I’ve yet to find a fitness app that I actually want to use[1]. This is unfortunate, because I should be a prototypical user:

  • I spend an embarrassing[2] amount on health: gym, food, equipment, etc.
  • I fully embrace app culture, and wasting time on the internet more generally.
  • I’m always looking for workout hacks.

This post describes the app that I want. As far as I know, it doesn't exist. I've thought about building it, and I’d love to hear from you if you might want to help.

Before I continue: A quick note that this description is very male-focused (note the title). I obviously hope women like the idea and want to use the app, but I have much more uncertainty.

Begin with a comprehensive target set

The app is built around long term fitness targets[3]. Most training regimens have a narrow focus - long distance running, Starting Strength, 7 minute abs, etc. - but I think it's important to have a range of targets. I want to be good at everything! For example, my targets might be:

  • Weights: How much I can lift on bench press, squat, deadlift (1-rep and 5-rep max)
  • Sprinting/running: How fast can I run a 40 yard dash, half mile, 5 miles
  • Playground stuff: How many pushups and chinups can I do; what is my high and long jump.

These will vary among users (presumably elliptical people have goals too?), but with high overlap. The user chooses a basic set of targets at onboarding, then refines them over time.

Let me do what I want!

My biggest complaint with most workout plans is that they are too rigid: A on Monday, B on Wednesday...

Some embrace this structure; I hate it. It’s totally incompatible with my variable schedule and the resulting fluctuations in willpower. Perhaps I’m revealing too much about my own psychology, but there are some days when I feel good and I want to - for lack of a better phrase - go hard. Other days I just want to sweat a little to clear my head.

I also might have a better option than the workout plan today. I might want to run because it's nice out, join an impromptu pickup game[4], or do a chest workout because I have a spotter. A workout plan should promote these behaviors[4], not add friction.

This plan lets me do whatever I want, as long as it's an approved workout for which performance can be quantified.

A Points System

This works because the app gives my workout a score in points. A score is based on 3 things:

  • Target state: If I'm closer to my bench press target than my 5 mile run target, a long run is worth more.
  • Recent workouts: A core assumption is that variety is good - 3 weeks of lifting followed by 3 weeks of running is worth less than alternating for 6 weeks.
  • Individual performance: All else equal, running 4.5 miles in 30 minutes is worth more than 4 miles.

Logging Workouts

This is a complex UX. Before my workout, I have to see how many points various activities are worth (as a range). This can help me choose a workout if I don't already have one.

After I excercise, I go back and log what I actually did. While I have a general sense of how many points I've earned, the precise number depends on actual performance.

This may sound overly complicated, but it's deliberate:

  • This is an important feedback loop to encourage tracking
  • Adds an incentive to push myself during a workout
  • Users will essentially seek approval from the app after a workout, much like they would from a personal trainer. Over time, this could lead to a more personal connection with the app.
  • Prospective points estimates introduce room for a "what you can do today" browsing interface - or marketplace

Theoretical analogy: Suppose a restaurant could tell you exactly how many calories you've consumed. You'd order based on the rough calorie counts on the menu, but you'd need to wait until the end of the meal to get your score, based on how much of your meal you actually ate. This app relies on a similar internal accounting.

Cute, not cultish

Another area where many workout plans fail is with expected engagement. If it’s finals week and I miss a few, am I a failure? If I make every workout and post about it, am I that guy from A Night At The Roxbury?[6]

This app should feel just right for both occasional and power users - and those who fluctuate. This is a main consideration in any user retention measures - the app won't send any vindictive "you haven't logged a workout in 3 days" emails.

It's also a reason for some things the app doesn't do:

  • No short term goals: It's fine if you want to target 10,000 points a week, but log them in Evernote - we don't want the app experience to fall victim to affective forecasting. The app will provide incredibly advanced analytics on what you did in the past and your current fitness snapshot - but not future projections.

  • No news feed: There is no sharing workouts with friends, and no social feed. You can post workouts to another platform if you want - this is a pillar of the user acquisition strategy - but the app experience will remain intensely personal.

Social targets

For obvious reasons, many workout apps place a premium on social. This app won't have a feed, but it will still be intensely social. The main way a user chooses targets is by seeing what other people can do.

We all know people that are particularly fit, with characteristics that we would like to pursue. Setting aside body image issues for now - and that will be a main concern for me if I do something in the fitness space - this is an incredible motivator. This app will make it much more tangible: here's exactly what you gotta do to look like Ryan Gosling. Or, if you're the competitive type, you can look toward friends: THAT guy benches more than me?

This isn't just voyeuristic; this is useful information. Absent a more scientific method for calculating one's "optimal" bench press, this is the best way to identify targets.

My long term ideal would be to choose a bench press target through a UI in the app that shows me what other people can do - my friends, the distribution for my age group, and also possibly celebrities and celebrity trainers.

Other Notes

  • This would generate very cool historical data. It's absurd that I don't have a record of how my body has changed over the last few years. This would help one choose targets, too - I want to get back to where I was that summer when I was ripped!.

  • The app could be used in tandem with an external workout plan. There's no reason one couldn't follow Starting Strength and log it here.

  • The app is built upon an adaptive points system that builds toward long term targets. This could in principle be a platform that supports other forms of self improvement, but would be a major distraction at this point.

  • I've purposely avoided discussing monetization. Value proposition is implicit in some of the specifications - targetting occasional and power users, for example - but is not a primary concern. Suffice to say, if the app could get 10M+ active free users: I think it would be valuable with much room to grow.

[1] Excludes wearables - I have an UP24 and I like it.

[2] Embarrassing given the available cheap alternatives

[3] I prefer “target” to “goal”. To me, a goal is internal - “just make it to that next tree”. A target is objective and unemotional.

[4] Presumably soon we'll have an ankle brace you can wear to measure activity during a basketball game.

[5] It's worth noting that all three examples - the most representative I could construct - involve in-person social dynamics. There must be room for an app that coordinates social exercise; it's just not this app.

[6] If you post them to Instagram, the answer is yes.