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Say Hello to a Personal Trainer That’s Not a Person
One-on-one sessions at the gym are so yesterday. The new wave of AI fitness instructors are available for house calls, 24/7.
Kelly, a lean 20-something with a tattoo peeking out from one of his short sleeves, welcomes me to our first training session together. We’ll start out with a warmup, he says, then move on to a strength assessment followed by a workout.
After some ease-into-it movements, we begin the strength assessment. Kelly gives me four exercises: a bench press, a shoulder press, a deadlift, and a lat pulldown. Then, on to the workout proper. I’m assigned a new batch of exercises—a bent-over row, a goblet squat, and a bicep curl.
Standard practice for an introductory session, right? It would be, if Kelly were there with me. But he’s not. The virtual trainer’s likeness and prerecorded instruction beams from a 5-foot-high screen mounted on my wall. When I get down on all fours to plank, I have to crane my neck up to follow his movements.
As for the exercises, all are performed with cables extending from cylinders on either side of the screen. When I lift and pull, the machine registers my effort, then ups the resistance. After three reps, it displays a number—my optimal load for that exercise, according to the algorithms of Tonal, the tech platform that provides this AI fitness service.
It seems like a genius idea: Once the system knows my capabilities, it can automatically set me up with the appropriate resistance level. Well, supposedly. The row feels fine, but the squat weight is too heavy and the curl weight is too light.
Conveniently, I can change the weight by swiping the screen. Less conveniently, the machine sometimes gets confused when I pause to make adjustments. Thinking I’ve given up on a set, it punts me to the next exercise.
Learning curve notwithstanding, I get a decent workout in. By the end, I’m sweating as much as I ever do lifting at the gym. And Kelly’s commendation definitely makes me feel like I’ve achieved something.
Rise of the (AI) Machines
If you believe the hype, what I experienced is the future of fitness. Forbes declared artificial intelligence a 2020 wellness trend, citing Tonal in particular. Similarly, wearable technology has held the top spot in the American College of Sports Medicine’s annual fitness-trend rankings for four of the past five years.
Some AI products specialize in strength training, while others, like the Bowflex Max Trainer, are cardio-focused. A stair stepper and elliptical hybrid, it originally operated without any “smart” technology. Its manufacturer, Nautilus, added AI functionality last fall, and now users can interact with a digital coach named Max (get it?), who provides instruction and encouragement.
Max is also something of a busybody, monitoring and memorizing your workout data. He means well, though. His scrutiny allows him to customize your routine and make training video recommendations in an effort to toughen you up and lean you out.
If you think Max sounds a lot like Kelly, you’re not wrong. The main difference is that Kelly’s a real person, and you can swap him for one of Tonal’s nine other trainers, each with a unique fitness background.
There’s Liz, who holds a doctorate in Kinesiology and Rehabilitation Science. Or Paul, who played college football. Natalie is a competitive pole dancer, while psychotherapist Pablo approaches fitness from a mindfulness standpoint. And in case you’re wondering, Kelly is Tonal’s very own head of curriculum and performance, whose favorite pre-workout snack is half a PB&J sandwich.
Fitness Made Easy
Conveniently, virtual trainers are also available in portable size, specifically via smartphones and wearables. iPhone users can turn to FitnessAI for a customized weightlifting routine. Drawing on data from 5.9 million workout downloads worldwide, the app tells you how much to lift, how many sets to do and how long to rest between them.
Aaptiv Coach, a subscription-based feature on the Aaptiv app, goes further. In addition to exercise, it targets eating and sleeping. You complete a questionnaire, enter your workout history, and boom! Coach has a total lifestyle plan for you to follow. Other apps track your heart rate and sleep to determine how hard you should train—or taper—before a marathon.
The manufacturers behind AI technology are quick to emphasize its convenience: No schleps to the gym, no mounting fees for private sessions, no rushing out after work to make it to the club before it closes.
Personal trainers themselves acknowledge the advantages of AI fitness. “It can provide reminders, check-ups and insight on technical fitness information like heart rate, body fat percentage and target macro nutrient counts,” says Bryce Henson, a National Academy of Sports Medicine-certified personal trainer.
Fellow NASM trainer Katie Kollath thinks data on performance and recovery motivates people. Having that information, she says, “can limit excuses that we, as humans, tend to create when we’re not feeling it that day.”
Other perks include on-demand access and no plateauing. When machines such as the Bowflex notice your performance improving, they intensify your workout. And “Max,” like other virtual trainers, is available anytime, giving you the option of working out at home whenever you feel like it.
But for all the strides AI fitness has made, it can’t reproduce human contact. Personal trainers provide motivation and fitness companionship as much as exercise advice. “They offer a chance to hang out, relieve stress and have great conversations,” says Kollath. Henson believes the need for social interaction guarantees that “group training and human coaching will always have a solid place in fitness.”
All of that’s good news for exercisers. No need to stop anything you’re already doing. If you love your personal trainer, stick with them. If you have easy access to a gym and don’t like the idea of sweating it out at home, that’s cool, too. But for anyone wanting algorithm-based coaching from a virtual pole dancer in your living room—AI technology has you covered.