Photography by David Nevala

Nothing has come easy for Bobby Hinds. But as he knows firsthand and has preached to his customers for nearly 40 years, the harder the fight, the greater the rewards.

Sitting in the middle of a downtown Madison, Wis., restaurant, 81-year-old Bobby Hinds suddenly drops the forkful of egg-white omelet he’s holding, throws his chair back and leaps to his feet. Clad in plastic workout pants and a shiny, sweat-absorbing T-shirt, he crouches in a boxer’s stance, hands in front of his face, then bobs and weaves, ducking punches that are being thrown by ghosts from seven decades in his past.

Back then, long before he could have imagined becoming the 6-foot-1-inch, 190-pound model of elder fitness he is today, Bobby Hinds was the smallest, youngest kid in the Wisconsin Industrial School for Boys in Waukesha County. He’d been sentenced there by a judge on Sept. 5, 1941, just 17 days shy of his 10th birthday, for his part in a string of robberies. “At Waukesha, I had to be fast,” Hinds says, jerking his head from side to side. “I got really good at dodging and parrying punches so I wouldn’t get hit. And I remember this one time when I was able to punch this big kid back.” He snaps a right cross. “BOOM!” he shouts. “I busted him right in the nose. Blood everywhere.”

This is how Bobby Hinds tells the stories of his life. One minute he’s calm and serious, talking about the last man he ever stole from or recalling his father’s alcoholism. Then, boom! He leaps back to his feet in a way few men his age can so he can show off the advantages of resistance bands — particularly, rubber tubing — over free weights. This time, he doesn’t drop the fork.

Hinds, whose career has spanned decades and dozens of people, seen here with boxing icon Muhammad Ali
Courtesy Bobby Hinds
“Free weights are inefficient,” Hinds says, doing a bicep curl with the fork in his hand. He lets go at the top of the curl to show that the fork flies up. “At the top of the motion, a free weight is no longer providing you any resistance. It becomes ballistic. Rubber tubing gives you resistance — concentric and eccentric resistance — all the way through the motion.”

This, Hinds will tell you, even if you have never heard of “concentric and eccentric” (pronounced ee-centric) resistance, is simple science. But it’s also a sales pitch, one that has made the reform-school kid from ­Kenosha, Wis. — a kid who once had to steal milk for his destitute family — into a millionaire.

Hinds has been in the business of selling fitness since he was 44. In 1975, after spending more than a decade as one of his home state’s most successful insurance salesmen, Hinds quit to go full time into the business of making fitness products. Just one fitness product, actually: a $4.95 jump rope. Unlike other jump ropes, this one had an adjustable length and had been strung with 70 multicolored plastic beads that helped the nylon rope whip through the air faster than anything else on the market.

And no one could whip that rope faster than Hinds. During a 1976 appearance on Today, he set a Guinness World Record, completing 63 rotations of the rope he called “The Lifeline” in just 10 seconds. “At that speed, you make it seem like the rope has disappeared,” Hinds recalls of the trick he performed countless times — on shows like The Tonight Show, at fitness fairs, in airport terminals and, yes, in the middle of restaurants. The showmanship worked. The year he appeared with Tom Brokaw on Today, Hinds was selling more than 100,000 of his Lifelines each month. Just months later, sales would climb higher after the release of Rocky turned jumping rope into a grown-up fitness fad instead of, as this very magazine dubbed it at the time, “the pride and joy of little girls and sissies.” Meanwhile, Time magazine dubbed Hinds “The Jump Rope King.”

Then, like all fads, the jump-rope boom faded. But Hinds’ company did not. Today, Hinds is still selling his products — even in the middle of restaurants, if that’s what it takes. The company Hinds founded to produce that beaded jump rope, LifelineUSA, now makes more than $12 million annually selling a range of so-called “functional fitness” and body-weight training products, both of which rely on simple resistance and everyday movements to increase your speed, strength and aerobic capacity. Care to guess what two of the hottest fads in personal fitness today are? That’s right: functional fitness and body-weight training. Both were named to the American College of Sports Medicine’s list of the top 10 fitness trends of 2013.