Do Bowflex Products Deliver the Goods?
As a certified personal trainer who wants only the best for my clients (and is frustrated with the glut of utter junk on the market today in terms of flimsy fitness equipment, bogus health trends, and pricey supplements), I always cast a critical eye on any products claiming to be the best in the biz; those claiming to revolutionize your workout. Especially when the price tag is high enough to give one more than a moment’s pause.
So what’s the deal with Bowflex products? They are innovative and different, using polymer power rods to generate pretty respectable resistance levels. They clearly have staying power; the company has been around for decades. But are they legit? Can they get you the results shown in the slick infomercials and online ads? Most importantly, are they a solid investment?
If you’re considering purchasing a Bowflex product, or any other significant component of gym equipment for your home use, you’re wise to read up on reviews of experienced users. My goal is to provide you a personal trainer’s perspective on what Bowflex offers. I didn’t arrive on the scene just yesterday; I’ve been kicking around for quite a bit of time, have trained hundreds of clients, and have seen my share of products come and go….and I’ve got some strong opinions on all of the above.
Join me for an honest exploration of whether or not Bowflex products can really deliver the results the company promises. I’ll start with a brief history of how the major fitness force came to be, overview the basics of each product line, discuss what Bowflex products can realistically accomplish and who they can best serve, examine the feasibility of marketing claims, and consider whether or not their products overall offer a good value for the price point. I will then move on to break down which products from each subset (home cardio, home gyms, and adjustable dumbbells) are my favorites and which I personally consider to be duds.
Stick with me to get the scoop on Bowflex from a certified personal trainer with years of industry experience both with home gym and commercial gym equipment.
A Brief History of Bowflex
The first Bowflex exercise machine, the 2000X, hit the scene decades ago in 1986. Bowflex is now owned, marketed, and sold under the umbrella of Nautilus Inc., a manufacturer of high-quality gym equipment mostly found in commercial gyms but also in smaller training studios and home gym set-ups. Bowflex offerings now range from complete home gyms based on their original power rod technology, to home cardio machines geared toward different levels and preferences, to adjustable dumbbell sets that combine multiple resistances into one product, as well as various accoutrements such as weight benches and exercise mats. The more modern Bowflex products are fully syncable with the most popular fitness apps such as Apple Health, myfitnesspal, FitBit, and the Bowflex-branded tracking and coaching app.
The most unique aspect of Bowflex products is found in their Bowflex line of home gyms. Unlike traditional free weights or pulley/stack based machines, a series of polymer rods of different tensions supply the resistance needed to strength train. A key benefit of their power rod technology is that resistance is supplied both on the concentric (raising) and eccentric (lowering) phase of each lift. This helps you effectively build strength, endurance, muscle mass, and muscle tone. The company also offers unique cardio options that I’ll discuss more as we go on.
Overview of Bowflex Product Offerings
The Bowflex company has sought to fill the needs of the beginning, intermediate, and more advanced home exercisers from top to bottom. A solid workout routine, whether home-based or commercial gym-based, needs to include at the minimum full body strength training as well as solid cardio programming as the foundation of fitness.
To address the requirement for customizable and scalable strength training for every major muscle group, Bowflex offers several innovative home gyms based on their characteristic power rod system. On the cardio side, Bowflex has a couple different cardio options to suit fitness level, ability level, and personal preference for cardio workouts, since not everyone can, should, or will be motivated to do the same cardio program.
In addition to the more advanced and complex home gyms and home cardio machines, Bowflex offers adjustable dumbbell sets that combine multiple resistance options into one space and money-saving design.
To fully flesh out their offering, you can also buy Bowflex-brand weight benches, stability balls, workout mats, and more. Unless you have very specific training goals in mind, Bowflex offers essentially everything you need to build out a successful home fitness program.
Why Strength Training?
Maybe you are new to the exercise scene and are wondering what’s the rationale behind putting so much focus on strength training (also called weight lifting, weight training, and resistance training). Some of the benefits of strength training are obvious: increased muscle development, advanced strength and power, and of course a sexy and toned physique! But did you know that strength training (NOT just cardio and diet) goes a long way toward helping you lose body fat to slim down and tighten up?
Men usually focus plenty on the strength and muscle building aspects of fitness with the goal of getting jacked, ripped, shredded, and what-have-you. That’s all great, but strength training is not just for men! Women who struggle to lose fat and get the toned physique they desire are often missing one key component: smart strength training. Too often, I observe in women a tendency to focus overmuch on cardio and dieting and an avoidance of lifting weights. The net result is often mounting frustration with their lack of solid results that may become pretty demotivating over time. The solution is for ladies to stop fearing lifting weights; resistance training will make the average woman more curvy and toned, not bulky and masculine.
Additional benefits of strength training for BOTH sexes include a faster metabolism, improved hormonal responses, easier and more sustainable weight loss, increased bone density, reduced back pain, and enhanced core strength. Surely that short list contains something for everyone.
Specific to our purposes in this article, I’ll note that Bowflex offers several satisfying and innovative solutions to your home strength training needs. I’ll break that down further in a bit (some products are great, some I would consider a waste of your time and money….stay tuned). Right now, let’s briefly break down the benefits of including a smart cardio exercise component to your fitness plan.
Why Cardio Training?
Among my clients, fitness buddies, and just-say-hey-as-you’re-passin’-by gym acquaintances, weight loss (or more accurately, fat loss) is generally a top priority. Though many folks use cardio training to prepare for athletic events or for good old-fashioned stress relief, most exercisers out there are using cardio as a means to an end to achieve that highly sought-after fat loss.
However, did you know that the proper application of cardio training also has the following positive effects on your body and mind?
- On a regular cardio program, you’ll increase the energy you have at your disposal from day to day as well as the endurance of your heart, other muscles, and lungs
- Cardio training helps prevent and treat depression and anxiety
- Weight-bearing cardio builds bone strength and density, staving off bone loss (osteopenia and osteoporosis) which is especially beneficial for aging exercisers seeking to prevent falls and minimize injuries from falling
- Cardio helps correct bad cholesterol and maintain healthy cholesterol, leading to higher HDL levels and lower HDL levels
- Cardio training carried out with solid engagement of the core muscles helps stabilize and strengthen the muscles which support your back, helping resolve symptoms of low back pain
Of course, all of these benefits are awesome! However, not all cardio is the same. Honestly, for most fitness folks out there, you don’t need to be slaving away over excess cardio training to achieve your weight loss goals and make great improvements on your health and fitness.
What you really need is a smart and focused cardio plan. I know it can be overwhelming, but the solution is surprisingly simple. A little later, I’ll tell you how Bowflex offerings can (or can’t) meet your personal cardio needs.
What Can Bowflex Products Do For You?
As I’ve outlined above, everyone needs some kind of strength training and some kind of cardio training. Based on your fitness level and your unique goals, your programming needs will be specific to you. If you are not a “go-hit-the-gym” type of person for any reason (time, motivation, convenience, preference, family obligations, and many other legit reasons), it’s a great idea to set up an appropriately-scaled home gym to remove your barriers to exercise.
In my opinion, Bowflex offers solid products that, when used appropriately, can absolutely help the average home exerciser advance toward their goals. Are Bowflex products for everyone? Definitely not. Here is who I see as the ideal Bowflex user in terms of most products they offer: someone who is a beginner or who has a certain baseline level of fitness who is wanting to do hard but not crazy work within the privacy and comfort of their own home.
More advanced exercisers with specific fitness goals in terms of high-level physique, strength, and/or power performance will do better to look elsewhere. If this sounds like you, you will do better setting up a gym with basic free weight equipment such as a squat rack, olympic bars and weight plates, a bench press, and a selection of dumbbells and kettlebells (though the Bowflex SelectTech Dumbbells are pretty neat and can fit the needs of advanced exercisers too). The Bowflex cardio equipment, specifically the Max Trainer, would be suitable for such a person, but the home gyms would not really fit the bill.
You can’t really get a feel for your competitive strength performance level (and you definitely are not allowed to brag about your max bench, squat, deadlift, and overhead press) if you’re using the resistance types available on a Bowflex home gym.
Looking Into Bowflex Marketing Claims
I’m a big stickler for accuracy in advertising, and though I like the Bowflex product lines quite a bit overall, I get frustrated with what I perceive as at best an oversimplification and at worst a strategic misrepresentation of what it will really take to get the results advertised in the commercials.
For example, the Bowflex TreadClimber’s slogan is “Just Walk”. Suggested programming is three 30 minute TreadClimber sessions spread throughout the week. But in their advertising they show folks who have clearly done a lot more than “just walk” three times weekly to achieve the level of results they’re showing. To lose weight while maintaining and building muscle tone, you will need to focus on strength training and proper nutrition in addition to a walking-based cardio program. Especially if you want to get those abs going on! Walking can certainly be the foundation of your cardio plan, but the simple truth is that you need to take it a good step further to get the results shown in the commercials.
Another claim I’m not super impressed with is the one bandied about regarding the home gyms: that you will get THAT toned with three simple 30 minute sessions per week. Yes, you can absolutely get toned and strong from using Bowflex home gyms. But unless you are a genetic freak or you are already starting really close to your end goals, you will need to put in some real work: a more realistic expectation is at least three one hour strength sessions per week, or four 45 minute sessions. Even if you’re not trying to turn into a bodybuilder type, you’ll need to hustle harder in order to get those visible, feel-able results.
Are Bowflex Products a Good Value for the Price?
The short answer: yes and no. To elaborate: if you’ve got the scratch to invest in a few solid pieces of upscale home gym equipment, you’re not a gym-goer type of person, you’re not obsessed with free weights and the athletic performance possible only through their application, your fitness goals are not to reach elite levels but just to look and feel good by getting in quality workout sessions at home several times per week….then yes, absolutely! Bowflex products will be a good use of your time and money.
If, on the other hand, you (1) lack discipline to actually work out around the distractions of home, or (2) you have advanced physique or athletic performance goals, Bowflex products are not a good choice for you (though I will say that the SelectTech Dumbbells are really neat no matter how you slice it). If that sounds more like you, you’ll be happier and better off either with a more traditional gym membership that allows you easy access to all kinds of equipment including barbells, dumbbells, selectorized machines, and more.
Another solution for an advanced exerciser who does not wish to maintain a gym membership would be to set up a different kind of home gym that has a wider selection of free weights that allow you to perform the more traditional strength and power training exercises such as squats, deadlifts, bench, row, pull ups, and overhead presses and various core exercises and smaller muscle group isolations to complement your compound movements.
Bowflex Home Cardio Machines
Now that we’ve broken down the strengths and limitations of what Bowflex has to offer, let’s start digging into individual product lines. I’ll make recommendations as to which Bowflex machines I really like and would feel good about recommending to friends and clients….and which ones I’m not so wild about.
Standouts Among the Bowflex Home Cardio Machines
Bowflex has two main home cardio offerings: the TreadClimber and the Max Trainer. Let’s go over a quick and dirty breakdown as to which machine is most suitable for which type of exerciser.
The TreadClimber is good for those who want to get an effective walking/hillclimbing type workout, and those who don’t mind spending a pretty fair amount of time using the machine to get results. Also, those who have functional limitations such as iffy knees or hips or a significant amount of weight to lose will do best with the TreadClimber.
As discussed above, the TreadClimber slogan is “Just Walk”, and this is pretty accurate in terms of describing the type of motion you’ll go through working out on the TreadClimber. However, working out on the TreadClimber is definitely a level higher than straight-up walking. I would compare the feeling more to climbing up a moderate hill. Hillclimbing is great for burning calories while strengthening the hips, core, booty, hamstrings, and quads as well as your heart and lungs, and the TreadClimber will do a lot for you in these departments as long as you balance it out with complementary strength training.
Those with a slightly higher starting baseline who aren’t afraid to work hard through some serious intervals and break a pretty crazy sweat in the process will do better with the Max Trainer. I wouldn’t recommend the Max Trainer for those with significant functional limitations such as bad knees, hips, or backs. The Max Trainer will not cause these types of problems to develop if used correctly, however, it can exacerbate existing problems if you tend to flare up when doing activities like stair climbing.
I can describe the motion of the Max Trainer as a fairly intense stair stepper combined with an elliptical machine. The built-in interval workout is designed to run for 14 minutes. Beginners will want to do this 4-5 days per week to start making progress. For more advanced folks looking to really amp up their cardio training, you can use manual mode to create an extended custom workout, or to keep it simple, just run the intense 14 minute workout twice! The more modern Max Trainers also have different extended workouts built in that you don’t have to fuss with building manually.
Both the Max Trainer and the TreadClimber’s more modern models include high-tech features such as multiple user profiles, as well as Bluetooth syncing with apps such as myfitnesspal and Apple Health. To me, this is not a make-it-or-break-it part of the deal, but I do think it adds to the total package for sure if you are a techie person who likes to track and quantify your workouts.
Bowflex Home Gyms
As far as Bowflex home strength training options go, you’re looking at a lot more choices than the home cardio machines. There are half a dozen Bowflex home gyms currently on the market and several more now-defunct models that have fallen by the wayside. Bowflex home gyms use polymer-based power rods that offer resistance both on the positive and negative portion of each exercise. Focusing on the “negative” (lowering) phase is actually a good thing in this case, because your muscles build a lot of strength, endurance, and tone while they are struggling to lower a resistance under control.
Instead of delineating the features of each and every model, I’m going to focus on my absolute favorites among the bunch when considering versatility, the results you can achieve, and the value for the price point.
Note that some people complain about the home gyms being a bit noisy. As a trainer, their noise doesn’t bother me, but then again, I basically live in a gym. If you are especially sensitive to noise, or have family members or housemates that might get annoyed, that is something to take into consideration. Of all the models, the top-of-the line Revolution is the quietest, as it uses plated SpiralFlex technology rather than the power rods so characteristic of other Bowflex home gym models.
Standouts Among the Bowflex Home Gyms
Out of the several Bowflex home gyms available, I am partial to the Blaze and Revolution models. I look most favorably upon those machines that really allow you to train the legs and glutes effectively; the PR1000 and PR3000 leave me wanting in that department. On the Blaze, Revolution, and the Xtreme 2SE as well, you can effectively train movement patterns like squatting and deadlifting in addition to dozens of upper body exercises, including the essential lat pulldowns which are often missing from home gym set ups.
I’m always looking for the most bang for my buck, so I like the Revolution and the Blaze over the others because you can do cardio rowing in addition to effectively training legs, abs, and upper body. I like rowing as a cardio exercise because it allows you to improve the endurance of your upper body pulling muscles and enhance your posture by strengthening the low- and mid-back.
Bowflex SelectTech Adjustable Dumbbells
So I’ll just come right out and say I really like this product! They’re versatile, space-saving, easy to adjust, and definitely a good value for the price, considering all you can get up to when using them. Basically, the SelectTech Adjustable Dumbbells offer all the benefits of a traditional set of dumbbells; the difference is that in one product, you get dozens of resistances. Any exercise you can do with regular dumbbells, you can do with these adjustable SelectTech Dumbbells. I find them smooth and simple to operate, causing minimal downtime between sets of different exercises needing different levels of resistance.
Standouts Among the Bowflex SelectTech Adjustable Dumbbells
Between the 552s and the 1090s on the market, I like both for different purposes. The right choice really just boils down to how much resistance you need and how fine of increments you’d like access. The 552s adjust from five pounds up to 52 pounds in increments of 2.5 pounds for the first series and 5 pound increments at higher weights. The 1090s go from ten to 90 pounds in increments of 5 pounds at a time. If you’re a heavy lifter, you’ll want the 1090s. Lighter lifters or those who want more fine-tuned options will work well with the 552s.
SelectTech Dumbbells & Accessories:
The dial system is easy to understand and smooth to operate. Some models come with a stand; others have the stand being sold separately. I like that the stand holds them up off the floor, keeping them from getting caught underfoot and making cleaning your home gym space a simpler matter. In addition to the stand, I would also recommend purchasing an adjustable weight bench (available as a Bowflex adjustable weight bench or essentially the same thing through other manufacturers) to allow you to effectively perform such exercises as chest press, chest fly, bench row, pullover, hip thrust, etc. from multiple angles and with full range of motion.
Bowflex Review: The Trainer’s Takeaway
The bottom line is that Bowflex offers a solid family of products at a reasonable price point considering the versatility of their machines. If you want to exercise at home and cover both your strength and cardio needs, Bowflex offerings should prove satisfying to you.The average exerciser who wants to look and feel great will find that Bowflex strength training equipment and home cardio equipment satisfies their needs.
If you lack the motivation to exercise at home or have elite strength and/or physique goals, you’ll want to stick with a more traditional fitness plan including a gym membership which allows you access to more versatile resistance training and cardio options.
Thank you for reading, and I wish you the best on your fitness journey no matter which exercise modalities you choose!