Friday, March 13, 2015

Review of the Mountain Athletics Training Program and Mobile App or How to Get Beast in 6 Weeks!

It's time to get down to business.

After a year of new adventures that included leaving behind familiar stomping grounds and exploring new places while struggling to stay fit on the go, Char and I stopped moving around and settled down. We could finally try and answer one burning question:

How are we going to stay motivated and get ourselves into prime shape to enjoy our favorite activities this summer?

We needed a plan, something that would keep us on track to meet our goals, included simple metrics to judge our progress, was challenging enough to keep us interested, and simple enough that we wouldn't be too intimidated or confused to start something new. It had to hook us early on and keep us on track long enough to see results. And there had to be results. How else was I going to get my gorgeous beach bod ready in time for summer?

There are plenty of workout plans to choose from in the wide world of the web (see what I did there?) and many that can be tailored to specific fitness goals.

But what were our goals? I wanted to be a better cyclist, to maximize my score on the Army Physical Fitness Test, and to be an all around beast. Plus, I wanted to start training and preparing for a Half Ironman Triathlon in 2016. Char wanted to lose weight, build muscle strength and improve her endurance capacity. Our goals didn't seem to synch very well at first and I realized that we needed to start with a foundation before we moved on to something tailored to our individual goals.

A cursory search of online plans led me to the Mountain Athletics app available from North Face.

It's basic plans seemed limited in scope; you're either a skier, climber or a runner, basically all the sports that North Face sells equipment for, but the interface was simple and straightforward. I wasn't ready to be one of those gym rats carrying a notebook with complicated charts and diagrams to follow while trying to get my swoll on. One of the six basic plans is titled "General Fitness" and we decided it was exactly what Char and I were looking for. Plus, the app was free so we weren't investing much capitol into the adventure.

The program was fairly simple. Mondays and Fridays were heavy on weight training, Tuesdays and Thursdays are core strengthening and closely resemble a HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) or Crossfit workout. Wednesday is a moderate run and the weekends are for resting. Though, I usually sneak in a long distance run or bike ride.

My first 6 weeks,
all summed up.
The workouts themselves were not overly complex. Each consisted of a warm-up phase, usually three or four exercises repeated for four rounds, then two sessions dedicated to a specific capability, (i.e., lower body, unilateral, or upper body strength) with specified repetitions or time.

The beauty of the program was the application interface and its ability to keep you on track. First, set up your profile, then choose the workout program. Each day you hit the start button and follow along with the basic instructions. There are video links if you need to see a workout before you perform it (very important in the beginning). Each week, after completing the daily workouts, you earn a new badge. It's a little motivation to not skip a workout and entices you to stay dedicated to the program.

The workout plan was the same every week, with only certain exercises increasing in repetition or duration. I thought this would become monotonous after a couple weeks, instead, it lent some predictability and consistency to my workouts. I knew what to expect and, because the workouts didn't change from week to week, could actually measure my progress over a short amount of time. From week to week I could see my bench press reps becoming easier, even adding a little weight and needing less assistance from a spotter. Gradually, I chose a heavier dumbbell or kettle bell, and added a lot more weight to my box squats. The repetition also helped us both to improve our form and focus on doing the workouts properly to prevent injuring ourselves.

We cheated occasionally, adding a swim workout in the evening, and we always ran farther and faster than the planned "moderate pace" during the Wednesday run. But what's life without a few broken rules? Otherwise, we stuck to the plan, which also gave us another added benefit. Since the workout program was consistent week to week, we used it as a control against another experiment involving diet and supplements. I'll save the results for another blog post, but we were able to try different pre-workout and recovery powders and actually notice a difference in how they affected our performance against the routine workouts.

A constant struggle with Char and I is the delta between our fitness abilities. Too often, one of us is stronger than the other in an activity and we struggle to stay together. I ride circles around her on the bike and she laps me in the pool, literally. But with this program, we could do the same workout everyday, together, albeit with different weights or sizes of boxes. On days that we worked out separately we compared our sessions together later, keeping us both on track and motivated to keep going.

Not everything was perfect, and there's always room for improvement. The beauty of the app was its simplicity, but sometimes it was a little too simple. As badges become unlocked they're viewable from the "Badges" page, but there's no interaction or ability to see what triggered them. The "Progress" page allows you to preview upcoming workouts, but not view past sessions at all. One minor glitch that I found annoying was the difficulty in controlling my music while running the app. Once I started a song and reopened the app, it paused the music. Luckily I can control my music using my headphones, but it was a minor nuisance. The last downside to the app is that once you have selected a program, you can't preview any of the other programs without quitting the current one. So, if you're three weeks into the program, and decide to check out what the other plans offer, you lose those three weeks of progress.

There's also no link between the website and the app, so you can't go online and view your progress or preview upcoming workouts on a regular computer. The website itself changes constantly. When we first started, you could preview all the fitness programs to see what the workout plans consisted of. Maybe it's North Face's way of protecting proprietary information and driving folks to use their app, but there were a few times when I wanted to see what the other programs looked like and show them to some of my coworkers to entice them into it.

Overall, the app was great, did exactly what it was designed to do, and my complaints are mostly nitpicking and personal preference. Neither Char nor I had difficulty in figuring out the controls, as they were simple and intuitive, and never experienced any strange glitches or technical problems other than my small and easily overcome music issue.

A great and simple interface is nice. A good workout plan that kept us hooked and dedicated is also good. But what about results? Where's my beach-ready abs and swoll guns?

As with any fitness goal, true results take time, and six weeks is a pretty short window to see a true transformation, but, since we started, I have increased the amount of weight I can bench press and squat, box jumps are much easier, and there is definite tone and development of the muscles in my arms, legs and core areas. I'm no professional body builder or weight lifter, and my focus is definitely more about endurance sports, but the muscle strength this program helped my develop is already paying off during laps in the pool and while climbing the local hills on my road bike.

Yup, that's what Beast Mode looks like!

Most importantly, Char and I are both already looking forward to starting the next program, this time with a running focus. It's an area that we both want to work on, and the Mountain Athletic program still maintains the strength training days so we don't have to worry about losing what we've gained.

Check it out and decide for yourself:

Watch their slick promo video on the website above or on YouTube.