Review: Bowflex Max Trainer M5

The treadmill was born of man’s desire to keep his lazy carcass in shape when the elements won’t permit. Then came the stair-stepper and elliptical, machines born of man’s desire to keep from ripping his knees to shreds on the treadmill.

The Bowflex Max Trainer M5 is about 70 percent stair-stepper, 25 percent elliptical, and five percent torture—but mostly in a good way. It’s definitely one of the most attractive home-exercise machines you’ll ever see, and there’s no question it can give you a solid workout. Plus, it’s smartphone-savvy, syncing your workouts to a tracking app or Apple’s Health Kit. But certain aspects of the design will leave you wondering if anyone at Bowflex actually tested the machine before sending the CAD files to the factory.

It’s definitely a beaut, a monolithic slab of arms and pistons decked out with striking red trim and what looks like a jet turbine at its base. Turns out it’s a fan—one that produces less noise than a jet, but definitely drowns out the TV as you pedal faster.

That’s once you get it assembled, of course. Conveniently labeled parts and a well-written manual make for a fairly painless build, but it’s gonna take an hour, minimum. When you’re done, you can stick it nearly anywhere thanks to its measly 46-inch-long footprint. But you’ll have to hug a wall unless you run an extension cord to the M5’s annoyingly short power cord.

Climbing atop the machine feels like, well, climbing atop a machine. At either pedal’s apex, you’re a good 15 inches from the floor. Bowflex supplies admirably large steppers, but I found the machine difficult to get started unless I leaned heavily on the outer edge of the highest one. Motors control the resistance, but not the motion, so there’s no startup assist.

The M5’s control panel sits front and center, as you’d expect, but its digital display-cum-speedometer resides behind it. There’s a cup-holder, but it’s even further back—in other words, way out toward the front of the machine. That makes for an awkward reach. Meanwhile, the display has a protruding lip for resting a tablet, but doing so blocks all the information you need to see during your workout.

Perhaps this arrangement was a necessary concession to the M5’s svelte footprint, but why didn’t Bowflex combine the control panel and display into a single unit? That would have left room for a dedicated tablet stand that wouldn’t obscure the display.

On the other hand, the M5’s claim to fame is its 14-minute workout, which Bowflex claims will burn 2.5 times the calories of an elliptical and roughly 1.5 times what you’re burning on a treadmill. So if you’re on the thing for just 14 minutes, who needs a tablet anyway? (Even the water bottle feels optional.)

The machine can sync your workout stats to Bowflex’s Max Trainer app. It presents a summary of your overall accomplishments and breaks down individual workouts with data like average heart rate and calories burned.

Good news: That 14-minute workout feels great. It’s really nothing more than your average Insanity-style interval training, in which you pump hard for nearly half a minute, then slow up for around 90 seconds. Wash, rinse, repeat until it’s over. And it’s kind of fun chasing the analog speedometer, which uses LEDs to indicate your speed relative to the needle.

My only objection is the workout forces you to start at top speed, instead of giving you even a minute of warmup. Guess you can do that yourself before pressing the MAX button, which is all it takes to launch the 14-minute session, but you won’t get “credit” for it, calorie-wise.

The M5 offers seven other workout options as well, along with a manual mode. It has 16 resistance levels, meaning it caters nicely to the woefully out-of-shape and the fitness-mag cover model alike. However, for such a seemingly simple machine, the controls are a bit unintuitive for customizing various aspects of your workout (like session time).

For those interested in the quantified self, the machine can sync your workout stats via Bluetooth to Bowflex’s Max Trainer app, which is available for Android and iOS. It presents a nice summary of your overall accomplishments and breaks down individual workouts with data like average heart rate and calories burned. Late-model iPhone owners can also sync with Apple’s Health app—nice if you want to mix your M5 activities into your big-picture data. Unfortunately, the machine supports only two user profiles, so tough luck if you’re hoping to quantify everyone in the family.

The Max Trainer M5 is a beautiful exercise machine marred by some questionable design decisions—not the least of which is the noise it produces during its highly touted 14-minute workout. But a workout you will get, and with none of the impact of treadmill. Despite its flaws, I find myself climbing aboard on a regular basis. Isn’t that the whole idea?

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