It’s a blue-sky December day in Santa Monica and Men’s Health is on an exclusive virtual tour of Apple’s new 23,000-square-foot, three-story Fitness+ Studio, led by Jay Blahnik, Apple’s senior director of fitness for health technologies. The interior is Apple-modern, all-white everything, wood accents, lots of glass, lots of screens. All the screens show whatever is going on in the wood-walled and wood-floored fitness studio, which has three sliding glass doors opened to reveal a verdant garden. Outside the door to the studio, there’s a quote that reads: “Please be responsible for the energy you bring into this space.” (A different team member selects a quote or mantra every month.) Blahnik opens the door, and inside, an instructor is warming up on a spin bike, about to start a cycling workout with two other trainers. Seven robotic cameras are focusing on the trainers from the front, the sides, and even directly above. Arrays of bulbs shine down, bathing the riders in warm, welcoming light. When Blahnik closes the door, the spinning—and shooting—will start.
“We want these workouts to be magical. We’re creating a piece of art, a piece of inspiration, a piece of motivation,” says Blahnik. “Many people might not think about the importance of lighting a cycling class differently than a yoga class, but we think it makes a difference.” Blahnik’s worked in fitness for more than 30 years. He developed fitness devices and apps at Nike in the mid-2000s, and he’s also a rowing instructor. “Fitness+ creates incredible workout experiences that are also beautiful.”
Apple Watch debuted in 2015, and after several years of development, Fitness+ launched on December 14, 2020, with a library of around 200 workouts ranging in duration from ten to 45 minutes in ten modalities: strength, HIIT, core, cycling, walking, running, rowing, yoga, dance, and mindful cooldown. People can stream sweat sessions to their phones, iPads, and Apple TV—all quarterbacked by the Apple Watch on your wrist. By midsummer you should be able to carry as many as 1,000 workouts in your pocket, and for students of Apple’s decades-long attempts to redefine and dominate the worlds of mobile technology, music, movies, and more, it’s easy to hear an echo. Who doesn’t remember how Apple disrupted music, enabling you to carry 1,000 songs in your pocket, and the tagline “With iPod, listening to music will never be the same again”? With Fitness+, the challenge is even greater.
During the pandemic, it seems as though every gym and Instagram trainer has started creating their own streaming content. The App Store’s fitness section is swole with thousands of apps. In the first half of 2020, six of the top ten health and fitness apps by download included video of workouts or exercises, according to Apptopia. There are also all the new connected-machine options, like Mirror, Tonal, and the market leader, Peloton. Founded in 2012, it has evolved from focusing on workouts for its spin bike to featuring a connected treadmill and creating its own streaming fitness videos. By the end of 2020, Peloton had 1.3 million subscribers.
To gain traction, Apple Fitness+ will have to be better. “We’re excited for Fitness+ to uniquely bring together great music, trainers, and the metrics from your Apple Watch—everything you need in a really simple, easy-to-access way with a goal of helping people exercise more,” says Apple’s chief operating officer, Jeff Williams. Exercising more may seem like a simple goal, but as you’re probably aware, it’s also extremely hard. And how Apple is tackling this challenge offers a glimpse of the future of fitness and how we imagine and experience training: with bio-data tracking via the watch and dynamic onscreen displays; next-level cinematography and editing, all strategically synched to music; and an intuitive app that lets you remix your own workouts. It has implications for anyone who wants to work out more and have more fun while doing it.
“Working out is hard for a lot of people. It’s hard for beginners. It’s hard for fit people,” says Blahnik. “The spirit of what we’ve been doing from the beginning is to try to make fitness, whether it’s your all-day activity or your actual workout, a little easier, a little more motivating, and a little simpler to measure.” He and his team spent several years examining how to bake different kinds of motivation into the Fitness+ experience. Sweating the small stuff, it turns out, can transform your training.
It begins with how Apple captures its content. Seven cameras and three trainers might seem like overkill, but there’s a method to this muscle-building moviemaking. Apple shoots with high-end Super 35–format cinema cameras, in high definition. Mounting the cameras on robotic arms enables smooth movement, creating an elegant and intimate feel. “We built the studio in a way that would allow shooting all the angles to make the right choices to show just the right angle at just the right time,” says Blahnik. When training with Fitness+, I did notice the change in camera POV, in a good way. For instance, in a core workout doing a deadbug variation, the orientation cut from the front to the side so I could see the correct angle for my back and legs.
Then there is how Apple monitors, analyzes, and presents your personal data. Blahnik says a lot of ideation also went into exploring how to go beyond just showing metrics from the watch (like heart rate and calories burned) on the workout screen (although that’s cool, too). What the team realized is that there are certain points in certain workouts, like a tough interval in a HIIT session, when knowing how many seconds you have left or how high your heart rate is matters more. Apple created software that triggers the animation of those metrics or shows them in greater detail when cued by the trainer. “When the trainer says in a HIIT workout, ‘Sprint all-out for 30 seconds,’ being able to see that time is an incredible motivator,” says Blahnik. “It makes for a better, more immersive workout. [Integrated, dynamic smart metrics] take it to another level compared to a typical video workout. We had to think hard about how to curate the experience so you’re not overwhelmed by metrics and animations and that those things are happening exactly when you might expect them to and in ways that are helpful.” And it works, too: In my Fitness+ workouts, I found that seeing my heart rate bolded spurred me to push harder.
Apple trainer Betina Gozo, who specializes in strength and core, says these kinds of features factor into how trainers plan their workouts. “Being able to motivate users through coaching, as well as through the metrics on their Apple Watch, is really cool,” says Gozo. “Knowing the connection with the Apple Watch can help push them further is incredibly powerful in workout design.” For activities in which a number like calories burned is less important, like yoga, the data is minimized.
As thoughtful as Apple was about the technology, it also went deep in finding the right mix of trainers. Those multiple camera angles also help because there are usually three trainers per workout. The lead is a specialist in the workout, and there is at least one modifier. The goal is to both create a sense of team energy and broaden the story of inclusivity by showing easier variations for every move. In our interviews, Blahnik often returns to how it’s important that Fitness+ workouts are inclusive and that “everyone feels invited to the party.” It’s the opposite of the intimidating, sometimes hostile vibe that permeates some aspects of fitness culture.
This mindset informed Apple’s selection of its team of 21, a mix of established fitness pros and lesser-known trainers, diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, and background, ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s. “There are a lot of expert trainers who really know their craft, and they needed to be really great at their job,” says Blahnik. “But we were also really focused on making sure they had a heart for the beginner, and their tone and style needed to be very welcoming.”
Although he raves about the studio, Blahnik is more excited about the rehearsal room, the next stop on our tour. The space is impressive—more wooden floors, a mirrored back wall, and glass siding—but it’s what it represents that’s important. On this day, three trainers are practicing a HIIT workout with a “programmer” (an expert in the specific workout discipline), one trainer is doing his final rehearsal on a treadmill, and two others are sitting at the trainers’ table. This room was designed so that the trainers could work together. “[This] is where they ideate, collaborate, and get feedback from each other to create the best workouts,” says Blahnik. A key personality trait for the trainers was wanting to be part of a team, he says. Each lead works with the trainer team and the programming team to create each workout. They rehearse that workout to dial in modifications. “We needed trainers who are open to feedback from experts who know their stuff in that workout type, as well as fitness experts not in their space,” says Blahnik.
In many ways, Fitness+ is a grand experiment in cross-pollination. “Take Dustin Brown, one of the expert yoga teachers,” says Blahnik. “He’s also a black belt in jujitsu and a former professional surfer. He’s obviously a very skilled yoga teacher, but he’d never rowed on a rower prior to joining the team. Now he’s in a workout with Josh Crosby, a former rowing world champion. Dustin doesn’t know rowing. Josh doesn’t know yoga. But there’s something fundamentally wonderful about them working together, because they look beyond biomechanics, beyond their expertise, and learn from each other.”
That fitness vibing is not just helpful for the instructors; there’s a benefit for you, too. “One of my favorite parts of the process of designing workouts is the rehearsal and planning and being able to collaborate with team members who will be in the workout,” says Crosby. “Maybe it’s the first time running through it, maybe it’s the second—but there’s always these little nuggets of knowledge or motivation that come out from your fellow trainers that you incorporate into the Fitness+ workouts to make them the best possible for the user.”
The app is also designed to appeal to your fitness curiosity, and it learns your preferences and makes suggestions to balance what you’re doing. It’s fast and intuitive. Along with workout type, music, time, and trainer, the filtering tool can sort workouts into shelves labeled “More of What You Do” and “Try Something New,” based on your preferences. In Apple’s internal beta testing, users started remixing the workouts, especially the ten-minute ones, to create their own stacks. There are lots of ten-minute workouts to choose from, and it’s easy to try something new. “We discovered there are people who want to do a ten-minute HIIT workout, then a ten-minute core session, and then a ten-minute cooldown. Obviously, we’ll listen to users to see which workouts we may amplify more and maybe introduce other kinds,” says Blahnik.
Another way Apple is making fitness more fun is by leaning into its deep knowledge and catalog of music. The goal was to go beyond just having great tunes and to use the music to enhance the narrative of the workout, providing motivation when you need it. There are two Apple fitness DJs who help the roster of 21 trainers find new music in nine genres and map their workouts to the rhythm. (If you subscribe to Apple Music, you can save the playlists.) When you’re running hill repeats or rowing intervals, you really want the beat drops to happen at the right time, says Blahnik. The concept of doing a workout to discover new music isn’t brand-new (thank you, SoulCycle), but Apple’s commitment to diverse musical options serves that goal of giving more people just a little bit more motivation to move.
As the tour winds down, we dip into the control room, where a team of three direct the workout, control the lights, and direct the cameras. The instructor is now spinning away, talking to the camera, and seemingly cloned, as we can see him from many different angles on the screens. We skip the showers and the editing rooms, and the conversation turns to the future. Blahnik won’t comment about what’s next for Apple in fitness, whether it’s engineering its own machinery, building pop-up fitness studios in Apple stores, or buying some of its rivals. “This is a marathon, not a sprint,” he says. “We’re excited about the product that we’re launching and excited about the future. This isn’t a hobby for us. This is something we’re really committing to and investing in.”
This story appears in the March 2021 issue of Men’s Health with the headline Siri, Let’s Get Swole!
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