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In December 2015, I witnessed a push-up competition for the ages.
My husband, Garrett, and I were visiting Patricia in upstate New York for the holidays. Garrett spotted Patricia’s P90X DVDs on the shelf. He raised his eyebrows.
“Those yours?” He asked skeptically. Patricia smiled wide. “Oh yes,” she said. “It’s a great workout. Have you tried it?”
Garrett looked up and down Patricia’s tiny frame and smirked. “I’ve done Insanity, which is similar. It’s a little harder than P90X.”
Patricia then challenged Garrett to a push-up competition. The first person to crap out would lose.
Picture this: a small Christmas tree, a roaring fire, and a fit 30-something year old man accepting a push-up challenge from my 76-year-old thin-as-a-rail grandmother. At around 50 pushups, Garrett rolled over. Patricia cemented her victory: she pulled one arm behind her back and did an additional 10 single-handed push-ups while making eye contact with Garrett. When she finished, she popped up off the floor like a marine and salted the wound: “You just lost to an old lady.”
Why do we expect to lose strength as we get older?
Genetic testing might tell us about the chances of us developing problems like macular degeneration or Parkinson’s, but age-related muscle loss seems to be something a little more universal. Preventing it is critical to extending human lifespans.
Specifically, older adults often suffer from loss of skeletal muscle mass and function, known as sarcopenia. Sarcopenia can be devastating, especially to someone’s ability to be independent. People suffering from sarcopenia can lose their ability to rise from a chair, open a yogurt container, or even leave their homes without assistance.
Sarcopenia also contributes to frailty. According to Johns Hopkins, “An estimated 7% to 12% of Americans age 65 and older are considered frail. Risk rises with age—from one in 25 people between ages 65 and 74 to one in four of those older than age 84.” The same article defines frailty as meeting three of the following five criteria:
- Unintentionally losing ten or more pounds over the course of a year.
- Difficulty standing without assistance and/or reduced grip strength.
- General exhaustion, with difficulty “getting going” three or more days per week.
- Low activity levels, ranging from formal fitness activities to completing household chores.
- Taking longer than six or seven seconds to walk 15 feet.
Sustaining lean muscle mass is essential for good health and longevity. For example, one study from Preventative Medicine found that among adults older than 65, those who stuck to strength training guidelines had “46% lower odds of all-cause mortality.” The Journal of the American Heart Association found that 150 minutes of strength training per week is particularly helpful for women (though it’s debatable whether more is actually helpful).
Finally, a study from Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases discovered that physical activity and fitness-based interventions are both better at controlling mortality factors associated with obesity, to the point where, “Overweight and obese-fit individuals had similar mortality risks as normal weight-fit individuals.” This observation led the researchers to conclude, “Researchers, clinicians, and public health officials should focus on physical activity and fitness-based interventions rather than weight-loss driven approaches to reduce mortality risk.”
Exercise may be the very best thing you can do for your longevity and healthspan.
The best free strength training apps
There’s no overstating how important strength training is to sustaining your health. According to Harvard Health, “The average 30-year-old will lose about a quarter of his or her muscle strength by age 70 and half of it by age 90.” So how do you stave off your inevitable muscle loss with exercise? If you’re just starting out with strength training, what are the best tools to help you get started and track your results? How do you know if you’re getting stronger, growing or sustaining muscle mass, and contributing to a longer health and lifespan?
I turned to something most people have: a smartphone.
When selecting the best fitness apps for longevity, I first thought about financials. Since the average American gym membership costs just shy of $700 a year, I wanted to prioritize apps that wouldn’t cost users a penny to use. Additionally, I chose top strength training apps that required little to no equipment to get started, which is ideal for the home user. Next, I looked for Android and iPhone fitness apps that were particularly strong at demonstrating proper form, building out workouts, and tracking weight progression.
Between my husband’s iPhone and my Android, I’ve tested the free version of each one of these apps to ensure that their free version holds up to these standards. I also eliminated any app that didn’t have at least four stars in their respective app store. Finally, I removed fitness apps that didn’t have a comprehensive library with free how-tos and were more focused on aerobic exercise.
The above requirements whittled my initial list of 65 best free strength training apps down to just five options.
The following list is ordered alphabetically.
1. adidas Training by Runtastic
Don’t let the name fool you: while you can certainly track your runs with adidas Training, the app offers far more functionality than just tracking your mileage. This free app offers plenty in the way of strength training, especially to beginner users. The app serves up workouts that range in terms of duration, and you can create custom plans for yourself if you want to take a little more control over your workout.
- Great tutorials on how to complete each workout
- Full workout plans that range from one day to twelve weeks
- DIY workouts available in the free version
- Only features bodyweight exercises
- Free users may want to eventually upgrade to get more custom plans
I’ll admit that I have a soft spot for BodBot because it’s the app that I personally use for my own strength training routine. The app might not look as slick as the other four on this list, but holy biceps do they have an abundance of free exercises, complete with video tutorials on how to do each movement. BodBot is excellent for beginners because the app—yes, even the free version—creates a custom plan for your fitness goals.
- Automated customized workout plans including warmup and cooldown
- Detailed explanations for how to perform each workout
- Highly adaptable; easily set what equipment you have available
- Clunky interface
- Nutrition component doesn’t offer much insight
- No calendar feature to see which days you plan to work out
3. Fitness Point
If you’re looking for an app that’s made for DIY-focused spanners who just want to track their workouts, weights, and reps over time, Fitness Point may be the top free strength training journal you’ve been looking for. Fitness Point won’t hold your hand—you have to find your activities and log them yourself. The free version offers over 70 workouts to choose from, and you’ll need to upgrade if you want access to track more exercises.
- Minimalist design focuses you on the workout
- No need to stay online while working out
- Plenty of space to log your workout progression and body stats
- Some important workouts are behind a paywall (like lunges and hammer curls)
- No pre-made plans
- Short ads before workouts in free version
Jefit is another app that I’ve personally used heavily. The free version offers workouts by body part (leg day, anyone?), pre-made workouts, or the ability to create custom routines based on your goals. The free version of this best strength training app also tracks a few important metrics for you: body weight, BMI, body weight percentage, and progress pictures, along with weight and rep tracking. The real value of Jefit is its community—like the popular nutrition tracking app MyFitnessPal, Jefit allows you to see and interact with what other users are doing for their workout routines and participate in community challenges if you so choose.
- Motivating, active workout community
- No limitations on which workouts you can log
- Every workout has a healthy description and demonstration for you to learn new exercises
- Confusing user interface
- Workouts require users to interact directly with the app
- Poor diversity of premade workouts in the free version
5. Nike Training Club
Out of the apps that I’d never tried before, Nike Training Club was my favorite during testing on my phone. The app offers a ton of great home-based workout plans that don’t require equipment whatsoever, and the guided video workouts are super high quality. This strength training app for Android and iOS is incredible because it’s entirely free and offers features that most of the other apps on here require you to pay for, like unlimited trainer-led classes and programs.
- High quality workouts for beginners and advanced users
- 100% free strength training app with no ads
- Class-based approach makes the app continually motivating
- No place to create personal workouts
- No place to track weights and reps—the app is entirely session-based
- Battery and data intensive
More of the top free strength training apps for 2021?
I’m curious about the apps that you all use to get and stay swole. Have you used any of the apps I mention here? Which do you consider to be the best free strength training apps? What about fitness apps that didn’t make this list?
I look forward to hearing about what you do for tracking your exercise for longevity below.
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