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Popular Fitness Equipment: Then and Now

Blast from the Past

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Poufy bangs, thong leotards, and Jane Fonda are usually what first comes to mind when you think of exercise in the '80's, and yet the fitness equipment was almost as entertaining. Whether we were drooling over Suzanne Somers' thighs courtesy of her Thigh Master or admiring Chuck Norris whipping those neon-clad models into shape on his Total Gym, we all wanted in on the newest fitness craze. Thankfully, there was a gadget for every trouble spot! (The 1980's is also the decade when infomercials became a late-night staple. Coincidence? I think not.)

This being SHAPE magazine's 30th anniversary, we thought it would be fun to take a look at popular fitness equipment over the past three decades and see at what's changed—and what hasn't.

Then: The Leg Extension Machine

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Weight-lifting machines that target specific muscles are still in many gyms today, but their heyday was in the 1980's where you could sit on one to work your quads, move to the next to curl your hamstrings, and then finish off with the ever-so-gynecological hip adductor and abductor machines. Follow the stick-figure instructions or that thing will fold you like a burrito!

Now: Compound Movements

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Once people realized the machines did more harm than good by putting undue strain on joints and locking body parts into unnatural positions, we returned to doing more functional types of movements designed to work several muscle groups at once like a squat thrust.

Then: The Thigh Master

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The fact that Suzanne Somers still has her famous gams is more a testament to the power of good genes than it is to the now-obsolete piece of fitness equipment that was once synonymous with her name.

Now: Body-Weight Exercises or Pilates

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While inner-thigh machines still exist, most women choose to work their legs via more traditional weight-lifting moves like lunges or Pilates.

Then: Dumbbells

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Racks of these gym staples were found in every gym, usually watched over by groups of territorial weight lifters, lest they get co-opted as a door stop for the aerobics studio.

Now: Kettlebells

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While dumbbells are rightly still included in almost every fitness program, we have many more options now when it comes to pumping iron, and kettlebells are what's hot right now. By adding a dynamic swing and some instability to traditional dumbbell moves, you add some cardio and core work to your workout routine.

Then: Balance Boards

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Remember trying to get your balance on your mom's balance board just so you could pretend you were surfing? Just me?

Now: BOSU Balls

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These blue, inflatable half balls can be used as a wobble board if you put the blue side down, but they can also be used to challenge your balance by standing on the squishy top. It's a two-fer!

Then: All-in-One Home Gyms

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Chuck Norris' Total Gym, The Bowflex, and anything starring Tony Little were huge hits because they promised a strength and aerobic workout all in one. People shelled out thousands of dollars for elaborate machines that often ended up as sweater drying racks in the basement.

Now: Cable and Free Motion Machines

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We still have elaborate machines today (that may or may not be doubling as a drying rack, hush) but we've shifted to ones that allow greater movement and function like cable and Free Motion machines. (We won't talk about those vibrating platforms that are sure to make one of these lists 10 years in the future.)

Then: The Ab Roller

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Crunches too hard? Do they make your back or neck hurt? Try this plastic device designed to hold you in the perfect position to isolate those swimsuit muscles!

Now: Pilates

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Far from using a single piece of equipment to isolate our abdominals, we've gone the other direction by making everything a core workout! If you've ever taken a Pilates class then you'll remember to "pull your bellybutton in"  whether you are squatting, leg lifting, or just driving around town.

Then: Home Workout Videos with Equipment

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The Firm program was my faThe Firm program was my favorite example of these kits. You started out with a video but quickly branched out to buying a Firm Step, purple Firm dumbbells, Firm resistance bands, and Firm balls, among other things.

Now: Home Workout Videos with Equipment

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P90X anyone? Let's just say it like it is—these were popular in the 80's and 90's for the same reason they're popular today. When you are just starting out in fitness or don't want to devote a lot of time and money to figuring it out, these fit kits are a great deal! I kinda miss Jane Fonda, though.


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