Resistance is a good thing
America produces an excess of exercise trends, and many of them are just a small twist on an old way of doing things, rather than a technological breakthrough.
However, working out at The Exercise Coach in Lake Oswego feels very different. It's a gym franchise that arrived here in March from states such as Texas, Florida and Illinois, but the equipment is very different. You don't lift free weights or pull cables that lift weights, which you later let clank to the floor when you give up. Here you push against a metal plate attached to a hydraulic system. A computer measures the force you are applying and displays it in real time as line on a graph on a screen a few feet from your nose. The line zig zags like the stock market on an Apple day. The goal is to apply steady pressure, which takes a lot more effort than blasting through the resistance.
The Exercise Coach has some traditional machines, but the interesting ones are called Exerbotics. There seem to be two unique things about this system. One is that it makes you apply the same force on the way down, as it were, as on the way up. If you're used to doing a leg press and letting gravity return the weight to its default position, this doesn't let you do that. You press the plate out from a leg press, and then it comes back at you hard and you have to push like hell to control its effect.
It's the same for bench presses and all the other stuff you can get out of the three or four Exerbotics machines at the Exercise Coach. It's as if there's a ghost in the machine, knowing your limits, and making you work all the time.
The second, and more important difference, is that screen in front of you. At my gym, L.A. Fitness, you only have ceiling tiles or dubious carpet to stare at as grunt and grind. However, here, your effort is graphed for you, like a carnival game where you arm wrestle with a metal hand, so you can see how strong you are as you go and adjust accordingly.
When I went down to Centerpointe Drive, home of several swanky office parks, a nice young man with a 'Live free or die' tattoo showed me how the machines work. Tyler Wood had me do a test run — one leg press, then calibrated the machine to be a bit harder. This is to target my effort level: how hard I should work.
For the real leg press I watched as my force wavered wildly. The goal is to keep your line within a band, so you are pushing hard but not too hard. Again, the surprising part is how hard it is to keep pushing on the way down, or in the eccentric phase.
"It's all about recruiting type two muscle fibers," said Wood. "That's what the science says we need to recruit because as we get older that's the type we lose first, and requires the most stimulus…"
I do like a trainer who can speak the language.
"Isokinetic is more effective because we're changing speed through the concentric and eccentric phase of each exercise, and changing the demands," Wood said. "We can calculate your target work level."
Sets 1, reps 1
There's something about following your progress on a chart which is more compelling than staring off into space.
The compact nature of the machines — just a seat, a big hinge, a hydraulic system and a computer in a black box — reminded me that it's been years since I've seen a 30-minute informercial for Bowflex. Remember those home gyms with the bendy bars that allegedly required an engineering degree to set up? Maybe computers are the future?
This is isokinetic exercise, as opposed to the more common isotonic, where the resistance stays the same through the exercise. Isokinetic, according to Tyler, is much better for you — and you don't have to do lots of reps. One exercise takes from one and a half to two and a half minutes, if done with the right intensity. And then, before you can say "leg day," you're on to the next machine.
Wood says the idea that you have to do lots of reps came from Arthur Jones in 1960s. "Intensity wise, you don't have to do multiple sets and reps. That stems from people worshipping body building."
So many jobs in tech now consist of watching a computerized dashboard which tracks multiple variables — likes and retweets, for instance, or signups and in-app purchases. It's hard to know whether this will be too much like work for some people, or comfortably familiar and intuitive. After all, did contractors and steel workers grow tired of pumping iron at their local Gold's Gym?
As we've come to expect by now, the computer remembers everything about all your workouts. If it automatically adjusted your seat settings like a Jaguar or a Kia, that would be even better.
This would all seem moot, just another exercise regime, but the entire workout only takes 20 minutes. That's 20 minutes of pumping data and five minutes on the cardio machine, which is a stationary bike with foot pedals and hand pedals.
"The program is set up for two 20-minute workouts a week, we can be very efficient and effective. It's a total body workout," says owner Marshall Baldocchi. He bought the Exercise Coach franchise for $49,500. He said set up — buying the machines and finding the space — can cost another $90,000 to $180,000. (He went to a franchise broker when he wanted to be his own boss. The broker helped him decide what kind of business he should start and avoid the "fly by nights.")
Quality not quantity
Woods explains, "Five minutes of that (Coach Cardio, the bike machine) equates to 60 minutes of cardio. It's not about how much time we're in the gym, it's the quality of effort you give in each exercise. It's about pushing you to that right intensity, to get those adaptations that we want, which really is muscle quality….We really want to exhaust that muscle…Combined with excerbotic strength equipment and the isotonic exercises, and some coach cardio at the end. At 25 minutes that's going to be all you want to do, it's going to have you dialed in to that sweet spot."
That seems like a good deal — 25 minutes and you're done? It's genuinely hard though. Wood, who is a professional trainer who just transferred from Muscle in Motion. He's fit as a fiddle but he was short of breath after doing one exercise. His colleague Preston McCann was as well.
Members book their time so that the place doesn't get too crowded. Trainers work in 20-minute blocks with each member. It feels small, at 1,400 square feet, but Baldocchi says it's got room to spare. The franchise minimum is just 900 square feet.
You don't have to go every day, which is fortunate because it's not cheap. Depending on how big a contract you sign, the price per half-hour session is $40 to $58, and you are expected to have six to eight sessions a month.
The Exercise Coach
Where: 2 Centerpointe Dr. Suite 150, Lake Oswego
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