Free weights aren't the only thing that's hardcore....
Most lifters will tell you that the most hardcore piece of gym equipment is a power rack. I would agree. And when you're young and invincible, tossing around free weights in or out of a power rack is a wonderful thing. Not too many of us use free weights exclusively though. Modern weight lifting machines are an excellent adjunct to your free weight training and can provide a tremendous variety to any training program. For instance, many believe squats are the foundation to a serious leg building campaign, however, leg presses, extensions, curls, hacks, etc., also have their place. But, eventually, whether you like it or not, the ravages of thousands of pounds hoisted raw are going to give way to all kinds of mechanical issues. Bursitis, arthritis, tendonitis, stress fractures, torn muscles, ruptured tendons, and joints worn away until cartilage is but a memory and bone grating on bone requires they be resurfaced or replaced. Once these issues affect your training, your compensatory movements will throw off your biomechanics and suddenly your limits will be how much joint pain you can stand and not how hard you can torch the muscle. Eventually, the proportion of free weight to machines increases exponentially and certain free weight movements are going to have to be relegated to history. Indeed salvation and the extension of your weight lifting career can be found in the great many modern weight machines on the market, but not all of them. In order to understand what I mean by that we need to go back and take a look at from where all these machines came.
Up until the early 70s, the only weight machines were at best crude pulley driven deals that did little more than allow for doing pull-downs. Out of that realm of mechanical nothingness rose three visionaries: Arthur Jones, Tom Kinney and Joe Gold. Lets take the last guy first. Joe Gold was the consummate gym owner. He wrote the book on running the gym business and knew bodybuilding pretty much from its roots. He took raw steel and bent and welded it himself to equip his gym with the first ever bodybuilder specific weight training equipment. Those of us fortunate enough to have ever used Joe's original machines will probably never forget the feeling of the overkill linear bearings he created, or the range of motion and the feeling of stability those pieces offered. It was a completely new kind of feeling and, when you felt it for the first time, it left an indelible mark. No matter how many new fangled modern pieces of gym equipment you'll ever use, those first rides in Joe's creations will live on forever. Those first machines Joe welded together in his garage were the front runners to many machines in use today. I can't help but look at some old school Icarian pieces and see hints of Joe in them.
During the dawn of the golden age of bodybuilding Tom Kinney created a company called TK Star. Kinney's rendition of the famous Vince Gironda "Spider Bench" - the most effective biceps stimulating movement ever - comes from his collaboration with Mr. Olympia Larry Scott. The first chin/dip assisted machine, the first selectorized dip, the inverted leg press, the first seated calf machines complete with anterior tibialis action were all build by TK Star. Kinney was on a first name basis with all of the greats of the 70s and 80s because he was the man they came to when it was time to build their home gyms or their commercial gym facilities. The Florida State Football Program came to him for what turned out to be the very first benches and racks with weight storage ability, something that is now a standard feature for all manufacturers. Lat machine and low cable pulley handles with rotating grips; leg extension and leg curl units with leg length adjustments; counter-balanced Smith machine bars to allow for a zero starting weight; the original multi use jungle gyms that first appeared in the late 70s; all of these were designed by Kinney and now standard fare in every gym in the world.
In the late 60s Arthur Jones invented the Nautilus machines. The core of these machines - mechanically - was the famous "nautilus" shaped cam devise that acted as a fulcrum over which a chain rode that connected to the weight stack. The theory being that as the weight was lifted the cam pushed the load farther away from its pivot point, thus increasing the stress and making the top the movement the hardest part of the rep, not the easiest. These machines were also the core - physically - of the philosophy Jones pioneered known as "High Intensity Training," or HIT. Jones felt that rather than the training system invented by Joe Weider and made famous by Arnold, which involved hours in the gym performing numerous sets and reps in a random and arbitrary manner, Jones' HIT method involved short, single sets with maximum intensity, which, according to theory, triggers maximal muscular growth. His Nautilus machines were specifically designed to target and isolate muscle groups. Most memorable were his lat pull over machine, and the industry's very first machines that incorporated compound movements. While the bodybuilding community still remains divided over HIT and volume training, his Nautilus machines and the company he formed to sell them made Jones a multimillionaire and landed him on the Forbes list of the 400 richest people. At one point, financial analysts estimated that Nautilus was grossing $300 million annually. He sold Nautilus Inc. in 1986 for $23 million. Jones also invented a line of medical machines used in physical therapy called MedX. He sold that company in 96 for undisclosed gazillions and retired.
After these men paved the road by challenging the barbell, numerous traveled it. Cybex, Eagle, Hammer, Life Fitness, Icarian, Flex, Bodymasters, High Tech, and a slew of others came and went. Some stayed, offering an incredibly wide array of muscle building options that not only challenged the barbell, but, with the exception of the diehard hardcore lifter, nearly made free weights obsolete. By the mid 90s, the paridgm had shifted and entire physiques laid their credit to specialty bodybuilding machines and equipment with traditional free weights adding only an adjunct side note. Then something interesting happened. Cardio was became paramount in the sprawling burgeoning gym business. Giant gym chains such as Bally's, 24 hour Fitness, LA fitness, and the mega franchises of Gold's, World and Powerhouse were opening up cavernous upscale facilities and packing them with sometimes more than 100 pieces of cardio equipment. Unlike sturdy weight machines, cardio equipment broke and wore out much faster. They needed to be replaced more often creating a market place with soaring profits for cardio equipment companies. Cardio machines were cheap to build in China and even cheaper to ship because they shipped broken down and boxed flat. Twenty treadmills at $5,000 a pop could ship in the same space as one $3,500 jungle gym and would have to be replaced four times sooner. Profits soared.
Before long, cardio companies were buying up weight lifting equipment companies rendering stand alone bodybuilding equipment companies nearly extinct. Life Fitness/Life Cycle bought High Tech, and then Hammer; Precor bought Icarian; Startrac bought Flex; Trotter and Cybex merged; Stairmaster bought Nautilus effectively bankrupting Nautilus which now only makes a home line. Then spinning took off and these companies bought up all the spin bike companies. The business tenets changed. Building gym equipment to last a lifetime was no longer the business model. The directive was to make them cheap and replaceable. Thus, a company could package gyms and sell them nearly for the price of the cardio equipment and the spin bikes with the weight machines thrown in. You'll notice now that the framework is flimsy, the weight stacks stick and the pins don't align, the pulleys break, chains were replaced with cables and belts, the adjustments became crude and inconsistent and misaligned and ergonomics went out the window. Instead of building it better they built it cheap. They sold service contracts that consumed tons of cheaply made parts, and eventually we saw giant gyms changing out an entire line in a year and a-half. It's nothing to see weight machines "out of service" in a giant gym chain today. You never saw that in the 80s. There are gyms out there that have some of the old relics from back in the day. If you get a chance take a look at them. Look at an old Nautilus machine from the early 80s. It's built like a tank and it still works perfectly. Then try to find a piece of Life Fitness from 10 years ago that hasn't been refurbished or replaced. Good luck.
While the equipment generated by Arthur Jones, Tom Kinney and Joe Gold couldn't be more incomparable, they did share attributes that make them still the gold standard of today. They were innovative, bodybuilding specific - built to work around he function of the body not build to have the body work around the function of the machine - and they were built to last forever. The latter attribute being the most relevant to this discussion because today the bottom line is the greatest factor in most gym equipment lines. That being the case, the end result lacks the quality and ruggedness that was the backbone of the equipment made back in the day. Today, a gym has to commit more than half of its equipment budget to expensive cardio equipment. This was unheard of in the early 80s. These gyms today are huge and need to be filled up with lots of shiny new equipment that is going to be used mostly by people who really won't lift much weight - today hardcore bodybuilders and powerlifters are the minority. So what if in three years the equipment has been reduced to rubble? If they're still in business they'll replace it. If not, My friend Scott - the Fred Sanford of the gym equipment business - will buy the entire gym for .05 cents on the dollar, ship it all to Mexico, refurbish it and sell it in Latin America for 50 times what he paid for it. His 120,000 square foot warehouse in Guadalajara is stacked floor to ceiling with tens of thousands of pieces of formerly glorious gym equipment that more than adequately illustrates my point.
So what's a hardcore gym owner, or hardcore home gym builder to do? What if you want to buy equipment only once and keep it for a lifetime? What if Ronnie Coleman and Branch Warren want to frequent your gym and do leg presses with upwards of a ton for reps every week? Planet Fitness cuts the ears on its leg presses so you can only load it with four plates on each side. So it doesn't matter if the sled rocks or the bearings jam. No one doing partial reps with 200 pounds is going to notice. But when Ronnie bottoms out with 2,800 pounds on the sled, the damn thing better be smooth and it better hold up, and if you're Brian Dobson you're not going to want to buy a new one every year.
The RX Muscle Hardcore Gym Registry is home to no less than 200 hardcore gyms across the country, and around the world. When asked about their favorite brand of truly hardcore gym equipment, hardcore gym owners were quick to rattle off only a few names. One that kept coming up was Nebula. You may be more familiar with Nebula than you think. That famous set of leg presses that Ronnie Coleman did at Metroflex where owner Brian Dobson had to use a calculator to add up all the weight (2,800 pounds) was done on a Nebula leg press. That same leg press is at Bev Francis' powerhouse gym in Syosset and I use it every week with at least 1000 pounds on it. It's so smooth and so stable and the angle never hurts my knees - one of which had to have the patellar tendon reattached about 10 years ago and hurts every time I do leg presses on any other sled. That leg press is an absolute stand out and many of you reading this know exactly what I'm talking about.
I was waxing poetic the virtues of this leg press one morning after a workout freighted with a load that had a coma in it to my good friend Ron Noreman. He smiled knowingly and invited me his house to train that weekend in his home gym. Now, most home gyms I think about are nothing more than a spare bedroom with a multi rack, some dumbbells and treadmill off in the corner. Not Ron's. Nearly the entire 3,500 square foot basement of Ron's rather large home in a desirable gated community on Long Island is a virtual functioning museum of the very best gym equipment money can buy. Many of the pieces he has are no longer made and are irreplaceable. He has examples of old school Hammer, AFS, Pendulum and perhaps the most exotic mix of Nebula pieces in any gym anywhere outside of NASA or a prestigious university (typical clients of Nebula). Now, my unique array of injuries has left me with severe limitations among many muscle groups, specifically my legs and shoulders. Training at Ron's on his array of specialty equipment has given way to a renewed sense of freedom I thought I had to write off to the passage of time. After two weeks at Ron's I was throwing down like I used to back in the day, with absolutely no joint pain in my shoulders, knees and hips. The key is the equipment. While many of the brands contained in his gym are no longer available or no longer sold - because the companies went out of business - the Nebula stuff is still available. Since it is, and since training on it has been nothing shy of an epiphany for me, I just had to share it with you. (Note: this kind of equipment is not only for us banged up old men, it's also for young people who don't want to get these same injuries)
Log on to www.nebulafitness.com and check out their product lines. If you're planning a home gym, spend the money and buy the best - it will last forever and it will serve you well. You only have one body. If you're a gym owner looking to equip your gym with the very best hardcore gym equipment, you can't leave out Nebula. Gym equipment is like cars. Sure you can buy a Yugo and get from point A to pint B. You can also cover the same distance in a Bentley. Drive a Yugo and drive a Bentley. You can't tell me there is no difference. You will never see a Bentley parked outside of a Planet Fitness. And you will never see a Nebula leg press with it's ears cut down to only accept four plates. There is the appropriate tool for every job. In the business of building hardcore muscle, I can't help but believe that Nebula is one tool that must be in the box. Check them out today.