Nautilus Machines and the Growth of the Gym Industry: An Interview with Thomas Todd

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Earlier this week I had the pleasure of chatting to Thomas Todd, a lifelong fitness fanatic with several decades experience in the health and fitness industry. Todd very kindly got in touch having read a recent Barbend article of mine on Arthur Jones of Nautilus fame. Readers of this website will recall Jones’ controversial nature, his incredible marketing ability and his, at times, outlandish claims of progress, most notably seen in his infamous ‘Colorado Experiment.’ Much to my delight, Todd had worked in a Nautilus facility in the mid-1970s, at the precise moment when the fitness community was truly engaging with Jones’ equipment and was willing to chat about his experiences.

Over the course of our conversation, Todd detailed his experiences in the Nautilus community, highlighting their popularity and uniqueness. Furthermore, he was able to give some lived insights into the changing landscape of the American fitness industry more generally.

The Growth and Appeal of Nautilus  

Thomas’ first experience with Nautilus came in 1976, right after he graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in molecular biology. Fully graduated but unsure about what to do next, Thomas chanced upon an offer to work out at a newly opened Nautilus facility in Houston. Open to the challenge to try something new, Thomas headed off with his friends for a workout session that ultimately shaped his future.

Nautilus, back then, was still a relatively new endeavor. Arthur Jones had only sold his first Nautilus machine some years earlier and the entire premise of his machine workouts ran contrary to the rest of the fitness industry. Under the Nautilus protocol, trainees often did one set to absolute failure using Jones’ machines.

Thomas was no novice to working out but soon discovered the difference Jones’ protocol could make. On entering the Houston facility, Thomas made the mistake of telling the trainers he didn’t understand the hype about Jones’ workouts. Unsurprisingly, the trainers rose to the challenge. Over the course of the next hour, Thomas was pushed to failure through forced reps and short rest times.

The next day was a painful lesson that there might be something to this Nautilus stuff after all. As his DOMs slowly subsided, Thomas’ interest grew. Within weeks of his first training session, Thomas was a bona fide Nautilus trainer at the Houston facility. It was here that he gained first hand insights into Naultius’ marketing success.

Speaking to Thomas, I got an immediate understanding about how and why Jones’ model was so successful. At the cornerstone of its success were the machines themselves. In the first instance, the Nautilus machines were some of first devices to isolate specific muscle groups. At a time when workout machines were still in their infancy, Jones’ specialized equipment promised to train the entirety of the body in individual segments. The beauty of this was that one could train to failure on one muscle group before moving on to another exercise.

Equally important was the cam system underpinning the machines and their specialized nature. As discussed in my Barbend article on Jones, his Nautilus machines promised equal resistance throughout the exercise. To expand on why this was important think of the bench press. When the bar is at your chest, its safe to say that the resistance is at its highest point. When your arms are locked out and the bar is safely hovering over your chest, the resistance is relatively minimal.

With Jones’ cam, the resistance was constant throughout. This made for a much more challenging workout. Coupled with this, Jones was something of a genius when it came to specification. As Thomas explained, Jones’ machines were designed in such a way as to eliminate weak links. Jones first real finished machine was the pullover.  He nicknamed it ‘The Upper Body Squat’ and published stories about it with that quirky title, which showed his shrewd business acumen.  In this one machine, the cam was obvious, as was rotary resistance and direct resistance.  And safety wise, the design allowed for extreme heavy training with little fear of injury.  You wouldn’t want someone do train this way with a conventional dumbbell pullover on a flat bench, as dislocating a shoulder or dropping the dumbbell on your face wouldn’t be helping your lats much.

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Thomas also stressed the efficiency of the workouts themselves. Unlike other systems, Jones’ promised a workout that was short in time and highly effective. As rest times were minimal, it increased both aerobic and anaerobic fitness. Individuals unused to working out were encouraged by the fact that Jones’ system seemed to promise all things to all people.

Finally, it would be remiss not to mention the fact that Nautilus was incredibly shrewd when it came to making money through memberships and franchising. Thomas discovered this himself when he was informed that the only way he could become a trainer at the Houston facility was to purchase a gym membership there first.

Moving Away from Nautilus 

Although our interview focused primarily on Thomas’ time with Nautilus, we also got to discuss his time in the gym industry more broadly. Post-Nautilus, Thomas spent several decades in Colorado and other US States opening, managing and advising both large and small gym chains. Simply put, he helped oversee, and experienced the intensification of the fitness industry in the United States.

People had, as attested by this website, long exercised with dumbbells, barbells etc. What changed in the 1970s and 1980s in particular, was the general public’s growing acceptance of gym culture. As more and more people began to work out, gyms changed to accommodate a growing marketplace. It was here that Thomas found his niche.

Working with and in gyms during the 1980s, Thomas explained the public’s new expectations for gyms. Gone were the small scale, free weight only gyms. In their place were the plush, multi-functional gyms defined by tennis courts, saunas, steam rooms and a host of other goodies. While Nautilus continued to hold some relevancy in this climate, its appeal waned substantially.

Speaking on Nautilus’ weakness, Thomas discussed the system’s relatively rigidness – a bodybuilder was trained the same as a teenager – as well as the system’s relative extremeness. When clients came to Thomas during his Nautilus days, they were immediately put through an intense workout with little warm up or time to catch their breath. Yes it was effective but for many it could prove off-putting.

Working at high-end gyms, Thomas found that trainees now wanted a variety of methods and systems when it came to working out. What remained, and this one supposes was Nautilus’ enduring legacy, was the emphasis on short workout sessions. During his time in Denver, Thomas trained a series of highly successful businessmen and women who trained during their lunch breaks. This was a far cry from the several hour workouts done by Reg Park in the 1950s but was emblematic of the new turn in the fitness industry. Where once gyms catered toward the hardcore bodybuilder or weightlifter, new gyms in the 1980s and 1990s were designed with the average Joe or Jane in mind.

It is funny to think that we have now moved, somewhat, back to smaller specialized gyms. Aside from the highly successful Lifetime Fitness chain, Thomas pointed out the declining number of large scale and multi-purpose gyms. In their place has been the rise of boutique and specialized gyms. Thinking about my new climate in Austin, Texas, it’s hard to disagree. Searching for a new gym, I was astounded by the number of smaller gyms, catering to specific interests like Crossfit, Zumba, HIT training and much more.

Words to Live By

Physical-Fitness

Before finishing our conversation, I had to ask Thomas about his advice for exercisers and also those training them. Having worked in, owned and consulted with gyms, his advice proved worth having.

For the individual trainee, Thomas stressed the importance of finding something that you enjoyed doing and sticking with that. Many times, Thomas had met with gym members who, discouraged with their progress, decided to stop exercising altogether. Rather than throwing the baby out with the bath water, Thomas encouraged people to keep trying until they found something which fit. Certainly, in 2020, it has never been easier to find some form of exercise people like. Personal responsibility is, after all, the cornerstone of good health.

For trainers, Thomas’ advice was equally illustrative. Speaking on the problems facing many personal trainers, Thomas highlighted three core problems:

  1. Sales

Although many trainers are loathe to admit it, personal training is, after all, a sales business. Many trainers, driven by their own desire to help people or not appear arrogant, often underplay or undersell themselves among clients. While these tendencies are admirable, trainers also need to make a living. Looking outside for new sales techniques, and embracing the fact that their job includes sales, is a must for trainers looking to make a career in the industry.

  1. Knowledge

In today’s climate, it is no longer possible for trainers to specialize in a single topic. The successful trainers, and those most likely to gain employment, are those able, and willing, to teach in a range and variety of systems. Beginning with the advice that trainers should have a core and recognized certification (from one of the major certifying boards), Thomas encouraged personal trainers to branch out and upskill continually throughout their careers.

  1. Awareness

Last, but not least, Thomas talked about the importance of awareness for trainers, both in gyms and in starting their own facilities. For trainers in gyms, it is important to take full advantage of the support system offered by the facility. Boutique gyms, or multi-purpose facilities, are one of the few places for trainers were the customer comes to you for guidance. Making the most of this, trainers should rely on their sales expertise. Furthermore they should see what areas their gyms are doing well (is it classes, individual training, Crossfit etc.) and tailor accordingly.

For those seeking to own their own gyms, Thomas’ advice was equally illustrative. Many trainers, Thomas had found, believed that all of their clients would follow them to their new gyms or that friends would leave their existing jobs to work with them. This is simply not the case. Starting a new gym is a costly and risky business. Trainers need to take this into account, no matter how successful they may be at the moment. It is an entirely different skillset needed to run your own gym.

Although we initially arranged to talk about his time with Nautilus, Thomas’ ongoing interest in the fitness community proved equally as interesting. Above we see the ebbing and flowing of the fitness industry since the 1970s as well as advice for future successes. Here’s hoping people heed his advice and enjoy his story.

As always … Happy Lifting!