Top 20 Product Trends from the Past 20 Years

The past 20 years have seen much invention in cardio and strength equipment, but the standards have stood the test of time.

When Fitness Management published its first issue in 1985, the fitness industry was already firmly established in the U.S., and poised for a big boom with the financial security of the 1990s. Along the way, fitness equipment manufacturers helped to define the industry, with inventions and names that would become known by everyone, not only those who frequented fitness centers (Nautilus, StairMaster, NordicTrack, Lifecycle, etc.). Of course, not every new invention became a facility staple. The following top-20 equipment trends from the last 20 years cover all types -- the ones that made it, and the ones that didn't.


Strength manufacturers realized in the 1980s and 1990s that resistance training had a broader market than bodybuilders and was being embraced by everyone, including women, older adults and children. In 1986, York Barbell Co., a grandaddy in the industry with more than 50 years' free weight manufacturing experience, began addressing women and aerobics classes as a market for handheld weights. And in 1987, Eagle Fitness Systems by Cybex began using the tagline "smooth" with its weight equipment, in a nod to what its new markets wanted. Nautilus introduced a strength line for women (1992), followed by Paramount offering its Lady Circuit (1995) and APEX Fitness Equipment its Lady APEX Strength Circuit (1997). ProMaxima and KidzFit International both began offering lines of children's strength equipment. Also, since the early 1980s, Keiser has manufactured its line of air-resistance machines for users of all abilities, and Life Fitness began offering, in 1988, its Lifecircuit of computerized strength machines to help take the guesswork out of strength training. Finally, manufacturers began to design equipment accessible to people with disabilities, with Nautilus taking an early lead in 1988 with its Independence wheelchair-accessible line.


Heart rate capabilities on cardio equipment began appearing as early as the mid-1980s, with manufacturers such as Versa-Climber's Heart Rate,Precor, Life Fitness, Cybex and Star Trac adding contact heart rate sensors and heart rate programs to cycles, treadmills and steppers. And, as early as 1993, machines had the ability to track individual workouts, with Cat Eye's Data Card. Later, Technogym and FitLinxx (1995) made it easier for exercisers to track their workouts.


Although circuit training has reemerged as a fitness trend (as 30-minute workouts), this idea is by no means new. Beginning in the 1980s, equipment manufacturers made lines of strength equipment specifically for circuits within a fitness center. These include Universal's Aerobic Super Circuit, developed in conjunction with Dr. Cooper's Institute (1985), the Lifecircuit in 1985 by Bally Fitness Products, later known as Life Fitness, Hoggan Health's Sprint Circuit (1986), Maxicam's Modular Machine circuit (1987), the PACE 30-minute workout (1990), Universal's CrossLine package (1995), Keiser's X-Press workout (1997), BodyMaster's Circuit Master strength equipment, Paramount's Direct Power circuit (1997) and SciFit's Fit-Quik program (1998). There were even products to go along with these circuits, such as timers, alarms and music.


In the early 1990s, when thong leotards were all the rage, equipment manufactures jumped on the "buns" bandwagon. Companies began manufacturing (or at least advertising more) strength equipment for the buns, such as the Apex Butt Master, Leg Tech Butt Blaster, Motivations Marketing Bun Burner and the Hoist Glute Master.


NordicTrack was big in the 1980s in the home market, and in 1990 launched a model specifically for fitness centers (although it wasn't alone in targeting facilities -- Fitness Master introduced a ski machine in 1986, as did Precor in 1987). Its new version, 900-T (1993) made the cross-country ski machine easier to use with built-in handrails. Despite the improvements, its popularity waned by the late 1990s. Nautilus made a similar machine when inline skating was all the rage called the Skate Machine (1995).


Stair climbers, beginning with the StairMaster in 1983, were an enormous success. Following StairMaster, every other cardio equipment manufacturer had its version of the stepper, including Tectrix, Star Trac, Precor, Life Fitness, Trotter, Sci Fit Nautilus, CatEye and Universal. In addition to the upright stepper, moving stairs also made their way into fitness centers, in the form of StairMaster's StepMill. Also, NuStep designed a recumbent stepper, which is still popular today for the older adult market.


Although cycles and treadmills were around before Fitness Management was first published, the '80s and '90s solidified their place in the market. By 1989, cardiovascular equipment sales nearly equalled resistance equipment sales. And, by the mid-1990s, treadmills became the most popular piece of cardio equipment in fitness centers. Cycles continued their steady hold on the market, with recumbents becoming popular in the 1990s. The basic types of strength equipment are also here to stay, with plateloaded, free weights and selectorized pieces all holding onto their popularity.


In 1995, Precor came out with its C544 Transport -- later to be commonly known as an elliptical trainer. Since then, most other major cardio equipment manufacturers have come up with versions, and most have also added an upper-body component: Life Fitness' cross trainer (1996), Reebok's Body Trek (1996), Hoggan's Sprint Cross Trainer (1997), Sports Art Fitness' elliptical trainer (1998), Star Trac's Elliptical Edge (1998) and Sci Fit's Elliptical Walker (1998). Elliptical trainers have stood the test of time because they are low-impact and have a low rate of perceived exertion. They've all but replaced stair steppers.


Group exercise, as we know it today, began as "aerobics" in the 1980s. This high-impact, dance style workout wasn't for everyone, so changes were made throughout the decades (by 1991, high-impact aerobics had declined from its popularity peak by 6 percent). In 1989, Step aerobics was introduced, and held on for years (many fitness centers still offer it). Because of the popularity of Step aerobics, another type of class was introduced: slide training, in 1993. That didn't make it through the '90s. Group strength classes also went commercial in 1990, with limited licenses to Exterior Design's Body Sculpting being one of the early offerings. "Group exercise" became the word in the late 1990s to encompass all of the new classes that were being offered, including kickboxing, group strength (such as BodyPUMP, 1997), aquatics classes, hip-hop and much more.


What revolutionized group exercise was something called Spinning, invented by Johnny G. in 1987. This became "group cycling" when other companies (such as Keiser's Power Pacer in 1996, Reebok Studio Cycles in 1996 and Star Trac's V-Bike and program in 1998) offered cycles and programs. Group classes on machines (other than cycles) emerged in the late 1990s. These included the Boathouse Crew Class by Concept2 (1997) Star Trac's Trekking on treadmills (1998) and Precor Fit on elliptical trainers (1999). More recently, we have efi Sports Medicine's GTS unit/GravitySystem /Gravity4Programming (in 2003), and the Corepole product and program (2004).


Going along with the advent of "group exercise," mind/body classes, referred to in a 1990FM article as "nouveau aerobics," surged in popularity beginning in the mid-1990s. Yoga and Pilates were now offered in fitness centers, not just at small studios aimed at the "hippie" niche. Equipment manufacturers responded, offering reformers for individual sessions and group exercise, such as Balanced Body's Allegro Reformer made especially for fitness centers (2000) and PeakPilates'/Life Fitness' reformer. Both Pilates and yoga continue to gain popularity into the 2000s.


Beginning in the mid- to late-1990s, and continuing through the 2000s, equipment companies became one-stop shops for buyers. Companies that once only made cardio equipment or only made strength equipment either bought a company that offered the other, or made their own line of equipment. For example, Life Fitness added a selectorized strength line in 1995; Trotter added a strength line in 1995; Cybex added selectorized and plateloaded lines in 1995, and bought Tectrix cardio and Trotter treadmills in 1998; StairMaster teamed with Pacific Fitness to offer a strength line (1996) and, in 1999, acquired Quinton treadmills; Nautilus developed a plateloaded line in 1996 and added a treadmill in 1997; and Reebok/CCS Fitness added a selectorized strength line in 1998. More recently, Nautilus bought StairMaster and Schwinn Fitness; FreeMotion acquired NordicTrack and Reebok accessories and group cycling; Precor bought Fitness Products International (2004), maker of Icarian Strength, plus it acquired ClubCom, maker of Cardio Theater; and Life Fitness expanded into the mind/body arena with its StretchMate and the Life Fitness Peak PilateSystem.


As a result of equipment company consolidations, manufacturers wanted to create a uniform and distinct look for all of their equipment. Cardio and strength equipment in the late 1990s began to have signature looks from each company. Technogym, perhaps, kick-started this trend, with its futuristic/metallic look. Every major manufacturer followed, with uniform colors, sizes, shapes and materials for their equipment. Cardio consoles also became uniform across every type of equipment for each brand.


"Core training," as it's called, refers to strengthening the mid-body. While in the past people simply performed sit-ups, in the late 1990s, a variety of products and classes became available to train the core. Products included the ABTrainer by Precise (1995), Quantum's Power-Crunch (1997) and the ABench (1997) by Fitness Products International. Exercise balls, while available for years, also had a surge in popularity, as did balance trainers. A new invention was the BOSU ball, which looks like an exercise ball cut in half. OPTP, among other companies, offered a variety of products for the "core."


"Functional training" became popular in the 2000s (though perhaps alluded to as early as 1988 in an ad from a company called Lapko, promising a new exercise system that would "exercise muscles the way they are in real life") as a spinoff of sports-specific training. This type of training focuses on preparing the body for a particular activity; only now, in addition to sports (golf, tennis, running, etc.), it is designed for activities of daily living. Balance training is a big part of this, as is strength training. In fact, whole lines of selectorized strength machines were born from this idea. Instead of a fixed path, they had cables for user-defined paths of motion. FreeMotion Fitness (originally Ground Zero) and Cybex were the first to bring these machines to the commercial market in 2000. Precursors to these machines were Cybex' VR2 line in 1996, Paramount's ART line in 1997 and StairMaster's Arcuate line in 1997. Also, exercise accessories such as balance trainers (many from Fitter), bands, exercise balls, weighted bars (like the Body Bar from The Step Company) and medicine balls became more popular because of the "functional" trend.


In the late-1990s, flexibility became a buzz word in the industry. Products such as Precor's Stretch Trainer in 1998 were all the rage at industry trade shows. Also available were Universal Gym Equipment's ProFlex (1996), Keiser's Stretch Zone (1996) and the MedX Stretch (1998). Since then, True's Stretch Station came out in 2002, and the StretchMate came out in 2003 (offered by Life Fitness).


Since people began running, walking, cycling and stepping indoors, boredom has been an issue. Equipment manufacturers have always tried to respond to that problem, and never better than now. In the '80s and early-'90s, small companies sold "reading racks" for cardio equipment, so members had a place to put their books, magazines and personal stereos. Eventually, equipment manufacturers themselves responded to that need, and had built-in reading racks and water bottle holders on all cardio equipment. Of course, that was just the beginning. In 1990, the Health Club Media Networks proclaimed itself the "only nationwide television and radio network designed for health clubs." Then, Cardio Theater (1993) brought the focus away from the equipment itself and onto the facility walls with its Cardio Theater television and radio systems. Broadcast Vision did the same in 1995, and Quinton's Club FM with TV and music was created in 1997. Entertainment options built into cardio equipment (like cable TV and DVD players) became popular in the 2000s (Expresso Fitness' Spark Cycle, 2005, and CatEye's GameBike Pro, 2005), but many were around in the mid 1990s, such as Precise Fitness' Tele-Bike (1993), Life Fitness' Exertainment system (1995), and Tectrix' VR Bike (1994) and VR Climber (1995), which all had virtual reality workouts. In addition to equipment manufacturers, separate companies emerged that offered TV monitors that could connect to cardio equipment to watch TV or a DVD, or use the Internet. These included e-Zone (1999), Transcape System's ICE stations (1997), which later became NetPulse, and CardioVision (2003).


Instead of entertainment on cardio equipment, in the early 2000s, the entertainment became the cardio equipment. Active entertainment, such as Broadcast Vision's Dance Exercise Revolution (2005), Cybex' Trazer (2005), Konami's Dance Dance Revolution (2005) and Motivatrix' MX7 Workout Master (2005), have users respond to lights and a monitor to step or jump onto a pad. This idea came from the video game industry, but also keeps track of time and calories used during the "workout." This is a relatively new trend, but Cybex' Reactor was around in 1997.


Climbing walls; aquatic classes, equipment and accessories; and rowing machines have been around since before Fitness Management first published. Brewer's Ledge's Tread Wall, a revolving climbing wall (whose club-targeted advertising dates back to 1990), made climbing more accessible for fitness center members, and easier for facilities than installing an entire wall. When the popularity of racquetball waned in the '90s, some facilities turned their old courts into climbing areas. As for aquatics, cardio and weight equipment for use in the water has been around for years, and group classes in the pool continues to have a steady market. Concept2's Flywheel Rower debuted in 1981, and by the mid- to late-1980s, rowing machines, some of which could be linked together for virtual racing, were a fitness center staple. In 1988, at least seven companies manufactured them, and Concept2 continues to offer newer models today.


Since the elliptical trainer, cardio manufacturers have been looking for the next big thing. Some ideas are spinoffs on old ones: FreeMotion Fitness' (NordicTrack) Incline Trainer (2003) is a treadmill that has a steeper incline and can actually decline; Nautilus' Treadclimber is a split-deck treadmill for walking, introduced in 2005; and SportsArt's X-Trainer is a cycle with an upper-body component, introduced in 2004 -- although this wasn't the first time this was done; Reebok's Cycle Plus (1997) had an upper-body component, as did many of the cycles dating back to the mid-1980s. And although not a direct spin-off, Cybex' recently released Arc Trainer is similar to an elliptical trainer, with more of a swinging motion rather than an elliptical motion. This, again, isn't a new idea, either. Reebok's Skywalker, a machine that operated similarly to the Arc Trainer, came out in 1994, but failed.


Since no one could have predicted many of these trends, who's to say what will happen to fitness equipment in the next 20 years. Stay tuned.
Buyer's Guide
Information on more than 3,000 companies, sorted by category. Listings are updated daily.
Learn More
Buyer's Guide
AB Show 2023 in Baltimore
AB Show is a solution-focused event for athletics, fitness, recreation and military professionals.
Nov 1-4, 2023
Learn More
AB Show 2023