Ever wondered whether those TV infomercial exercise machines are as effective (and as much fun) as the models make out? CHOICE decided to put in the hard yards for you to find out. With the help of fitness trainer Jesse Hogan, Pilates instructor Leesa Thornthwaite and some CHOICE staffers keen to try out the exercise equipment they'd seen on TV, we put six of the more popular machines to the test.
Cost $200 + $19.95 P&H, from Global Shop.
What is it? A padded seat that glides along curved rails, the idea is that by kneeling on the seat you contract your abs to lift your knees (similar to a hanging leg raise in the gym). The seat can be angled to work your obliques, and you can also add weights as you get stronger. The accompanying workout video consists mostly of aerobics-style moves and includes a few minutes of AbCoaster work.
Jesse says You might start with a good technique when using this machine, but that may deteriorate with fatigue – it's easy to use the momentum to keep swinging, rather than using your ab muscles to lift your legs. There's a lot of tension in the upper body, and the posture takes your spine out of a neutral position – there's potential for lower back pain.
User review It was quite fun and you could definitely feel it working the target muscles, if done properly. But the range of exercises was limited, it was noisy, the counter was difficult to see while in action, and it didn't seem to offer much more than ab exercises that don't need equipment.
Verdict This is a bulky piece of equipment, you'll only use it for a few minutes at a time and, apart from novelty value, doesn't offer significant benefit over other abdominal exercises such as crunches or bent-knee lying twists – provided they're performed correctly. Spend your money on a session with an exercise physiologist who can teach you the correct moves without equipment.
Cost $199.80 + 19.95 P&H from Danoz Direct.
What is it? A chair with a flexible spine and handgrips. The idea is that you use your ab muscles to work against the resistance of the spine, shifting it back and forth, side to side, and other moves. It comes with a DVD featuring workouts for different levels of fitness.
Jesse says This is quite good: it encourages good posture, supports weight, which can be useful for some people, and allows you to focus on core muscles. However, this focus means its usefulness is limited, and sitting isn't the best way for most people to exercise. It could double as a desk chair!
User review Our triallists weren't impressed, mainly because of the limited range of exercises, its bulk and because it was too easy – although you can buy a kit with additional resistance rods (for about $70) for increased workout difficulty.
Verdict If you want a novel way of exercising your core, this machine could be worthwhile – especially if you pay for increased resistance. However, you can get a similar effect without equipment, as per the AbCoaster above.
Cost $199.95 (plus 19.95 P&H) from Global Shop.
What is it? A bulky set of plastic pneumatic steps with a counter and attached resistance bands. It comes with seven workouts on DVD designed to give a low-impact cardio workout and also target different muscle groups "so you can sculpt your body from head to toe".
Jesse says There's not a great range of movement, and for fitter people on its hardest setting it doesn't really get the heart working. It does challenge balance and stability, which is a good thing – as long as you don't come off it!
User review Triallists felt it didn't seem to do much, and that it would be boring unless you follow the DVD workouts (which may also become boring after a while). No-one could get the counter to work.
Verdict You could achieve more with a set of stairs and some resistance bands, some workout DVDs, or just going for a run.
Cost $3999 (reduced to $3000 when we rang to return it) from Brand Developers.
What is it? Essentially a cross between a treadmill, stepper and elliptical trainer, the TreadClimber consists of two treadmill belts that allow you to step up and down (hence the "climber" bit of the name) as you walk forwards. It's designed for walking, offering a speed range of 0.8-6.4km/h.
Jesse says The movement engages the core, more so than a regular treadmill, and it's low impact, which is good for some people. However, the stride length is quite short, and there's not much space to swing your arms – though at first you'll be holding the handlebar on for balance. It does seem to get the heart rate up.
User review It doesn't feel solid, and you need to pay attention to what you're doing – you couldn't watch TV while using it. And it's noisy too.
Verdict Jesse says this would be good for rehabilitation or for people who could benefit from the balance training, as long as they could use it safely. It might also be useful training for Sunday walkers or hikers. However, its usefulness is limited due to the low speed, especially for fitter people, and you could get a more versatile treadmill with more features and programs at a lower price.
Cost $2500 (reduced to $1250 when we rang to return it) plus $49.95 P&H from Brand Developers.
What is it? Consisting of a sliding padded bench operated by cables and running along an adjustable incline, the Total Gym XLS utilises your body weight to create resistance and offers more than 80 different exercises designed to work all major muscle groups. It includes an exercise chart, workout cards and workout DVDs.
Jesse says This would be great for beginners, with a huge range of moves. The use of body weight means it's not overwhelming, and it's low impact. It's like a lot of different machines in one. It seems to be sturdy and well built, although expensive for what it is.
User review Our triallists liked that the Total Gym XLS offers a variety of resistance workouts and accommodates different levels of fitness. But the size, cost and potential boredom put them off.
Verdict Great for strength training, this machine works all major muscle groups and, as you get stronger, you can add weights and a weight bar – it holds up to 180kg including your body weight and added weights. The main limitation of this machine is that you have to be motivated to use it. It has a big footprint and is heavy and awkward to set up and pack away, so unless you can leave it out somewhere you may not use it very often.
Cost $399.95 + 49.95 P&H from Danoz Direct.
What is it? Modelled on a Pilates reformer like those you find in a studio, this is a compact, padded gliding board on rails with bungee cords and adjustable incline to provide various degrees of resistance. It claims to combine 18 weight machines to address the fitness needs of both men and women. The manual and DVD provide instructions for traditional strength building exercises and Pilates moves.
Leesa says It's a little too small and unstable, and the positioning of the cable posts right alongside the head is awkward and claustrophobic. For some exercises the cables tend to jam because of the angle, and after only a few minutes' use there was evidence of damage to the cover of the bungy cords.
Jesse says The range of movement is restricted by the length of the board and angle of the cables. A lot of the metal-looking bits are in fact plastic, and may not be very robust.
User review Our triallists were quite positive about this machine and liked the concept and variety of exercises. Overall, given the price, they thought it would be good value. However, it was too small for our taller users, the small space for the head concerned people, and some thought it would get boring after a while.
Verdict Leesa and Jesse agreed this could be good for a small person, though both had some concerns about its robustness. You can do similar exercises and more on the Total Gym XLS, which would also represent better value provided you can bargain down the price (and have the space for it).
Jesse Hogan is a fitness trainer with Agoga Gym in Bondi, NSW. He has a Bachelor of Physical Education and fitness qualifications.
Leesa Thornthwaite is a fitness trainer and qualified Pilates and yoga teacher. She owns Pure Yoga in Peakhurst Heights, NSW.
The home shopping experience
The three companies we bought the exercise machines from offer a "satisfaction guarantee", allowing you to "try the product in your own home" for 30 days or six weeks, depending on the product, with your money refunded if you're not happy with it. However, you'll have to pay return postage.
We had no difficulties or arguments with the companies when we rang them to say we didn't want the products – they gave us a return authorisation number and the return address. Brand Developers took the opportunity to offer a final enticement to keep the equipment – 25% ($1000) off the TreadClimber and 50% ($1250) off the Total Gym XLS. Obviously this is worth keeping in mind if you're interested in one of these machines!
One of the companies continued to charge our credit card even though we'd returned the items, and when we rang to question this, denied having received the goods. They then requested tracking numbers and other information to verify that we'd returned them. So make sure you hang onto the courier details, and if you're using the postal service, use registered post. The money was promptly refunded after we'd provided the information.
If you're thinking of buying home exercise equipment, here are some things to consider.
- Many machines have weight limits, so if you're overweight, check the maximum weight.
- Exercising in front of the TV can reduce boredom, but all the machines here require you to concentrate on what you're doing – counting repetitions, maintaining speed and/or balance, making sure you step correctly and don't fall off, and/or maintaining good form.
- Some pieces of equipment require a lot of floor space, so make sure you have room for it. Some can be folded down and stored away – though if it's out of sight, it may also be out of mind.
- The workouts should be challenging enough to make you work harder as you get fitter. This can be hard to judge at the start, when even the easiest level is a challenge. But stick with it and you should find you'll quickly improve.
- Equipment for short-term goals, such as weight loss, can be cheaper and less sturdy. For longer-term lifestyle goals, you'll benefit from better-quality, more versatile equipment with a lower boredom factor.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.