In my experience, iPhone workout apps are generally pretty crappy. They normally fall into two camps: impossible-to-navigate workout calendars or form guides that are so devoid of form, they're only effective if you want to use them as evidence in a court case when you slip a disc after following their tips. So when I was asked to test British Military Fitness' new workout app My Fitness Instructor, I didn't have particularly high hopes that it would break the mold — even though I've done some of the park-based workout classes BMF runs all over the UK and thought they were great.
For those that aren't familiar with British Military Fitness (BMF), their classes make innovative use of the natural park features, such as tree stumps, benches and trails, as well as basic gym equipment that the instructors (all of whom are ex-military) bring along. Classes cater for all fitness levels and have a disciplined military vibe without being too regimented — take part and you'll feel like you're on a mission to get fit but one with a strong emphasis on having fun.
My Fitness Instructor is BMF's first foray into the crowded world of apps, but there's no guarantee that its pedigree as a fitness provider would translate to workout software.
To give it a real test, I jog over to a field the MF team uses for outdoor workouts, strap my iPhone to my arm, put my headphones in and fire up the app. After the loading screen, I'm presented with two options — Workout and History. Being a first-timer, I choose Workout and am presented with two more clickable options, Set Up & Go and Instructors. I decide to see what BMF's instructors bring to the app. It turns out that, as with a real BMF class, you get to pick an instructor you want to train with. On the iPhone app you make your choice according to whose voice and biography you like best. I settle on Jim because he sounds like Mick 'Crocodile' Dundee and used to be in the Aussie Parachute Regiment, both of which are gnarly.
Next, I click on Set Up & Go, where I encounter a plethora of customizable workout options. I'm surprised to discover that, thanks to a nifty bit of development work on the part of BMF, you can use the iPhone's Bluetooth capability to share your workout with up to five other people. You have to decide who will be the leader and who will be the five followers, then your iPhones sync and you're all doing the workout the leader chooses. It's effectively like being part of a BMF class, except that to passers-by you'll look like a group of telepathic exercise mimes. It turns out that the synchronized workouts run independently on each linked handset so, while you're all doing an identical workout, the session will keep running even if you move out of Bluetooth range of the leader. What's more, if one of the synced users has to pause their app (to view videos, take a call, a pee, etc.), there's a 'catch-up' function that allows you to rejoin the workout at the same point as the rest of the group.
Because I'm alone I don't click the Share button, but options that do prove useful are Monitor Heart Rate and Workout Video. The latter, at the touch of a button, pauses the workout and shows me a BMF instructor expertly performing the exercise I'm meant to be doing — great for keeping your form correct. Out of Low, Medium and High Intensity, I go for a latter session, the equivalent of what an advanced group would do during a BMF workout.
From Cardio, Muscle and Both, I choose Cardio because I've been lifting weights in the gym the day before. You also have the option to set the length of workout, from 15 minutes to 2 hours. Not being entirely sure how I'll do with High-Intensity, I play it safe and go for a 15-minute session. I click on Start My Workout and Jim tells me he's going to lead me through a multi-circuit total-body workout, which will get harder as the session progresses. I'm then asked to find my heart rate — there are pictures showing you where on your body you can find your pulse and a button that you tap to match what you find.
Jim starts the workout with a progressive warm-up of running, jumping, touching the ground and arm swings. The idea here is that it activates my entire body so I get my heart rate up and am less likely to injure myself during the main workout. He talks throughout the warm-up, giving easy-to-follow instructions about speed and form.
The actual workout starts with a series of body drops. Starting from a standing position I'm told to drop to my chest or back, roll between the positions, then get back up and jog. After 30 seconds of this I can already feel a slight burn in my legs and chest.
Next we move on to 30 seconds of sprinting, then push-ups. As I push through the 30 seconds Jim periodically shouts out, telling me how much time I have left or that I should be working at 100% effort. The 30 seconds seems to last forever.
After being told to jog in place to catch my breath, I move on to 30 seconds of sprinting followed by sit-ups. Again Jim gives thorough instructions how to do the sit-ups but just to make sure my form is correct, I press the Watch Exercise Video button on the screen to see one of the BMF instructors doing perfect sit-ups with arms crossed in front of his chest. After 30 seconds of max-effort sit-ups, we're back to jogging.
Next we repeat the sprint cycle, only this time with squats. I pause the workout and watch the video to discover Jim means deep, leg-sapping ones where you sink down low enough that your thighs are parallel to the floor at the bottom of the move. According to the onscreen timer, we're 11 min. 32 sec. into the workout and I'm starting to feel pretty tired. They're not kidding about the high intensity. Fortunately, Jim shouts out that it's time for a quick 15-second rest before we go through the routine again.
The second time is even more of a killer but with Jim urging me on, I go as hard as I can. When I finally get through the squats I'm beaten. 'Well done,' Jim tells me. 'We've worked the upper body and the lower body. It was a short workout, but a hard one and hopefully we pushed you a little bit harder than if you'd been working on your own.' I'll say.
With more than five million exercise combinations and the app's ability to remember what you've done and track your progress, I know I'm going to be pushed just as hard next time — but with a totally different workout.
OK, so at around $8, it's not that cheap, but it's the first iPhone fitness app I've tried that's engaging and motivational enough to keep me using it on a regular basis. Thanks to My Fitness Instructor, the iPhone has finally become a device that can help you make serious fitness gains.
My Fitness Instructor is available to download from the iTunes store now. For more information about the British Military Fitness app and BMF classes, visit bmffitnessapp.com.