A video fitness maverick has died

Anyone who’s watched a lot of infomercials in the past 4-5 years must be familiar with The Firm, a brand of workout gadgets (steps, hand weights, etc.) with cute names like “Transfirmer” and accompanying DVD “body sculpting systems”.  The infomercials are full of testimonials from women who show often dramatic before-and-after photos and talk about how The Firm changed their lives.

What is often not made clear by the testimonials, is that many of those life changes took place when Reagan was president and Jane Fonda was still feeling the burn in leg warmers.  The first workout sold under the Firm brand was a VHS tape in 1986, produced by exercise-studio owner Anna Benson, who died this week at the age of 59.

Anna Benson was a real “cult figure” – she doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page (although her long list of Firms is in IMDB), yet she is an icon to legions of female home exercisers.  Her first Firm video – known simply as “Volume 1” to her fans, who call themselves “Firm Believers” – was created by Anna, her husband and her sister to be different in two ways:  it would include a mixture of aerobics and weight lifting, and it wouldn’t be boring.  Fonda was already putting showbiz pizzazz into her videos, but Anna kicked it up a notch with orchestral music, a museum-like set featuring paintings and naked classical statues, and a cast of hardbodies to rival the statues.

Fans ate it up and eagerly sent Anna money to finance subsequent productions.  Anna made around 30 more Firm videos in the same vein with more luxe trappings like oriental rugs, and celeb hosts like Janet Jones Gretzky and Sandahl Bergman.  And as the weights got heavier, with barbells and tall step-up boxes dubbed Fanny Lifters added to the mix, Firm Believers discovered that heavy weights did amazing things to their bodies.  All it took was “a woman’s touch” to get them to hoist the iron.

After Anna sold The Firm, she continued to make workout videos geared toward older women, and she posted clips of many of her videos on YouTube.  Here’s a clip of the Firm video The Tortoise, a “slow and heavy” workout that you were supposed to alternate with their “fast and light” The Hare workout for “best results”.  (That rotation gimmick – the Firm even offered 90-day workout calendars – continues today with systems like P90X.)  Tortoise and Hare contained another gimmick never seen before and probably never to be seen again:  ballroom dancing steps alternated with weight lifting intervals.  That’s right, do a set of rows or shoulder presses with a heavy barbell, followed by waltzing to “After the Ball”.  It’s so absurd that I love it, and Tortoise is one of the first weight-lifting videos I really enjoyed; I still have it today and may dust it off as a tribute to the southern lady who changed the way so many women worked out.

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Posted on November 27, 2009, in Workout videos and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Thanks for this lovely tribute to Anna Benson. She and her collaborators really were ahead of their time in so many ways. Two decades before Alwyn and Rachel Cosgrove were writing about “The Hierarchy of Fat Loss” they were telling their audience of (mostly) women that to lose fat they needed to make weight training a priority. The Benson sisters and Mark Henriksen may not have called it “metabolic resistance training” but that’s what it was, and it worked.

  2. A superb tribute to a global pioneer in fitness.

    Thank you.

  3. Laura and Michael, thanks for your comments. Yes, Anna and the other Firm founders were groundbreakers. Their videos were the first ones I can recall that had tall step-up boxes, and in an article in one of my old fitness mags from 1993, Anna is quoted as saying, “the key to lifting and sculpting the glutes is to bring hips as close as possible to the heels. You can even drop the gluteals slightly below the knee joint.” This when most instructors were telling people never to squat past parallel.

    I didn’t really care for the earliest Firms – too many reps and crotch shots for my taste 🙂 – but the heavy Cross-Trainers (Firm Strength, Tortoise, Tough Tape) are among the finest strength workout videos ever made, waltzing and all.

  4. Joy scott Ressler

    I began doing the firm videos in 1991, back when the VHS tapes were $50 each! I was 29 then and started with Volume 1 and eventually got all six original firm videos, and then got all of the “parts” videos. I diligently did the Firm workouts for 22 years. Now, at age 53, I’m looking to the Firm DVDs to get back into shape after having taken time off from working out to fall in love and marry the love of my life. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to speak with Anna Benson in late 2008 or early 2008 (I was thrilled beyond belief), and was able to tell her how much the Firm meant to me. She was indeed a pioneer, and may she rest in peace.

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