Review: The Bowflex Home Gym

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The Bowflex Home Gym: What It Is

The Bowflex Home Gym is a resistance exercise machine used for building strength and muscle. It was first patented by an engineering student in San Francisco in 1979. Bowflex Inc. began selling home gyms in 1986.

Traditionally, Bowflex Home Gyms have been sold via television infomercials. These days, you can buy one on the Bowflex web site or from a sporting goods store.

Many exercises you can do on a gym machine can also be done on Bowflex Home Gyms. But the Bowflex has the advantage of being compact enough to store in almost any room of the house. Prices for Bowflex gyms range from around $650 to over $2,000, depending on the model.

The Bowflex Home Gym: How It Works

The various Bowflex Home Gym models use either the traditional Power Rod technology or the newer SpiraFlex technology.

Power Rod technology uses a pulley/cable system, with resistance coming from long, flexible "rods" that extend up from the rear of the Bowflex machine. As you do reps of each exercise, the move starts out easy and becomes gradually more difficult as the "bow" tension increases. For this reason, most of the exercises aren't as effective as what you can do on gym machines, which keep resistance steady throughout the move. To make these exercises harder on the Bowflex, you may need to do more reps.

Bowflex sells three home gyms with Power Rod technology: the Classic, the Xtreme, and the Ultimate. On each, you can do many different upper and lower body exercises, ranging from 30-plus exercises with the Classic, to 70-plus with the Xtreme, to more than 90 with the Ultimate. The Bowflex Classic is the least expensive, with prices starting at about $649. The Bowflex Xtreme and Ultimate start at about $1,299 and $2,499, respectively.

In 2006, Bowflex released its "next generation" source of resistance, SpiraFlex technology. This system also uses a pulley/cable system, but the source of resistance is different. Resistance begins from circular "cams" that coil against the applied muscular force. As you do your reps, the resistance remains the same from beginning to the end. It feels very similar to that offered by gym machines.

SpiraFlex technology is offered in the Bowflex Revolution XP (starting at about $2,499) and Bowflex Revolution (starting at around $2,999). Both allow you to do more than 90 different exercises.

Accessories are not included with most Bowflex Home Gyms, so this can add to the price tag. Accessories range from $169 for an "ab attachment" to $199 for an accessory (storage) rack, to $99 for a 410-lb resistance upgrade.

The Bowflex Home Gym: Which Exercises Are Best?

Among the most effective upper-body exercises you can do on the Bowflex are the chest exercises, like the press and fly. When you do them, your chest muscles not only work against the resistance but also must "stabilize" against the pulley system. Do these two exercises back-to-back with no rest for an even better workout.

The upper back exercises - like the seated row and the lat pulldown with the lat bar attachment -- are effective for the same reason. The great thing about these exercises is that you can easily modify them by changing the position of your hands and elbows. For example, when doing the lat pulldown, you can do one set with your palms facing you and elbows close together, then another set with your palms facing away and elbows out.

Among the lower body exercises, the seated leg extension is most effective. But the squat and leg press on the Bowflex won't target the leg muscles as effectively as similar exercises done on gym machines. One way to make them harder is to do the seated leg extension, then immediately do either the leg press or squat. "Pre-exhausting" your muscles will improve the quality of the press or squat.

The Bowflex Home Gym: Pros

Bowflex Home Gyms can be useful for people who want achieve and maintain a general level of muscular fitness. They're easy to store and easy to use.

Changing resistances and exercises is fairly easy to do. And you won't need a spotter for most of the exercises. The Bowflex is safe for most people, and has even been used in rehabilitative settings.

Further, working out with the Bowflex may result in less muscle soreness than free weights, especially for beginners. Bowflex seems to require less negative work on the muscles - that is, stress when the muscle is lengthening to return to its starting position -- than free weights. Exercises that require lots of negative activity can lead to significant muscle soreness, especially in beginners.

For people trying to lose weight, a Bowflex Home Gym is as an excellent source of resistance training to supplement daily cardio exercise and a reduced-calorie diet.

Bowflex Home Gyms: Cons

People who want to develop lots of muscular size and strength, such as a competitive power lifters or bodybuilders, will see greater benefits from using free weights and machines that offer more options for resistance training.

Most athletes will not get the necessary sports-specific resistance training by using a Bowflex Home Gym alone.

Further, Bowflex Home Gyms are fairly expensive compared to other types of home gym equipment.

The Bowflex Home Gym: Bottom Line

Does the Bowflex Home Gym work? The answer depends on your fitness goals.

Working a muscle, or muscle group, against any type of resistance will improve and/or maintain muscle strength and size. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends at least 2-3 days per week of total-body resistance exercise for most people who want to increase or maintain muscular fitness. And exercising with the Bowflex several days a week is enough to meet those guidelines - particularly if you use a model with the SpiraFlex system.

Still, for most exercisers, Bowflex Home Gyms will probably not result in the impressive physiques you see in Bowflex’s advertisements. Nor are they the best workout for competitive athletes.

Keep in mind that to get best results from a resistance exercise program, you must also eat a healthy diet and get enough rest between workouts.

Henry N. Williford, EdD, FACSM, and Michele Scharff Olson, PhD, FACSM, CSCS, contributed to this article.

Michael R. Esco, PhD, CSCS, HFS, is an assistant professor in the department of physical education and exercise science at Auburn University Montgomery in Montgomery, Ala. Henry N. Williford, EdD, FACSM, and Michele S. Olson, PhD, FACSM, CSCS, are faculty members at Auburn University Montgomery. Their opinions and conclusions are their own.