here's a case where it is safe to borrow an idea from the health club: If air-conditioning cost or access is a problem, ceiling fans are prudent, efficient alternatives.
• Carefully plan the lighting, both natural and electric. "Much of the time you're working out, you're on the floor looking up," says Allen, "especially if you're with a trainer." As a result, poor lighting can be distracting, even hard on the eyes. Architects in the know "float" mirrors off walls and ceilings so fixtures can be installed behind the glass. This approach costs more but improves the look and feel of a gym immensely.
• Don't skimp on flooring. The best health clubs are built from the ground up, and a first-rate floor covering is essential to make your home gym topnotch too. It will level out bumpy surfaces, cut down on noise and vibration, and protect the carpet or cement from a workout's inevitable pounding. More important, though, it protects your body from the impact (see Floor Show).
The Ultimate Machines
Buy club-quality or commercial equipment rather than home or hotel machinery. It is more durable, comes with better manufacturers' guarantees, and typically includes same-day or two-day turnaround on service or repairs. From aerobic step boxes to virtual reality machines, the aim in the home gym is to raise the fun factor while taking simulated moves one step closer to the bike trail or ski slope. But here's the thing to remember: Choose machines and equipment that complement rather than mimic your favorite outdoor activities.
"Let's say you cycle a lot in summer and cross-country ski in winter. You probably don't need to focus so much on cardiovascular machines," explains David Sheriff, co-owner of HealthStyles Fitness Equipment, Inc., which designs and outfits commercial and home gyms for clients in Colorado. Instead, he says, such a person should focus on weights or strength machines, which will build muscles and joints of the limbs while toughening the all-important abdominals and back.
When choosing machines, there are two main things to take into consideration:
• Create a balance of cardiovascular and strength equipment. In years past, trainers say, clients stacked the deck in favor of free weights or weight machines, leaving little room (budgetary or floor) for a variety of cardiovascular equipment, still the optimum base from which to build your gym. Using at least two of the four main cardio machines (treadmill, exercise bike, stair-climbing machine or "stepper," and rowing machine) will keep your heart and lungs in peak form, and keep you from locking up in a rote regimen.
• Make sure strength equipment targets all the major muscle groups. "You need to work the muscle groups of the upper body, lower body, stomach, and back," says Terence Moffatt, editor in chief and publisher of Club Industry, a trade magazine for the commercial fitness world. "The weight motions should be smooth both on lifting and lowering, for maximum range of motion and safety. Fortunately, the cable and belt-drive systems on machines today are generally better than those of the past."
"Everyone seems to have an exercise bike, but treadmills are the most widely used equipment at home," says Gino Forte, a personal trainer at The Golden Door Spa in Escondido, California. "People just seem to gravitate toward them." Indeed, due to their ease of use and reported fitness benefits, treadmill sales in the United States shot up 10 percent in 1996, climbing to $725 million from $660 million in 1995. "It's hard to beat a treadmill—it provides more calorie expenditure than any other piece of gear," says Kurt Reynolds, a certified trainer and director of fitness at the RallySport Health and Fitness Club in Boulder, Colorado. A recent study of aerobic fitness equipment in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise reported that "treadmill running appears to be the most suitable exercise mode for maximizing energy expenditure," when compared with stationary bicycles, cross-country ski machines, and aerobic arm-and-leg "riders."
At the high end of this category, the IMAGE WideStride Duo 48 ($7,000) from ICON Health & Fitness, Inc., universally wins praise as the world's first two-person treadmill. Because the treadbelt is 48 inches wide—more than double the standard single-belt width—you can run or walk on the "Power Incline" shock-absorbing deck with a partner alongside you, provided you can match each other's stride. (Some people use it to jog with the family dog.) The added width also means that it can double as a skatemill for enthusiasts equipped with in-line skates, as the wide belt means you're free to kick your legs out from side to side without worrying about skidding on an unsteady surface.
The WideStride Duo has six different workout programs, including hill and interval training, while the console features an oversize LED matrix display to monitor heart rate, workout progress, speed, and miles covered. On the down side is the weight of the machine—800 pounds, nearly double that of many other top treadmills—and the fact that the Duo doesn't fold up and roll like many of its competitors. And the maximum speed of the Wide-Stride is only eight miles per hour, which may keep some speed demons away as other leading competitors, such as Cybex's Trotter 685 ($8,000), boast a top speed of 12.4 miles per hour. Another plus of the Trotter: quietness of operation. Trainers talk about its soft, whirring hums and low maintenance requirements in almost reverent tones.
Honorable Mention: The Orbiter III ($7,950) by Orbiter, with a curvaceous, futuristic look. Its ultrasoft 19-inch-wide deck makes it popular with those recovering from knee injuries.
A treadmill won't do much to improve upper body strength. That's where the new cross-training machines have stepped in. They mimic the moves of cross-country skiing, yet are much easier to master. Within seconds of stepping on the Reebok Body Trec ($3,695), the leader in its class, I was moving my legs, then arms, in rhythmic motion. And not the straight up-and-down, regimented stepping of the earlier stair-climbers but an elliptical motion, the latest wrinkle in cross-trainer technology. Such step patterns, kinesiologists say, work you harder, and the machine's low- or no-impact workouts provide more complete ranges of motion for the various leg muscles and gluteals (the butt). Because a workout is more strenuous than with traditional step machines, it's especially popular with mountain hikers, cyclists, and serious athletes. "I encourage my clients to push and pull with their arms," says Kurt Reynolds. "You get more muscle groups involved that way." (Reebok also makes the Reebok Body Peak, a new upper-lower body elliptical climber that retails for $3,695 and is billed as the industry's "first elliptical, total-body climbing machine.")
Aside from the Reebok model—which includes an eye-level display of cardio readings, speed, time, calories burned, and distance "traveled"—Reynolds rates the Precor EFX544 Elliptical Fitness Crosstrainer ($4,000) highly because of its adjustable foot ramp, which more closely simulates the running motion. However, the Precor does not offer upper body/arm resistance for now (future versions reportedly may include arm extensions). Both machines also have a "backwards" feature to work the hamstrings and other muscles.
Honorable Mention: StairMaster FreeClimber 4400 CL ($2,500), which has been the rage in health clubs. Not an elliptical cross-trainer but a sleek, cordless aerobic climbing machine, it encourages better posture and less "cheating" (the grips are vertical, at chest height rather than hip height, so you can't lean on them) than the older stair machines.
"You can't go wrong with a top-quality rowing machine," says Moffatt. "It is a total body, terrific exercise, though the machine is not as compact as some would like." Many personal trainers recommend a 20/20 combo of treadmill and rower to make 40 minutes of cardio workout fly by faster. Rowers provide an aerobic workout and develop musculature that other aerobic machines often do not, including the shoulders, arms, chest, upper back, glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps of the legs. "With a rowing machine," says Chip Hunnings, owner of All About Fitness, Inc., in Denver, "your back, shoulders, and biceps come into play—it is one of the few cardio pieces that incorporate those in every stroke, along with the lower body muscles."
At the top of this category is the Concept II Indoor Rower ($725). When it first debuted in 1981, it immediately won praise as a cross-training machine that accurately simulated rowing while bringing a semblance of design elegance into the gym. In some 17 years, the Concept II has not changed all that much: It now has a more angular design, a black and gray shroud covering the turbine-type steel wind-resistance wheel, and all of the expected digital readouts—although the heart-rate monitor attachment must be special-ordered.
There's one big caveat to the Concept II (and to all rowing machines): If you don't follow directions carefully, you risk straining your back. The key, experts say, is to sit straight during the drive (the backwards motion), lean back a bit at the finish of the drive, and then lean forward slightly during recovery. In addition, do not rush through the stroke.
Honorable Mention: Airdyne Windrigger Rower ($950) from Schwinn Cycling & Fitness Inc., a new entry to the indoor rowing market. It combines Schwinn's knowledge of bicycle chain drives, smooth ball bearings, and solid rowing machine design.
"The main benefits of an exercise bike are cardiovascular and burning calories," says Hunnings. "One big advantage is that because you can adjust the resistance as you ride, you can involve more muscles and do more work. Plus, there's no learning curve. We often recommend bikes for people who are on their feet all day at work. The difference, though, is that with the exercise bike you're going to perceive that you have to work harder than with treadmills or step machines to achieve the same results."
Even if you're not normally impressed by video or computer games, you'll be astounded at the recumbent Tectrix Virtual Reality-VR Bike ($8,000). Within seconds of mounting the machine and strapping in your feet, you're leaning left and right while pedaling, watching your "progress" on a 20-inch color monitor positioned comfortably before you. There are mini-speakers mounted on the back of the seat at ear level, not so close as to annoy you but close enough to re-create sounds of chirping birds and sluicing water as you pedal through on-screen puddles. The illusion is heightened by the fact that the padded seat and arm bars pivot and swivel as you turn the virtual corners. The flywheel weighs 45 pounds, helping to keep the unit well-grounded, and the seat is low enough to the ground and equipped with a back support so that riders with lumbar disc problems or back pain won't find it uncomfortable.
For those who favor serious road racing and upright cycling, Tectrix also makes a monitor-less, nonvirtual reality model called the Bike-Max ($2,400), and Schwinn Cycling & Fitness inc. manufactures the sturdy Johnny G. Spinner Pro ($700), developed for the "spinning" cycling classes, popular at health clubs on both coasts.
Honorable Mention: Unisen's Star Trac UB4310 ($1,845), a high-performance alternative. Handy heart-rate sensors are already built into the multiple-position handlebars.
Multistation Home Gym Machines
Used to be, muscles were for show. Now muscles are viewed as medicine. They boost healthful metabolism (not to mention self-esteem), and work in concert with bones, collagen, and other connective tissue to protect joints from age-related declines and osteoporosis. In fact, 2.9 million americans who lift weights are 55 years of age or older. Dumbbells and barbells are the least expensive ways to pump iron, but some simply like the weight machines better. And, points out Gino Forte of The Golden Door Spa, "for strength training, the best exercise you can do is the one you will do."
Forte recommends multistation gyms that allow you to duplicate your usual machine workout routines. The main features to look for in a multistation gym are solid construction and a design that allows you to move easily from one station to another without having to lift benches or adjust weights repeatedly. Such is the case with the Vectra On-Line 4800 ($7,800), rated by Chip Hunnings and other pros as one of the best, if not the best. It is a spin-off of the slightly smaller, ever-popular Vectra On-Line 3800 ($5,800), and includes the same strength-training options plus a leg press and arm station. With the Vectra On-Line 4800, you and three partners can move from station to station, working abs, chest, back, biceps, triceps, and leg muscles. It has a decidedly unangular look; quiet, sturdy weight stacks; and ergonomic design that minimizes getting up and reaching around.
Honorable Mention: The ParaBody ST 950 3-Stack Gym ($4,000) from ParaBody, Inc., a well-appointed, multifunctional machine. It includes lumbar-friendly seating pads and a lifetime warranty on hardware.
Exercising Your Options
Basic Home Gym
SIZE: 200 square feet
EQUIPMENT: multistation strength machine; treadmill; dumbbells; adjustable bench.
Mid-range Home Gym
SIZE: 400-600 square feet
EQUIPMENT: topline multistation strength machine; treadmill; dumbbells; adjustable bench; elliptical step (climber) machine; rowing machine or exercise cycle.
Luxurious Home Gym
COST: $50,000-$100,000, including design fees
SIZE: 800-1,000 square feet
EQUIPMENT: topline multistation strength machine or 5 to 6 individual strength machines; treadmill; chrome dumbbells; adjustable bench; elliptical step (climber) machine; rowing machine; recumbent exercise bike; freestanding abdominal machine; back machine.
The sports flooring you install in your home gym largely depends on how you plan to use it most. Here are the top options.
• For free weights and large equipment: SuperMats Inc. (800-225-9181) recycles tires into the black rubber matting that has pretty much been the gym standard since the Early Schwarzenegger Era. A half-inch thick, four by six-foot pad weighs 65 pounds and costs $60-$100, depending on the retailer.
• If you're hooked on aerobics or dance, look for a more shock-absorbent flooring. Linray Fitness Superstore (800-537-9752) makes a portable, air-supported, maple hardwood floor that sells for $7.95 per square foot. It also makes Score PT Mats, an interlocking aerobic flooring made of ethylene vinyl acetate foam, the material used in the midsole of athletic shoes. A 7/8-inch thick, 40 by 40-inch piece costs about $43.
• An all-purpose fitness mat suited for stretching or situps should be made of closed-cell air foam that doesn't compress under your weight. Test it by squeezing the mat between your fists; if your knuckles touch, the mat will not support your backbone during exercises. SuperMats Inc. makes one with durable polyvinyl chloride foam called Equipment Mat ($20-$30, depending on the retailer).
*Concept II, Inc. (Checks Only) 800-245-5676
*Icon Health & Fitness, Inc. 800-727-9777
*Orbiter (Checks Only) 800-949-2001
*Parabody, Inc. 800-328-9714
*Precor, Inc. 800-477-3267
*Reebok Cross Conditioning Systems 800-344-0444
Schwinn Cycling & Fitness Inc. 800-724-9466
*Stairmaster Sports/Medical Products, Inc. 800-635-2936
Tectrix Fitness Equipment 800-767-8082
*Unisen, Inc. 800-745-3758 OR 714-669-1660
Vectra Fitness, Inc. 800-283-2872, Ext. 5.
* U.S. Factory direct sales only.
Because of the surge in home gyms, some architects and designers have developed specialties in the fitness arena. Here are a few noteworthy firms:
Allen + Killcoyne Architects 212-645-2222
All About Fitness, Inc. 303-759-1711
Cardio Theater, Inc. 800-227-3461 (Specializes In Audiovisual Multichannel Systems For Gyms)
Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects LLC 212-947-1240
Vail Architecture Group 970-949-7034
Healthstyles Fitness Equipment, Inc. 970-945-0302.
Personal trainers will custom-design a workout program for you, help you stick with it, and make sure you perform it safely and effectively. Thus, screen them as carefully as you would a doctor. The profession is largely unregulated, but trainers should have a college degree in a health-related field as well as current certification from one of the fitness organizations listed below (call to make sure that the certification is still valid). The trainer you choose should have experience working with clients of your age and at your fitness level; know emergency care and CPR; and have liability insurance. Fees typically range from $30 to $100 an hour.
*Aerobics And Fitness Association Of America (AFAA) 800-446-2322; for referral service, 800-968-7263
*American Council On Exercise (ACE) 800-825-3636
American College Of Sports Medicine (ACSM) 317-637-9200
*Idea, The Health & Fitness Source 800-999-4332 (not a certifying organization)
National Strength And Conditioning Association (NSCA) 719-632-6722.
* Will put you in touch with a trainer in your area.
Curtis Pesmen is a contributing editor for Self magazine and the author of How a Man Ages (Ballantine Books)