Article Thumbnail

The Dystopian Future of Extremely Expensive Fitness Equipment

Strength training was supposed to be for everyone — but now we're getting priced out

I’ve covered a couple of Arnold Classics over the past decade, and in each successive year, one fitness equipment brand name looms ever larger: Rogue Fitness. This year, Rogue rolled out one of the craziest contraptions in recent history — the “Wheel of Pain,” a faux-medieval torture device the ginormous competitors in the Arnold Strongman were required to push in a circle. The thing was massive, a real fitness equipment tour de force, an item so expensive, awesome-looking and impractical that no gym could contain it. Rogue, this monstrosity seemingly announced, wasn’t here to take part; they were here to take over.

And they have indeed taken over — in a very big way, too. Not just the Arnold Classic either, but CrossFit, powerlifting and now the sport of strongman as well. Need to buy a ready-made CrossFit “box” (i.e., gym) setup? Rogue sells those. Need a “Westside Barbell” bench press, made in conjunction with one of the country’s best powerlifting gyms? They’ve got that, too. But Rogue hasn’t stopped there: Earlier this year, they literally trademarked the term “Strongman” as it applied to their barbells, sleds, grip training tools, sandbags and other equipment.

In other words, the company trademarked a word — Strongman — that had been sitting there, unused, in the public domain for years. A word that was attached to hundreds of products made by dozens of companies, including some homemade and handmade specialty sets, all competing to be at the top of Google searches for terms like “strongman stone” and “strongman log.”

Let me disclose this right away: Rogue makes good products. In fact, most of my basement gym consists of Rogue equipment, from the Thompson fat pad-backed bench to the trap bar to the squat rack. But the real strongman community, having watched as Rogue used its clout to squeeze out other companies of CrossFit and powerlifting equipment, have been sounding alarm bells.

As such, Kalle Beck, who runs the popular “Starting Strongman” group on Facebook, reached out to Rogue CEO Bill Henniger. While conceding that Henninger could conceivably buy the entire sport of strongman as easily as he bought this heretofore-unclaimed trademark, Beck demanded to know what his intentions were. “Long story short, I see the concern and don’t want it to be one,” Henniger wrote back. “Any threat [of using the trademark that way] was killed so that the community doesn’t have to worry about it.”

Calum Liptrot, a co-founder of the much smaller competitor Cerberus Fitness, isn’t persuaded by Henniger’s attempted reassurance and instead puts the matter in stark terms. “Rogue has already maxed out the value of a saturated market for CrossFit and powerlifting products,” he says. “And now, it could be argued that they’re trying to buy the entire sport of strongman, up to its showcase ‘World’s Strongest Man’ television event. Their trademark is limited to equipment, but there’s nothing to stop them from going ahead and taking the next steps, literally taking over the entire field. Imagine the NFL owned exclusively by Nike.”

In other words, while we fitness enthusiasts are all oohing and aahing over that cool new “Wheel of Pain” and how much fitness information and amazing — albeit expensive — equipment is now available, we need to recognize that there’s a Microsoft-sized monopoly growing behind the scenes. Basically, Rogue is reinvesting the proceeds of its fitness takeover by making beautifully-shot Netflix documentaries about stone lifting and strongmen, emblazoning its logo on tight black T-shirts worn by sponsored athletes like Game of Thrones star Hafþór Björnsson, and gobbling up trademarks, and perhaps more significantly for competing equipment companies, design patents that allow them to go to court to stop the manufacture of products too similar to their own.

“This is a very big deal for consumers,” says economist and business analyst Ben Labe. “There’s a tremendous amount of consolidation in the fitness world, from Instagram influencers to equipment companies to supplement manufacturers. Fitness is more visible because of these stakeholders, who are relying on ‘extremely online’ marketing strategies to get their brand names out there, but the result is that nearly all the profits are flowing up to the 1 percent of brands in that market. And as these brands accumulate more money, they can do the economically rational thing by spending money to stifle choice and competition, which is what buying all these patents and all this IP is really about. Meanwhile, what does the mainstream media do? Magazines like Popular Science write articles about the amazing science behind Rogue’s deadlift bar, and nobody questions their shady business practices.”

Molly Metz, a jump-rope champion, got a firsthand taste of this cutthroat marketplace when she began selling her special brand of speed rope through Rogue’s website in 2008. She had patented her speed rope before signing on, but became alarmed when she saw Rogue starting to advertise a seemingly equivalent speed rope via its social media and YouTube accounts. When confronted, Henniger, who had assured the strongman community he meant no harm, said “we are not in the business of violating patents and if there is a patent issue we will certainly address it.”

Metz, hardly a deep pocket like Rogue and its millions of dollars in annual revenue, responded by suing the company. That litigation remains ongoing, and while it continues, Rogue — “not in the business of violating patents,” per its CEO — has been aggressively attempting to enforce its own. “Rogue sent our U.S. distributor a cease-and-desist letter when we attempted to distribute our Throwing Sandbags,” says Liptrot. “They had obtained a ‘utility’ patent for a cylindrical sandbag from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and our bags were also cylindrical, so that was that. Their patent likely wouldn’t have been granted in Europe, where we’re based, but a threatening letter from a lawyer was enough to shut down the sale of these items in the U.S. before we even launched them.”

“This is business 101 — it’s a lot cheaper to lock down a relatively small market than to keep innovating products to try to expand it,” explains Labe. “I’m not saying Rogue isn’t making a quality product, because I’m not qualified to judge that. But I do think it’s smart, if not particularly ethical, to try to buy up the entire field. If you look at their first big expansion, they cut deals with all these CrossFit athletes. That sport was really growing in the early 2010s. Then they seemed to partner up with the handful of players in powerlifting. Now there’s the field of strongman competitors.

“Honestly, this is all probably pretty cheap for them to do. It’s still a niche market, and if you have even a little bit of money, you can corner it and raise the costs on the stuff you’re selling to a captive audience. As visible as the fitness world is today thanks to social media, we’re talking millions here, not billions. So there’s some major consolidation going on. All the work in fitness is converging, and for the main players, it seems like it’s a matter of locking down this money while it’s still in play, every last cent.”

Liptrot concedes that Rogue has made some shrewd business moves, but he worries about its long-term effects on the sport. “I quit a good-paying IT job to help launch Cerberus,” he says. “My goal wasn’t to get rich. It was to provide gear that supports this community. Cerberus has helped sponsor athletes and donated equipment to strongman competitions, but I never foresaw a world of these enormous prizes for strongman victories. Strongman was a hobby; it wasn’t something where you eked out narrow wins over and over again in this kind of mercenary, professionalized way each year because it was your full-time job. No, it was something you participated in because you wanted to see how strong you were, to see if you had the right stuff. Now, though, to even get your lifting gear approved by a major powerlifting body, you’ve got to hand over hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s astonishing.”

Long-time strongman competitor Vanessa Adams believes that Cerberus, at least in her opinion, sells the right stuff. “They make better equipment than Rogue at a better price point, and Rogue went after them when their sandbags were used to great effect in a competition,” she tells me. “It’s not a ‘Big Mac’ unless McDonald’s sells it, but at least McDonald’s has some claim to inventing that thing, to giving it that name before other people started calling the sandwich by that name. Meanwhile, it’s not a ‘Strongman’ sandbag unless Rogue sells it, even though people like me have been calling various types of equipment used in strongman competitions ‘strongman’ for our entire lives.”

Labe takes a long view of these market shifts: “Whenever some kind of fad goes mainstream, the initial flurry of excitement is followed by people commodifying the heck out of whatever products are created. What may have begun as an underground thing — some activity undertaken only by a few oddballs and outsiders — is suddenly mass-produced, effectively marketed and put in the hands of the many. Pretty soon every hipster has a Rogue bench or sandbag, and at that point, the original community and whatever virtues it possessed is irrevocably lost.

“What once might have been someone’s fun little second life, with some dirty muscle magazines hidden under the mattress and a dumbbell under the bed, has now become a corporation’s way of making a good living. A couple key players carve up the market, and the rest of us wonder about what might have been.”

And so, the “Wheel of Pain” keeps turning, pushed further into the future by the fitness influencers and moguls with the money and power to ensure it remains in motion.