Bowflex Max Trainer M5 Review: Connected, Intense Exercise In A Relatively Compact Package

A blogger’s life is not the most active lifestyle possible for a human; tech bloggers probably get the most exercise walking to and from the post office to retrieve packages they missed at home or to ship things back out. If you don’t have a standing desk, you probably barely even rise out of your seat at a job where the Internet is your main medium, source and subject. The chance to review the Bowflex MAX Trainer M5 was, therefore, both tantalizing and terrifying in equal measure.

Bowflex has gone high-tech with its home gym line, and the Max Trainer M5 boasts smartphone and heart rate monitor connectivity that use Bluetooth LE to communicate with your device, so that you can ditch the pencil and paper to keep track of your progress (or lack thereof). The M5 is the top-of-the-line MAX trainer, too so it also packs a fancy display, heart rate target zone monitoring, and its own contact heart-rate monitor in the box, in addition to the company’s unique exercise action, which is low-impact like ellipticals for an easier overall time for your joints, while also providing more efficiency for a higher caloric burn rate over the same period of time in use.

The Max M5 has a high-end pricetag to match its feature list – it’s available for $1,599 right now direct from the manufacturer. But it has a lot of advantages vs., for example, a gym membership, especially for the soft-bodied bloggers out there like myself. The first is that it’s remarkably small in terms of its overall footprint, which is is surprising if you check it out online and even when you see the pictures of it installe din a space. My review unit was delivered by two friendly guys who doubted it could make it through my very narrow entrance hallway (which is split between my place and my upstairs neighbor), but it managed to navigate the corridor without much effort.

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It also takes up just a small corner of my office, leaving plenty of room for two desks and a modest home entertainment unit. It’s smaller than a treadmill, and most of the space it does take up is vertical. Plus, it doesn’t suffer from the kind of footfall impact that can make using treadmills in apartments or second-floor dwellings a major no-no.

Which is all well and good, but how well does it actually work? As with any exercise product, it’s hard to tell the hype from the reality with Bowflex, and years of infomercials of toned 50-somethings doesn’t help. But practically speaking, having switched from a daily 5K running routine to a daily Bowflex MAX Trainer workout, I’ve noticed no significant change in weight (maintenance was my goal) and if anything, more toned musculature, especially through the core. The action is reminiscent of an elliptical machine, but feels also somewhat like a stair-climber, and wore me out surprisingly quickly, with ample variation between low- and high-intensity settings.

The M5 gets your upper body involved in the workout, as you can generate a lot of force with your arms, chest and core through the handles in addition to the steps. I could definitely feel the effects, but I was really surprised by how much my legs felt weak after each workout, which was a good thing. My body is likely accustomed to running, but generally all I feel now after my daily outing around the local outdoor track is joint pain, whereas the M5 resulted in the kind of post-workout burn and general weakness that indicates actual progress.

Bowflex’s app for tracking your history and viewing your workout progress isn’t the best thing in the world, and it’s clear they were focused on providing an interface that resembled the on-device workout gauge more than anything else. But it works, and it captures your workout results via seamless syncing in my experience after a painless initial setup process. It’s nice that it can sync workout data back to MyFitnessPal, but I’d like to see the company go further and build a way to output this data to Health and other apps via HealthKit, but I’m not holding my breath, as the connected aspect of this hardware seems like a nice-to-have add-on, rather than a core feature.

Overall, though, Bowflex has built a workout machine that’s well-built and designed with potentially tight spaces in mind. It’s a workout that won’t necessarily replace a whole home gym, but will provide you with some much-needed cardio in the cold winter months, or if you prefer preserving your knees, hips and ankles from frequent runs. $1,600 is a lot to pay for a piece of equipment, but it almost pays for itself after a year of use compared to a gym membership in a metro area, if you’re just after a demanding physical activity that gets you out of the office chair or off the sofa for a few minutes each day. Given the usual vigors of the blogger lifestyle, that’s a service that could prove life-saving over the long-term.