Soloflex, Jerry Lee Wilson: A pilot, a shirtless spokesmodel, and a transformational home-fitness device.

The business, culture, and science of working out.
Jan. 20 2011 3:18 PM

How the Soloflex Changed America

The story of a pilot, a shirtless spokesmodel, and a transformational home-fitness device.

See the rest of Slate's Fitness Issue.

Soloflex machine.
Soloflex, 1978 model

If late-night television commercials are to be believed, America's soft-bodied sofa dwellers dream primarily of three things: owning a knife that can cut through a penny; obtaining cash for gold; and building their muscles with a minimum of time, money, and effort. Of these three dreams, the last appears to be the most pressing. Today, gullible endomorphs can choose from dozens of fitness miracles: the Total Gym, which is endorsed by Chuck Norris; the Ab Flyer, an expensive swing that tones your midsection; the Thigh Glider, which turns leg-spreading into an exciting workout; and the Flex Belt, which uses electronic stimulation to shock your abdomen into six-pack shape.

Twenty-five years ago, though, a single home-fitness product ruled the airwaves: Soloflex. The first comprehensive home-exercise device marketed to a mass audience, Soloflex broke ground with its unique design, which promised users a safe way to build their bodies at home; its magazine ads, featuring close-up photographs of chiseled torsos and abdomens; and its infomercials, which brought those torsos and abdomens to life. Although Soloflex no longer paces the home exercise market, it paved the way for all the Ab Flyers and Thigh Gliders to come and changed the way we think about building our bodies.

Bulging muscles first beguiled mainstream America in the 1940s, when Charles Atlas started advertising his wares in comic books. For the price of a stamp, a 97-pound weakling could send away for advice from "The World's Most Perfectly Developed Man." "Sick and tired of being soft, frail, skinny, or flabby—only HALF ALIVE?" Atlas inquired of his potential customers. His promise: "I can build up YOUR body … without weights, springs, or pulleys." America's underdeveloped adolescents responded en masse, intoxicated by the idea that they might one day become the heroes of the beach.

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In the 1970s, as recreational jogging became popular and Pumping Iron made Arnold Schwarzenegger a star,an airplane pilot named Jerry Lee Wilson sensed an opportunity. Wilson was nobody's idea of a fitness buff—he just wanted to get rich. In his extraordinarily entertaining 2009 self-published autobiography, The Soloflex Story, Wilson says very little about working out. Rather, he writes about regularly chancing death flying the overnight airmail in old Beechcraft Super 18s; serving time in a Colombian prison; and palling around Las Vegas with the notorious Chagra brothers, two of whom served time for complicity in the 1979 assassination of federal Judge "Maximum" John Wood. The book, which bears a dedication to "The Statute of Limitations," opens with Wilson jailed in Oklahoma, facing a $500,000 bail for "flying in the largest load of pot in history." Take that, Charles Atlas! (If this sounds enticing, you can download The Soloflex Story for free in PDF format. Wilson says the book took him only 10 hours to write; you should be able to polish it off in 90 minutes.)

Back to the Soloflex: After several of his wealthy charter jet passengers told him that there was real money to be made in manufacturing, Wilson started looking for something to manufacture. "I didn't have enough money to do a focus group, but I figured I was a lot more like everyone else than I was dissimilar. And I needed a safe way to do barbell exercises at home," he told me in a recent phone interview. In The Soloflex Story, he recounts his eureka moment, which came while taxiing to the runway at LAX: "If I could figure out a small machine so people could lift weights at home without getting maimed, I bet I'd sell a million of them!" Wilson sketched out some designs, traded a .22 pistol for some leftover steel, and learned rudimentary metalworking techniques. A little more than a year later, in 1976, he had built the first Soloflex.

Soloflex was slim, streamlined, and inexpensive, built to blend into the home. Unlike expensive Universal or Nautilus machines, which were most often found in professional gymnasiums, Wilson's machine didn't require free-weight plates. Instead, it employed heavy-duty rubber bands—"shock rings"—which offered varying levels of resistance. You could use the machine to work your back, your pecs, your arms, and your legs. With a few modifications, you could also use it to brew beer.

Jerry Wilson inventer of the Soloflex.
Jerry Wilson, inventor of the Soloflex

After failing to interest retail distributors in the Soloflex, Wilson took his machine directly to the people. "I knew that I didn't want to have ads like I've always seen in Outdoor Life or Spider-Man—goons with water hoses for veins, getting strong so that they could crush somebody," he told me. Rather, he believed that the Soloflex man "should look like what a human being should look like." Wilson's homemade ad campaign centered around gleaming muscle shots, with captions like "The Chest" and "The Stomach." "Displaying a beautifully proportioned naked male upper body in a national magazine had never been done before," he writes. The ads worked—in 1978, the year of the first national Soloflex campaign, Wilson had to menace his factory employees with a shotgun in order to meet the demand for the $450 machine.

In the next few years, ad prices rose, sales fell, and the company began to lose money. It wasn't until 1984, when the Cable Communications Policy Act legalized the infomercial, that everything started coming up Soloflex. "My notion was I could basically give the equivalent of a Hoover vacuum cleaner demonstration," Wilson told me. With the 30 minutes of uninterrupted sales time that an infomercial afforded, the inventor figured he'd be able to show people how his machine worked, convince them that it got results, and leave them lusting for one of their own. Wilson gave cable systems across the nation an existing ad that had already been produced for video cassette distribution—the first program-length infomercial.

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