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Dandy Gyms
Before buying a strength-training machine, give it a good workout

The sleek and cleverly engineered C-1, by Redmond-based Vectra Fitness, fits in a corner, requires a space only 5 feet by 6 feet, and offers at least 22 strength-building exercises.
No exercise likely offers as many equipment choices as strength training: Stretchy bands, cords and rods. Squishy little balls and tightly sprung grips. Sand- and water-filled wrist and ankle cuffs. Foam paddles and webbed gloves for pool workouts. Heavy sticks and even heavier stones. Fixed-weight barbells and dumbbells. Concrete, iron or steel plates from 2 1/2 to 100 pounds. Not to mention the most basic equipment of all, one's own body weight.

When actually used, any of them can build strength, to some degree. But few may be as convenient, safe, inviting and popular as a multistation home gym.

Such machines are amalgams of club equipment that emphasize one body part per station. Attempts to squeeze many exercises into a single machine, though, have created another host of choices.

I recently visited (anonymously) 14 stores and tried dozens of machines to come up with some considerations when shopping for home gyms. (Though some devices use free-weight plates, here I'll address only "selectorized" units, which have pins for choosing resistance from a built-in stack of weights.)

• Space is the first issue for many people. The key is how much room a machine takes up when in use, since attachments and a user's arms and legs often extend beyond the listed footprint. Some gyms, like the Vectra C-1 ($2,399) we bought a few years ago, are designed to fit into corners.

• Cost. Most inexpensive (as low as $200 to $300) units are so wobbly, stiff and uncomfortable that if possible I'd save up until I could afford at least $1,000, perhaps $2,000 or more. That's not including attachments, a mat if desired, delivery and installation. Patient shoppers can sometimes find good deals by researching first then watching the classified ads.

• Warranty. Several companies offer limited warranties, with shorter periods for cables and upholstery, longer for pulleys and bushings, and sometimes longer still for frames. At least one, Body-Solid, offers a lifetime warranty on the whole machine. Note: Labor is rarely included in warranties.

• Features: A gym with two weight stacks can take two users at once and requires fewer adjustments of weights, cables and benches between exercises. Some folks prefer a prone bench press over a vertical (seated) press. Though most machines offer leg extensions (which work the front of the thighs), fewer have leg-press or squat stations.

Fitness news you can use
Previewing machines at home
One way to start shopping for home gyms is to check out manufacturer Web sites. Most show current models and help find local dealers. Parabody's also includes some nice video of machines in use. Some sites:

Many companies have exclusive arrangements with stores to carry their equipment, so it takes several stops to get an overview. One particularly efficient neighborhood is the Overlake/Crossroads area of Bellevue. Within a 2-mile radius are the Fitness Outlet (13407 N.E. 20th St.), Fitness Shop (15230 N.E. 24th St.), Fitness Showcase (15400 N.E. 20th St.), Omni Fitness (14701 N.E. 20th St.) and Sports Authority (15600 N.E. 8th St.). Between them, these shops (which have other outlets in the region) carry all the brands mentioned at left.

What about . . .
I didn't include the Bowflex and Total Gym here because 1) they don't use weights for resistance and 2) I've reviewed them before. Those columns, along with others, can be found or searched for at
Some features that caught my eye:

• Weight stacks topped with incremental weights, which allow initial lifts to progress 5 pounds at a time instead of 10. Pacific Fitness has them, and also has rubber guide-rod ends in its weight stacks, eliminating some of the metal-to-metal clang. (Pacific has been purchased by Precor of Bothell, so newer machines have the Precor name.)

• Multi-hip attachments that put resistance on the thigh instead of pulling at the ankle.

• Machines with articulated arms, which allow the user to move easily through a variety of planes during upper-body exercises. Parabody's 777 ($1,799) uses cables and V-groove pulleys for an effect similar to the Bowflex.

• The TuffStuff Apollo 250 Deluxe ($3,695) features a seated leg-curl station, which is vastly more comfortable than leg curls done lying face down, not to mention the awkward standing ones offered by many machines.

• The Hoist 400 ($2,895) offers the attachment of my dreams — an assisted chin-up/dip station ($895), which uses offsetting weight to let me do those exercises even when I can't lift my own weight.

The most important factor in evaluating a home gym is the test drive. I would not buy one before trying it out thoroughly. Make seat, bench, cable and weight adjustments yourself instead of letting the salesperson breeze through them. Try all the lifts, varying from light to heavy resistance. Does the machine feel stable? Are the lifts smooth? Do you hear parts rubbing? Are the seats, benches, handles and pads in comfortable positions? Can they be adjusted?

Everyone who will be using the machine should test it — size differences matter. Give it a good workout, because with delivery and installation costs and hassles, you're not as likely to return a home gym as you are, say, an ab roller.

Molly Martin is assistant editor of Pacific Northwest magazine. Her phone number is 206-464-8243. She can also be reached at Pacific Northwest magazine, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, or via e-mail:

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