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Pick up the pace: How the pandemic supercharged the evolution of exercise tech

What Peloton is to the exercise bike, JaxJox wants to be to the all-in-one home gym. In essence, it wants to take what was, to our great shame, a piece of exercise equipment you’d buy in a fit of renewed fitness enthusiasm and quickly forget about, and transform it into a piece of “must have” high-tech equipment as indispensable as an iPhone.

And why wouldn’t it? Since its founding in 2012, Peloton has risen to a market cap of somewhere north of $37 billion and a level of ubiquity that makes it, within fitness circles, what the Nest Thermostat is to home automation or the iPad is to entertainment tech: The product to aspire to be like. If JaxJox can capture a similar chunk of the market, it will be a game-changer.

While JaxJox promises a “360 fitness experience,” founder Stephen Owusu is most excited about the concept of connected strength tracking. In the gold rush to be able to measure and quantify every fitness activity under the sun, from jogging to swimming to cycling, nobody has yet managed to convincingly do strength tracking, he said.

“Everybody using a dumbbell today is just picking up a dumbbell, doing some repetitions counting in their head, and that’s it,” he told Digital Trends. “There is no dumbbell or kettlebell on the market, except from JaxJox, that can do strength tracking. It doesn’t exist.”


Like Peloton, JaxJox’s solution is a mixture of smart hardware and software. Over the past couple of years, the company has been (pun semi-intended) bulking up its brawny offerings. At CES 2019, it introduced its KettlebellConnect, a smart kettlebell packing a gyroscope, accelerometer and five different weights that can automatically attach to it through a clever automated locking system. It was followed by the Foam RollerConnect, a foam recovery gadget with an assortment of different vibration intensities.

Now, JaxJox is ready to make its big play: A full home gym setup boasting a 43-inch touch TV, foam roller, upgraded KettlebellConnect 2.0, and two new products, the DumbbellConnect and PushUpConnect.

The complete package, currently available to pre-order, promises to ship in December 2020, priced at $2,199, plus a $39 a month subscription fee. (If you’re not quite ready to make a commitment that big, the devices are available separately, and there’s a cheaper app subscription available.)

The gym is evolving

“If, a few years ago, you wanted to build your home gym, you’d have to buy a lot of pieces of equipment: Maybe three or five or eight different dumbbells, some kettlebells, a number of [other things],” Owusu said. “You’re going to need a ton of space. What this does is remove all of that. You don’t need a garage, you don’t need a whole lot of space to store everything you’re going to need. Our DumbbellConnect has 14 dumbbells in one unit. Our [KettlebellConnect] has got six kettlebells in one unit. Yet the footprint is like one product.”

On some level, of course, a kettlebell is a kettlebell is a kettlebell. And most of them cost a lot less than what JaxJox is asking. As neat as the idea of several different kettlebell weights in one may be, it’s not the big selling point. The real value proposition is in the software. This is what Owusu is convinced is going to make JaxJox a winner in a very competitive market. The future, he said, is all about offering users not just tracking, but also personalized recommendations.

“The JaxJox algorithm is built in such a way that it’s not just taking data from when you’re using the kettlebell or dumbbell,” Owusu said. “If you’re going for walks [or sleeping], it takes all that data and runs it through this highly personalized algorithm to be able to [generate] recommendations. We want to get to the level where we can say … based on your activities, the recommendation is to spend 20 minutes doing a high-intensity workout. [Or to say], today should be your rest day, don’t do any activity today.”

This data will form something called your Fitness IQ score, which will track users’ overall progress toward their fitness goals and offer the kind of personalized recommendations mentioned above. The formulation is based on some mix of peak and average power, heart rate, workout consistency, steps, body weight, and selected fitness level. Think of it like your Spotify profile — only with way more sweat expended along the way.

The Peloton model is most evident, however, from JaxJox’s plans to offer a range of videos that users can tune into, either live or on-demand. In August, the company moved into a new 10,000-square-foot studio in Redmond, Washington. This, Owusu noted, is also where Facebook and Microsoft have offices, leaving a breadcrumb trail that hints at future unicorn status (a privately held startup company valued at over $1 billion). From this new studio, it will stream multiple daily classes, which users will be able to join live with other subscribers, that cover everything from strength and cardio conditioning to proper recovery. There will also be an on-demand library of sessions with, Owusu claims, more than 140 new ones added each week.

The future of exercise

Owusu said that he does not expect gyms to die off, but JaxJox’s calculus is based on the fact that more and more of us will be exercising at home. The most recent trigger for this is, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. Coronavirus has changed lives in many ways, and the way that we exercise is certainly high among them. As locations where large numbers of people congregate and share equipment, gyms were temporarily shuttered early on in many parts of the world. At the same time, many people are now working from home, which means that they are likely also exercising at home. Add to that increased spending on subscription services, and the business model makes a lot of sense.

However, Owusu opined, coronavirus has not so much altered the way fitness is carried out, so much as it has hit the “fast-forward” button on it. “We had already started to see the trend with connected products,” he said. “What COVID did is just accelerate that. COVID pulled it forward, I would say, about three to five years. But we were already on a very significant growth curve in terms of this disruption.”


He is, of course, correct. Spending on connected health devices continues to skyrocket. But Owusu is also correct in an even more zoomed-out, big picture way than just the adoption of fitness trackers and similar connected devices.

Over time, exercise has, for many average people, transitioned from something that took place predominantly outside to something we do inside. At the risk of being the guy who draws red strings across a wall to connect events that don’t necessarily connect, it’s always struck me as curious that the rise of the consumer gym — the rarified, air-conditioned, inclusive places; not the spit-and-sawdust gyms of yesteryear — arose in the 1980s, alongside the rise of the personal computer.

While the graphical user interface took, as its basis, the objects and actions we carried out in offices and translated them into the digital realm, so a new generation of fitness machines took real-world actions (running, cycling, climbing stairs), removed the utility, and reduced the movements to abstract gestures designed to sculpt the body.

Electric dreams of fitness

In the communication scholar Ted Friedman’s excellent 2005 book Electric Dreams: Computers in American Culture, he discusses the iconic, Ridley Scott-directed Apple ad that accompanied the 1984 launch of Apple’s iconic Macintosh (now commonly abbreviated to Mac). In the ad, a woman dressed in running shorts, sneakers, and a tank top disrupts a monochrome dystopia in which rows of mindless drones sit transfixed by a giant screen. The woman, a real-life model and former discus thrower, hurls a sledgehammer at the screen, which explodes, metaphorically freeing the drones.

Compared with the other figures in the ad, Friedman suggests, the running woman appears at first to represent the body freed from technology. But not so. Friedman writes: “[She’s] an example of the new kind of athletic ideal which emerged in the 1980s: The athlete who employs Nautilus, Stairmaster, and other technologies of exercise to hone the body to perfection.” This woman is a cyborg, too, but the “flip side of the cyborg nightmare.” Instead of the technology wearing her, she wears the technology.


As opposite as the worlds of tech and fitness might outwardly seem, it’s no wonder that they would therefore eventually collide. The image of the body as a machine, the obsession with putting up numbers, all of it sits very comfortably together. The irony, if such a thing applies here, is that technology has made it possible for us to carry out untold productivity tasks without moving from our desks. Now the answer to that is more technology, whether an Apple Watch telling us to stand up and move around at regular intervals, or a display screen that leads us through exercise.

It’s a strange new world of fitness, to be sure. But make no mistake about it: This is the future.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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