Workout mirrors can be downright creepy. Some people with odd narcissistic streaks may enjoy watching themselves contort and sweat while "Let's Get Physical" blares through overhead speakers, but most people probably do not. Furthermore, mirrors aren't exactly a precise way to gauge your workout moves — you often have to angle your head uncomfortably to try to catch a glimpse of your form. And what constitutes an efficient stretch for one person might result in a hospital visit for another, so there's a potential for error. In today's evermore connected world, there are better ways to track your exercise routines.
There are a whole lot of wearable fitness gadgets right now, such as the FitBit, Jawbone UP and Nike FuelBand. Most of them employ a collection of accelerometers and gyroscopes to gather basic data about your movements. These are great for tracking your activity levels over the course of an entire day, offering estimates for fundamentals such as steps taken and calories burned.
But the Athos line of fitness clothing is different. It aims to ratchet up exercise tracking to a higher degree of precision using more refined data, thanks to a bevy of sensors directly tracking electrical activity generated by 22 groups of hardworking muscles.
The Athos system is designed for casual athletes as well as those who are trying to maximize their fitness and looking for any possible edge to get ahead of their competition. Deployed properly, Athos garments help you gauge your effort and even find correct form, and as a result, they may help you avoid an injury that sets your training back weeks or months. It could also be used for physical rehabilitation, assisting people who need to carefully monitor their strain and exertion levels, particularly for muscles that are struggling to heal.
Like almost all contemporary workout trackers, Athos connects to your smartphone. As you run, jump, stretch or skip, you can watch the real-time data displayed through the Athos app to see how much (or how little) you're exerting specific areas of your body, as well as your effort level as whole. With that data, you can decide whether to pull back and protect yourself or keep pushing to get the most out of your time-crunched workout schedule.
So, how do these stretchy, sensor-laden garments kick your workouts into overdrive?
Fire Your Fitness Trainer
Talented personal fitness trainers are experts in physiology and psychology. Not only can they recommend the best routines to improve your performance, but they'll help you overcome mental hurdles, too.
Quality personal trainers are also expensive. That was a motivating factor for electrical engineering students Christopher Wiebe and Dhananja Jayalath, who thought it would be great to have useful feedback from a digital device that cost a fraction of a human trainer. As they worked on their studies at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, they set aside their free time for developing a fitness product that would offer more feedback than any other.
One of the most pressing challenges they faced was finding a better way to translate the body's natural processes into useful digital information. They opted for electromyography (EMG) sensors that sit right on the surface of your skin, where they collect data about the electrical impulses flowing through the muscles below.
EMG sensors have a plethora of uses in biology and medicine. Researchers use them to better understand neuromuscular activity and to create a clearer picture of what exactly happens when muscles work correctly — and also when they don't.
Your muscles are made up of many individual cells that in turn make up muscle fibers. When your brain tells your bicep to start pumping those huge weights, it sends an electrical signal to those fibers, which immediately contract. As they contract, they produce an electrical signal that's much different than the ones created by a muscle at rest.
The Athos sensors detect more than just whether a muscle is firing; they can also see just how much that muscle is exerting itself. That's vital data for a fitness garment.
Which metrics does Athos clothing track, and how could the system overhaul and improve your fitness regimen?
The Skinny on Sensors
Accelerometers are a building block of many fitness tools. Engineers integrate these tiny chips into products that track your baseball or golf swing, your smartphone's position, your car's navigation system or, if you're more military-minded, your missile guidance system.
Athos uses a six-axis accelerometer as a cornerstone of its capabilities. But muscle activity tracking is what makes Athos stand out from a field of accelerometer-based competitors.
To that end, Athos' EMG sensors detect electrical signals produced by your moving muscles. Paired with the Athos software, the system can track muscle effort, muscle toning and muscle fatigue, all of which are important to understanding how your body is responding to a particular activity.
The sensors also help the core unit determine what's called your maximum voluntary contraction, or MVC. In essence, when you first use the system, you calibrate it by doing some basic exercises. Using that data, the core determines your MVC, which is the upper end of safe exertion for someone working out alone at home.
As of April 2015, the Athos collection comprises a shirt and a pair of shorts. Both are made from a stretchy and snug compression-type material that conforms to just about any body type. The clothing is designed for both male and female body types, and the fabric wicks away sweat while it simultaneously collects data.
The sensors aren't just plopped into random places. They have specific job duties. For example, the shorts sensors track electrical activity in certain muscles, including the hamstrings, the inner and outer portions of your quadriceps and both sides of your gluteus. The shorts also feature four heart-rate sensors. The shirt has even more sensors, including 14 EMG detectors, four heart rate monitors and two breathing sensors.
When the smartphone app receives all of this data, it displays a graphical representation of the body area you're targeting. The image indicates your total effort as a percentage and then splits that effort in two, showing you whether your right side is overcompensating for your left, or vice versa. An illustration of your muscle groups is color-coded to represent your exertion level. Green shows that you might be taking it too easy. White indicates that you're probably pushing too hard.
It's designed be quick and easy to read so that you can absorb the information by peeking at your smartphone's screen in the middle of a workout. Then you can adjust your effort on the fly or stop and reconsider your approach.
As of spring 2015, Athos is compatible only with Apple's iOS. The company is planning to launch an Android version as well.
When the Sweat Dries
The Athos sensors are simply instruments for measuring your movements. To tie the system together and process that sensor data, you also need what Athos calls its core unit. The $199 core unit is the system hub, a 2.5-inch (6.4-centimeter) long oval plastic doodad that slips into a slender pouch on either the shirt or shorts.
The core is what contains the accelerometers, as well as a gyroscope, which picks up movements (such as rotation) that the accelerometers can't. It's also outfitted with a Bluetooth adapter that lets it transmit data to your smartphone. The rechargeable battery lasts about 10 hours, which for most people is long enough for a week of workouts (or more if you decide to start slacking off).
Athos is by no means the only high-tech fitness clothing on the market. The Move Pilates tank top uses tiny actuators to nudge your body into the proper form during a Pilates workout. Hexoskin is one of the most established and advanced garments around, and it tracks more metrics, such as breathing volume, cadence, VO2 max, heart-rate variability and a whole lot more — and at around $400, it costs more, too. Bigger companies are also getting into the game. Ralph Lauren sells a shirt that detects heart and breathing rate, among other factors.
Almost all of the current generation of smart fabrics, including the Athos line, are machine washable. That's a key condition for many people, because consumers don't want to alter their laundry schedule just for one piece of clothing.
It's also important to note that the Athos garments are in line with clothing trends. They look like most contemporary compression outfits, albeit ones with a few extras to accommodate sensors and the core unit.
The Athos system is an example of just how far fitness trackers have come, and a sign of just how much more sophisticated they'll become in the future. If the Athos inventors have their way, personal trainers could see their job security waning as digital assistants take over the heavy lifting in monitoring and advising your workouts.
Author's Note: How Athos Clothing Works
I'm not a gym rat, and I don't see the appeal of maximizing every bench press and squat. I do, however, occasionally wind up with nagging injuries, and I worry about favoring sore muscles at the expense of healthy ones — overcompensating for a sore spot can lead to all sorts of new problems. Using tracking devices to monitor muscle use could keep me mindful of my body's limitations and prevent new injuries, leading to a better, happier body. For anyone who works out regularly, that's a smart investment that can actually benefit your quality of life as a whole.
More Great Links
- Athos. "Technology." (April 3, 2015) http://www.liveathos.com/apparel/technology
- Buhr, Sarah. "Gearing Up for the Future of Connected Workout Clothes With Athos." TechCrunch. Dec. 4, 2014. (April 3, 2015) http://techcrunch.com/2014/12/04/gearing-up-for-the-future-of-connected-workout-clothes-with-athos/
- Duffy, Jill. "Hands On: Athos Smart Workout Pants." PC Mag. Sept. 20, 2014. (April 3, 2015) http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2468898,00.asp
- Good Morning America. "The Hottest Tech-Savvy Workout Wear for 2015." ABC News. Jan. 2, 2015. (April 3, 2015) http://abcnews.go.com/Lifestyle/hottest-tech-savvy-workout-wear-2015/story?id=27961053
- Goode, Lauren. "Are 'smart' clothes the wearables of the future?" Recode. March 16, 2015. (April 3, 2015) http://recode.net/2015/03/16/are-smart-clothes-the-wearables-of-the-future/
- Ha, Anthony. "Hitting the Gym with Smart Apparel Startup Athos." TechCrunch. March 17, 2015. (April 3, 2015) http://techcrunch.com/2015/03/17/hitting-the-gym-with-smart-apparel-startup-athos/
- Kaplan, Jeremy. "A Smartass to Match Your Smartphone and Smartwatch." Digital Trends. Sept. 18, 2014. (April 3, 2015) http://www.digitaltrends.com/wearables/athos-wearable-tech-smart-compression-sports/
- Moore, Elizabeth Armstrong. "Athos: Computers Should Be in Your Workout Wear, Not Just Your Pockets." CNET. Dec. 5, 2013. (April 3, 2015) http://www.cnet.com/news/athos-computers-should-be-in-your-workout-wear-not-just-your-pockets/
- Popper, Ben. "These High-Tech Gym Clothes Look Inside Your Muscles to Analyze Your Workout." The Verge. Aug. 12, 2014. (April 3, 2015) http://www.theverge.com/2014/8/12/5992297/athos-fitness-wearable-electromyography
- Rao, Leena. "Backed with $3.5M from Social+Capital, Athos is Creating Connected Workout Clothing that Tracks Your Muscle Output and More." TechCrunch. Nov. 26, 2013. (April 3, 2015) http://techcrunch.com/2013/11/26/backed-with-3-5m-from-socialcapital-athos-is-creating-high-powered-connected-workout-clothing-that-tracks-your-muscle-output-and-more/
- VanHemert, Kyle. "Coming Soon: Workout Gear that Monitors Your Muscles." Wired. Dec. 4, 2013. (April 3, 2015) http://www.wired.com/2013/12/these-smart-gym-clothes-are-the-future-of-wearable-computers/