The East Bank entrepreneur tries to crush the ab-cruncher

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March 3, 2003 // UPDATED 9:08 am - April 30, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon
Ellen Nigon

Ex-gymnast Phil Martens got mad at those ridiculous late-night TV exercise-machine ads, so he invented a better model

You've seen the infomercials that promise to transform you into a thinner, buffer person IN JUST TEN DAYS! They have gadgets to zap your fat, and pills that melt your love handles. And you know it's ridiculous to think that an electric current stinging your tummy could give you abs like Schwarzenegger.

Still, late at night when these ads come on, admit it -- you're tempted to believe that maybe (for three easy payments of just $99.99) you really can have a perfect body without actually exercising or eating right.

Most people watch these ads for a minute and fall for the pitch or change the channel. But former gymnast Phil Martens had a completely different reaction: he decided to invent a fitness machine based on common sense.

"A battery-operated muscle zapper that is better than a thousand sit ups? Yeah, right," said Martens, who runs Gwerx (pronounced G-Works) Fitness in the Nicollet Island-East Bank neighborhood. "The ads show some big fatso in a swimsuit and then they melt him down to some hot model. It's like magic. It's pretty hilarious."

Martens -- a personal trainer and gymnast who has a University of Minnesota law degree -- said, "I just got sick and tired of hearing all the lies and half-truths about exercise equipment from all these other companies and I decided to do something about it."

He ended up inventing his own machine, and a company.

"All these things like ab zappers are trying to replace exercise," Martens said. "Instead of replacing exercise, I want to complement it."

Martens' machine is based on the theory that weight training is one of the best ways to get in shape. In a nutshell, his Gwerx Fitness is a stand-alone device that serves as most of a gym's machines, such as the lat pull-down machine, the rowing machine and the leg curl machine.

What makes the machine different is that it doesn't use weighted plates. Instead, the weights are dumbbells placed on a special carrier called the Flexchange System. The dumbbells can also be used as free weights.

Without weighted plates, the machine is small and easy to store. The gym ranges in price from $799 to $1,199 and can be found on their Web site at gwerx.com.

Marketing is hard work

Martens had his inspiration in 1999 and recalls, "When I started this company I knew I had such a good idea. I thought it was going to be so easy."

Martens was used to triumphing by hard work, a lesson he first learned in athletics.

"I started working out when I was 12 after reading a book by Arnold Schwarzenegger. For a summer I started working out with weights. Then in junior high I broke the school's pull-up record," he said. "I was like, 'Wow, weight lifting is cool.' I just kept on reading about it and competing in gymnastics and wrestling."

However, like most entrepreneurs, Martens soon realized the road from a good idea to a successful business would be long and bumpy. Said Martens, "I was under the theory that if I work as hard as I did in law school, I could get anything done. I ended up remortgaging my house."

Martens said asking for money was the hardest part of launching his company.

"The biggest struggle of all is trying to find people who are willing to take a risk in their life for something to potentially try and get more out of it. It's hard when you're talking to people and you know that they have money and that they're looking for investments and they don't invest... That's been hard," he said.

Sitting in his University Avenue office in Minneapolis, Martens says after working fulltime on Gwerx for more than three years, he is ready to launch it this month.

"I've been sticking to it against all the odds," he said. "I have this great product and we're on the verge of launching this thing to the public."

Although it is not officially launched, Martens has begun to sell some of his gyms. He's helped by an endorsement from three-time Olympic gymnast John Roethlisberger.

Roethlisberger's dad had been Martens' gymnastics coach in high school. So Martens called John, John tried the equipment and decided to endorse it.

"To be honest, I'm very skeptical of a lot of the stuff out there. But this is one of those things where what you see is what you get. There are no gimmicks about it," Roethlisberger said. "If I ever lifted weights or went to the weight room, I would do the same exercises that you can do on this piece of equipment. That's why I gave it credibility."

When Roethlisberger is not practicing and competing in gymnastics, he said he uses his Gwerx gym. "I'm the type of person who likes to have the option to have free weights. Doing gymnastics you do somewhat unique exercises with free weights," he said. "If it were just a machine I wouldn't have that. So it works out both ways."

An unlikely path

The 39-year-old Martens admits that going from law school to fitness entrepreneur isn't a natural transition. After law school, he planned to take the bar exam and possibly concentrate on labor law or maybe divorce law.

Before he took the bar, however, he had the idea for Gwerx, and decided being a lawyer could wait.

"Everybody told me I was absolutely insane [to start an exercise business] because I graduated with honors from law school. They said starting a business in exercise equipment was nuts," he said.

Even his family discouraged him. "They said, 'Be a lawyer. You worked so hard in school and did so well.' But when I said I'm going to do this no matter what, everybody in my family rallied behind me," he said.

As it turns out, the inventing gene runs in Martens' blood. His father, a University of Minnesota professor of dentistry, holds several patents. Martens said his father's patents have improved safety in dentistry. "My dad has told me how hard it is to do this," Martens said.

According to Martens, his dad always kept him grounded in reality. "I told my dad that I'm putting in so much work and somebody is really going to appreciate that. He told me that's not going to mean anything to anybody. All they're going to look for is the end result. That's turned out to be true as well," Martens said. "He was the one bringing down the harsh reality of the world. It's nice to have that counter-balancing viewpoint coming from him."

In the end, family and friends provided Martens with the cash to start Gwerx and, it is hoped, prove that customers, not financiers' wallets, will get slimmer and trimmer.