Last updated on February 28th, 2021 at 07:28 pm
I’ve owned two Bowflex home gyms in my life. Their late-night infomercials featuring super-fit models training for “20 minutes a day, three days a week” hooked me. Twice! While I don’t still own either of those machines, I do look back on them and wish I’d used them more often.
Both times, they became very expensive clothes racks for me. Not because they weren’t decent machines, but because I bought into the 20 minutes a day, three times a week thing. I fell for the marketing.
There’s no chance that the models demonstrating those Bowflex machines actually got those bodies on a Bowflex. No way, no how. But that doesn’t mean that Bowflex home gyms don’t have value. They do for the right people.
Bowflex home gyms are an excellent option for people who either can’t or don’t want to train with free weights. They are beginner-friendly, don’t require a spotter, and can adjust to almost any fitness level. They are also incredibly versatile and take up less space than many other options.
Before we go any further, I think it’s important to stress that a Bowflex is not a substitute for free weights. If it were, commercial gyms would be full of them. They aren’t. In fact, I’d be willing to bet there isn’t a single commercial gym out there that rocks a Bowflex on its training floor.
Free weights and all in one home gyms like the Life Fitness G3 are both more effective at building muscle. But those options aren’t right for everyone. Sometimes a Bowflex is an ideal choice.
But for who? Is a Bowflex the perfect option for your home gym? Let’s take a much more in-depth look to find out.
What’s the “best”?
Here on the GymCrafter site, I try to stay away from writing articles like “the best squat racks of 2020” or “The ten best treadmills for your home gym.” The reason I don’t is that “best” is highly subjective.
Which one is best for you depends on you! What are your goals? What is your training background? What will you use consistently? You have to answer all of these questions and more before determining which option is best for you!
You may hear or read about people knocking Bowflex (and I was one of them for a long time) for various reasons. In the end, the real reason is that a Bowflex home gym just isn’t right for those people. That doesn’t, under any circumstances, mean it’s not right for you.
On top of that, let’s also consider consistency. A lot of people simply can’t or don’t want to train with free weights. They wish to resistance train, but free weights aren’t in the cards for them. In these cases, something like a Bowflex could be ideal.
3 “must-have” parts of a home gym
I’ve addressed this in quite a few of my posts and videos, but I want to touch on it here quickly. Too many people get caught up thinking that a home gym “must-have” this or that. They’ll tell you a home gym must have a squat rack or a treadmill or a barbell and so on.
In truth, there are only three things your home gym “must-have”:
- Space to train
- Resistance to train with
- An indoor cardio option
That’s it. What you choose to fill those three spots with is up to you! Looking at it this way, a Bowflex can undoubtedly fill the resistance slot on that list.!
Who is Bowflex?
Bowflex started selling home gyms way back in 1986. They have always been a direct to consumer company. That means that most of the people that own a BowFlex ordered one over the phone or online.
While there are a few stores out there that sell Bowflex machines, they are few and far between. That means that Bowflex relies on effective marketing to sell their products, not in person trials in stores. And, honestly, their ads are a little far-fetched.
That doesn’t mean that they don’t make quality products. They wouldn’t have stuck around this long if they didn’t. But it does mean that you need to take their ads with a huge grain of salt.
Take, for example, the “20 minutes a day, three times a week,” I mentioned earlier. I promise you that you will not end up looking like the models in their ads with that little training unless you start in amazing shape.
But you can get in great shape with a Bowflex with the proper programming. And that’s why so many people who own a Bowflex recommend them to others.
On a final note, the company has broadened its product line from solely home gyms to include a nice array of cardio options: some gimmicky, some quite good. When building your home gym, you could conceivably use a product from Bowflex to fill both the resistance and indoor cardio slots.
Bowflex vs. Free Weights
So this is the big debate. Detractors of Bowflex will continually point out that free weights are more “effective at building muscle.” They are right, but that doesn’t make Bowflex ineffective.
Bowflex fans will cite quite a few things that a Bowflex home gym can do that free weights can’t. Both sides have valid points.
That means the best way to figure out what might be best for you is a good old fashioned pro and con comparison.
Bowflex Benefits vs. Free Weights
Ease of use. Hands down, Bowflex wins here. To effectively train with free weights takes skill, practice, and, more often than not, some in-person coaching. Barbell training, if done incorrectly, can easily result in injury.
This is one of the primary reasons so many people avoid training with free weights. They simply don’t know how to do what they need to do without risking injury or, at minimum, looking dumb in the gym.
Not only is a Bowflex easy to use, but they also come with amazingly good support material and tutorials. And even if you mess up, you most likely won’t end up injured.
Low injury risk. This is a big one. When using a Bowflex, you don’t need a spotter because the resistance used doesn’t put you in a position where something may fall on you. On a Bowflex, you end up performing most of the movements from an upright or seated position.
Even when you are working laying down, the load is never directly above you. Nothing can come crashing down. Nothing requires safety pins or straps.
Now, this is not to say you can’t get injured on a Bowflex. I’m living proof that you can. Push too hard on anything with poor form and injury is in your future. But when you compare a Bowflex to free weights, the odds of getting injured go down considerably.
All that said, I do think it’s important to point out that resistance training of any kind can be dangerous if done incorrectly. But if done with proper form and respect for the weight being moved, resistance training can be done safely for a lifetime with no injuries.
Easy to change weights and exercises. One of my favorite things about the Bowflex gyms was that you could quickly transition from exercise to exercise. Same with changing the amount of resistance being used within a single exercise. Over the course of a training session, this extra time adds up.
Not to mention, I’m lazy. I can imagine that there are more than one of you out there in the same boat. The less I have to do between exercises, the more likely I am to continue working out. Bowflex machines are great for this!
Low impact. People recovering from injury will appreciate this feature. Because Bowflex gyms are cable and pulley systems, they are very smooth. Every movement is set up with good support from the bench, and the way everything moves is very easy on your joints.
Check with your doctor before starting resistance training of any kind, especially if you are recovering from an injury. But if you are cleared to train, a Bowflex is much easier on healing tissue and muscles than free weights are.
Versatility. The base model Bowflex Xtreme 2 SE home gym allows you to perform over 70 exercises with one machine. Their step-up Bowflex Revolution allows over 100.
To do this with free weights, you need quite a bit of gear. When you add up the cost of all that gear along with the amount of space used, Bowflex comes out ahead here.
Beginner friendly. When I started training, I was injured and weak. I couldn’t move a lot of weight at all (not that I’m Hercules now). Having a Bowflex in the privacy of your home can be a godsend for beginners.
It’s extremely intimidating for people to go to a gym and bench press the bar with no weight on it while other much stronger people watch. Having a machine that allows you to safely lift and do it with lighter weights in the privacy of your home is precisely what some people need to train in the first place.
In fact, without options like this, a lot of people simply skip resistance training altogether. And that’s a shame. I love a Bowflex type option for a lot of people in these types of scenarios.
Apartment friendly. This is why I bought my first Bowflex. In a second-floor, one-bedroom apartment, there wasn’t another option for resistance training in my home at that time. I wrote an entire article for folks who want to do formal weight training in an apartment to read here. But for many, weights aren’t an option.
Bowflex gyms are quiet and take up less room than most other choices. This makes them an ideal choice for apartment dwellers.
Family-friendly. My girlfriend won’t use my garage gym. She uses the heck out of my resistance bands, though. At about 100 lbs soaking wet, she can’t even lift an unloaded barbell. So she stays away.
This is the case for many people with families. One person uses the free weights while the significant other and the kids stay away.
A machine like a Bowflex changes all that. Because of its ease of use, safety, and variety of exercises, you’ll find that it’s used by more people in your household simply because it’s more accessible to them overall.
I’d bet money that if I added a Bowflex to my current setup, my girlfriend would regularly use it.
Bowflex Drawbacks vs. Free Weights
Squats and deadlifts. Arguably the two most effective whole-body muscle-building movements, squats and deadlifts, are a cornerstone of pretty much any effective weight training program.
While you can technically do both on a Bowflex, neither is ideal. That’s a polite way of saying that doing squats and deadlifts on a Bowflex sucks. There, I said it. Sorry Bowflex, but you simply fail on these two movements as compared to free weights.
Not only does the load feel wonky (watch as the model demonstrates doing squats and notice how shaky the bar is through the whole movement), but you can’t add enough load to be effective for many lifters. Not to mention that the setup with those straps is a giant pain in the you know what!
This is especially true on the entry-level Xtreme 2 SE. Because the amount of resistance changes throughout each movement’s range, you have almost no load at the bottom of either pattern. This is not only not ideal; it’s just terrible for training these movements for strength.
Hypertrophy and Strength. If your goal is to gain muscle and strength, free weights will do it better than a Bowflex. It’s not that you can’t build those things on a Bowflex, but you just can’t do it nearly as well.
Free weights are also a more functional way to build muscle and strength. They much more closely mimic how you would move heavy things around in real life.
There isn’t a serious lifter in the world training on a Bowflex as their primary modality. It just isn’t happening.
Quality. While Bowflex’s overall build quality is good, there are a few things to be desired.
When you grab a steel barbell, you are firmly connected to the weight you are lifting. When you hold a plastic and foam handle attached to a cable, it just feels off. It’s not as nice. It’s not bad, but it’s just not a barbell.
The bench also leaves a lot to be desired. It sure looks cool, but compared to a Rogue or Rep Fitness bench of any level, it’s not in the same ballpark.
The last point here is that a Bowflex is a bit of a contraption for lack of a better word. There’s a lot going there. Too much, in my opinion. Some of it just feels kind of cheap. That’s definitely not the case with a solid bench, power rack, barbell, and plates.
Type of resistance. Some of the movements (a lot of them, actually) as performed on a Bowflex are a little awkward. Because you are working with a cable and pulley system, the cables end up pulling across your arms and body.
This doesn’t happen with free weights. They are much less distracting in this respect.
I’m also not a fan of how the resistance feels across the entire range of motion on any movement. The Xtreme 2 SE, in particular, has a wide-ranging power curve.
This basically means that you have the max resistance you’ve dialed in at one end of the movement. At the other end, there is almost nothing. It’s weird.
The Revolution is much better in this respect, but it’s still not free weights. It’s close, but just not the same.
Bowflex vs. other home gyms
Xtreme 2 SE
|Bowflex Revolution||Life Fitness|
|Rep Fitness FT5000|
|Accessories included||Leg Developer|
5 Way Grips
|Leg Developer5 Way GripsDVD||Med. Handles|
|Additional Accessories Available?||Y||Y||Y||Y|
|Pull up bar?||N||N||Multi Angle||Multigrip|
|Total Resistance||210 lbs.|
Upgradable to 410 lbs
|220 lbs. Upgradable to 300 lbs||320 lbs|
Effective weight is 160 lbs per side
Effective Weight is 110 lbs per side
|Approximate Room Needed to Use||8’ x 6.5’||10’ x 7’||7’ x 7’||7’ x 7’|
|Max User Weight||300 lbs||300 lbs||Matching Bench has 300 lbs capacity||Rep AB-5200 has 1000 lbs capacity|
|Total Weight||185 lbs||336 lbs||400 lbs||1,001 lbs|
|Warranty||7 years machineLifetime on Power Rods||10 years parts90 days labor||Lifetime Frame, welds, pulleys, and parts.|
3-year on upholstery pads and cables
1 year on hardware
|Best place to buy||BowFlex Direct||BowFlex Direct||Abt.com||Rep Fitness Direct|
I’ve spent a lot of time comparing Bowflex to free weights. But what about other, more similar home gyms. Functional trainers (all in one home gyms) like the Life Fitness G7, or the Rep Fitness FT5000?
Here we have a similar footprint, all cable and pulley systems, and adjustable resistance. These all have a lot in common.
So which is better? As usual, the answer depends on what you want out of your home gym and what your goals are.
Life Fitness G7
Widely recognized as the best all in one home gym on the market, the Life Fitness G7 can be found in corporate and hotel gyms across the country. It can also be found in quite a few home gyms.
Coming in at $2999 before you add a bench (the matching Life Fitness bench is priced at $449), it’s the highest-priced unit we’ll look at in this comparison. With dual 160 lb weight stacks, total resistance tops out at 320 lbs.
The G7 boasts at least 60 exercises and comes with a variety of accessories to facilitate them:
- One pair of medium handles
- Triangle clips/carabiners for traditional attachments
- Ankle strap
- Thigh strap
- Straight bar
- Exercise ball
- Exercise Book
- Training DVD
- Water bottle
- Integrated pull-up bar
The build quality of the G7 is top of the line. The fit and finish are some of the best out there, and the cable system feels butter smooth.
I’ve used the G7 quite a few times, and I like it better than the Bowflex options. But once you add a bench, you are almost up to $4k. That’s pretty much the same price as the Bowflex Revolution and $2500 more than the Xtreme SE!!!
I’ll tell you right now that the G7 is not $2500 better than the SE. But it is a LOT better. Personally, I’m not a fan of the SE simply because of the change in resistance across every movement I referenced earlier.
The Revolution doesn’t have this resistance issue, but you certainly pay a premium to have sets of springs simulate a stacked weight column’s feel. In my mind, at that point, why not just go for the stacked weights? Especially since they both offer virtually the same amount of top-end resistance.
The other deciding factor here is feel. The G7 simply feels better when using it. The resistance is more consistent. The positioning of the handles and pulley points is more conducive to the movements you are performing. And it’s just a whole lot more substantial feeling.
I also like that the bench is not attached on the G7. It gives you more freedom. With the Bowflex models, the bench is attached. That restricts some of the things you can do. You also can’t pull it out to use for other things like you can with the G7.
The Rep Fitness FT5000 Functional Trainer
220 lb weight stacks combine for a total of 440 lbs but with how the pulleys work, you are getting a working weight of 110 lbs per stack. At over 1000 lbs of total weight, it’s the most solid option we’ll discuss. The build quality and feel are on par with the Life Fitness unit.
The FT5000 is also the largest of all the units being compared here. But I think that’s a benefit. You simply have more room to work and maneuver with the FT5000. Pull-ups are more accessible, and there are more ways to do them than on any other machine discussed here.
The additional room gives you the space you need to do dynamic movements as well. This opens up a world of training options not available on the Bowflex models.
If you don’t have quite enough room for the FT5000, Rep makes a smaller, more compact, FT3000 model. This unit takes up a fair bit less space, has less resistance (a total of 360 lbs), and may fit better in an apartment or small room application.
One thing I wish was different about the FT5000 is that it only comes with one set of handles. Any other accessories, bars, etc. that you want need to be bought separately. This, like the G7, includes needing to add a bench.
Luckily, Rep makes some of the best benches on the market, so they have you covered if you decide to go this route.
One last point about the FT5000 (and even the G7) vs. the Bowflex models is their weight. Yes, they are bigger and beefier and better built. But they are also very heavy. Once set up, you aren’t going to be able to move them around. The Rep machine comes in at right around 1000 lbs once completely installed!
The best place to buy the FT5000 is from Rep Fitness directly. You can check out its full specs, current availability, and pricing here.
Bowflex model breakdown
Xtreme 2 SE
|Accessories included||Leg Developer|
5 Way Grips
|Leg Developer5 Way GripsDVD|
|Additional Accessories Available?||Y||Y|
|Pull up bar?||N||N|
|Total Resistance||210 lbs.|
Upgradable to 410 lbs
|220 lbs. Upgradable to 300 lbs|
|Approximate Room Needed to Use||8’ x 6.5’||10’ x 7’|
|Max User Weight||300 lbs||300 lbs|
|Total Weight||185 lbs||336 lbs|
|Warranty||7 years machineLifetime on Power Rods||10 years parts90 days labor|
|Best place to buy||BowFlex Direct||BowFlex Direct|
I’ve referenced the two Bowflex models several times, but more detail is needed. They are two very different units with vastly different performance and price tags. Here’s a quick breakdown…
Bowflex Xtreme 2 SE Home Gym
This is the newest version of the classic Bowflex with “power rod” technology. It has multiple sets of pulleys and cables that can be attached to one or more of these rods to provide resistance.
The rods don’t provide a consistent level of resistance across the movement. They are much lighter at the start and reach their full “weight” at the top of the concentric portion of your rep.
All exercises are done in an upright and seated position. Here are the highlights:
- It comes with 210 lbs. of resistance that can be upgraded to 410 lbs. with the addition of an extra weight kit.
- Capable of over 70 exercises
- Leg attachment
- Ab and curl attachment are optional
- 7-year warranty, lifetime on the rods themselves
- $1499 plus $170 in shipping
- $1850 with optional accessories and additional weight kit
The best place to buy the Bowflex Xtreme 2 SE is from Bowflex directly. You’ll get the best service there, and they usually offer some type of special financing to allow you to purchase on a budget.
Bowflex took a lot of heat from serious lifters when it comes to how their power rods provided resistance. It isn’t anything like lifting an actual weight. Their answer to that criticism is the Bowflex Revolution.
They use “SpiraFlex” resistance, which provides a much more consistent feel across the entire rep. This makes it a lot closer to lifting actual weights.
Here are the high points:
- Comes standard with 220 lbs. of resistance and is upgradable to 300 lbs.
- Capable of over 100 exercises
- Leg attachment
- Curl attachment
- No ab attachment available
- 10-year parts warranty, 90 days on labor
- $2899.00 plus $200 in shipping
The best place to buy the Bowflex Revolution is from Bowflex directly. You’ll get the best service there, and they usually offer some type of special financing to allow you to purchase on a budget.
So which one is the best?
For my money, free weights are still the best option. I fought this for the longest time. As I mentioned at the start of this article, I’ve owned TWO Bowflex gyms!!! I also did a good deal of kettlebell and bodyweight training before finally dipping my toe into free weights.
My only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner.
But as we’ve noted, free weights aren’t an option for everyone. Some people can’t get them due to space or budget constraints. Some people won’t get them for a variety of other reasons.
When free weights are off the table, one of the options you have is an all in one home gym, aka functional trainer. When you look at this type of equipment, you have two basic options.
The first is a traditional weight stack type machine. These have been around a very long time, and odds are if you’ve ever trained at a commercial gym, you’ve used one.
The second is a Bowflex. Their gyms are lighter and smaller than traditional functional trainers. They are more beginner-friendly. And they can be better suited to most people looking to start their fitness journey.
Between those two, here’s how to pick. Pick the one you would use the most. Honestly, either option, if used consistently, will produce results. It’s that consistency thing that will get you every time.
If you think you would use either one about the same and still can’t decide, honestly evaluate your goals. If your goals are to lose weight, get fit, and build a little bit of muscle, then the Bowflex is an excellent choice for you. Here’s a list of the customers that are perfect for a Bowflex home gym:
- People new to weight training
- People recovering from an injury (please consult your doctor first)
- People with a low level of starting strength
- People who are looking more to get in shape than to “get jacked”
- People who want something easy to use
- People with space constraints
- People in apartments
- People who need to be able to move their home gym around
If your goals include building anything more than just a little muscle, you want a functional trainer like the Rep Fitness FT5000. You’ll spend less money, and you’ll get better results. Here’s a list of customers that are perfect for a more traditional functional trainer:
- People who have some previous resistance training experience
- People looking to build muscle as a primary goal
- People concerned with the safety of lifting heavier weights alone at home
- People who have a dedicated gym space
- People looking to add to an existing free weight setup
As you can see, which one is best for you will depend on what you are looking for and your goals. Either can be exceptionally good for the right person.
They are both excellent options for people building a home gym and working up to free weights as well. Both can still serve a purpose in the training regimen of someone who has moved on to a barbell and power rack.
In the end, for the right person, a Bowflex is an amazingly good fitness option. If you go into it knowing what you are getting (and hopefully, this article has helped to show what that is), you’ll be happy with the product.