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.

Advertisement

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.

The ad, produced by Wieden+Kennedy, looks nothing like the infomercials we know today—no rictus grins, no flashy wipes, no incredulous shouting. It opens on a Bill Gates-looking adolescent, flexing anemically in his bedroom mirror and struggling to perform seven push-ups.

"There's a promise we all made to ourselves a long time ago. But not many of us kept it," the announcer intones, as the scene shifts to a shirtless man approaching a Soloflex machine. "Actually, it's not such a hard promise to keep. Not anymore. All you need are three things: knowledge, desire, and the right equipment. … This is Soloflex. A revolutionary machine you can use at home."

The ad made home fitness seem easy, and it made Soloflex a hit. Wilson writes that the company went from losing money in 1986 to clearing $54 million in pre-tax profits in 1988; since then, he told me, the company has spent $175 million on cable television buys and sold about $1 billion worth of equipment. Of course, most of those machines ended up as expensive towel racks: "The vast majority of people who bought them didn't continue to use them," Wilson told me. Even so, people kept ordering the machines, fueled by late-night dreams that they could have a body like the company's shirtless, chest-hairless spokesmodel Scott Madsen. (Madsen, a gymnast who was called "genetically perfect" in the Washington Post, eventually released a book of action photographs called the Scott Madsen Poster Book. "After nearly 20 years the Scott Madsen Poster Book is still the best erotic photgraohy (sic) book every (sic) published," writes the lone Amazon reviewer. "This book deserves 6 out of 5 stars.")

More iterations of Soloflex followed, as did more infomercials, and Wilson became a rich man. A host of imitators soon appeared, parroting Soloflex's marketing and iconography. "It is a bit grating when people say to me, 'Hey, you're the Bowflex guy, aren't you?' " he writes. Wilson made a pastime of suing these companies, and the lawsuits made him still richer. (Bowflex settled with Wilson for $8 million; NordicTrack settled for $18.5 million and soon thereafter filed for bankruptcy.) By the mid-1990s, Soloflex was regularly running Super Bowl ads, exhorting viewers to pick up the phone and dial the company's toll-free number, 1-800-MUSCLES.

Wilson used his Soloflex fortune to dabble in other pursuits. In 1992, he financed a ballot initiative to shutter a nuclear power plant near Portland, Ore. Last year, he launched a third-party gubernatorial bid in the state. On his campaign Web site, viva-la-revolucion.org, Wilson pushed to establish a state bank, reform campaign finance laws, and legalize the manufacture and sale of hemp. "What about the feds?" he asked. "Well, they can kiss our bootlegging ass. The right to plant is primordial, pre-constitutional, and inviolate." As a write-in candidate, he received fewer than 3,300 votes.

Although it no longer runs print ads or televised infomercials—Madsen, the original spokesmodel, was recently sentenced to two years in federal prison for embezzling almost $248,000 from a financial services firm—the company continues to produce Soloflex machines, as well as other fitness products. These workout gizmos include the Whole Body Vibration Platform, a vibrating bench intended for use by exercise novices and the extremely sedentary. A couple of years ago, the company reintroduced Wilson's first Soloflex design, dubbing it the Retro Soloflex Muscle Machine; it now retails for $1,250. "I spent 20 years trying to improve on the first Soloflex, and I spent 20 years trying to improve on the first infomercial," the 67-year-old Wilson told me. "But I never did better than my first ones."

In recent years, Soloflex has been eclipsed in popularity by other, more au courant devices that loudly tout their new fitness innovations and bargain-basement prices. (The Ab Flyer, for instance, promises that its patented "Reverse Arc Motion" technology will "give you incredible abs faster than you ever thought possible"—for only $14.95 up front.) These products use the basic Soloflex ad template—product demonstrations by toned athletes, with the implicit promise that their sculpted bodies might one day be yours—but they have little else in common with Wilson's brainchild.

Two years ago, in the comments section of a blog called Male Pattern Fitness, Wilson wrote that he could've moved production of the Soloflex to China, allowing him to build a cheaper exercise machine to compete with his lower-cost rivals. The Soloflex inventor explained, however, that he would "rather quit business than ship jobs offshore." The result, he wrote: "Soloflex is still here, albeit much smaller. Fine with me."

Also in Slate's Fitness Issue: Elizabeth Weingarten flexes her cheeks and winks creepily to see if face exercises really work, Torie Bosch searches for a fat-girl-friendly exercise DVD, our handy flowchart helps you navigate awkward, naked gym situations, and Annie Lowrey investigates P90X, CrossFit, and the rise of "extreme" exercise programs.

Like Slate on
Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.