Rule One for equipping an upmarket, rehab-oriented gym: quality trumps attractive pricing.

Exercise trainer Susan Tobiessen adhered to this dictum since the day two decades ago when her women’s fitness center debuted in the hyper-affluent city of Newport Beach, Calif—and, for standing firm on that point, the facility has been rewarded with a degree of growth and stature she never imagined.

“We cater to a monied clientele, and, as such, when they utilize a service, they expect to receive the very finest—so you can’t cut corners and think you’re going to succeed,” says Tobiessen, whose gym—Body Design—started in a humble 900-square-foot studio and now occupies 7,800 square feet of glass-encased penthouse space atop a theater complex with a splendid view of the Pacific Ocean. “Had we set up our multispecialty gym with anything less than top-of-the-line equipment, it would not have met client expectations. Instead, by outfitting only with the best, we set the stage for clients to more easily achieve the results they want so they end up having greater satisfaction with their Body Design experience. That translates into more growth for the gym.”

Another reason Tobiessen put quality ahead of price in her equipment acquisition decision-making was to reduce long-term costs. She theorized that choosing premium strengthening and conditioning, cardiovascular, circuit training, and Pilates systems would ensure fewer equipment problems and thus save money by minimizing the need for expensive repairs while at the same time extending the useful service life of those machines (thereby reducing the need to replace them as frequently).


Body Design—which moved into its current home in late 2004—was established as a place where women who had completed formal postoperative or postinjury rehab could continue working out under the watchful eye of clinical professionals whose responsibility it would be to help them avoid injury or reinjury. Indeed, part of the allure of Body Design today is the presence of more than a dozen skilled specialists in physical therapy, exercise training, therapeutic massage, and related services (the physical therapy component is provided through a subcontractor, Total Body Rehabilitation, which is owned by Amy Fischer, PT).

These practitioners work throughout the facility, which is divided into six major sections. One of the largest is the weight room. Found within its confines is an extensive, gleaming array of dumbbells, barbells, benches, and weight machines. However, for truly state-of-the-art equipment, one must stroll over to the nearby cardiovascular training room, which has the latest in recumbent bikes, elliptical trainers, and treadmills.

Then there is the Pilates studio. This area is outfitted with eight reformers and a pair of trapeze tables. Recently added was equipment to support Gyrotonic® workouts. “Gyrotonic is a low-impact expansion system that can be practiced by everyone regardless of age or fitness capability,” explains Tobiessen, who holds certification in Gyrotonic, as well as Polestar Pilates. “Gyrotonic increases flexibility and range of motion dramatically as it tones and strengthens the body. Gyrotonic exercise is not linear but is in fact multidimensional—it smoothly reverts back and forth from contraction to expansion to release joints and ligaments from muscular constriction while strengthening surrounding tissue. In conjunction with this, a special method of harmonized breathing aligned with fluid movement takes the body through a complete and full range of motion. The equipment we use for that purpose allows us to unweight body joints, but it works on strengthening as well as the elongation of the spine and the core. We can work all of the different muscle structures above and below that without injury.”

Elsewhere in the facility is a physical therapy room—three of them, actually. The main one features an ultrasound machine, an electromuscle stimulation unit, and an icing system. The other two are smaller, private rooms, each with a reformer, a weight machine, and an assortment of Pilates equipment.

Adjacent to the shower room is an area set up for Endermologie and other minor cosmetic procedures including laser hair removal and electrolysis.


Susan McGibben (left) demonstrates a muscle-strengthening technique with Kathleen Miller in a workout room overlooking the city of Newport Beach, Calif.

Because Body Design was—and for the most part remains—a women’s gym (the doors were not long ago opened to male participation in a few of the programs), some of the strengthening and conditioning pieces had to be customized so that the female clientele could use that equipment in an optimal manner.

“When I first started Body Design, I thought we would be able to go with standard weight machines, but I quickly discovered that those units were not really designed for the woman who has been through rehab and who still needs to proceed cautiously while working out,” says Tobiessen.

One problem with those machines was their weight stacks—they were factory-configured to allow the user to increase the poundage in increments double that which Body Design patrons could safely handle, given their muscle and bone-structure capabilities. Says Tobiessen, “The manufacturer solved this by giving us machines with only 5-pound plates in the stack rather than the standard 10-pound plates.”

She also convinced the manufacturer to modify the machines’ benches by giving them more appropriate adjustability for women, whose arms, legs, and torsos are generally shorter than those of men. This minor tweak made a world of difference—it spared Body Design clients the need to habitually scoot forward or use back enhancements. “By being able to have proper, unaided leg positioning, our clients were far less vulnerable to injury when performing inner-outer thigh work or abductions,” Tobiessen notes.


It took Tobiessen about 3 weeks to shop for the equipment she needed to fill her new facility. However, before making any final decisions about what to buy, she and her staff gave each candidate item a thorough testing to gauge ease of use, comfort, and efficacy potential, as well as to discern whether operating parts moved with precision.

Body Design’s particular focus spurred Tobiessen to concentrate on equipment that would most strongly support the physical therapy and exercise therapy missions of the gym. To do that, she ended up buying from multiple sources, since no single supplier offered everything she wanted in the way of rehab-oriented features and capabilities. She recounts, “I liked [one total fitness solution company’s] strength products because they work on both eccentric and concentric contractions of the muscle tissue. Also, their products are very versatile. On the other hand, I liked [an internationally known strength equipment company’s] systems for adduction-abduction work—and they offered a great total-hip system.

“Meanwhile, I liked [a Louisiana-based company’s] weight machine’s positioning system for seated leg-press work—it didn’t put pressure on the user’s back. I also liked their leg extension machine and leg curl machine because of the positions they put the body in—again less pressure on the back, but also less pressure on the knee joints.”

Not all of the equipment acquired for the gym was outright purchased. “The cardiovascular gear is leased—and I opted for that for the reason that new and better technology in cardio equipment comes out so frequently that it makes more sense to lease than buy so I can more easily exchange the older items for new,” Tobiessen says, mentioning in passing that the total value of the equipment throughout Body Design stands at around $300,000.


Before making any equipment acquisition decisions, Tobiessen solicited input from the Body Design staff, since they would be the ones daily involved with clients using whatever pieces were brought aboard.

Fischer, the owner of the PT practice, told Tobiessen that a principal criterion for equipment selection ought to be machine stability. “If there’s good stability, when the patient is on the equipment—a reformer, for instance—she will get the best range of motion while staying safe and comfortable,” Fischer tells. “For a machine to be stable, its lever arms and focal points must all be in the right position. If they’re not, then they should be adjustable to get them there.”

After choosing the equipment, Tobiessen next needed to decide where in the gym everything would be placed. For help with this part of the process, she turned to an interior-designer friend. Together, they measured the footprint of each piece of equipment, traced those onto construction paper, and cut them out to make full-scale representations showing how much space the machines would use. Laying the cutouts on the floor of each room, Tobiessen and her friend were able to experiment with different deployment configurations until they arrived at an arrangement they deemed most conducive to user comfort and flow from machine to machine.

Part and parcel to this process, Tobiessen also took into account the weight of each piece of equipment. This led her to decide that the weight room should be established in the middle of the facility, the section where the floor had the strongest architectural reinforcement and soundproofing (advisable, since the weight machines were the heaviest—and noisiest—pieces of equipment). The Gyrotonic hardware, on the other hand, seemed a natural fit for the room that came with a mirror-like polished copper ceiling. “A lot of Gyrotonic activities are done in a supine position, so we figured the women would benefit from being able to observe themselves in the reflections off the ceiling panels and as a result be able to better control their movements while exercising,” says Tobiessen.

Importantly, Tobiessen and her staff did not attempt to install the equipment themselves. For that, she hired a team of professional movers with experience in setting up exercise equipment in gyms. “It was a smart decision to do it that way—after watching what the movers went through, I think I’d rather self-move a home three times than a gym once,” she says in attempting to characterize the level of difficulty involved in muscling exercise gear up a flight of stairs and maneuvering through seemingly impossibly tight corners, corridors, and doorways.


At the root of Tobiessen’s procurement strategy was a desire to have the full complement of equipment installed in the facility by the time of its grand opening. However, even at that, there remained room to add more gear later.

“We brought in extra Pilates equipment and weight machines as the need arose,” she says. “Right now, I’m in the process of swapping out my hip adduction-abduction machine for two updated systems. The updates involve enhancements to the pulley system; they make the glide-rail cam more efficient and smoother operating so the machine works both as you’re doing the extension or adduction of the hips, then also as you’re bringing in the hips with the abduction. This will make the job of our physical therapists easier—traditionally, when someone does, for instance, a passive neurofascial exercise, the PT puts pressure on the leg and asks the patient to push into her [the therapist’s] hand, then, on the return motion, asks the patient to pull into it. These new machines perform that motion automatically so the therapist doesn’t have to.”

Tobiessen also plans to acquire by year’s end a Gyrotonic sliding jump board and ladder barrel. However, as in the past, her present and future purchase decisions will be influenced by quality and performance before attractiveness of sale price. “We’re known for providing the very best in care and fitness services,” she says. “The equipment is a big part of that, so, clearly, quality matters. It always has for us, and always will.”

Rich Smith is a contributing writer for  Rehab Management.