Over the past couple of months, I've been religiously heading to the gym and powering through strength training sessions with the help of wearable tech. On the journey so far I've exhausted the Apple Watch and Fitbit Ionic, and while neither were perfect options, this was the first week I've been slightly off the pace with my participation.
I don't blame the Garmin Vivosport, my companion for the past couple of weeks, entirely for the lapse, but its lack of consistency has certainly contributed to killing my appetite. Initially I was excited about the prospect of automatic tracking after too much input was required with the Apple Watch and little-to-no functionality existed within with the Ionic. But after spending more time with the Vivosports my initial fears, discussed in Week 6, have been compounded. Put simply, rep counting and exercise detection just doesn't work well enough to provide you with a reliable solution for the gym.
This is a different issue, of course, to the two previous devices tested. While the smartwatches underachieved as a result of under-promising, the Vivosport does so because of its inability to give you what it says on the tin. I imagine the device works well enough for those sticking largely to machine-based weights and those looking to simply keep a tab on their reps, but I just found the lack of consistency demoralising to the point I actually reverted back to the Apple Watch just to keep an accurate marker on progress.
I've been outlining the problems with the conventional options from three of the biggest wearable makers over this series (with Android Wear largely offering the same as Fitbit), but I haven't yet outlined exactly what I want from a device. And after the most recent failure, I've been thinking about this more and more.
Current wearables fail by providing strength training modes which still ask for too much during the workout. Sure, some do have automated smarts but these are not yet reliable or glanceable enough. Ideally, I want a system which works fairly similarly to how I would use a device on a run; I pick a routine and interact with the device every now and then to check it's tracking as it should, and also as a second reference for my progress in order to make real-time adjustments based on how my body is holding up. Even if automatic rep counting is present, I'm still going to count reps in my head because most exercises don't allow you to view a screen during the set.
Essential reading: The best gym trackers and wearables
Automatic exercise detection is different – that's a bit of input I would love to not have to worry about. I understand this is much easier wished for than achieved, but a more streamlined option, in which you pick from two or three potential exercises, surely exists in the future. Automatic weight detection and even AI coaching, too, are both things that would prove extremely helpful both when looking back and in real-time.
If this kind of tracking existed, I could have a coach in my ear telling me to consider pushing the weight up based on recent trends, my overall health picture and pre-set goals. This could also be driven by programmes that emphasised high-reps and low weight or vice versa, and boosted even further by a fleshed-out companion app that could tie all the software together into a clean picture that developed over time.
Another issue this diary has highlighted is trying to track everything from just one wrist. Perhaps bands need to encompass both wrists, or even couple with sensors from different parts of the body, in order to pick up more accurate data. However, this kind of sensor synergy feels like something that will have to wait for more advanced smart clothing.
As for more general design, anybody searching for something to wear in the gym naturally doesn't want it to draw attention or need interacting with too much. That's something that mainstream wearables are able to achieve, in a way, but the software lags so far behind what's required that pencils and paper are more regular staples than wearables in the gym.
As far as I'm aware, such a product doesn't yet exist that marries a sleek design with next-level strength training smarts. But, in any case, I've decided I'm done with the big players until they get their act together. Instead, I'll be looking to a more dedicated strength training wearable, the bulky Atlas Wristband, in order to gain a (hopefully) better experience on the software end of things. Wish me luck.
Conor's strength training diary
How we test