Since I started my current fitness regimen three years ago, I get asked a lot how I come up with my workouts. The answer's pretty simple: From an app.
To make gains at the gym, you need two seemingly contradictory qualities in your workouts: consistency and variety. To track your progress over time, you need to benchmark your performance on certain moves, which means doing the same thing week in, week out. Yet as your body gets habituated to the challenges you put it through, you can hit a plateau. Busting through requires mixing up your routine.
For both purposes, apps are your best workout buddy. Fitness trackers can quickly record what you do and let you analyze your stats over time. Workout generators come up with new routines. Some apps combine both functions, though rarely well—you'll probably end up downloading a few for the best results.
A note: Apps mentioned here are available for both iOS and Android devices unless otherwise noted.
Track And Database Field
The one app I've come to rely on more than any other in the gym is GymGoal. This app doesn't look fancy, and it doesn't have the advanced social features you'll see in others. That doesn't matter, because GymGoal is fast, functional, and reliable.
Once you create a workout, GymGoal remembers sets, reps, and weights, instantly populating your workout record with the weight you lifted last time. You can also see a history of your performance at a particular exercise.
Where GymGoal excels is letting you swiftly switch exercises in midworkout. With a touch of the "Replace Exercise" button, GymGoal will show related exercises for the same body part—for example, front squats for back squats, or cable flies for bench presses. You can then save the altered workout to perform next time. For me, that's the perfect mix of consistency and variety.
The one downside to GymGoal is that its premade workout options are limited, and it doesn't randomly generate new routines. If you're familiar with the concept of split workouts, where you exercise a different part of the body every day—letting your chest recover and rest, for example, as you work out your legs—you'll find GymGoal very friendly. If you're new to the gym, though, GymGoal's advanced, open-ended options for building your own workout might be intimidating.
GymGoal is only available for iOS devices, though there's a Web version which can generate PDF workouts that you can save to other kinds of phones. There's a free trial version, and the full version is $4.99. (Personally, I like paying once, rather than downloading a "free" app and then ponying up for a monthly subscription or paying for each new workout plan.)
Fitness Buddy by Azumio is a good alternative workout-journal app for both Android and iOS, with more built-in workout routines—but having tried both, I find GymGoal easier to use.
Mixing It Up
While I've stuck with GymGoal for tracking, I've experimented with other workout apps for inspiration. I find that rather than switching to those apps, though, I like to generate a workout in them and then track it in GymGoal. If you're less concerned with building up a history of data about your workouts and just want to get into the gym and have a good time, you might only need one of these apps.
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Gain Fitness (iOS only) and BodBot (iOS and Android) both take some data about your fitness level, experience, and vital statistics to generate custom workouts. Gain charges anywhere from $2.99 to $29.99 for advanced workouts from an online storefront, while BodBot offers advanced tracking tools for a $10-a-month BodBot Plus subscription. I've found the free offerings are good enough, though, especially for my purposes. If I'm bored with my leg routine, say, I'll spin up Gain Fitness and run through its "Stems Battalyon" workout for ideas. If you don't like the looks of a particular exercise, you can click "Choose a Variation" to see alternatives.
BodBot's workout options strike me as, well, odder than Gain's, mixing in yoga moves and stretches with bodyweight movements and more traditional exercises. While it's useful for fresh ideas, I haven't found a full workout on the app that I want to do.
One other workout generator I'm keeping an eye on is FitStar, which emphasizes bodyweight movements for at-home and on-the-road workouts. You start out with a fitness test, and then the app creates a completely customized video workout based on your actual performance. It has some limited free offerings, but it mostly sells individual workouts and longer-term workout plans designed around particular goals.
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I find FitStar interesting, but it's too limited to recommend right now for two reasons: One, the emphasis on bodyweight moves versus exercises with equipment, and two, the fact that it only works on Apple's iPad tablet, not smartphones. (FitStar CEO Mike Maser recently told me the company is working on smartphone versions.) When FitStar expands its offerings, it could be a real contender—the app version of a P90X workout.
So what route should you take? This is where you have to quantify your own psychology. Do you like doing your own thing, or following directions? For me, I've accumulated enough knowledge about fitness over the years that I really want to spec out my own workouts. I also want to keep track of what I do and stay accountable to myself, my personal trainer, and friends I work out with—so recording my workouts is really important.
If you just want to shake up your routine, a workout generator might be enough, and you might even want to pay for workout routines or a subscription just for the assurance that you're getting something tested and thought through.
Here's a free tip that will help you get even more from exercising with apps. Do what I do, and put whatever fitness app you choose on your phone's home screen. There, it will be a constant reminder that you've committed to working out.
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