Maybe you can't go to the gym. Maybe you don't want to go to the gym. Maybe the gym is too darn expensive. Good thing you can turn to your phone for an instant workout. Which app gives the best workouts, though? Today, we find out.
There are plenty of workout apps out there, but these two are popular and well-rounded, and are available on both iOS and Android. They don't require any setup or subscriptions to get started, so you can do a five-minute workout with each one right now. Or, you can just read these descriptions:
- Sworkit is a longstanding Lifehacker favourite. You can choose the length of your workout, from five minutes to an hour, and the app fills that time with the type of exercises (strength, cardio, etc) you requested. For a fee, you get training plans and more variety in workouts. Besides the full Sworkit app, there are seven other apps that each give you a few specialised workouts: Upper Body and Lower Body apps, for example, and a Cardio one, and a Kids version.
- Nike+ Training Club is the workout partner to Nike+ Run Club, one of our favourite running apps. NTC has a huge variety of workouts, from yoga to gym moves, and they're always featuring a new workout named after a celebrity athlete. Nike sells shoes, not app subscriptions, so everything including the workout plans is free.
Both have plenty of workouts you can do without equipment in your living room, and they have options for everybody from total beginners to total beasts. Let's put them through their paces.
Sworkit Gives You Workouts You Can Do Right Now, In Your Nice Clothes
This is a stock photo, but I was wearing almost exactly the same thing. Picture this. A writer sits alone in her home office, eyes glazed over from hours of staring at a screen, blogging about life hacks. She should really try to get a workout in, but it's the middle of the day, she only has five minutes to spare, and she is wearing a sweater and jeans rather than workout clothes. Which app is the right one for the job?
It didn't take me long to get in character (Life hacks: check! Glazed eyes: check!) so my first task was to install Sworkit. I started with the Butt app, just because it is called Butt. Sadly, the "Rump Roaster" workout in the Play store screenshots has been removed (or maybe just renamed) so I instead chose "Brazilian Lift." The workout did, indeed, challenge my butt. The glute bridges burned pleasantly, the leg lifts were challenging, and the 30 second break in the middle was briefly relaxing. I didn't break a sweat, though, so I was fine in my work clothes. I even ate crackers while doing some of the lunges. Success!
I noticed later that the full Sworkit app even has a workout called "Get Moving Without Sweating", which you can do for anywhere from 5 to 60 minutes. Sworkit understands me.
NTC, on the other hand, failed this test miserably. When I tried to browse for workouts, only one was listed as five minutes long. I recognised this workout, my old nemesis Bodyweight Only Benchmark.
I remember the Bodyweight Only Benchmark from last summer. Indeed, it is seared into my memory. In total, it asks you to do 50 full pushups, 50 burpees, and 50 squat jumps. When I tried it last year, it took over 20 minutes, and nearly killed me. So I skipped that one, and instead chose the Start Up Benchmark, listed at 6 minutes.
This one was good! I did it in five minutes. It was a few rounds of jumping jacks, squats, lunges, and knee pushups. It's not a good workout to do in a sweater, though, unless you want to literally sweat into it.
Nike Wins at Serious Workouts
Ooh, it told me I did great "swork"! OK, I've changed into my workout clothes now. Which app is better for a serious workout?
Let's start again with Sworkit. The full app — not the Butt one — gives you a choice of strength, cardio, yoga, or stretching. If you scroll down, there are more options, including workouts just for beginners. Most of the advanced and more interesting workouts are locked, but there's still plenty available for free. I chose a cardio workout described as "Boot Camp Inspired."
You can choose the length of the workout, so I asked for 20 minutes. I tapped the music note at the top and found a selection of playlists: three for Apple Music, and 12 for Spotify. (NTC doesn't have music linked through their app, although you can find their Spotify playlists on your own if you like.) I blasted one called Throwback Jams and got to work.
I churned through Sworkit's 30-second nuggets of exercise, with a 30-second break every now and then. I thought I would get bored, but it was kind of nice to have a predictable rhythm to the workout. There were jumps, ab exercises, and pushups, to name a few. At first I wasn't sure how anybody was supposed to do a full half minute of star jumps, but then I realised the point is to just use the 30 seconds to do as many as you can. So I'd do a few jumps, rest for a few breaths and do a few more. (I admit that toward the end, though, I skipped a set of dive bomber pushups and just danced to the music instead.)
Just don't pick the one that's all burpees. On to Nike+ Training Club. The first thing you'll notice is the variety of workouts. You're not limited to bodyweight-only moves; there are workouts that call for dumbbells or pull-up bars or plyo boxes. And rather than cycling through a library of moves, the workouts are designed with a specific structure. Some are branded with athletes' names, like one from Serena Williams and another from decathlete Ashton Eaton, with moves that correspond to the way they train for their sports.
I did the Game Changer, a high intensity workout that starts with some bodyweight warmup moves, then has segments of lower and upper body weightlifting. It finishes with some quick footwork and some cooldown stretches. On another day, I did Fresh on the Circuit, a bodyweight workout in timed sections that feels a little more Sworkit-like. It starts with stretches and simple warmup moves, proceeds to lunges of various types, and finishes with a different set of stretches.
The Bottom Line: Nike Has the Range
If you just want that five-minute workout in your jeans, download Sworkit and stop reading here. Seriously, you would spend more than five minutes reading my conclusion and composing a defence of Sworkit in the comments. Just start the app already.
OK, so those of you still reading must be interested in more than just a five minute Rump Roaster. For you and me, Nike+ Training Club is the app to pick.
Nike's workouts are better thought out, and you have more variety in the types of moves. Sworkit does have a few more specialised workouts, like the Figure Skater workout in its Sports Conditioning section — but those are only available to premium subscribers. A subscription is $US7.99 ($10)/month.
With Nike, you can get a workout plan for free. And you get an actual plan, set on a calendar, not just a list of workouts and a FAQ from a trainer. I use NTC whenever I need a real workout and can't get to the gym, and I know that if I pick the right one, it will kick my butt.
Now, I also wear Nike shoes, so maybe I've been brainwashed. And I admit that with Sworkit, you can still get a good workout, but there's no variety to the structure (it's always those 30-second nuggets) and the particulars are a roll of the robotic dice. So I'm awarding this one to NTC, but I'm going to do Nike's workouts to the Sworkit playlists. Don't tell.