Here’s a gym story ⁠-- one that most of us have been through:

Sore from yesterday's workout, Muskan enters the gym and steps on the treadmill. After 10 minutes of a light jog, she finds herself in the strength section. She scans through the intimidating machines, unsure about what they are or how to use them. 
“Is this the bench press?” she wonders. She looks for a trainer, who’s busy tending to three seemingly ‘superfit’ men. Hesitant, she approaches  a recently vacated machine only to imitate the woman before her. 
“I wish there was a better way to go about this,” she says to herself. 

Well, there is! 

At Cult, our goal is to give our customers the most consistently delightful experience⁠ -- across all our workout centers. So when we added traditional gyms -- Cult Gyms -- to our repertoire of workout options, we reached out to our customers to understand the biggest problems they faced when they worked out at a gym.

The most common feedback sounded like this:

“I feel lost in the gym. I've been following the same workouts for over 3 months and they feel repetitive. The trainers are too busy to help me and I wish I could afford personal training!”

This resonated with the team’s personal experience as well. While gymming equipment has evolved significantly over time (not as much as we would like, but more on this another day), the gymming experience has remained the same for decades. 

Don’t believe us? Here’s what a typical gym experience looks like today:

  1. You buy a gym membership
  2. A trainer guides you during the first few workouts
  3. They give you a cookie-cutter workout plan for the next few weeks
  4. The plan quickly becomes boring and you forget how to do those exercises
  5. Unsure, you ask the trainer for help but they are busy with 20 other members and you feel too intimidated to ask “silly” questions
  6. You’re then left with two options: Either opt for a personal trainer (and stretch your gym budget further) or turn to a relatively fit friend or family member for guidance  

And so a few months down the line, your gym visits feel boring, and you stop working out.

So there you go! Our team had a clear yet challenging problem to tackle:

“Workout guidance at gyms suck!”

Typical workout plan in a gym

We wanted to replace these lifeless and generic plan sheets with something smart and interactive. Something that would combine the perfect workout plan with a life-like user experience.

And so, the Smart Workout Plan, a digital and personalised version of the paper plan, was born.

Creating the perfect plan

Considering that every individual’s fitness journey is unique, building a system that can create the perfect personalised workout plan was a daunting task. We realised early on that this is a knowledge-capturing problem. 

Trainers have all the knowledge to create great personalised workouts, but their approach to this is mostly intuitive -- they operate like craftsmen rather than mechanics. So we had to first capture their subconscious knowledge and mental models before we could use them.

To do this, we collaborated with veteran personal trainers and understood what goes into making a perfect workout plan and we were astounded by its complexity. 

To give a rough sense, these were some of the questions that trainers had to work around: 

  • Which muscles to focus on and when?
  • Which exercises to choose?
  • How many repetitions of each exercise?
  • How much rest after each exercise?
  • How much weight to recommend?
  • How frequently should exercises change?

These conversations involved surprising amounts of detail. E.g., trainers casually say “upper-body” but for this to make sense, we had to build the entire model of the human body, what types of movements each body part can do, and what types of movements can/cannot be done together (e.g. One shouldn’t do heavy squats and deadlifts on the same day since they both add stress on the spine).

Little by little, we understood these nuances and built a rule-driven system which could create plans as per the highest scientific standards, while keeping in mind the user’s preferences. Our team of fitness experts reviewed these plans, pointed out improvements, and we re-worked them until the plans were perfect.

Making it life-like

A great plan was just the beginning. The next task at hand was to make it a delightful experience for our users. 

We wanted our members to feel like they were interacting with a real trainer. The workout plan had to direct the users on what they have to do, when to do it, and how to go about it ⁠-- all without overwhelming them.

We set out to solve 5 key problems:

  1. For beginners, make the experience intuitive and give them a guided experience with tutorials, explainers and other resources
  2. For advanced users who know how to do most exercises, make referring to the plan a frictionless task
  3. Font and videos should be readable from a distance and while doing exercises
  4. Optimise for slow internet speed (Fun fact - In a typical gym, you get 800 KBps internet speed. So much for 5G loaded smartphones!).
  5. Make it easy to change your plan and give feedback about it (so that it can be personalised further)

Our design team got to work and created this masterpiece:

Step by step guide for beginners

Exercise list for advanced

High quality reference video

Easy to edit & give feedback


Helping gym trainers

We fully realise that the Smart Workout Plan cannot replace a gym trainer -- no technology can in the foreseeable future. But it can definitely help trainers spend their time in a better manner. First, let’s understand the real value a gym trainer adds.

  • Perfecting form: Sometimes, when exercising, one doesn’t realise that their form is wrong. And other times, users may find it hard to follow a video (ever tried copying a dance step? Thankfully most exercises are simpler!).
  • Pushing out of our comfort zone: Like how birds teach their hatchlings to fly, trainers push members to unlock personal bests faster and save them from injuries if something goes wrong. Research suggests that just by the presence of a personal trainer, one can lift 10% heavier.
  • Motivating members: Reaching fitness goals is a long journey and there are ups and downs along the way. Gym trainers motivate members at every step and help them stay consistent. 

Eliminating jobs like creating a workout plan and showing the member an exercise video frees the trainer so they can focus on more valuable interactions. 

With this, a high-quality plan comes ready-made and the trainer can focus on tailoring it further to the customer’s needs or motivating them to go for that last rep which makes all the difference.

We have also built a trainer app for Cult Gyms where trainers can track member progress and make changes to the plan if required.

Testing out our Smart Workout Plan

We started testing Smart Workout Plan with a small number of gym users around February 2021. We got plenty of feedback and all of these learnings powered system and design iterations, till we could create workout plans that our users loved in the real world.

We launched in all Cult Gyms in September. The early feedback we have received has been very encouraging! 

Chaitanya likes not having to guess the correct posture --

“The way this plan is helping me is that I am not a confused person anymore. I know exactly what needs to be done on a daily basis. In fact, I know about the right posture because I don't have to watch anymore YouTube videos and I can directly access the app which is with me. And then all I have to do is follow the regime which is there and the best part is that I am seeing some results in a short time and I'm hoping to see even better results in the long run and be fit!”

Rodranita likes the consistency of the plan -- 

“Been following Cult for a year and recently coming to know about the Smart Workout Plan. It's really good because it helps you workout consistently, gives you so much confidence, and builds your body so well. I love to come here and make my body fit. I will definitely recommend this to all my friends because this is making me healthy. I love this app because it helps create customised workout plans for you. I think this consistency will make me fit for life”

Even trainers like Bala have been finding this useful as it saves their time and effort and helps them manage their PT clients and walk-ins better -- 

“I am a certified fitness trainer and owner of Speed Fitness gym. Creating a workout plan is not an easy task⁠— we need to understand the client’s goals. After creating the workout plan, we need to teach them proper form and technique, and even after that they keep forgetting and ask the same doubts again and again. This makes it difficult for us. 
But now with Cult Smart Workout plan, clients can get customised workout routines and all the tutorials are available in the app itself. Clients know what to do and when we are busy, they can follow the tutorials and now it has become easy to manage and we have time for our PT clients and walk-ins. Thanks to cult.fit!”

The Road Ahead

We still have a long way to go. Here are some key areas that we want to focus on in the coming months:

  1. Make the experience hands-free (Imagine telling your phone - "Next exercise", “Wait, I need a break”)
  2. Add a mobile holder at every workout station, so members can handle their phones without hassle
  3. Personalise the plan further to better understand user needs and preferences. E.g., if the user wants to focus on area such as belly or arm fat, or if the user prefers cardio over lifting weights
  4. Increase variety of exercises and workout routines
  5. Use unique and innovative equipments at the gym level rather than run-of-the-mill machines that are currently present at most places

Building the smart workout plan in the last 6 months have been an exhilarating ride for the team. But we’re just getting started!  We won’t stop until the Smart Workout Plan becomes the default way of working out at gyms.

A smiling Muskan enters the gym, looks at her phone, and scans her Smart Workout Plan in 10 seconds. She doesn’t feel as sore as she expected, thanks to all the stretching and rest recommended on the app during her previous workout. Today, the app suggests a 50-minute leg workout. She can’t wait to begin⁠ -- she loves lower-body workouts. She has many favourite exercises and the app is getting better at recommending them. 
She follows her plan: 10 minutes of cycling, followed by some light exercises to prepare her for strength workouts. After her warm up, she’s ready to take on the real deal! The first exercise is leg press. She spots the machine as shown on the app and clicks on the tutorial icon to see how to use the machine. 
She feels strong and confident. But more importantly, she feels sure. She has a clear goal of losing 5% body fat in the next 6 months. She still approaches the gym trainer if she is not sure about the form. After all, the trainers seem easy to approach too, now that most of the basic queries have been solved by the Smart Workout Plan!


Credits: Ravi Singla, Neelam Gulrajani, Kislay Verma

Posted 
Nov 20, 2021
 in 
Engineering
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