Simple exercises with no-tech equipment (call them paleo or playground exercises, depending on how much fun they are) have long found disciples at niche gyms and in movements such as CrossFit. But in the last year and a half, major health-club chains have begun making hefting sandbags and shaking 25-pound ropes the standard, ditching the fancy weight machines that have dominated gym floors for more than 30 years.

“I wouldn’t say obsolete, but there is a huge downtick in traditional strength-training equipment,” said David Harris, the national director of personal training for the Equinox chain. The company, based in New York, has thinned its ranks of chest press, leg press and leg extension machines to clear floor space so members can move freely. (Treadmills and other cardio machines aren’t going anywhere.)

Or as Monkey Bar Gym, which has its headquarters in Madison, Wis., states on a T-shirt: “Rage Against the Machines.”

In the race to make space for so-called functional fitness training — which encourages people to push, pull, squat and generally move their bodies as they might naturally — the first machines out the door are usually the ones that lock the body in place, working a single muscle.

Adam Campbell, fitness director for the Men’s Health brand, wrote in an e-mail that machines like the leg press strengthen muscles, but asked: “What’s the real logic in sitting or laying down to train your legs?” Functional fitness is “far more bang for your buck” because it works multiple muscles simultaneously, he said, providing better overall strength and mobility, and a higher calorie burn.

That makes it a faster route to today’s most-wanted bodies, like those of the actors Bradley Cooper, Kellan Lutz of “Twilight” and Ryan Kwanten and Joe Manganiello of “True Blood.”

“Lean, athletic as opposed to highly muscular,” Mr. Campbell wrote of that group, a description that could apply to some of the most-wanted bodies for women, too.

Josh Bowen, until recently the quality control director for the seven-state Urban Active chain, referred to the sweeping revisions the company made last year as swapping “Arnold machines” (as in Schwarzenegger) “for AstroTurf.”

Mr. Bowen, who left Urban Active when it was acquired by LA Fitness, said, “Gyms are way out of the times if all they have is machines.”

People spend all day sitting with machines, he said. “When they come into a gym, they don’t want to be sat down at another one doing three sets of 12.”

At Life Time Fitness, the Minnesota company that has clubs in 23 states, roughly half of them have removed some machines and banished the rest to the corners to make way for what a spokeswoman referred to as “jungle gyms,” essentially seven-rung ladders the width of a small room from which people can push, pull and otherwise suspend themselves. This month, the chain’s 106th club opened in Alabama with a two-story steel structure big enough for some 40 members to run up stairs, climb rope walls and hoist themselves up poles.

“It looks like a prison guard tower,” Jason Stella, Life Time’s national training developer, said with pride. (Mr. Stella isn’t sure how many clubs will get a replica. “We won’t get planning permission everywhere,” he said.)

The 160-branch Town Sports International, which includes New York Sports Clubs, has removed up to eight machines a club — biceps, triceps, leg extensions and leg curls are the first to go — and replaced them with 800 square feet of artificial turf. Some potential members may still judge gyms on the number of machines, said Ed Trainor, vice president for fitness services at Town Sports International, yet many locations have been rearranged so visitors are greeted not with the sight of treadmills and TVs, but with green space the size of a the racquetball court.

“It’s the money shot,” Mr. Trainor said.

The functional fitness zones also are a moneymaker for gyms, costing $5 to $6 a square foot, compared with some $50 a square foot when filled by machines, estimated Bruce Mack, the founder and chief executive of the Boston-based MBSC Thrive, who has built a business bringing functional training programs to hundreds of gyms nationwide. (His business partner is Mike Boyle, a strength consultant for the Boston Red Sox.) When determining what equipment has to leave the building, “We’re pretty ruthless,” Mr. Mack said. “If it’s machine-based or has a pin, it’s a thing of the past.” (He was referring to the adjustable stacks of weights held in place by a pin.)

He added gleefully, “Adapt or die!”

Don’t consign the hulking machines to the Smithsonian just yet, though. They still appeal to two small but distinct constituencies.

One consists of traditional bodybuilders, who Mr. Harris said make it tough for Equinox to remove much of the equipment from their preferred habitats, like the Highland Park neighborhood of Dallas; West Hollywood, Calif., and the West Village in Manhattan. The other group: people with set ideas about what constitutes a workout and who like to hide at the gym.

Most weight machines have diagrams that help users figure out what to do and how, with a fairly small margin of error (and embarrassment factor). Open space requires more instruction, supervision — and sometimes persuasion, said Anthony Wall, director of professional education for the nonprofit American Council on Exercise.

“You look like you’re in a circus,’ ” Mr. Wall said people say to his wife when she does functional training workouts on her own at her gym. “To older people in particular, it just doesn’t look like they think exercise should.” (Last November, the exercise council, which certifies personal trainers, began offering a specialization in functional training.)

Even after a year of workouts that included shaking 25-pound battle ropes or touching the floor while balancing on one leg, Bret McBeain, 33, a sales manager at a car dealership in suburban Minneapolis-St. Paul, said he can’t shake the idea that people are watching him and thinking: “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen.”

He understands, because for more than a decade he trained the way he had learned as a high school hockey player: one hour six days a week in the weight room, focusing on his upper body one day and his lower body the next. He switched to functional training last year because, he said, he was feeling “weak in places and in a rut.” Mr. McBeain, a member of Life Time, reduced his training to four times a week. “There’s no way I could do this kind of workout six days a week,” he said. “You don’t ever stop and rest.” He feels much stronger now, he added.

Now when he sees people working the same muscle repeatedly on machines, the way he used to, he said: “I’m looking over and going: ‘I can’t believe that’s what you’re doing. That is so dumb.’ ”


Source: The New York Times
April 19, 2013
By Courtney Rubin, photo by Gary Tramontina for The New York Times