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​A step, a Pull and a Lift Ahead – How Bowflex and Nautilus Innovation Changed Fitness Equipment History - Part 1

This three-part series explores how Bowflex and parent Company Nautilus have applied – and continue to apply – original thinking to the advancement of fitness technology.


Part 1: The Originators

Challenging conventional wisdom can place you among history’s great geniuses or land you in its dustbin. The difference isn’t so much your methods as the reason you do it.


When and Eccentric Meets Resistance

Consider Arthur Jones, who made many choices people would question. His interest in exotic wildlife spurred him to collect a menagerie that included reptiles, poisonous snakes, 63 baby elephants, a silver back gorilla, and an 18-foot crocodile he hoped would reach record-breaking size. Meanwhile, he butted heads with humans he saw as “stubborn” and “short-sighted” adherents of traditional thinking. These included members of his medically trained family and muscle man Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the late 60s, Jones disputed the future Terminator’s “hours of training” philosophy and proposed that high-intensity training – working your muscles to failure in short bursts – could reduce the time between you and physical perfection. Critics and published studies expressed their doubts.

But Jones’s faith in eccentric training – a regimen formed around the idea that you gain more strength lowering a barbell (muscle expansion) than curling it up (muscle contraction) – was unshakable. So was his belief in variable resistance, which built muscle by changing the amount of necessary strength in the middle of a given pull or push. That didn’t occur with smooth-rolling, pulley-equipped machines, and Jones tested various mechanical ideas he hoped could do the job. Several prototypes into this process, he realized the answer lay in a machine he’d left rusting in his backyard since 1959. The contraption ran around something as eccentric as Jones himself – a logarithmic-spiral cam.

That cam became the heart of a machine called the “Blue Monster” because … well, look at it . Pretty it wasn’t, but the technology Jones unveiled at the 1970 AAU Mr. America contest silenced many of his detractors. So did several bodybuilders racking up contest wins on Jones’s terms – including Sergio Oliva, who muscled Schwarzenegger himself out of the Mr. Olympia title. Enthused, Jones felt his fledgling fitness company needed a new name – something that honoured the humble cam that had made all the difference. After a friend jokingly mentioned that the cam looked like Jones’s son’s belly button, the inventor wondered if some other resemblance might yield a better name. His knowledge of strange creatures provided it – Nautilus.

Jones wasn’t alone in his interest in variable resistance. Soon, a young inventor would follow his lead – challenging accepted fitness equipment norms, naming his innovation for its unique feature and answering his own critics. The two inventors’ success would one day fuse with other leading fitness innovators to create a dynamic future for fitness.


Bending the Rules

Dosho Tessema Shifferaw may have been the son of an Ethiopian Major General in Emperor Haile Selassie’s ground forces, but in America, he would have to make his own way like everyone else. He was still a teenager when he arrived with just $500 in his pocket. He drove cab to pay his San Francisco City College expenses. The ambitious student hoped to create the perfect ergonomic chair for a project but grew so frustrated that he tried to wrap a metal rod around himself. The springy rod refused to bend and Dosho was forced to push increasingly harder. At a point where most people would find injury, Dosho found inspiration.

He envisioned several of those stubborn rods replacing weight plates in a new, lighter form of variable resistance machine. He patented his idea but found more frustration when fitness equipment manufacturers dismissed his spidery-looking invention. What was an energetic young fellow in the go-go 80s to do? Produce and market your machine yourself, that’s what. Where manufacturers saw a weird creature in those straining, fine-tuned polymer power rods, Dosho saw the graceful and powerful flex of an archer’s bow.

He named his company Bowflex and promoted his unusual new product on an unusual new medium – late night infomercials. In one 1996 production, a guardedly curious group of weightlifters were given a demonstration and invited to try the product themselves. One scoffing free-weight apostle stepped forward, only to utter oaths of self-reproach for his condescension as the machine’s polymer rods arched in triumphal vindication over his trembling pecs. Dramatic vanquishment wasn’t all the machine offered to back its claims. Bowflex promised, “If you wear them out, we’ll replace them.” Almost a quarter-century later, Dosho Tessema Shifferaw’s invention still stands tall, and Bowflex still stands behind its equipment.

Dosho’s innovation and marketing instincts had already been validated ten years earlier when he was able to purchase Nautilus from Arthur Jones, creating a new company call Nautilus Inc. The Bowflex was soon the fastest-selling exercise machine in the US, reaching $10 million in sales by 1995 then nearly doubling each year and hitting $580 million by 2002. Like Jones, Dosho would patent multiple products, including an oil leak prevention system, inspired by the 2010 BP oil spill.

Before he died in 2014, his Nautilus Inc. became a publicly traded company. Its acquisition of Nautilus, Schwinn (Fitness Equipment Division), Stairmaster, Universal, and later Octane Fitness would create a new equipment powerhouse. However, economic circumstances were about to make research and development key to the company’s future, spawning an exciting new generation of fitness innovations.

That’s in Part 2 of this series.


Find out what decades of innovation can do for you at Flaman Fitness.

Bowflex, Nautilus and their fitness partners continue to evolve better fitness solutions for YOUR needs. You can see and TRY the latest at your nearest Flaman Fitness location. Whether your want to build muscle, burn fat or boost your cardio and endurance, our expert staff can help you find the fitness equipment that’s been refined over years to meet your specific requirements. Drop by and discuss putting decades of innovation to work for you.