When a new and innovative piece of fitness equipment materializes in your gym, it’s not because the fitness fairy swooped in and swapped out the old 1980s universal gym machine with a modern Sorinex Base Camp Rack with all the trimmings. Someone had to develop the idea for the new piece of equipment — often out of thin air — and then perform a cost-benefit analysis to see if the development and distribution of that new item was feasible.
For the last 40 years, many of the best fitness ideas have come from the brains behind Sorinex, and that includes founder Richard “Pops” Sorin and his son Bert. Bridging from their backgrounds as strength athletes, this father-and-son tandem has created several of the concepts that are now universally featured in gyms all across the world.
So what is the process that begins with the merest germ of an idea and ends with a free-standing J-squat machine? I was recently able to track down Bert Sorin for some answers to this question and many more.
How did your family first get started developing and crafting fitness equipment?
My dad officially started it in 1980 with Sorin Exercise Equipment. Back in the 1960s when he was a teenager, he was building weightlifting equipment for his use, because he’s weight-trained since he was 12. He was building weightlifting equipment in the backyard back when he was a preteen. That carried him through high school. He got a scholarship to throw the discus at the University of South Carolina and moved there in 1968.
He built the first weight room at the University of South Carolina when he was a freshman because he wanted to weight train. That was when a lot of people thought training with weights would make you muscle-bound. He went out on his own and got sign offs. It was crazy for him as a freshman to be building a weight room at a major university, but they let him do it. He brought his personal stuff from New Jersey — borrowed a car, drove up, got his stuff and drove it back down — and he had the first weight room at the University of South Carolina.
He started Sorin Playgrounds in the mid- to late-1970s because he was a physical education teacher at an elementary school. His first true love was always strength, so instead of three jobs, he eventually went down to one. Sorin Exercise Equipment was his passion project that became a legitimate business.
In the early stages, was your father out to innovate, or was he primarily trying to supply what was expected?
My dad was innovating in a way because he was building equipment that he wanted. There weren’t really plate storage options on power racks at the time, or some of the adjustability and some of the benches and things like that. He’s a big, strong man. He’s 6-foot-5, and most of the equipment that was commercially available wasn’t made for big, strong athletes. Back then, all equipment was really fitness equipment and not necessarily strength equipment.
Dad said, “I want something more adjustable and safer for me to train on by myself. It needs to be stronger.” From a body standpoint, he was the prototypical professional athlete’s size and strength level, so he started building equipment for his stature, and he was at the budding of the era of professional strength training for colleges and pro teams. He was able to build bigger, stronger stuff, and his business was small enough that he could be reactionary and dynamic. He was able to deliver what the customers wanted.
How important is it to be innovative right now in the industry, and to not assume that everything of value that can be made has already been made?
It’s vital. Dad always said to look at things for not what they are, but what they could be. That includes people and means looking at potential, but it also means that a piece of equipment or an exercise can always be better. It can always be tweaked. You could always explore. I look at this as a strength adventure, where we’re always exploring the corners of what’s optimal and doable. Sorinex has made its name on innovation, primarily in the last 20 years.
Some of our innovations between 2007 and 2012 totally changed the face and direction of what every weight room in the world looks like. In 1999, we introduced the Landmine. Those are everywhere now, but they were never really meant to sell. That was meant for me to train with for the 2000 Olympic Trials in the hammer throw. That was my tool; that wasn’t for the world. A couple coaches saw it and asked, “What’s that?”
I can’t believe you didn’t say, “Hands off! Top secret!”
It’s one of those things where there’s a balance between having to pay the bills and wanting to put great things into the industry. That’s the idea: Birthing things that change the industry and become a time stamp in the industry that we love. In 2007 and 2008, it was the Rig system. The Rig that you see everywhere now in CrossFit is something I drew on a napkin in 2007. We brought it to the second CrossFit Games in 2008 and did a pilot launch there. Before that, there were only pull-up rigs, which were custom-welded things in place that were basically made of pipe and all kinds of other nonsense, and then people would buy squat stands.
So I sat down one day and said, “If you’re going to use all this steel for these pull-up things, why not have an upright every four feet with holes in all four directions so then you can turn it into a squat rack, a bench or anything that you want.” It supports itself and has adjustable plate storage. I basically drew out all the problems I saw in a CrossFit gym, and figured out how you could build a scalable solution that you could ship on a pallet anywhere in the world and have an infinitely customizable option by the customer, and that’s where the Rig came from.
The Base Camp Rack was the same year. That was the first time a rack had holes in all four sides of the rack, which turned things into accessories that you could use to accessorize a rack. I’ll equate that to when phones went from the Nextel-type thing to an iPhone, because all of the accessories became apps to your rack. I was in the industry for maybe 10 years at the time. I’d dealt over and over again with these big facilities and realized everyone wanted something custom. I would deal with a customer not knowing if they wanted a plate-storage pin 43 inches off the ground or 51.5 inches off the ground. That’s when I said, “Let’s just put holes everything. If we make everything fit in every hole, then people can change it at will as much as they want.”
It was so simple, but in my opinion, that’s one of those pieces that changed the face of what weight rooms look like and how they function. Now every place can be different based on training needs, personalities, aesthetic requirements and space. That allowed everything to be adaptable by the customer.
What’s the process for evaluating an idea to decide if it’s worthwhile?
A lot of times, you just dream up new pieces of equipment. Sometimes, your mind just kind of goes, “Oh… if that worked that way and folded this way, that would be a really interesting way to load that movement.” Sometimes we’ll go right to the drawing board and play with it on a white board or a piece of paper. Sometimes it will roll around in our minds for a few years until we’ve convinced ourselves that something is a good idea because it keeps popping up.
A few times, I’ve walked into a gym because I had to solve a problem, and bent a piece of cardboard around a rack with duct tape and made a prototype in 10 minutes just to see if it would work. Then I’ll walk into the shop and tell the guys, “Let’s draw it up in steel and let’s make a prototype.” It can be that fast.
Do you specifically look to make things that move in unique ways?
Can we make it and should we make it are sometimes two different things. Do you make a super expensive piece of equipment that does something that’s not that important or popular or that’s not really needed in strength training? That’s where I edit my thoughts in the moment and say, “That would be really cool, but all of seven people will buy one.” Why build a piece of equipment that could be expensive or time-consuming or hard to store?
I used to have a rule that, per square foot of floor space that a piece of equipment takes up, it needs to do at least one exercise per square foot. If a rack takes up 24 square feet, and I can’t do 24 different exercises on it, it’s a waste of space unless that exercise is so vital to my performance that I can’t live without it. If it’s the lower back, which is such a lynchpin of sports athletics, you’ll go niche because it’s so important. If it’s a pec fly that takes up 18 square feet, in my opinion it’s not worth the space unless I’m a professional bodybuilder and my niche depends on me having great-looking pecs to win.