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We loaded up one of our favorite at-home fitness devices to see if the performance stacks up to the hype.
For most people, getting or staying fit means shelling out monthly membership fees to the nearest gym and hoping you can find the time to fit in a workout somewhere during your busy day. That’s precisely the problem Bowflex has been working to solve for more than thirty years. And since the release of the brand’s first machine in the late 1980s, Bowflex has continued to iterate and innovate, revolutionizing the world of the home gym.
The constant innovation has led to the Bowflex Xtreme 2 SE Home Gym, an all-in-one machine that offers over seventy distinct exercises that target every one of the major muscle groups. Its proprietary Power Rod and cable system combines to make workouts safer, more inclusive and more approachable than traditional free weight routines, all while ensuring a high efficacy.
In a package that can be delivered to your door, assembled in a few hours and takes up less space than most beds, the Bowflex Xtreme 2 SE is an impressive feat of engineering. More than anything, it offers a robust alternative for people who can’t make it to the gym, don’t want to pay a monthly membership, or that simply want to exercise in the privacy of their own homes.
I went hands-on with the Bowflex Xtreme 2 SE to see if it delivers an at-home workout that rivals the traditional gym experience. Here’s what I observed.
If you’re considering a home gym, cost is probably a large factor. But, it’s important to look past just the sticker price to make sure you get the best option for your specific needs. If you’re deciding between the Bowflex Xtreme 2 SE and a gym membership, consider this: the average American gym-goer spends somewhere between $500 and $700 on a membership annually, but under-utilizes roughly two-thirds of those dues. The most cited reason for not using memberships more is the commute, followed closely by a lack of time.
Dollar for dollar, a home gym might seem like a big up-front expenditure — but if you owned (and used) the Bowflex Xtreme 2 SE for at least three years, you’d be paying less per month than the national average monthly membership fee of $58. Add in the time savings of the commute (not to mention gas if you drive to the gym) and the fact that you don’t have to conform to hours of operation, deal with crowded workouts during peak use windows, or waste time wiping down and returning equipment, the upfront cost of the Bowflex starts to look pretty palatable. Bowflex even offers an installment plan, meaning you can start working out now and pay later.
When you consider the volume of exercises you can enjoy with the Bowflex Xtreme 2 SE, the fact that it requires a footprint of just 6.5 by 8.0 feet is impressive. And though this area is necessary to ensure enough room for the Power Rods to flex unobstructed — and for the user to move around the machine to adjust the pulleys and resistance — the machine’s actual footprint is quite a bit smaller (53″ x 49″). That said, because of the compact, vertical design, it needs almost 7 full feet of height clearance, which could limit location options for some users.
The Xtreme 2 SE weighs 185 pounds when fully assembled, presenting a sturdy profile that isn’t prone to wobbling or tipping. I opted for the in-home assembly service, and would highly recommend it. Scheduling the set-up appointment was a breeze, and the four-hour appointment windows are manageable, considering they range from 8am to 8pm every day of the week.
The technician that set up my machine was professional and worked quickly, assembling the Xtreme 2 SE in just about an hour. Overall, it was a straightforward and easy process that’s definitely worth the extra dough. And while I consider myself handy and a competent DIY-er, I felt good going into my first workout knowing the machine wasn’t going to implode because I had missed a bolt or clamp.
One thing that makes the Bowflex Xtreme 2 SE an attractive option is that it’s safe for just about anyone to use. The Power Rod and cable combo removes any risk of heavy, ungainly weights toppling over or getting dropped on toes. It virtually guarantees proper form, meaning that even inexperienced users can get a good — and more importantly, injury-free — workout. It also means you can tackle your workout without the need for a spotter, and enjoy the bonus of not having to re-rack weights. All this amounts to a machine that should get maximal use in any active household.
At the start of the rep, the Power Rods are exerting only a portion of their full resistance, about 30 percent, according to Bowflex. As you start to move into the rep, the resistance increases progressively, reaching 100 percent resistance at the terminal position. Simply put, the deeper you go into the rep, the more resistance you’re getting from the power rods.
Interestingly, this is much more ergonomic than a typical free weight exercise. Halfway through a bench press, for example, when your shoulders and chest are at their weakest position, you’re lifting 100 percent of the weight. As you push through the press, your muscles are able to provide greater assistance until the terminal position. This is also known as linear resistance; the weights go up, the weights go down. With the Bowflex, the resistance progression mirrors your muscular-skeletal capabilities, maxing out at your strongest position.
This is the essential innovation that’s been driving the Bowflex for over thirty years. But there’s more. For example, when targeting your pectorals on the Bowflex, you can glide from a standard bench press to incline, decline and back without stopping. When testing, I was also able to combine these three exercises in the same set simply by changing the angle of the rep, hitting my entire chest in a single sitting and offering a very new workout experience.
What’s more, the Bowflex enabled me to hold the rep with 100 percent resistance, resulting in an incredible workout in a short amount of time. The combined effect is a workout that’s safer, faster and about as challenging as just about anything you can do with a barbell and a handful of plates.
Another perk — and something I didn’t consider before reading user feedback on the Bowflex website — was how quiet the machine is. Anyone who’s been to the gym can attest to the racket that cable machines can make — in particular, the weights clanking at the termination of each rep. If you’ve ventured into spaces where deadlifts and power cleans and jerks are practiced, you’ve no doubt been startled, or at least mildly annoyed, by the crash of plates on rubberized floor mats.
Since the only moving parts on the The Bowflex XTreme 2 SE are the coated cables running through well-built pulleys and the flexing power bars, it is, by comparison, silent. For me, this isn’t a selling point (read: I tested it out in my garage with a Sonos speaker blaring a boisterous workout mix). But for those who work from home, live in shared spaces, have babies or young kids with nap times, or prefer to exercise in the wee hours of the morning, the Bowflex would be a fantastically quiet option.
Because of their progressive resistance, the Power Rods don’t really offer a 1:1 comparison to standard weights; pressing 210 pounds on the Bowflex Xtreme 2 SE is not quite the same as repping 210 pounds on a standard bench. Bowflex does offer additional rods as add-ons at checkout, though, albeit at an added cost. A pair of 50-pound rods will cost you $129, but will amp the total resistance up 100 pounds. For users accustomed to benching 185 pounds or more, I would highly recommend opting for the additional rods.
Regardless of the add-ons, the Power Rod technology is still a fickle business when it comes to the product’s longevity. The rods are susceptible to losing their resistance over time. The product manual and online resources warn users to unhook the rods when not in use and strap them — or use the Rod Rejuvenator, an extra accessory sold separately — in an upright bunch to help preserve lifespan.
During the hands-on portion of my testing, I found that the rods conformed to the partial draw put on them from the mere weight of accessories in a matter of days. And while I have no way of knowing whether this impacted the overall resistance, it was disappointing. And while I knowingly left the rods attached for testing — purposely testing their robustness — I could easily imagine a scenario where you forget to unhook them after a workout and unwittingly decrease their lifespan.
From what I have found online and on Bowflex’s website, there is no set lifespan for the Power Rods, and while the company does offer replacements, it appears to be at an additional cost, or at the very least, handled on a case by case basis.
I also found that in some instances, the range of motion of standard exercises was limited. Some latitude can be achieved by adjusting the position of the pulleys which alleviated most of my issues, but taller users, and those used to maximizing range of motion in their workouts, might find the Bowflex Xtreme a tad stifling.
At 6′ 1″, I found that I was able to “bottom out” on some exercises owing to the fixed length of the cables. While I was able to manipulate the amount of slack by adjusting some of the pulley positions, it’s worth noting that taller users might find limited range of motion in some of the exercises.
From tip to tail, the Bowflex Xtreme 2 SE is a solid product that delivers a safe, consistent workout for just about any type of user. It excels at targeting specific muscle groups and is dynamic enough to let you create your own multi-exercise routines that will push even seasoned gym-goers. It’s well-constructed, thoughtfully designed and offers a pretty astounding bang for the buck value.
Frankly, the Xtreme 2 SE is probably not well suited for powerlifters or people looking to closely track weight lifting goals — but it did remind me that there’s much more to a good workout than hefting heavy loads and slinging free weights. All in all, it’s a solid and approachable piece of home gym equipment that offers a lot of upside in an easy-to-use format fit for a wide range of users.