Flex Appeal -- The Bowflex Offers Solid Strength Training - At A Price

WHEN I ASKED FOR INPUT a while back about the Bowflex, one group who responded surprised me: Personal trainers.

Fitness professionals aren't often gung-ho for infomercial exercise equipment, for good reason: The television advertisements usually promise the moon - a fun, easy, economical, space-efficient total-body workout - leaving users to cope with the earthly realities of space, time, cost, effort and consistency.

Peter Cannon of Cannonbuilt Fitness Company on Queen Anne Hill said he uses a Bowflex with clients at his home studio. "It is a good piece of equipment, and it is built well," he reported. Alice Lockridge of Exercise Express in Renton incorporates the Bowflex into personal-training and group-exercise classes. Kim Williams-Brinck of Physically Focused in Seattle says, "It's one of the few in-home units that moves the way my body works."

Most others who responded also liked their Bowflexes. Bob McIntosh and his wife have used theirs for 10 years, losing weight and body fat and improving their strength. In addition, "We have not experienced any joint shear so noticeable with free weights or other machines."

Dale Dvorak likes the smoothness throughout each movement's range of motion. "I have used free weights, universal machines and a host of expensive machines in clubs, and I rate the Bowflex a tough competitor to all of these."

The Bowflex, named a "best-buy" home gym by Fitness magazine in 1997, is often compared to the Soloflex and the Total Gym. All are strengthening systems designed for home use. All employ alternatives to heavy weight plates: Soloflex uses thick bands, Total Gym the user's body weight, Bowflex metal rods that bend to simulate weight resistance. All reached prominence with TV-infomercial overload.

I haven't tried the Soloflex but have heard complaints that the rubbery bands are awkward to adjust. I reviewed the Total Gym 1000 last year; I liked the feel of sliding along the bench pulling a percentage of my own weight but had some concerns, including keeping within a safe range of motion. Ours is nicely folded and tucked away in a closet, especially since we took the plunge (joint birthday presents!) and bought a Vectra C-1 gym.

The Bowflex I tried for the first time recently at Cannon's studio. Like the Total Gym, it let me perform not only standard lifts, but many variations, since I was free to move my arms, especially, in many planes. As with dumbbells, each arm met independent resistance. Similar to Nautilus equipment, a cam eased resistance at the beginning and increased it as the movement progressed to stronger parts of the muscle. It was a nice pull, but it is work - as strength-developing movements should be. Even more than with other types of resistance, slow movement is better: The bowed rods can create a lot of momentum with fast repetitions.

A simple change of hand position let me move between several exercises without making other adjustments and also allowed for easy "super sets" to work one set of muscles in different ways. Resistance changes were easy, by running a hook through holes atop the rods (together equivalent to 210 pounds, with upgrades possible to 410). All seven models fold for storage, and four of them roll.

One of the Bowflex's best promotions is a free tryout with a local trainer who knows the equipment. (Trainers get a commission if a sale results.) Given all the possible exercises, even a paid session might be a good investment.

Some Bowflex owners reported difficulties because of their height, both short and tall. Though a cardiovascular workout is possible with quick-paced circuit training, I probably wouldn't use the rowing feature for regular aerobic exercise - it's just not comfortable enough.

And the price, already $699 for the base model, can go as high as $1,597 for the complete Power Pro XTLU, which includes important leg and lat-pulldown attachments - although you often can get one attachment free by mentioning the infomercial. Ordering is via 800-269-3539 or www.bowflex.com. To take the company up on its six-week money-back tryout and decide not to keep the machine would cost between $198 and $338 for two-way shipping, plus the effort and often frustration of disassembling such a unit and cramming it into the original box.

People willing to use the machine regularly, though, probably have no need to send it back.

Molly Martin is assistant editor of Pacific Northwest magazine. ------------------------------- NOTEBOOK

Nautilus Flex?

Direct Focus, the Vancouver, Wash., company that makes Bowflex, has purchased the Nautilus Corporation.

Research update

-- Findings keep dribbling in about the benefits of drinking green tea. Scientists at the Medical College of Ohio in Toledo found that green tea contains an ingredient (epigalocathechin-3 gallate) that binds with and inhibits the action of a cancer-promoting enzyme called urokinase. If you're looking for a new green tea to try, I can recommend what's become my daily green-tea fix: genmaicha, which also has toasted brown rice for a slightly heartier flavor. I like the Choice brand ($2.75 for 16 bags, at Puget Consumers Coop).

-- Scientists at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas have found what appears to be a genetic switch that tells muscles how to behave. They're studying whether it's possible to get those same effects by ingesting certain chemicals. It's not yet touted as an alternative to exercise, however: Researchers hope people with congestive heart failure, for example, might be able to take such drugs to regain endurance in their heart muscle, perhaps restoring more normal performance and daily activity.

Ask Molly

Questions on workouts, equipment or nutrition? Send them to Ask Molly, Pacific Northwest magazine, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, or e-mail mmartin@seattletimes.com