CrossFit hit the strength training landscape with such meteoric force that it produced a new era of sorts — one emphasizing simple free weights, battle ropes and plyo boxes, suspension and other forms of bodyweight resistance, and adding a competitive element to fitness rarely seen outside the Olympic Games. Could this possibly relegate selectorized strength training to extinction? Would specialized pieces of equipment dotting fitness floors for more than a half-century resemble mere fossils?
Nothing could be further from reality. Selectorized strength equipment's staying power is forged in its unmatched ability to offer something for everyone. "Designed to appeal to and benefit users at all levels — from young to old and novice to professional — pin-select machines are non-intimidating, easy to use and biomechanically precise," says Mike Kelly, vice president of sales at TRUE Fitness. "For these reasons, training on selectorized equipment has been an integral part of strength programming for decades."
When one thinks of selectorized strength equipment, the demographics that come to mind may be the deconditioned, those who count themselves among the active aging set or individuals trying to keep the rest of their body in shape while nursing a specific injury. But that wasn't the target audience when mass production of multi-station rigs featuring pin-select weight stacks began in the 1960s.
"When initially created, the primary users were bodybuilders hoping to overload individual muscle groups for maximum hypertrophy. Users at gyms were advanced users, athletes and people interested in performance and aesthetics," says Chris Adsit, senior global strength product manager at Matrix Fitness. "Fast-forward to today, and we have a whole new set of users. The demographics range from younger users and completely inexperienced users up to the most advanced athletes. The goals are as varied as the groups themselves."
Throughout this evolution, the means to reaching those goals has always been the machine — a mechanical approach to strength training that allows not only for the isolation of individual muscles, but of the entire individual — with human spotting partners all but obsolete. "A trainer is often not needed to learn how to perform the exercise correctly," Adsit says. "With advancements in placards and exercise instructions on machines, users can perform safe and effective movements with little experience. On the other end of the spectrum, advanced users can target muscle groups difficult to overload when working with gravity alone. This can create greater muscle stimulation and improved strength, performance and hypertrophy."
Selectorized strength equipment
What end-users look for:
What facility operators consider:
The science behind the mechanics is right there in plain sight, with adjustable seats and pivot points positioning and stabilizing the body (no cheating), and optimizing each user's experience and end results. "Machines offer cams, levers and pulley configurations that can manipulate the load to optimize the strength curve of each movement," says Jeff Dilts, vice president of product management and innovation at Core Health & Fitness LLC. "This means getting the maximum work done in the most efficient timeframe."
If you think functional strength modalities are going to muscle selectorized equipment out of the marketplace any time soon, think again. "While the number of pieces, or lines, may be reduced from the past, removal of selectorized equipment altogether is rarely seen," Adsit says. "A facility that would remove it entirely would need a very special programmatic approach to membership to justify the removal of this industry staple."
It's estimated that at least 75 percent of all fitness centers offer some form of selectorized weight training, with some industry insiders putting that number closer to 100 percent for full-service clubs. Moreover, user demand may dictate that larger clubs contain more than one complete selectorized circuit, or at least a fraction of a second. Says SportsArt project manager Matt Thorsen, "Many facilities will offer one complete full-body circuit or break it up between upper and lower body, and then provide other stations for the more popular lifts — chest press, leg press, lat pulldown."
Some facilities may offer access to more than one brand. "There are definitely brands that do certain things better than others," says Chris Stevenson, owner of Stevenson Fitness in Oak Park, Calif. "We try to choose based on which brand makes the best piece for the particular exercise. I do, however, see a value in having the same brand, as it makes for a smooth member experience — all the machines adjust and operate the same way. We also always take price, footprint and biomechanics into consideration when deciding."
Facility operators may offer end-users more than one brand of machine for the same exercise, while equipment manufacturers may present a multitude of machine options for the same exercise under one brand umbrella. Says Adam Hubbard, director of product management at Precor, which provides seated, standing and prone leg-curl options in its selectorized circuit lines, "Strength equipment is highly subjective, so offering different movement patterns provides choice for the exercisers."
Selectorized equipment continues to evolve, and in many ways has strengthened its position within the fitness landscape.
"With improvements in appearance and space-saving designs such as back-to-back weight stack layouts and reduced machine heights, facilities can be more intentional with primary placement of the equipment without diminishing the facility experience," Adsit says. "Machines from the past were often tall, bulky, square and tailored to larger male users. Today, we have machines with contoured action-specific grips, rep counters and timers, along with short stack heights, making equipment more approachable and more experiential. As manufacturers shift biomechanics and ergonomics toward comfort for general populations, facilities can place this equipment in more prominent locations to attract new users. The association of pain and discomfort with exercise is replaced with sleek, refreshing and inviting machines."
The type of integrated touchscreen technology commonplace on cardio equipment has migrated to the selectorized strength training realm, making the equipment all the more inviting. "Exercisers are in need of guidance and motivation as part of their strength fitness journey," says Hubbard. "We continue to see exercisers struggle to understand sets, reps, sequence, form. Technology can help bridge these gaps and improve the overall experience."
Upgrading the experience in this way comes with increased costs, of course — not only in terms of the equipment purchase price, but in infrastructure power requirements, as well. "We have seen technology innovation in selectorized machine training, including computerized tracking and motorized load generation," Dilts says. "This typically adds significant cost and complexity to the area of the traditional layout, and that may not provide a significant ROI."
That said, technology can ease the strain on a facility's staff. "Without personalized staff instruction, users can now look to the machine to educate, demonstrate and provide sample exercise programs. Facilities can capture usage data, receive digital service notifications and have additional revenue generation capabilities with the addition of technology in the machine," Adsit says. "A must-have? Only time will tell if the market can bear the increased costs and power requirements. If facilities learn how to turn the technology into dollars, you bet it will become a must-have."
The continued popularity of selectorized machines will still require a human element, according to Hubbard. "Beyond the equipment, it is key that operators develop programs and on-ramps that help all members be successful and have a great experience," he says. "In recent years, programming and training support has been too focused on functional-type training and sports performance. This can leave exercisers who prefer other equipment — such as selectorized — feeling left behind."
"The preference really depends on the perspective of users," Adsit adds. "Do they have joint discomfort, injury, lack of motor control or even self-confidence issues that prevent more aggressive training? Bodybuilders may prefer free weights for mass building — however, many will still incorporate selectorized machines for isolated overload and muscle shaping. While we may associate certain groups with selectorized training, I don't think it's fair to draw a box around them. It's situational. Selectorized training provides a comfortable experience for many individuals, regardless of their background or training experience."
Says Stevenson, the club owner, "I think that every full-service facility should have selectorized pieces, because there will always be member demographics looking for that type of training."
Stevenson on 'selectorized'
When Chris Stevenson converted his personal training business into a community health club in Oak Park, Calif., he knew he wanted selectorized strength training equipment to make the transition with him.
"As an owner, I think having selectorized equipment is an essential part of a facility," says Stevenson, AB's newest contributor (see The Owners Club, page 26). "While trainers may debate the effectiveness of selectorized machines versus functional training methods, there are so many members who feel comfortable simply sitting down and working on these types of machines."
In the case of Stevenson Fitness, where the membership base skews slightly older, about half of all strength training taking place at the club involves selectorized equipment pieces. "We have seen that the older exercisers tend to use them more," Stevenson says. "I think that demographic likes consistency, predictability, simplicity and safety. Selectorized pieces provide that."
Stevenson incorporates selectorized equipment into his own workouts for other reasons. "I like to work on performance, but I also like to build and define muscle. We're all a little vain, I guess," he says with a smile.
He's also not one to get hung up on semantics. "Selectorized equipment allows me to isolate muscles while pushing them to failure in a safe manor," Stevenson says. "Based on my goal in this case, selectorized equipment would be considered functional equipment, as it is providing the function I am looking for."
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Selectorized weight equipment options for every user." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.