A difficult next step

Times Staff Writer

The woman who invented Step aerobics, a workout that swept the country more than a decade ago and is still going strong, is hoping that lightning will strike twice.

Gin Miller's latest program is called the Ramp, but it may not be coming to a gym near you any time soon. This low-impact routine, which involves choreography and strength moves on a semi-circular board set at an adjustable incline, made its debut in February at a fitness trade show in San Francisco. Since then only about 70 gyms have purchased the program -- that's 70 of about 20,000 in the U.S.

The sluggish sales aren't just because the Ramp is relatively new on the market and somewhat similar to Step. It's also evidence of changes in the fitness industry that affect whether a new workout or piece of equipment ever makes it into a health club, a shifting economy, and an increase in exercise accessories and inventive classes incorporating everything from high-wire circus acts to African dance.

The Ramp's unveiling at the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Assn.'s show included continuous classes taught by Miller at a prominent booth blaring up-tempo dance tracks. Unlike Step, which has participants stepping up and down on a platform, this easy-to-follow routine involves traversing the board and incorporating moves such as turns and lunges. Unlike Step, which targets muscles in the front of the leg, Ramping primarily uses muscles in the back of the leg and is much easier on the knees.

The reaction at the show from exercise instructors was positive, says the Atlanta-based Miller, 45, a highly respected fitness industry veteran with a series of workout videos.

She's developed beginning and advanced pre-choreographed Ramping programs and a certification workshop for teachers. "Right away, people got it," she says of the debut. "They said, 'I'm feeling this in my legs.' "

But when it came to buying Ramps, which sell for about $100 each, gyms were less enthusiastic: "They were kind of cautiously interested," she recalls. "Most clubs right now are trying to make ends meet, even the chains."

Over the last several years, gyms have spent small fortunes investing in fitness gear used in group exercise classes, from Bosu balls to balance boards to jump ropes. Step, which is in 90% of gyms nationally, had virtually no competition in the aerobics room when it came on the scene. The Ramp has plenty.

Miller says the new program was inspired by a board she spotted one day, propped up on a step, and used for lunges. "I thought, this is such a great exercise for the legs -- what if you did this to music?"

That coincided with fitness enthusiasts asking for an alternative to Step that wasn't so hard on the joints. Miller saw an opportunity to fashion a group cardio exercise program that even overweight, out-of-shape people could do, something many gyms have gotten away from in favor of intense workouts, such as Spinning, and complex dance-based classes.

"This addresses new participants," she says. "The choreography is not intense and there's a lot of repetition. When I have a 300-pound woman in class who can get through it, that's great."

But some are skeptical that Miller's Ramp will be the ticket for luring fitness phobes into the gym.

"I would love to say, 'I think the Ramp will be the [program] that will bring deconditioned people in,' and it could very well be, but I think they come in for a variety of reasons," says Donna Meyer, corporate director of group exercise for 24 Hour Fitness, "whether it's for the personal training, or because a doctor sent them."

Although Meyer, who has tried the Ramp, calls it "an awesome piece of equipment that has a place in the fitness industry," the chain has no immediate plans to purchase it.

She cited budget restraints, but added that the club already caters to the less-fit crowd with its "express" classes that last 30 minutes.

Bally Total Fitness also passed on the Ramp for now; the program "is just not that far removed from Step," says Charles Little, the company's assistant director of fitness education, who also mentioned that the clubs are steering away from equipment-heavy classes.

Crunch has incorporated Ramping in two of its Atlanta gyms. Donna Cyrus, Crunch's national group fitness director, said the clubs there are bigger and have room to accommodate the equipment, and Miller herself teaches the classes.

Asked why she doesn't plan on rolling it out in the chain's other clubs, Cyrus says, "The feeling I had after I did it was that it was a good workout, but not great. It wasn't special enough for me."

The cost and the fact that it wasn't that different from Step were other factors. Cyrus added that Crunch's core demographic -- 25- to 40-year-old urban professionals -- are used to the gym's edgy classes (Grooveology, Kardio Kombat) and more intense workouts.

But Ramping has found a home in several YMCAs across the country, as well as in independent gyms. Some in the fitness industry have floated the idea of the Ramp being adopted by the Curves chain of small, women-only gyms, but Curves maintains it has no plans to add it.

At the Club La Jolla health club, group fitness program director Laura Sepulveda says she brought Ramping to the club about five months ago because "it's easier on your joints than Step, and it gives a really good workout through the back of the legs."

She thought it would be a good fit for the 700-member club, where the average age of members is 40 to 60. "Some people are intimidated by Step," she says. "But they like this, it's easier on their joints and knees."

Ramping is being introduced at two YMCAs in Camden County, N. J., in preparation for a formal kickoff there in January. So far, says senior director Jayne Miller-Morgan, reactions have been good, especially among new exercisers who like the uncomplicated moves. "I think it's going to be totally successful here because we can incorporate the board into other things such as yoga," says Miller-Morgan. It's something that everyone can participate in at their own level."

Gin Miller hopes that a December infomercial touting a smaller home version of the Ramp and videos for about $90 will help propel sales and push the program into the public consciousness. Until then, she'll continue to present the workout at fitness conventions and conferences and expand the Ramp's potential. Although some gyms are incorporating the board into strength training, yoga and Pilates classes, Miller is leery of fitness instructors bent on ramping up the Ramp, creating faster, more difficult classes and moving away from its low-impact roots.

Some teachers, says Miller, "tend to think more is better, and with Ramping, less is better. This is not so much for the clubs that are about beauty and bodies, but for clubs that get the real picture."

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