10 big fitness apps – which work and which don’t
We test run some of the wide range of workouts to help you narrow down the choices
Feeling adventurous? Pilates, lifting weights, punishing push-ups and more – we try them out so you don’t have to. Photograph: iStock
What is it? A full-service experience from the Hollywood star Chris Hemsworth: not just workouts, but a complete meal planner – with food for breakfast, lunch and dinner – a daily guided meditation and a daily motivational article.
The experience: I immediately regret declaring myself “intermediate” as the app launches into a punishing pilates workout. I am not very flexible at all, and it turns out that my baseline fitness leaves much to be desired in terms of core strength. More frustrating is the fact that the various workouts are introduced as videos. Clearly, this is supposed to emulate a real pilates class, but when my phone tells me to lie face-down on the floor I can no longer see the screen. It is frustrating to have to repeatedly break out of the pose to check the next movement.
Worth a download? Only if you are single, enjoy cooking and are willing to hand control of your life to an app.
Price: €27 a month, €108 for one year.
What is it? A cheery selection of audio workouts with curated tunes.
The experience: Before I start, the app asks me my fitness level, how many times I work out a week, how many weeks a month, what days I work out on, what machines I have access to, and what equipment I have to hand. None of this stops it from absolutely destroying me with bodyweight exercises – but it is the thought that counts. The instructors are great, with the right level of enthusiasm (read: grating in any other context). I am glad to have clear verbal instructions for how to do the exercises, rather than wishing I could just read a list of workouts from my screen. Video walkthroughs, available before and after the workout, help clear up any lingering concerns about form.
Worth a download? If you want to get fit to the tune of €90 a year, this is the app to spend your money on.
Price: €13.50 a month, €89 for one year.
What is it? A bizarre mix of a mediocre workout app and personal trainer upselling.
The experience: You get what you pay for, and as a result the free version of Fitocracy is odd. The main workout app lets you set a goal, then pick workouts from a list, but the presentation of the workouts is much simpler than its competitors – just a list of exercises and reps, which you check off as you go. The problem is that much of the app is effectively broken, with visual artefacts – graphical glitches – all over the place. Digging in, the cause is clear: really, the app is a gateway to a coaching business, where you can spend anything from €1 to €225 a month on a one-on-one consultation with a personal trainer.
Worth a download? If you want free, there is better; if you want a coach, head to your local gym.
Price: Free; coaching from €1 a day.
What is it? A simple and direct approach to strength.
The experience: A popular approach to learning to lift free weights, 5x5 involves doing five sets of five reps of heavy weights, with three different exercises, three times a week. It demands precisely what it does and no more. You need a gym, a squat rack, a barbell and a bench. You don’t need to memorise a list of different exercises, nor wonder which equipment you are going to need today, nor, really, think. StrongLifts is the best introduction to this type of workout there is, providing basic coaching and tracking, as well as just enough motivation to get you to lift the next set. It is my personal favourite: in a year, I have gone from struggling with a 20kg bar to reliably squatting my own weight.
Worth a download? Yes, if you have access to a gym and don’t know what to do when you are there.
Price: €20.50 a year.
Nike Training Club
What is it? Slick branded workouts with a generous free offering.
The experience: Nike Training Club, the workout sibling to the more popular Nike Run Club, feels less human than its competitors. While the personal trainers are front and centre, they mostly exist as silent models demonstrating the best form for each exercise. That may suit a certain type of self-motivated student. Less helpful, for me, is the approach to equipment. I feel as if Nike expects me to have an incredibly well-stocked home – with multiple dumbbells, a skipping rope and a bench – or make myself hugely unpopular at the gym by seizing six things at once. That said, most of the app is available for free – a price you can’t beat.
Worth a download? Yes, if free is the magic number.
Price: Free; €16 a month for premium version.
What is it? The chance to have your workout (for the home and gym) and diet plan organised by not only one Instagram influencer, but five – inspired by everything from powerlifting and muay thai to yoga.
The experience: Kayla Itsines was one of the first internet exercise influencers. She rose to fame with the Bikini Body Guides, her series of fitness ebooks (the name hasn’t aged well). Itsines still offers the BBG programme, but it now includes variations for different fitness levels. This feels like an app that could stay fresh for well over a year. I like that there are modifications for various exercises, that it is easy to sync to Spotify, and that it put so much emphasis on rest and rehabilitation to enhance healing. The meal-planning features are disappointing, though. There is no option to swap suggested recipes, but as some of the suggestions are as unimaginative as “egg and salad roll” I imagine quite a few people would want to.
Worth a download? Yes – for the exercise, at least.
Price: €17 a month or €100 a year.
What is it? It is all about exercise on Sworkit, and there is a hell of a lot of it. You can choose from a variety of plans or one-off workouts, customisable by time or focused on body parts (Sworkit is quite invested in firming bums).
The experience: This has one of the best interfaces for exercising of the apps I tried. It works in landscape, counts you in before the next exercise starts and has a preview window to mentally prepare you for the next move. You can alter music within the exercise window and set how long you want to exercise for, with sessions beginning at five minutes. It also has a great voiceover feature: think of the sort of thing a gym instructor might say, such as “keep your toes pointing outward”. The app sends out push notifications to encourage you to exercise, but the upkeep of a plan does not depend on exercising every day. So, beginners can set their own pace. I can’t work out if the instructor figures on Sworkit are AI or humans, but either way I liked them. Sworkit has tried to make its instructors diverse – there are men and women in a variety of sizes. It is a small thing, but I appreciate not always having to follow someone with the figure of a goddess.
Worth a download? Yes, especially for beginners. None of Sworkit’s sessions require equipment, so if you ever work out at home or while travelling, it can’t be beaten.
Price: €9 a month or €54 a year.
What is it? The Instagram influencer Anna Victoria rose to fame with her downloadable workout plans known as the FBGs (or Fit Body Guides) and pictures of smoothie bowls. Here, she brings together her fitness and food advice in one app, offering 12-week exercise and nutrition programmes, including a customisable meal planner.
The experience: The app provides a series of 12-week plans to last you 60 weeks (for home or gym, for weight loss or sculpting etc), a forum for users, a journal to log notes and a healthy-meal planner, which aims to spoon-feed the user into eating well (the nutrition section generates your recipes and grocery list for the week as well as reminding you when to drink water). I couldn’t get to grip with all of this, but when I tried it out there were some excellent features – a nutrition guide that is not just about calorie-counting (although the variety of the dishes may bore food lovers), plus educational videos (such as breathing dos and don’ts) to help newcomers to regular exercise. The downsides? The app doesn’t work in landscape mode, so checking the demo during workouts is difficult. Also, workouts often require equipment. I am not convinced the app would work for total novices (push-ups in week one for a woman seems ambitious, not to mention the amount of vicious burpees), while scanning future weeks leaves me wondering if it might get boring.
Worth a download? Unless you are a fan of Victoria and her style, I can’t see it delivering enough.
Price: €15 a month.
What is it? Touted as a digital personal trainer, this app has a cultish fanbase thanks to its detailed personalised fitness plans.
The experience: You can join in with the short but intense fitness challenges, or a variety of running, bodyweight or gym workouts. Users can opt for workouts anywhere between 10 and 25 minutes long, and can select sessions based on parts of the body. So far, so normal. But it is the Coach programme that stands out. The personal plans are created by algorithms that pool the data of users with similar stats to chart your journey. Key to this is regular logging; you will record your details when you first start (height, weight, general fitness level) and log after each workout, telling the app how tough you found it. Freeletics promises its workouts will be hard, but not so hard that you give up. It is the feedback moments that allow it to alter your plan accordingly, based on the behaviour of other users who had similar experiences. As with a real coach, there are plenty of demo videos and tutorials to guide you through, plus helpful nudges to drink water and sleep well. The Coach can even detect if you are overtraining. Freeletics also has a fairly busy meetup community, providing some of the social elements of exercise that can be lost when training at home. Plus, the exercises don’t require any equipment
Worth a download? Absolutely, if you have some experience of exercising – it could be a little overwhelming for a total newbie.
Price: €2 a week for training; €3 including nutritional information.
What is it? A 30-day programme with levels from beginner to pro.
The experience: Month-long challenges have become a staple of modern fitness. This app capitalises on the idea that people can do anything if it is in short bursts, hence the idea of daily sessions for 30 days. Most of the challenges are focused on a specific area – there is the “flat belly challenge” and the “slim arms challenge” – but nearly all involve a full-body workout. The video tutorials are clear and there are 400 workouts in the library if you feel like doing something completely different outside of the challenge. The end result should be that your overall fitness is improved.
Worth a download? Absolutely – 30-day challenges may not be for everyone, but, unlike many other apps, there is plenty to do for free.
Price: Free; from €2.40 a week for the premium version.
(Coco) – Guardian
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