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Interview with the Expert: Greg Olson

Quick Hit Summary

In this installment of “Interview With The Expert” we have the opportunity to talk with Greg Olsen, co-founder of PowerBlock training equipment.

About Greg Olsen

Figure 1. The PowerBlock. Each color I equivalent to 1 dumbbell. Slip the pin underneath the white weight stack and you have 30 lbs (once you lift it up and out of the stack). Slip the pin underneath the orange weight stack and you have 40 lbs.

In this installment of “Interview with the Expert” we have the privilege of talking with Greg Olson, co-founder of PowerBlock training equipment. Although you may not recognize the name, I’m sure you’ve seen their product line. PowerBlock is best recognized for its creation of the space saving “dumbbell within a dumbbell” approach to producing gym equipment. As seen in Figure 1, PowerBlocks are kind of like those old Russian dolls; each of their dumbbell fits within a larger set of dumbbells. Thus, saving space as well as reducing the cost of buying a full set of dumbbells.


Disclosure: Although I was given the opportunity to try out the PowerBlocks. I receive absolutely NO financial kickback from the sales of this product.

On behalf of the readers here at CasePerformance, I want to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to join us. It’s a true honor to have you with us today.

Curious, as a youth, did you play many sports while growing up or spend much time in the weight room? If not, when did you first become interested in resistance training, etc?

When I graduated from high school, I was 5’2.” During the next 4 months, I grew 10” but still only weighed 130 lbs. At this point, I decided to start lifting weights in an effort to try to gain weight and fill out my thin frame. I loved the feeling that lifting gave me and was hooked immediately. It was a great compliment to my martial arts training that I had been doing since the age of 16.

At what point in your college or post college career did you decide that you wanted to get into manufacturing/creating exercise equipment?

Following high school, I went into a 2 year mechanical drafting program. I always enjoyed mechanical things. When I was a kid, I was constantly taking things apart. However, I was not always so good at putting them back together!

After graduating with my 2 year degree in mechanical drafting, I moved with a couple of friends to Santa Monica, CA, to live and train at the “original” Gold’s Gym. During my time here, I tried to learn everything I could about lifting, nutrition, etc. I also kept busy working as a draftsman in the aerospace industry.

Two years later, I returned to MN where I earned a degree in mechanical engineering and also met/ married my wife. Upon graduation we moved to Cedar Rapids, IA, and I took an engineering job at Rockwell/Collins where we did work for US Customs and the DEA. At this same time, my wife and I also decided to open a gym in Cedar Rapids. I would open the gym at 6 AM and leave at 8 AM to work at Rockwell. After work, I returned to relieve my wife, teach martial arts classes and close the gym at 10 PM. I LOVED owning and running the gym. Unfortunately, my business skills were not great and the gym closed 1 year later. Although it was an expensive learning experience, I have no regrets as I learned a lot from owning and running the business.

After the gym closed, we relocated our family in MN. We had 3 young children and wanted them to be closer to our family for support. Upon returning, I heard that Cybex, an exercise equipment manufacturer, had a job opening for a mechanical engineer. I was offered the position and took it (I added this sentence to help with the transition). I was thrilled at the concept of getting paid to do what I loved (designing/building and working in the fitness industry.) At Cybex, I met my current partner and we worked together for several years designing high end fitness club equipment.

In 1991 we left Cybex to pursue the development and design of home fitness products. From 1991-1993 we worked on what would become the first PowerBlock dumbbell. We did product development for a great company that was already in the home fitness strength market called ParaBody. They were pioneers in the home strength fitness market. We benefited from working and learning from them during the development of the PowerBlock.

I’m a huge fan of solid, old fashioned dumbbells. However from a practical standpoint (both financially and in terms of space saving), it’s impossible to beat the PowerBlock dumbbell system. The idea behind it is pretty innovative, yet simplistic. What was the “flash of genius” on behalf of the team that led to the development of the PowerBlock system? In other words, what is the history behind the organization?

My partner and I are pretty simple guys so I guess that played a large part in the development. Mush of the history is detailed above, but it was a series of steps, usually involving 1 step back for every 2 steps forward. We like to think that the PowerBlock is still in design and getting better every day.

Once the team conceptualized the idea of PowerBlock, what were the next steps involved with actually manufacturing the product?

Part of the design of the original product was grounded in the types of manufacturing processes that were available to us at that time. We needed to produce a product that could be made cost effectively. Over the years we have improved the manufacturing process. Furthermore, we’ve been able to increases sale volumes which have allowed lower prices despite the fact that raw material prices have increased. For instance, when we started manufacturing, the raw cost of steel was $0.17/lb. In 2007 it reached a high of $0.72/lb. Even with these types of material increases we have managed to keep the prices constant or even drop some.

When I look at the retail price for a pair of PowerBlock’s (starting at $149/set) and then compare this to the cost of a pair of sunglasses or designer t-shirts, I feel the value is unmatched. Plus our products have a 10 year to lifetime warranty. We spend more of our budget on make the product better vs. marketing hype/fluff.

In producing your various products, is the PowerBlock organization able to take advantage of home grown resources?

Many of the components for the PowerBlock require specialized tooling and equipment. This helps us control costs and produce the most cost effective product possible. Since all PowerBlock sets are shipped fully assembled, each unit is tested and inspected 100% before shipping from our Owatonna, MN, location. The primary processes that we do internally are robotic welding and assembly. We also continually research the best methods to manufacture various components of the PowerBlock.

In a field with 80 million products, how did the team go about promoting PowerBlocks? Did it take long for the PowerBlock idea to catch on in the fitness field?

Back in 1993 the initial PowerBlock was introduced at a specialty fitness show. The use of fitness trade shows along with magazine advertising helped to launch the product line. The specialty fitness dealer was and still is the main source of distribution for the PowerBlocks. The continued growth of the PowerBlock organization is a direct result of our world class service, word of mouth and our commitment to producing top of the line products.

Over the course of your company’s existence you’ve produced 3 versions of the PowerBlock. The first being your “Classic Series”, followed by the “Sports Series” and now your latest PowerBlock model, the “Urethane Series.” What are the differences or advantages of buying the new models vs. older ones?

The biggest difference on the PowerBlock is that the newer models (ie – urethane) are the best of the best. As I mentioned before, we have always tried to improve what we do, how we do it and so on. We have tried to listen and build on the knowledge we have from our customer.

It is this way in most fields. For example, the car my father had in 1954 (Chevy) drove me from point A to point B. The 2010 truck I drive today does the same, but it has many added benefits and features. This is analogous to our various PowerBlock models. Each ultimately does the same thing but the Urethane has more user friendly features.

On a final note, is there anything you’d like to share with the readers at CasePerformance?

I truly love being able to work in an industry that has the ability to help so many people mentally and physically improve the quality of their lives. I feel very blessed to be able to make a living doing this type of work.

For individuals interested in learning more about your product, where can they find you at?

Our business is located at:

PowerBlock Inc
1071 32nd Ave NW
Owatonna, MN 55060

That’s all the questions I have for you today. I realize that thoroughly answering these questions takes a lot of time and effort on your part. Thus, on behalf of the readers here at CasePerformance, I want to thank you for taking time out of your busy day to join us.

Click Here to find out "Why we do, what we do."

Written on April 17, 2011 by Sean Casey
Last Updated: April 17, 2011

This information is not intended to take the place of medical advice.Please check with your health care providers prior to starting any new dietary or exercise program. CasePerformance is not responsible for the outcome of any decision made based off the information presented in this article.

About the Author: Sean Casey is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison with degrees in both Nutritional Science-Dietetics and Kinesiology-Exercise Physiology. Sean graduated academically as one of the top students in both the Nutritional Science and Kinesiology departments.
Field Experience: During college, Sean was active with the UW-Badgers Strength and Conditioning Department. He has also spent time as an intern physical preparation coach at the International Performance Institute in Bradenton, FL. He also spent time as an intern and later worked at Athletes Performance in Tempe, AZ. While at these locations he had the opportunity to train football, soccer, baseball, golf and tennis athletes. Sean is also active in the field of sports nutrition where he has consulted with a wide variety of organizations including both elite (NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars) and amateur athletic teams. His nutrition consultation services are avalable by clicking on the Nutrition Consultation tab.