Once upon a time, artificial intelligence was restricted to the realm of science fiction. Now it’s a part of our reality. Between text-generating robots, ChatGPT, Google’s Bard and others appearing almost every week, AI is having a moment. And it’s making waves in just about every industry you could name.
AI technology isn’t particularly new in the fitness world. It’s used in smart watches, smart mirrors (like Lululemon Studio Mirror), smart home gyms (like Tonal and Tempo Studio) and even Peloton. Apple is expanding its AI capabilities via Apple Watch software, allowing users to get nutrition, sleep or workout tips. Fitness equipment companies have generated software to help users detect their reps, speed, the weight they’re lifting and even form in some cases.
Artificial intelligence and fitness appear to have a perfect marriage.
With rapid advancements in automated technology, the question is whether AI could eventually replace personal trainers and group fitness programs. I spoke with various fitness experts to better understand the ways AI has impacted the fitness industry, its benefits, what it lacks and what to expect in the future.
My experience with AI
As someone who tests fitness equipment for a living, I’ve had my share of experience with AI and observed how it’s evolved. I’ve seen how platforms, such as the JRNY app, have added AI components like motion tracking, which can be used with the Bowflex adjustable dumbbells. Even Peloton has upgraded its AI function on the Peloton Guide, a home strength training system that uses a smart camera to track your movements (I pointed out in my review when it was released that it could use improvement).
Fitness apps are adapting AI technology to create a more customized experience, making it easier to work out anywhere and giving a personalized-training feel. In some cases, an app or subscription platform may be more affordable than joining a gym or hiring an in-person trainer.
I’ve also experimented with ChatGPT in fitness training. Curious to see how it would curate a personalized workout, I was surprised at how easily it generated a three-day workout program for beginners, separating it into full body, upper body, cardio and rest days. As far as the programming, the warm-up was mainly light cardio-based (jumping jacks) and didn’t include mobility or stretching to start or end the workouts. It also lacked rest time between sets, which is important to make the most of a complete workout.
For the most part, ChatGPT appears to know its limits. When I asked it to create a prenatal workout program, it responded: “Before beginning any prenatal workout program, it’s important to consult with your healthcare provider to ensure that it’s safe for you and your baby.”
ChatGPT went on to give an example of what a prenatal workout might look like with warm-up, strengthening, cardio and stretching. In this type of scenario, it’s helpful to run the program by a certified personal trainer to confirm that it makes sense for your fitness level and routine.
Pros of AI in fitness
“The best benefit of AI in fitness is the ability to adjust training programs daily to account for external factors: stress, strain, sleep, recovery and readiness level,” said Amanda Capritto, a leading certified personal trainer on Garage Gyms expert panel.
Rishi Mandal, co-founder and CEO of Future, a personal training app, says one of AI’s greatest tools is data collection.
“AI is really helping with accurate data collection, such as rep counting, form-correction and, in particular, the use of biometrics to track if you’re achieving a lower heart rate doing the same workout.” As a result, AI is reliable for monitoring your fitness habits and adjusting them based on your daily needs.
This is what makes AI stand out from a regular fitness app you download on your phone.
“Apps have historically taken more of a walled garden versus open source approach, which could be limiting in a world where data is key to unlocking the power of AI,” explains Caliber app CEO and co-founder, Jared Cluff. AI has the ability to create a custom workout complete with sets and reps, as well as determine your fitness level to help you achieve your goals. Cluff predicts AI software will get better over time and become a reliable way for users to create a workout program on their own.
“AI is also starting to have more available options for evaluating and monitoring form,” says Capritto. For example, AI products like Perch use 3D cameras you can attach to a squat rack to measure the velocity of a barbell when it’s in use. “They then use this information to provide feedback on your form,” she explains. There are other accessories like Rep One and Push band that are also used for velocity-based training. This type of tracking can help athletes who want to check their form on lifting exercises or other factors tied to their performance.
Other platforms, like the app Juggernaut AI, can function as a powerlifting coach and create a program to improve your lifts. These programs are ideal if you want the personal trainer experience without having to hire one. However, keep in mind that similar to AI fitness accessories, AI programs can only do so much.
“For most people, and certainly the vast majority of clients we see at Caliber, the value of a trainer extends well beyond the tactical role they play, and is much more about the motivational role they play, which won’t be commoditized by AI any time soon,” explains Cluff.
In fact, AI can serve as a beneficial tool for trainers to better assist their clients.
“Technology is at the point where it can provide trainers with tools that we have never had before,” explains Capritto. “Constructing training programs and giving feedback with more individualized detail is at the forefront of what AI can do for trainers, instructors and coaches.”
Cluff agrees. The best trainers who already excel at having strong relationships with their clients will find AI beneficial since it will help them spend less time on the more mundane parts of their job.
Mandal says the Future app uses AI on the backend to improve the ideas and insights coaches have at their fingertips.
“When a client says they’re looking for exercises that can be done in their hotel room and hit a specific muscle group, our coaches can search what regimens we have previously been given to other clients looking for in-room workouts, and then coaches can weave exercise they like into the broader workouts they’re creating.”
I can attest to this. I’ve been using Future since the beginning of my pregnancy and my coach has been a great asset in developing an appropriate program for each trimester. It’s a classic example of how trainers can use AI to their advantage when working with clients.
Cons of AI in fitness
As with any new technology, there are some downsides. For one, AI lacks the human connection you get from working with a trainer or group fitness instructor.
“As much as AI can learn about someone based on their inputs, it can’t replace the human touch or understand anything about a person other than their physical body and performance,” says Capritto.
Clients benefit from a human-to-human connection: They can discuss stress levels, problems at work or at home and energy levels, which can help the trainer modify a workout if necessary. The same applies during injury rehabilitation. Good trainers evaluate progress and determine whether clients are ready to take on new challenges or if they should take things easy.
Cluff points out that AI is still capable of producing content or analysis that isn’t accurate. “In fitness, as in health care, quality is of paramount importance, so there’s work to be done here,” he said.
Future of AI in fitness
In the case of fitness, AI has the potential to be a great asset to personal trainers. Mandal predicts AI will drastically change what fitness equipment looks like — for example, we might see multimodal workout machines that allow us to do new exercises in new ways. He also believes AI will help people understand their personal data, such as learning how heart rate changes during various activities.
Cluff believes AI will play a big role in the way we access expert guidance, but isn’t convinced that it will replace your personal trainer.
“Research has shown that the single most effective way to effect adult behavioral change is through having a human accountability partner,” he says. This includes having a gym buddy, attending a group fitness class or even having a personal trainer. Cluff’s philosophy is that people are accountable to people — they aren’t accountable to technology.
“So as long as people are struggling with behavior change, humans aren’t going anywhere anytime soon,” he says.
Don’t be surprised if you also see various fitness apps experimenting with AI for the sake of popularity. “I predict a number of applications of AI in fitness will be rushed to market and will ultimately fall flat with consumers,” warns Cluff. He says that if fitness apps plan to use AI, they’ll need to have a deep understanding of the needs of the user in order to provide them with something valuable.
AI is already influencing plenty of industries, including fitness. As AI continues to evolve, it will be interesting to see how fitness apps and personal trainers adapt.
Remember that artificial technology is helpful, but it can also make mistakes, so it’s important to approach it with caution. Whenever you’re in doubt, ask an expert or consult with a professional in the field before following new advice.
Editors’ note: CNET is using an AI engine to create some personal finance explainers that are edited and fact-checked by our editors. For more, see this post.