Designing the future of fitness
Alumnus Kevin Abelbeck holds 8 fitness patents and has worked on more than 18 others
by Glen Golightly
Kevin Abelbeck may spend as much time at the the Gold's Gym in Venice, Calif., as he does in his OptiPro office.
You'd expect a guy who designs fitness equipment to be in shape, but he's actually doing research while he's exercising.
"It gives me balance, so I make it part of my day," the 1989 UTA graduate says of his workout routine. "I can't sit behind a desk all the time."
Abelbeck, 43, designs and tests exercise equipment not just for a living but out of a passion for fitness developed as a teenager growing up on a farm near Hebron, Neb.
"My grandfather gave me a Sears weight set when I was 12," he recalls. "I had to build my own benches from junk we had lying around."
The budding bodybuilder even devised a system of pulleys and ropes attached to the ceiling in the basement of the family home. He pulled back overhead tiles and attached the apparatus for each workout, then replaced the tiles when he was finished.
All went well until his brother ratted him out to their father, who nevertheless was intrigued by the setup. Mr. Abelbeck just asked that he be notified before his son made future modifications to the house.
Not your average student
Kevin's lifelong enthusiasm for fitness carried him to UTA in 1986 for a degree in exercise and sport studies after stints in the Marines and managing the Gold's Gym he still frequents.
One of his UTA professors, Mary Ridgway, describes him as a different kind of student. "Kevin had a sense of adventure and vision," she says. "He was so far out in his thinking that he had to get out there and apply theory and actually build things."
At UTA, Abelbeck had to decide between a medical career or one in the fitness industry. He eventually found his direction.
"I thought I could make more of a difference by promoting healthy lifestyles through fitness," he says now. "A lot of diseases like diabetes are preventable with exercise and diet."
He designed a new type of stationary bike that never made it to market but one that Dr. Ridgway says was innovative and efficient. "Kevin put copious and tedious work into it. He used himself as a test subject and even had X-rays taken of himself."
Abelbeck likens his UTA education to a toolbox. "College gives you a toolbox full of tools," he says. "I was fortunate enough while I was at UTA to not only have the tools but to be able to test them out and put them to practical use."
He thrives on the creativity of designing fitness equipment. "It's a real high to see something I designed on the market. It's great to see it in stores and be able to say, ‘That's mine.' "
Engineering, physics and mathematics courses fleshed out his academic experience, and those additional skills make Abelbeck unique, says Dale Allred, president of Allred Associates in Spanish Fork, Utah.
"Most engineers for fitness companies have a strong engineering background, but they don't have a strong human structure background," Allred says. "I don't know anybody else besides Kevin who does that."
Allred's company manufactures fitness equipment and has used Abelbeck as a designer for 10 years. Allred has found that Abelbeck combines the theoretical with the practical. "Kevin has the ability to see every piece and make it functional. When he brings me a design, we usually build it and it only needs small corrections. That saves a lot in development costs."
Abelbeck, president of OptiPro, Inc., takes pride in his work and has few kind words for a lot of fitness products marketed today. When he accepted a 2002 UTA Distinguished Alumni Award, he told the audience, "When you're up at 2 o'clock in the morning and you click on your TV, all that garbage you see up there, that's not mine."
A patented approach to fitness
He holds eight fitness patents and has worked on more than 18 others. His products on the market include Denise Austin's Future Step, BodyRocTM, AbStarTM and the AbBikeTM.
Howard Frost, vice president of the TKO Sports Group, says Abelbeck understands the balance of designing equipment that works and is affordable yet makes the company a profit. He hired Abelbeck as a troubleshooter for a project in the mid-1990s and now uses him as a design engineer.
"Engineers often understand the design but not the price point," Frost says. "Kevin understands both and has the passion for the product."
He adds that Abelbeck also understands marketing trends and what consumers want. The consumer can be fickle, and the glut of fitness products can make it rough going for designers and manufacturers.
Indeed, Abelbeck has had several products that didn't hit the market at the right time. Undeterred, he has spent the last few years perfecting a product he thinks will revolutionize the fitness industry—a better treadmill.
"It's a simple and elegant system," he says. "Today's treadmills are little more than old-fashioned conveyor belts and actually use a lot of energy." He says his system eliminates many treadmill woes and gives users better cushioning support.
And he may have a potential investor in someone he's never seen.
"He's one of the most honest guys I've ever met," says Steve Hopf of Ultra Dent Tools in Riverside, Calif., "but I've never met him face-to-face."
Hopf, who heads a company that makes tools for removing auto dents, says a customer recommended Abelbeck for patent research work. The two struck up a business relationship over the phone. Abelbeck has helped the company obtain three patents.
"He's not a patent attorney, but he has so much knowledge," Hopf says. "Kevin also has the eye for drafting and engineering that helps with research."
Hopf 's dealings with Abelbeck have convinced him that the treadmill may be a hit in the marketplace. "He's straightforward and realistic. If he tells you something, that's how it is. Based on that, I'm contemplating investing in the treadmill he's working on."
Tony Rodriguez, a technology consultant in San Ramon, Calif., agrees with Hopf 's assessment, then elaborates on it.
"He's (Abelbeck) willing to work around the clock to get something done," Rodriguez says. "But he balances his personal and professional life, and that's unusual for someone that successful."
Rodriguez and Abelbeck were Marine roommates at Camp Pendleton, Calif., in the late 1970s. "Kevin has always advocated a healthy lifestyle, and that was tough in the Marines," Rodriguez says. "It seems the Marines fed us either baked grease or fried grease."
He also remembers that Abelbeck called his parents every week. Rodriguez says Abelbeck's real joy, though, is his teenage daughter, Heather.
"She has just discovered running, and I think that's great," Abelbeck says. "I'd been encouraging her before that, but you really can't tell kids anything. Eventually they learn by example."
He also plans to keep living by his own example. He continues to work on building a better treadmill, assisting other companies with their projects and developing infomercials for fitness products—all while mixing in almost daily workouts at the gym.
"I love what I do and I don't see any reason to quit," he says. "I just plan to continue down the path I'm on."
You can bet his won't be the path of least resistance.
Glen Golightly ('84 BA, '93 MA)
is a Los Angeles-based freelance
writer and former Shorthorn editor