Perfect fit: hands-on with Apple GymKit

Meet the tech that gets your Apple Watch and treadmills singing from the same gym sheet...

Smartwatches love hoovering up your stats in the great outdoors, but take them to a gym and they look like us when faced with a rotary torso machine: baffled.

This is where Apple GymKit comes in. Announced back in June 2017 as part of watchOS 4, the platform is a translator that gets your Apple Watch and gym machines talking to each other.

Why? Because there are all sorts of stats (like a treadmill’s incline, or an exercise bike’s wattage) that aren’t tracked by the Apple Watch’s Workout app. Likewise, your Apple Watch knows your heart-rate, weight and current fitness level, but can’t tell your dumb gym machine.

GymKit isn't a new app – all you need is an Apple Watch running watchOS 4.1, and a compatible gym machine.

Right now, these are (to put it mildly) a little scarce, but we had a jog on the UK's first Gymkit treadmill at Virgin Active Mansion House to find out if it’s fit for a gym king...

Apple GymKit: the basics

To start with, there’ll be four types of Gymkit-compatible gym machine: treadmills, cross-trainers, indoor bikes and stair-steppers.

Apple says it picked these because they’re the four most popular gym cardio machines. But it added that there’s ‘no reason’ Gymkit couldn’t work with other machines like ergos in the future.

And weight machines? Er, they’re a bit more complicated. Because gym-goers increasingly use these and kettle bells in circuits, it’s harder to track a whole resistance training workout. Apple isn’t happy that it’d be as seamless as cardio, so for now you’ll have to stick to apps like Gymatic to track your reps and sets.

The first gym to get Gymkit machines is Virgin Active’s Mansion House branch in London. Virgin will gradually be rolling out support across its other branches – how quickly, it wouldn’t say. But as Apple has partnered with Virgin Active for the UK’s GymKit launch, you’ll likely need to wait for it to do that before you see Apple’s tech in rivals like Fitness First and Nuffield Health.

Still, the good news for a speedy rollout is that gyms won’t necessarily need to splash out on new machines to get GymKit compatibility. Technogym’s machines, for example, already have NFC readers, so they can be retrofitted with Gymkit compatibility in a couple of hours.

Your dream of buying an Apple Watch as an excuse to start a 2018 gym regime might not be doomed after all...

Apple GymKit: how it works

So you’ve found a GymKit machine with the logo above. Now what?

The process is pretty much like using Apple Pay. Tap your Watch on the NFC logo and it’ll beep and bring up a confirmation screen – prod this and you’re ready to go.

You can even do this during the workout if you forgot, and the Watch will still get all your workout stats. I got it working without any instructions, which means it’s officially idiot-proof.

Once you’re moving, your Apple Watch stats and cardio machine sync in real-time. For example, my treadmill’s dashboard showed active calories (the ones that count towards for Apple Watch Rings), total calories and the heart-rate coming from my Watch. When I hit pause for a breather, my Watch automatically paused too. It was all very slick.

Because the communication works both ways, the session was logged in my Activity app with a couple of new things. Firstly, there was a Technogym logo next to my ‘indoor run’, to help quickly differentiate from other runs when smugly flicking through my Workouts. And inside the Workout, there was an ‘elevation gain’ stat to prove that I had cranked up the treadmill’s incline.

This might sound like small fry, but it effectively means my gym workouts now match my outdoor ones for stats and accuracy. Well, they would if I lived near Virgin Active Mansion House...

Apple GymKit: what it doesn't do

As nicely as this all worked, it should be pointed out that this is very much a first step on the treadmill for Apple’s tech. Don't expect to be spinning your Digital Crown to change treadmill speed.

You can’t, for example, get your Apple Watch to automatically start a specific workout (for example, interval running) on a GymKit machine. Though this would be nice, Apple said there are all sorts regulations (varying by country) that prevent external devices from controlling gym equipment. Which makes sense, when you think about it.

It’s also not possible for third party apps to talk directly to gym machines via Gymkit – it’s all done with Apple’s own Workout app. Though you can, of course, sync your gym data with other apps via Apple Health.

The biggest limitation, though, are the compatible machines (just those four cardio ones) and the number of supported gyms. I hope this changes quickly – and the fact that Apple has signed up other manufacturers like Life Fitness and Matrix too (covering about 80% of the gym equipment market) means it’s got more than a fighting chance.

Apple GymKit early verdict

It’s only barely out in the wild, but GymKit works so well that I don’t think it’ll be long before it becomes the norm to see gym-goers tapping their wrists on machines.

Not only does the idea make perfect sense – particularly as, for most us, gym machines have barely evolved since the 90s – Apple is one of the few companies with the heft to actually get manufacturers and gyms star-jumping on the same platform.

Of course, for fans of Android Wear, Tizen and Garmin watches, it’s a shame that platform isn’t an open one. And it's sadly going to be a little while before we see it outside of flagship Virgin Actives.

But if you’ve got an Apple Watch (or have one en route from Father Christmas) GymKit at least means the promise of going into a warm gym on a freezing night, safe in the knowledge that your workouts stats will be as rich and accurate as your miserable outdoor ones.

In the baltic British winter, that sounds very appealing indeed.